I had an ex-mother-in-law with whom I often sowed family discord by challenging on her ideas about relationships. She claimed to be gay-friendly and supportive of her son (my ex), but I knew it wasn’t in her heart. One time, when the ex and I met her and her husband for lunch in Orlando, Fla., she noted that they had been at Disney World earlier, on what happened to be Gay Day. (That was the reason my ex and I were there; you’d think she’d have known that.) She clucked her tongue that, while “I have no problem with gay people,” she thought it was “inappropriate” how gays at the park “throw their sexuality in your face. I don’t like public displays of affection in any context!” she whined.
“Oh?” I said. “You’re holding your husband’s hand as we speak. And when we saw you in the parking lot, you gave your son a big hug and kiss. Clearly, you don’t mind public displays of affection; you just don’t like seeing the kinds that offend you. That makes you a hypocrite.”
It was a pretty quiet lunch after that.
What infuriates me about that kind of casual bigotry is how it presumes gay people should stay in the closet; that heterosexuality can be public, but not homosexuality; that it is something to be embarrassed by. “Do you believe his son brought his boyfriend to the funeral and they held hands during the service!?” I heard a woman say once after a funeral. It never occurred to this bigot that the son needed his boyfriend’s support, that he had lost his father and needed comfort; it also never occurred to the person that the entire family might actually be supportive of the gay son and like the boyfriend. The speaker was offended on behalf of the family, never thinking that — perhaps — not everyone was as virulent a homophobe as she was.
This is what the right is really contending with now: Not that openness will lead to recruitment, but that it will make it more difficult to demonize people who are different. If your kids know gay people who are cool, and seem well adjusted, it makes teaching them bigotry all that more difficult.
And finally the mainstream media is catching on.
Of course, locally, our own Todd and Cooper Smith-Koch became celebs when their print ad with their children for JCPenney went viral, causing claims of “pandering” to gays. There have been many ads in recent years that include gays, though sometimes comically.
But a new TV spot from Kohl’s department store — it’s below — does exactly what my ex-mother-in-law, and the woman at the funeral, couldn’t do: Imagine gay people (of different races, even!) as part of a happy, comfortable family dynamic.
The imagery is subtle. A matriarch is beginning to prepare Thanksgiving dinner as the family members start to arrive — daughter and son-in-law with the grandkids; maybe a divorced daughter; then a strapping young man in the company of an African-America man; eventually, an older black couple shows up. Everyone’s helping out — cooking, cleaning, setting the table. There’s laughter and hugs … including an apparently affectionate toast with the gay couple, both sets of parents looking on, smiling.
Just a typical American family.
And that’s what the right, and bigots, can’t stand. The idea that real America families are diverse is anathema to them. They operate in a universe where everyone conforms to a fake ideal. And that fake ideal was largely spread to them through the osmosis of advertising, which seeks to recreate a world that consumers can see themselves as a part of. That used to be a segregated world; I remember how McDonald’s commercials would often have black people, or white people … but almost always in separate spots. The black ads even had a more “urban” version of the jingle. Everyone likes McDonald’s!” the message was … just so long as they stick to their own. Now, though, advertisers want more eyes, more dollars, more inclusiveness. Hence the Kohl’s ad.
This is becoming the new normal. It’s especially heartening that it arrives around the holidays, when family, togetherness and love are at the top of people’s minds. (The spot is even called “Celebrate Togetherness.”) Of course, it’s something the gay media has tried (successfully, I think) to illustrate for decades. We appreciate everyone catching up. Now go out and buy shit.