Remember when Ricky was gay-ish on My So-Called Life and it was sort of a big deal? Well those days are over. There are several gay teen characters currently on the air, and no one's saying boo.
On tonight's episode of Ugly Betty, little Justin Suarez finally comes out, ending a four-season-long wait. He does it by dancing publicly with his cutie-patootie new (and first) boyfriend and everyone smiles and we feel old and lonely. Everyone's known that the character — nephew of bedraggled feelings-haver Betty — was a gay since day one, because he's fey and likes fashion and Beyonce and stuff, but it went unsaid until the second-half of this (final) season. So yay for Justin! Boo to those who get upset about his swishiness, because while that does feed slightly into a stereotype, girl it's a stereotype for a damn reason. People like Justin exist, and Ugly Betty wanted to do that kind of character, so god bless 'em. Justin's steps toward coming out have been both painful and silly, the way life usually is. He's a kid that everyone had figured out long ago, but the show correctly urges us to remember that Saying It (or in Justin's case, Dancing It) still matters, despite how "obvious" it might be.
Justin has a brother-in-arms in Kurt from Glee, another fashion-forward sashayer who likes a diva and a song. But, again, for some reason it doesn't feel like a cloyingly broad stroke. His coming-out-to-dad scene was handled with care and respect — it was realistic but still TV warm, it wasn't a big grand-standing Emmy reel moment but was wholly emotional and satisfying. It was a big moment in a life and then that was that. The world spun forward and when the show comes back, dude's getting a boyfriend. No one batted an eyelash, and that's probably progress. For a show as zeitgeisty as Glee, that the gay kid plotline went mostly unexamined might mean that we're slowly starting to lurch forward, evil fucking prom monsters aside.
But perhaps the most thrilling gay teen on the air right now is Marshall from the uneven but worth watching United States of Tara. Here we have a bookish, nerdy, only slightly effete kid who doesn't Love The Gaga or snark about fashion. There was no big reveal moment — when the show started we were already in media res of his out gay life. And now, intriguingly, the second season is showing us that, horror, there is lots of variation in gayness. Marshall is butting heads with an out and aggressively loud boi at school. In one scene Marshall tells his queeny nemesis, "You ruin it for gay people, Lionel. You make being gay something no one would ever want to be." It's an unbelievably relatable moment, one that digs deeper (that it digs at all is already sort of deep) than anything else we've seen recently on the tube. That the show is giving us an intra-gay plotline instead of the typical single lonely token gay feels so oddly stirring. There is nuance here, there is shading, there is a whole swirling world of difference and now, finally, someone is addressing it soberly and without fanfare. Much as it chafes us to praise the shoulda-been-us Diablo Cody (the show's creator), she's giving us the best and most thorough depiction of young male gaydom in all of current TV and film.
And yet, again, there's no hoopla. There are three out gay male teens on major television these days and no one's lost their monocle or fainted to the floor. Sure we've a dearth of lesbian teens — that mean little so-and-so on Weeds and the band girl on Friday Night Lights are all we can think of at the moment — but hopefully we're getting there. Hopefully we're getting to a place where none of the gay stuff is more surprising than any other story on the show. It's a shame that Ugly Betty waited until the show was ending to give Justin his moment — it would have been interesting to see him navigate his new gay life — but at least they got there eventually and hopefully have helped set a precedent.
These kids are gay and no one really cares. Isn't it wonderful?