Back in the mid-’90s, baby dykes would wait anxiously for each week’s episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, straining to find any lesbian subtext between Xena and her sidekick. Today, you can catch Xena’s Lucy Lawless in graphic lesbian sex scenes in Starz’s series Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. Annette Bening copped a Best Actress Oscar nomination for going down on Julianne Moore in the Best Picture–nominated The Kids Are All Right. On NBC’s Community, a girl invites another straight girl to bump and grind: “Let’s give them something to really talk about,” she says.
Except no one’s talking about it anymore. These days, lesbian action hasn’t gone mainstream, it’s gone ubiquitous. If familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, it’s at least made girl-on-girl action ho-hum—so much so that lesbian advances as a good career move has become a plot cliché. On TV Land’s geriatric-aimed Hot in Cleveland, a plot line had one character trying to rope another into filming a lesbian sex tape to boost her acting career.
On David Kelley’s Harry’s Law, a straight female attorney tries to rattle the opposing attorney with lesbian advances. As Samantha Gellar noted in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, Kelley is renowned for these lesbian minstrel shows, which have popped up in Ally McBeal, Picket Fences, Boston Public, and Boston Legal—all examples of what Gellar calls “whip cream, it’s sugarless syrup, it’s freaking flavored air because there is nothing more than two women alluding to lesbianism that isn’t actually present.”
If whitewashed images like this don’t do much to advance gay equality, when gays are behind the camera, the result can be transformative. The flexi-sexual relationship between Glee stars Santana and Brittany, created by openly gay writer Ryan Murphy, is a prime example. “When people who know about gay relationships approach it, it comes closer to gay life,” says Jincey Lumpkin about the Glee girls as well as the middle-aged couple in The Kids Are All Right. She recalls that when she came out, her mother asked, “ ‘Are you going to be like Rosie O’Donnell now?’ I asked her, ‘Are you serious? Is that the only lesbian you can come up with?’ But Ellen was not on TV yet. Now a lot of people are coming around to see that this is a normal and healthy way to live—not harmful and disgusting.”
Lumpkin is one of a tiny handful of entrepreneurs creating porn for lesbians with her online webisode subscription service JuicyPinkBox.com. But for the most part, all of this visibility has made what was once transgressive as much a forbidden fruit as Granny Smith apples. What was once hot girl-on-girl action, marketed to straight men everywhere from Girls Gone Wild to rap videos, is now not only not naughty, but downright boring.
If girl-on-girl action has become passé, what about gay male hook-ups? Are they becoming accepted? Not yet, according to Fox News host and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. In a New Yorker interview, he opined: “Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.” When asked where he came up with that, he said he read it on a gay news website. But the concept originally came from University of Chicago law school professor Dr. Martha Nussbaum, credited with coining “the ick factor” to describe the “primary disgust” with gay male sex (particularly anal sex) that underlies continuing discrimination.
There are many forms of discrimination that define what Nussbaum calls “projective disgust”: for example, the idea that integrated drinking fountains, lunch counters, and swimming pools will become somehow contaminated. “Projective disgust is always based upon fantasy, and it is a powerful tool of subordination,” says Nussbaum. “Often the physical details of anal sex are used to inspire disgust, and things are said such as, ‘Gay men eat feces and drink raw blood.’ ”
The arguments may not be rational but, like most subliminal notions, are all the more powerful for that. “I’ve always thought that one reason straight people don’t want to give us gay rights like marriage is they don’t understand that our relationships are the same as their relationships,” says Lumpkin. “To see relationships like those on Modern Family and Glee, they can get the perspective that we are no different. They can understand that we want to get married not to push some gay agenda, but for love.” Some films and TV shows have satirized this notion, such as making the gay male couple in American Beauty the most “normal” (and boring) on the block.
If the idea of two men together sexually gives heterosexuals the icks, the mainstream public views the idea of two women together as anything but nauseating for straight men, straight women, and lesbians. Men watched Showtime’s The L Word for the sexy setups, not to see two gals doing the dishes. Still, when the lesbian couple in The Kids Are All Right wanted to get it on, they watched gay male porn. Is lesbian sex in danger of becoming boring . . . even to lesbians?
Probably not—just more of that illicit “ick” thrill. Despite melodramas like Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, in which a woman kills herself after realizing she is in love with her best friend, lesbian relationships “were never the object of disgust,” Nussbaum says. “Porn films for straight men often use lesbian sex as a turn-on, so clearly their audience does not find that disgusting. It is much harder for mainstream audiences to get used to seeing gay men in ways that suggest sexual contact.”
On Glee, “flexi-sexual” cheerleaders Brittany and Santana regularly share sweet lady lip-locks and dry humping without censure, even though these scenes don’t venture much beyond the Katy Perry “tasted like Cherry Chapstick” level of Eros. But let gay fashionista character Kurt finally exchange a chaste boy-kiss with his prep-school boyfriend Blaine, and it’s Super Bowl Nipplegate all over again. Saturday Night Live alumna–turned–Jesus freak Victoria Jackson summoned up the response from much of America when she wrote that the kiss “sickened” her.
Intentionally or not, gay rights advocates play down men’s sexuality. But when the “ick factor” goes the way of other historic “icks,” as did miscegenation, Jim Crow laws, or interfaith marriage, gay men can have the privilege of seeing their randy ways become as ho-hum as their Sapphic counterparts.