USA Today, February 6, 2008

    In Election '08, is there a place for gay rights?

    By Bruce Kluger

    In the first episode of the new season of The
    L Word, Showtime's lipstick lesbian soap
    opera, the character of Tasha has a crisis.
    Black, beautiful and enlisted in the Army
    National Guard, Tasha is accused of violating
    the Pentagon's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy,
    which forbids gay military personnel from
    revealing their sexual orientation, or face

    Rather than ship out to Iraq as planned, Tasha returns home to her surprised lover,
    Alice. Angry at a government she wants to serve and ashamed at being victimized
    by a policy her girlfriend finds abhorrent, Tasha keeps her thoughts to herself and,
    instead, pushes Alice against the wall, tears off her clothes and…well, you get the

    Only on American TV could a knotty policy issue be upstaged by a really hot sex

    In the 15 years since President Clinton approved the provocative "Don't Ask, Don't
    Tell" plan, the social stigma often tagged to homosexuality has, in many cases,
    dropped away like molting feathers. Cultural entertainments have helped fuel this
    transformation, incorporating gay themes into their content in an easier, breezier

    Will & Grace and Ellen (arguably the godparents of the "gay sitcom") exploded onto
    TV screens in the mid-'90s, followed soon by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a
    reality show that used gay sensibilities as a hip prism through which to examine
    fashion trends and romance (as well as the general slovenliness of hetero men).

    The edgier Queer as Folk and The L Word came next, proving to viewers that the
    trials, trysts and truths of gay relationships weren't all that different from straight
    ones. And more recently, gay roles have increasingly popped up on the big
    screensuch as Steve Carell's hilariously tortured Proust scholar in Little Miss
    Sunshinenot so much for an exploration of their sexuality as for what their
    characters lend to the story.

    Yet this significant step forward carries with it a liability: As entertainment executives
    conscientiously work to bring the gay experience into the mainstream in a non-
    political way, they also run the risk of neglecting the real-life struggles gays
    continue to face.

    In January alone, courtrooms nationwide were buzzing with cases concerning basic
    civil rights protection for homosexuals. Gay marriage, meanwhile, a successful
    wedge issue in the 2004 elections, has become a non-issue in 2008, an ironic
    defeat for gay activists left staring at constitutional amendments banning same-sex
    wedlock in 26 states.

    And, yes, “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” continues to inflame defenders of free speech
    everywheregay and straight alike.

    According to a 60 Minutes investigation in December, “Don't Ask Don't Tell” has
    shoved more than 12,000 members of the armed forces from their ranks, even as
    polls reveal that three-quarters of Americans believe that openly gay men and
    women should be permitted to serve in the military.

    Despite such overwhelming numbers, the hard-charging candidates currently
    seeking the presidency have barely touched on the subject, focusing instead on
    such poll-tested topics as the economy, immigration and the war in Iraq. (No
    surprise there. Why tackle a "fringe issue" when there are masses to rally?)

    Which is why, libidinous eye candy notwithstanding, it is heartening to see The L
    Word march up to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in this season's storyline. Like other TV
    fare that dares to zoom in on real-life injustices, it is exercising its conscience.

    "I believe that Americans really do care about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' even if it's not
    at the top of their candidate issues checklists," the series' creator and executive
    producer, Ilene Chaiken, told me by e-mail. "We went with the storyline because the
    subject touches on gay issues in the broadest senseissues of equality and

    Yesterday’s Super Tuesday turnout reaffirms that America is once again ready for
    a national conversation. Let's just hope that discussion includes gay citizens, too. It
    would be nice to see Tasha, among others, live happily ever after.

    (Click here to see USA Today's online version.)