TV Has Made Major Strides With Gay Dads — Except For This Big Problem

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
It can feel like television is getting radically inclusive every few months when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Between the CW and Fox, three awesome women characters came out as bisexual, or realized their sexuality was far more expansive than they originally believed, in a matter of weeks this past winter. Starz’s Vida explored the beautiful, varied world of sexuality and gender expression in the Latinx community, which rarely gets such a nuanced portrayal in any form of pop culture. Ryan Murphy’s Pose is a veritable deep dive into a queer community filled with beautiful Black and brown faces. Even a reality TV juggernaut like MTV’s many Love & Hip Hop kingdom is working to open up its audiences’ world view of QPOC.
Yet, there is one significant way television has barely escaped the 1970s: the depiction of gay fatherhood.
Heading into Father’s Day, it seems like the sheer number of gay dads on television is a real gift to audiences. Grace & Frankie’s senior citizen newlyweds Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) and Sol Bergstein (Sam Waterston) consistently tackle questions of what it means to be newly out of the closet with needy, complicated adult children. Fellow Netflix favorite 13 Reasons Why inspects what modern parenting looks for two dads in 2018, specifically when your own daughter announces she herself is gay, through the Crimsen family. Plus, Cam Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are still smiling through every zany curveball of ABC’s still-chugging-along Modern Family.
While all of these stories are compelling in their own ways, every single man mentioned above is a white, affluent, cisgendered suburbanite. And even the rare men of color who are included are awash in the kind of privilege that keeps them from experiencing any of the obstacles that likely appear when race, gender, and sexuality collide. Although “diversity” often feels like a thin and meaningless phrase, that is exactly what the LGBTQ+ dads of TV need right now. They need diversity, and they need it fast.
If we were to go on numbers alone, gay dads have been popping up on television in earnest since the new millennium began. Six Feet Under’s biracial duo of David Fisher (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall) and Keith Charles (Mathew St. Patrick) adopted a pair of children during the final season of their HBO dark comedy, which aired in 2005. Future star of The Americans Matthew Rhys broke into primetime the next year as Brothers & Sisters' Kevin Walker, who eventually ends up sharing two children with husband Scotty Wandell (Luke Macfarlane).
From there came Modern Family’s Cam and Mitchell, who made gay fatherhood the mainest of mainstream in 2009 as a white couple who was definitely on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, but didn’t even share a single onscreen kiss until the second season of their show. After nearly a decade, it’s fairly obvious the sitcom kept the pair sexless to avoid alienating possible viewers nervous about see two gay men in a loving, healthy, sexual relationship. ABC’s homophobic pandering worked, since Modern Family was the most successful new comedy of its freshman season.
Audiences’ quick acceptance of Cam and Mitchell quickly led to more series with gay dads at the forefront of their narratives. Fellow ABC stalwart Desperate Housewives finally allowed longtime couple Bob Hunter (Tuc Watkins) and Lee McDermott (Kevin Rahm) to become parents in 2011. Fox let us meet Rachel Berry’s (Lea Michele) dads, who were played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Broadway veteran of mixed heritage, and national treasure Jeff Goldblum.
The New Normal, Sean Saves The World, and Marry Me all premiered one year after the other with wildly financially stable LGBTQ+ fathers at their center. All three series were swiftly canceled, but at least networks weren’t terrified of showing us Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha deeply in love and raising a child, or Sean Hayes of Will & Grace “Just Jack!” fame battling single fatherhood. Marry Me’s protagonist Annie (Casey Wilson) was the daughter of a interracial gay male couple (Saturday Night Live alum Tim Meadows and Scandal’s Dan Bucatinksy).
Soon enough, Netflix picked up on the gay-dads TV trend, premiering Grace & Frankie in 2015. While the comedy belongs to its titular hilarious women, played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, the series also spends a lot of energy exploring their ex-husbands Robert and Sol’s difficult love story and tumultuous family life.
This brings us to the present, with Courtney Crimsen’s (Michele Selene Ang) two fathers attempting to embrace their daughter's newly-revealed sexuality on 13 Reasons Why season 2. As the first season of the pitch-black high school series reveals, Courtney had been hiding the fact she is a lesbian from the world, all to supposedly protect her dads, Todd (Robert Gant) and Steve Crimsen (Alex Quijano). After being raised by two men, Courtney is terrified bigots will assume her parents somehow caused her sexuality, as if that were possible.
But the world doesn’t end when Courtney is forced to announce her same-sex attraction on the witness stand during the episode titled “Two Girls Kissing.” Instead, the revelation creates a family movie night consisting of lesbian classics like Blue Is The Warmest Color and Desert Hearts, Big Questions about feminism, and a weepy, appreciative Courtney. “I’m so lucky to have you both,” the teen says between tears. In a show filled with such abject darkness, this little slice of warm family life is one of the brightest of 13 Reasons Why’s sophomore year. It’s a far cry from one of television’s very first sympathetic introductions to gay fatherhood, 1972’s That Certain Summer, whose crescendo involves a divorced dad (Hal Holbrook), who is now in a newly-outed longtime partnership with a man (Grace & Frankie's Sheen, coincidentally), begging his son for a scrap of understanding.
While we should all enjoy the strides that brought us to the Crimsen family and the hijinks of Grace And Frankie, privilege defines all of these families. Everyone from David and Keith in Six Feet Under to Mitchell and Cam are able to begin their family because they have the kind of financial stability necessary to prove they’re “worthy” of adding to their household, no matter their sexuality. The same goes for the Crimsens dads, who fit comfortably into the wealthy suburb where the horrors of 13 Reasons Why unspool. Courtney, like Rachel Berry, like Modern Family’s Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), all grew up with professional parents in big houses in mostly white neighborhoods.
The fact that three of the couples discussed her are interracial simply isn’t enough progress for 2018. Every man of color mentioned is swathed in unassailable privilege or simple whitewashing, which keeps them from getting too complicated or too far from what networks deem palatable (read: as close to the white, cisgendered, suburban families who have dominated television for decades). Six Feet Under’s Keith might be Black, but he’s also college-educated, a veteran, and a police officer. In essence, Keith is an all-American hero. Tim Meadows’ time as Kevin on Marry Me was marked by having the same exact name as his white husband (Bucatinsky) — a signal screaming, “See, they’re not so different at all! — and a wardrobe of preppy, country club-ready sweaters that promise this Black man isn’t a scary Black man.
While Keith and Kevin 1 (the character's actual name) at least offer up some visibility for non-white gay fathers, both Glee’s Brian Stokes Mitchell and 13 Reasons Why’s Alex Quijano are so racially ambiguous, their lives as men of color barely factor into their stories. In fact, Quijano’s Steve is one-dimensional to the point where viewers likely don't realize the character is played by a Latinx actor at all. It certainly seems like Courtney has two white parents.
Although we should all be thankful for the bridge-building, boundary-breaking, perspective-changing characters like the Mitches and Cams and Steves and Todds of television offer, there is a far richer world to LGBTQ+ fatherhood than an unending plethora of affluent white, or whitewashed, pairings. What does striving for adoption, or fostering, look like for a Black couple in a working class household? In fact, what does this kind of parenting look like merely out of the suburbs and into any low-income city neighborhood, regardless of color? Or, if we must stay in the land of picket fences and PTA rivalries, what does that kind of life look when it’s led by a trans man?
For all of the networks’ promises of radical inclusion and fearless storytelling, I await the FX, Netflix, or Freeform series with the chutzpah to give viewers, for example, a Black, trans dad leading man, who actually talks about being Black and trans, working hard to make ends meet. If that idea is so terrifying for networks, they can even make his partner the richest, whitest individual. I promise.
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