I am a bit late on this story but wanted to offer a contrary viewpoint to the dominant one of the outraged blogosphere.
Though I have never seen the show, I was interested in the controversy over the show Modern Family which apparently features a gay couple among its lead characters. The controversy centers not around the presence of gay characters but rather on the fact that they never ever kiss on screen while all the other couples do. Waymon Hudson explains more:
ABC is known for showing heart-warming depictions of LGBT people. The network has given us Brothers & Sisters, with an amazing gay couple at the heart of the Walker family who kiss, sleep together, cuddle, and even married on the show. They’ve also given us Ugly Betty, with fully-formed, strong gay and transgender characters, from the highly sexualized Mark St. James to the male-to-female transition of Alexis Meade to young Justin Suarez, perhaps the best depiction of coming out on television that featured moving scenes of the high schooler kissing his new boyfriend for the first time.
Here is the problem that I have. The couple has adopted a daughter on the show. They are obviously committed and in a long-term relationship. Yet they have never kissed on screen. Ever. Every other couple constantly kisses, cuddles, and makes out, yet the gay couple is relegated to a chaste hug.
In fact, a Facebook group has popped up demanding “Let Cam & Mitchell kiss on Modern Family!”I’ve already joined.
ABC followed up this controversy by claiming that the choice thus far not to have the characters publicly kiss was related to one of the character’s squeamishness about public displays of affection (which still does not quite explain why the show apparently has never shown them kiss when alone).
Obviously if the show is not showing them kiss as a way of accommodating mainstream homophobia to keep viewers, it would be really unfortunate and worth protesting. But I think there is another way of looking at the effect of a clearly coupled and clearly caring gay pair of men who are modest about their public displays of affection. While on the one hand, much of America needs to get over its “ick” factor in seeing gay men kiss and this is only going to happen if it becomes more commonly seen so that it becomes something people are more accustomed to and less reflexively going to blanch at. But, on the other hand, much of America also needs to get over its reductionism that sees gay people as merely people with sexual disorders who let a deviant compulsion for sex override all sense of morality and decorum. Much of America needs to stop thinking of homosexuality as about sex and start acknowledging and treating seriously the fact that it is primarily about love.
Of course, even were homosexuality only or primarily about sex, it would still be something that the non-gay people should learn to accept since pleasurable, consensual, maturely chosen, responsible sex with a partner of one’s own desiring and willingness to accept any risks is really a human right, regardless of whether love is involved at all. In other words, even on the level of being just a variant way to have sex, homosexuality should be at the bare minimum fully accepted legally, and should be accepted morally on the same terms that any other sex act should be assessed—by answering questions of whether engaging in that sex act is consistent with all the people involved in it being able to flourish in their total life goals, find happiness, respect each other’s autonomy, care for the people in their lives, develop relationally, stay healthy or increase their health, and increase the total pleasure in the world, etc. As long as a given sex act does not thwart any of those ends (even if it does not happen to serve all of them), it should be minimally ethically acceptable and possibly ethically encouragable.
But I have digressed. The point is that even more than just an ethically defensible and, for some people, highly rewarding form of sexual activity, homosexuality also has the full potential to be a component of romantic love, including those committed forms of romantic love most ethically idealized in our culture. And too many homophobic people try to rationalize their ethically baseless disgust for gays by reducing gays to being homosexuality as all about sex and not about love. They say remarkably offensive things like that to teach children about gay marriage would mean talking to them about gay sex. This is as patently absurd as saying that teaching children about straight marriage would mean talking to them about heterosexual sex. Also incredibly offensively will express irritation that gay people come out because they have “no interest in knowing what other people do in their bedrooms”.
Again, knowing someone is gay tells you no more about the explicit details of his or her sex life than knowing someone is straight does. Again, being gay is not just engaging in a particular sex act, it’s being as powerfully inclined towards love and romance with members of your same sex as straight people are inclined towards love and romance with members of the opposite sex. (And, note, I said as powerfully inclined towards members of your own sex as straight people are to members of the opposite sex, not more powerfully inclined towards members of the same sex as you are to members of the opposite sex. Gay men are no more inclined towards every man than straight men are inclined towards every woman and gay women are no more inclined towards every woman than straight women are inclined towards every man.
Of course one would think these would be obvious points by now but the visceral, emotional disgust with homosexual sexuality gets confused with a moral judgment all too easily and, having no real substantive arguments against the goodness of gay sex for gay people, the homophobe resorts to making the issue all about decorum and not airing one’s sexuality in public. And there are plenty of stereotypes of the unrestrainedly lusty gay men who cannot help themselves but to make out lasciviously in public. And there are plenty of stereotypes about the coupling of male gay sex with other risky or “deviant” forms of sex–S&M, sex in public restrooms, promiscuity at levels unparalleled among straights, etc.
So, in this context, although mainstream America needs to start getting used to seeing gay men kissing already and cultural influencers, especially our artists, have a positive ethical responsibility to provide this stepping stone to full recognition of the legal and ethical equality of our gay fellow citizens and fellow human beings, I think there is a place for at least some representation of gays which make sex a non-issue. Because a key part of changing the way homophobic people perceive gay displays of affection involves changing the way they perceive the context in which those displays occur. And to spend some time just focusing on gay couples as loving couples with no reference to the sexual nature of their love, there is the possibility of some correction of the center of homophobes’ attention. Rather than seeing gays kissing and having the homophobes feel all the negative associations they have about that which are reducing the gay characters back to primarily sexual characters, I see a real and genuine value of focusing insome representations of gays a long time on everything else about what goes into gay love such that all that other stuff can be the primary thing people think about.
When I learn that two people are married the first thing I think is not, “oh, that means they have sex with each other”. Part of accustoming a reflexively homophobic public to gays means stopping the thought “oh, that means they have sex with each other” from their minds as their first association and focus. Taking gay physical displays of affection off the table in some representations, to me, seems to increase the possibility that people focus on and start to empathize with the depth, sincerity, commitment, friendship, love, admiration, pleasure, conflict, fluctuation, and all-around normalcy of gay emotional displays of affection so that psychologically the message gets through that at the end of the day, it’s really just like straight affection.
And when the mainstream public is as accustomed to thinking of gay couples as having the same sorts of fully well-rounded loving, committed, emotional relationships with one another as they think of straight couples as having, they really won’t bat an eye to see them kiss.
For more of my views on homophobia and the ethics of homosexuality see my posts An Argument For Gay Marriage And Against Traditionalism and A Follow Up Post On Gays And Christianity. For my account of the nature and ethics of love please read How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways and Call It Volitional Love Rather Than Unconditional Love.