LGBT Media Visibility and the Traditional Sexual Ethic

Today, LGBT people are more visible in the media than ever before. Many would argue that the LGBT community still does not have enough media visibility. Oppositely, many other people would argue that LGBT issues have too much visibility in the media. Still, some don’t think that it’s important for LGBT people and characters shown on television, in magazines, in movies, etc. to be associated in any noticeable way with their LGBT statuses. Those found in the latter two groups tend to be people who hold to a traditional sexual ethic–often people who mean well, but aren’t sure of how best to approach LGBT issues. However, one could make a strong argument that many of the people campaigning to reduce LGBT visibility in the media are not simply conservative Christians who value traditional teachings on sexuality, but instead are those who hold an anti-gay perspective. Either way, in the eyes of these crusaders, any LGBT media visibility flies in the face of a traditional sexual ethic.

Let’s start by backing up just a bit: we’re sure that nearly all of you, our readers, could identify some instance of the media showcasing sexuality outside the boundaries of a traditional sexual ethic. Some of your examples might even showcase LGBT people and concerns. However, a significant portion of media that feature LGBT people does not say anything about sexual morality. For example, Honey Maid released a 30-second commercial in March 2014 called “This is Wholesome.” The commercial features some different families: a biracial family, a family headed by a single dad who loves his tattoos and drumset, and a family of two gay men and a baby.

In the commercial, the gay couple is featured for 5 seconds. There are zero references to sex. There is nothing sexual that the two men are doing. The men don’t actually show affection to each other; they are showing affection to their baby. There’s nothing to indicate, one way or another, that these characters are having sex. There’s nothing to suggest that the characters are legally married. The words “Dad” and “Husband” don’t appear in the commercial at all.

Yet, many people were incensed that Honey Maid would dare to produce such a commercial. Organizations like One Million Moms were quick to argue that this commercial promotes sexual perversion. We wonder how it’s possible to see LGBT people on television and immediately associate this media visibility with an “attempt to normalize sin.” This same organization accused Disney of “pushing an agenda” when it included a lesbian couple on an episode of Good Luck Charlie. When we watched that particular clip, we did not see any references to sexuality, but found other aspects of the scene that should have been very distressing to people who value marriage, love, and respect.

We can appreciate that some straight people with a traditional sexual ethic feel their beliefs are under attack from many corners of society. However, we’d encourage our readers with a traditional sexual ethic to consider the following observations before holding LGBT media visibility as uniquely problematic.

Media can tell the stories of real people. We’ve noticed that people who are against LGBT media visibility tend not to be aware of any LGBT people in their circles of friends. The idea that your kid might have a friend at school with two moms or two dads is not some hair-brained notion from Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, or DC. It’s the lived experience of real people from all across America and in other countries as well. Additionally, celibate LGBT people are also just as real as non-celibate LGBT people. Some celibate LGBT people even have partners. (And if you’re finding our blog for the first time, take this as evidence that celibate, LGBT, Christian couples do exist.) If a person asserts that LGBT people should not be visible in the media because LGBT people practice a “sinful sexual lifestyle,” then that person is reducing the identities of LGBT people to “sex” while simultaneously denying that LGBT people have just as much diversity in their sexual ethics as straight people do.

Media can give invisible people and groups a sense of belonging and worth. One of the most powerful things about books, television, and movies is how they can resonate with a person’s sense of identity. Most LGBT people, at some point in their lives, experience profound alienation — feeling different, unwanted, shut out from society, and worthless. In these moments, LGBT people can struggle to see themselves as God’s beloved creations. The presence of a visible LGBT person in the media can ease the route of self-acceptance and promote emotional health. For example, Lindsey grew up absolutely enthralled by the space program. Because Sally Ride’s launch date occurred two days after Lindsey’s birthday, Lindsey always felt an affinity towards Sally Ride. However, Sally Ride was not a visible member of the LGBT community until after her death in 2012. Lindsey started asking questions about sexuality and gender identity just as Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O’Donnell had come out, but neither Ellen nor Rosie were people Lindsey especially looked up to. If Ride had been visible as an LGBT person at the time Lindsey started exploring sexuality and gender identity, then Lindsey is reasonably confident that the coming out journey would have been much easier.

Media rarely showcases a traditional sexual ethic, even where straight people are concerned. We hope that this point is relatively straightforward, but we wanted to call attention to the LGBT-straight duality. It’s become increasingly common to see more and more heterosexual sexual activity in the media. Yet, even though people with a traditional sexual ethic are bothered by these developments, one doesn’t see nearly the level of outrage regarding a heterosexual sexual encounter as the ire that manifests when LGBT people are simply visible in the media without any kind of reference to sex. Sarah has been told by multiple acquaintances that they would rather see a heterosexual extramarital affair scene on shows like Grey’s Anatomy than any character on any program identified as an LGBT person. Some have even gone so far as to say that “Adultery is just wrong. But being gay is both wrong and disgusting.”

From our perspective, this last comment is the most telling about how some people view LGBT visibility in the media. We wish straight friends and acquaintances would see that by offering such remarks, they make us feel unwelcome not only in public, but in their own living rooms. Saying that LGBT people should not be visible in the media is not much different from saying that we shouldn’t get to exist at all. We wish these people would afford us space to tell them what celibacy and our self-descriptions as LGBT mean to us. And we wish these people would see us, first and foremost, as human beings.

We’d love to hear from our readers about your reactions to our observations as well as your perceptions of the positive and negative impacts of increasing LGBT media visibility.

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