Is gay the new normal?

This week, NBC aired a new network show called “The New Normal.” This show, which received solid reviews in its first week, is about two successful gay men, Bryan and David, who seemingly have it all – except for a child. Enter Goldie, a single mom and waitress from the Midwest, who ultimately becomes the couple’s surrogate – and a future two-dad family is born.

At one time, not very long ago, the only television show featuring a gay character was “Ellen.” Now, if you type “lists of television shows with LGBT characters,” you come to a page filled with these specifiers (I included the hyperlinks in case you want to check out these lists):

Obviously, we’ve come a long way, baby. Or have we?

Let’s go back to “The New Normal.” In some ways, this is the perfect title. Believe me, I know first-hand that once you have a baby, you are forced to adjust to a “new normal” – and, ironically, your life will NEVER be normal again. But “The New Normal” also reflects a major cultural shift. National polling data, including Gallup Poll data as well as statistics from the General Social Survey, reveals that, since the 1970s, attitudes towards homosexuality have grown increasingly more favorable over time.And for the first time in history, polls show that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Gay couples, in the minds of many, have become “the new normal.”

But what, exactly, do we mean by “normal”? Do Bryan and David reflect the typical same-sex couple? To answer this question, I scoured the research literature to see if I could find a study that focuses on gay male couples who have used a surrogate to become fathers – and I found one study. That 2010 study, titled “Gay men who become fathers via surrogacy: The transition to parenthood” and led by Kim Bergman, provides a demographic profile of gay men who choose the option of surrogacy to father children. Moreover, the study explores the changes in the lives of these men as a result of parenthood – changes in work, finances, relationship dynamics, self-esteem, and self-care, among others.

Let’s start with demographics:

  •  Eighty percent of the 40 participants were White – three were Asian (specific cultures weren’t noted), three were Latino (again, no specifics were provided), and two were Middle Eastern. None were African American, Native American, or mixed-race.
  • The average annual household income was $270,000. That’s the AVERAGE. The lowest income in the sample was $100,000. The highest was $1,200,000 – far more than what most people make in a year.

Does this sound “normal” – or “average” – to you?

Let’s continue by talking about the changes that these fathers experienced:

  • As a result of becoming parents, 65% reported experiencing occupational changes;
  •  70% had changed their work life in terms of travel, hours, and career path;
  • 53% had sacrifices, losses, and missed opportunities in work life.

Moreover, more than half of the participants experienced changes in their financial situation since they became parents. Since having children, the annual household income of these fathers decreased, on average, by $75,000 (these decreases ranged from $20,000 to $200,000). These changes were primarily due to an increase in expenses, a partner quitting his job to become a full-time father, or a partner earning less because of cutting down work hours.

For most of us, losing out on $200,000 per year – or even $20,000 per year – just isn’t an option. It isn’t considered to be disposable income in most households – that $20,000 might be what pays the mortgage and keeps the lights on. But what I think is also important to note is that the income reported by these fathers in the demographic portion of this study is their post-child income. Even after having children, these men continue to live an upper-middle-class to upper-class lifestyle.

This makes sense, if you think about it, considering that men who choose surrogacy are a very unique population. According to The Surrogacy Source, an agency based in Irvine, California, using a surrogate will cost couples a minimum of $60,000. Only those who are very well-off are going to even consider surrogacy as an option in the first place.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The myth of gay affluence,” which describes the other side of the coin (so to speak) regarding the economics of being LGBTQ. Of course, there are people like Bryan and David, urban professional couples who earn a lot of money. But there are also many within our ranks who live in abject poverty – and who aren’t represented anywhere in the media. There are no Bryan and Davids on TV who receive free or low-cost health care at their county clinic, or who pay for groceries using food stamps. For that matter, we don’t really see Bryan and Davids who worry about losing their home or their job. We don’t get a true depiction of the economic diversity of the LGBTQ community.

Television is a powerful medium. It’s a form of entertainment and escape. But it also transmits values, and provides us with a gold standard to which we can compare ourselves. If we’re comparing ourselves to “The New Normal,” which is in fact anything but normal, then how can we feel normal ourselves?



Filed under intersectionality, LGBT families, LGBTQ, media, psychological research, stereotypes, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Is gay the new normal?

  1. Hi Gail. You make some strong and interesting points. However, I think that I may be more cynical than you :). The same observations were made about The L Word and its sequel The Real L Word. But this is not limited to LGBTQ shows. Upper middle class lives tend to be what is shown on most mainstream television. In fact, I would argue that you have to go back to the 1970s, when shows like Good Times and All in the Family were popular to find a trend in which television attempted to meet viewers in the “reality” in which they lived.

    Consider that television, by definition, is an escape from reality. People watch it to escape from the every-day challenges that they face, to think about what life would be like if they did not have those challenges. I avidly watched The L Word when it aired despite the fact that most of the time I found it maddening. I remain confused about why I was addicted to a show that I did not even really like. But there it is.

    I agree that the setting for the show The New Normal (which I have not seen) says something about our society. Is it that we only can accept gay characters on television if they are affluent, if they mirror straight characters, or if they magically seem to have no need for money and are sex starved (as in the L Word)? There is ample evidence to suggest this. However, examined from a different view, it seems that “the new normal” for all television is that viewers want to see a “normal” that does not match their own reality. They want a “normal” that is significantly better.

    • There’s a fine line between cynicism and realism. 🙂 I agree with you completely regarding how television has changed – in fact, The Huffington Post had a blog this week that addressed the racial and class differences between 1970s TV and the shows of today. I think that shows like “All in the Family” and “Good Times” not only showed more diverse representation, but there was more active social commentary going on.

      Interestingly, The Huffington post article also cited “The Cosby Show” that broke racial barriers on TV. I actually think that “The Cosby Show” was one of the first to set the upper-middle-class as the standard. Before that, 1980s shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” depicted the upper class in an over-the-top way, but I think audiences knew that this was not the standard by which to judge ourselves. That’s changed dramatically since then.

      I myself have never watched “The L Word.” That’s probably enough to get my lesbian card taken away. 🙂

  2. Well put, Gayle — thanks. A few years ago a couple of early middle-aged white gay male acquaintances of mine in the San Francisco Bay Area had a child together with a surrogate. They definitely were in the same demographic as Bryan and David!

    But, of course, a lot of TV sitcoms and dramas center around people who seem to have virtually unlimited money, and it’s nice (and reflective of widespread attitudinal change) whenever LGBTQ communities see ourselves front and center in mainstream media, even if the context is extremely rarified (and probably primarily artificial as most TV is).

    – Keith

    • That’s true – visibility is critical for such an invisible population. However, given the sheer number of shows that depict LGBT characters (see Wikipedia links), I think there’s a huge but largely untapped opportunity to show the many other facets of our community.

      In my response to Angela above, I mentioned “The Cosby Show,” which at the time seemed to be reflective of a post-civil rights era. Here was an African-American family that was just as “normal” as everybody else – just like the couple in “The New Normal” is just like everybody else. Except they’re not, because their class status is unattainable for most people. Some consider “The Cosby Show” to have done tremendous good for the African-American community, but others see it as having created this unrealistic image – and potentially contributing to the myth of meritocracy. “The New Normal” could have the same kind of effect – creating acceptance for a certain type of gay person or couple, but also setting up this gold standard that isn’t representative of our community.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Gary Hollander

    Gayle (and others), thanks for the interesting post and subsequent comments. I am sometimes the first person out of the gate after you have blogged. This time, I am glad I waited because I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the other commentators. Again, thanks.

    My own read on the “New Normal” is somewhat different. I completely get and agree with the economic analysis. But I want to focus on Gayle’s closing question (“which is in fact anything but normal, then how can we feel normal ourselves?”). Whether TV portrays an age group (30 Something) or a profession (Six Feet Under) or a gender (Sex in the City) it does so in a short hand that makes us all devoid of humanity in so many ways. I saw the “L Word” twice and it creeped me out, not because of its sexuality, but because of the flatness of that sexuality. I think in the larger socioeconomic context we are indeed expected to feel non-normal, because in doing so we will need to consume (things, cures, people, children) to feel normal, or some approximation of normal.

    For awhile I wondered if the mass media depictions of LGBT people were the new minstral shows. I am still not totally sure that is not the case, but I am leaning more toward a different view. In the days of “‘Real’ Housewives,” “New ‘Normal'” might be as real as we can expect. “Real” in the sense of widespread commodification of human life in the service of consumption.

    The real world of reproductive justice for LGBT people doesn’t start and stop with surogacy. I think it starts with the 1,000’s of ways that we parent the children of siblings, neighbors, and others who need a responsible adult to call their own. But these true stories of parenting and co-parenting creep people out because they are too real, point out the contributions of LGBT people, highlight the shortcomings of society, and tell truth to the lie of our predatory natures.

    • “Widespread commodification of human life in the service of consumption.” What an awesome phrase. Language is amazing. 🙂

      On a more serious note – what scares me is that most people see more media images of people than live people. And there are people who don’t know an LGBT person (or don’t know that they know an LGBT person), but they’ve seen one on TV. The one they’ve seen on TV becomes the representation. It’s sad to me that TV and corporate capitalism now operate completely hand-in-hand – and that we’re missing an opportunity, through the medium of TV, to engage in real conversation about our real community, in all of its complexity and diversity.

      • Gayle, I wonder if, at this point in our (U.S.) history, the percentage of people who don’t know a person who identifies as LGBTQ is pretty small. In any case, I am hopeful that the sheer number of TV characters who are LGBTQ, even if they do not fully reflect our diversity, will continue to help move the dial with respect to full embrace of our communities. Of course, the most important factor in getting there will the extent to which we “come out, come out, wherever we are,” as we are comfortable doing so, so that more and more people experience in their day-to-day lives that the “new normal” is “no issue.”

      • Gary Hollander

        Thanks, slaughtk. I really enjoy reading posts that test my thinking and stretch it. Yours did just that.

        Unlike slaughtk, however, I join you in your fear that most people see more media images of people than live people, Gayle. While there are likely more people who know someone who is queer today, I am not sure that the person is actually SEEN. Coming out will not fix that issue either. A recent case in point is a senior health official in my state that asked a lesbian co-worker what LGBT stood for. This came from a 40-something middle class woman with a masters degree. She might join Ann Romney in her television favorites like Modern Family, but does she SEE the people around her if she can’t even say their groups’ names? So we are put into 47% or 53% categories with no insights into our contributions or needs, our celebrations or our challenges.

        Coming out is a critical mechanism we can use to avoid being powerless in all of this, but even this has some caveats. In my research I have stopped asking if someone is out or not, but rather I ask if respondents disclosed sexual identity to family, friends, straight friends, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, employers, etc. This has painted a very different picture and lots of unsolicited write-in comments about the right to privacy.

        Also, beyond disclosure are the dual strategies of persistence and insistence. In the former, we must stick with it and erode the invisibility imposed on us by individuals and society. And we must risk being unpopular — hard to do when we are so hoping for some degree of tolerance. Insistence comes in lots of forms; we get to be creative. I am planning to marry my partner of 30 years in 2013. I am super-duper gender normative, but I am planning to wear a kilt — I don’t want anyone to miss that I am as gay as a bag of birds.

  4. Wait, Gary — I thought kilts were Scottish in origin, now worn by both women and men! And what, pray tell, is gay about a bag of birds?


    Congratulations on your upcoming wedding!

    – Keith

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