Until recently, American culture has been relatively devoid of representations of the LGBTQ couple. In fact, one of the frequent observations made by critics of television programs and films particularly has been the tendency of those forms to depict lesbians and gays as singular figures isolated from continuing relationships or larger community. There are,
one supposes, a few notable (or infamous) exceptions if one wishes to press the issue: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had attained a certain celebrity status by the 1920s and 1930s, though their salon days were spent in Paris and not in America. Likewise, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were by all accounts a couple in the 1920s but their infamy as murderers hardly made them role models. Lesbian and gay couples did exist, to be sure, among them Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were together more than five decades before Martin’s death in 2008, and Jorn Kamgren and gay activist Harry Hay, who were together for nearly a dozen years, but they were not well-known. And novelist Henry James popularized “Boston Marriages” — close romantic relationships between women – in 1886’s The Bostonians, though the sexual nature of these relationships was likely neither universal nor well-understood. Lesbian and gay couples were becoming more culturally visible by the 1970s, thanks in part to a series of efforts by gay couples to marry in Minnesota, Seattle, and Colorado, as well as to their appearance in works such as the play and television series Hot L Baltimore. Even as LGBTQ characters began to emerge in television and film, on-screen couples remained relatively scarce until the new millennium, with press accounts of states’ legalizing, first, civil unions and domestic partnerships, and eventually marriages. When the TV series Modern Family debuted in 2009, the gay couple Mitch and Cam soon became audience favorites. The current U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which seeks to overturn state bans on the conduct and recognition of same-sex marriages, has dramatically increased the visibility of LGBTQ couples. But would universal marriage equality also mean greater cultural visibility or would an end to the legal and political battles over marriage equality lead to normalization and a return to invisibility?
Bruce E. Drushel, Ph.D.
Guest Editor, Journal of American Culture
Associate Professor, Media, Journalism & Film, Miami University
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