What American Sitcoms Taught India About Homosexuality

Pop Culture

What American Sitcoms Taught India About Homosexuality

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The first time I met a gay person was on screen, when Jack McFarland from Will & Grace “fabulous”-ed his way around my TV. Prior to this, my sister and I were exposed to routine afternoon programming, in the form of bog-standard shows like Santa Barbara and Bold and the Beautiful, thanks to our insomniac Ma. We graduated to F.R.I.E.N.D.S. like all ’90s’ kids, but it wasn’t until Will & Grace that I understood a little about the LGBTQ community.

The incorrigible Jack McFarland, played by actor Sean Hayes, had me hooked to the show. A flamboyant, free-spirited and supremely confident gay character, Jack is best friends with the much subtler gay protagonist Will Truman, and is the reason Will has any confidence in his sexual identity. Will’s roommate and best friend, the straight Jewish woman Grace, treats gay Will as the voice inside her head, often depending on his rock-like presence in her life after break-ups and losses. I’d found two gay men I instantly liked: Jack with his singing, dancing, and Cher obsession could even be my spirit animal.

As the gorgeous, poetic judgment on the Section 377 verdict made the rounds two days ago, I realised how much distance pop culture has struck in educating us about homosexuality. Where the march of Bollywood’s egregious gay stereotypes, witnessed in Dostana and any effeminate characters, is halted every once in a while by a Kapoor & Sons, it was through (mostly) American television that many of us Indians got our first exposure to regular gay characters. With no real-life examples to know or understand from, watching these amazing queer characters on screen helped shape the idea of how similar they really were to me.

After Will & Grace, came Modern Family and its adorable gay couple, Mitch and Cam. Mitch, a lawyer, came out very late while Cam had embraced his identity very early in life. Cam is creative, loud, and loves being the centre of attention while Mitch is a reluctant everything, having stayed under his towering father and sister’s presence all his life. They marry, adopt a child, and have the same trials and tribulations as most parents and not for once do you feel that the LGBTQ community is any different from the straight community, especially when you factor in marriage and parenting.

Still, Mitch and Cam, can seem theatrical in different ways. A much subtler and real version of a LGBTQ person is seen in the Australian show Please Like Me. In this lovely slice-of-life drama, 20-year-old Josh comes out to his family and friends including a girlfriend he has had for years. He cooks and bakes beautifully, is always around for his friends, is confused and insecure about his relationships and most importantly, is a hugely dependable son to his bipolar mother. I couldn’t find a more aspirational character than Josh if I looked, and after the first couple of episodes, you completely forget that he has a different sexual identity than your own.

And then there is Transparent. Writing news articles on the first Indian trans-woman studying medicine or attending the Pride March in Ahmedabad gave me insight, but I really got a lesson in trans lives when I watched the award-winning Jill Soloway show. It traces the life of Maura, a trans-woman who decides to go through the “life changing” transformation in her 50s. Jeffrey Tambor in the titular role takes us through her world beautifully, from coming out to his three adult kids, moving to live with the friends he made in the trans-community, to his trysts with romance, first with a woman and later with a man. The friends Maura makes at the LGBT centre, trans-women Davina and Shea, also shed valuable light on folks who differ only slightly from us, but are on the same emotional wavelength.

Finally, the show that truly came close to how all of us unanimously felt when Section 377 was undone is Netflix’s Sense8, created by J Michael Straczynski along with Lana and Lilly Wachowski, sisters and trans-women (formerly known as The Wachowski Brothers who made The Matrix series). Sense8 is about 8 humans who belong to a genetically different species than sapiens. In the show, the Wachowski Sisters explore how sensates are hunted for their uniqueness and how unity is the answer to hatred. Among the extremely popular characters they built is a gay Mexican superstar Lito who puts everything in line to come out to the world, and Nomi Marks, a trans-woman who along with her lesbian girlfriend Amanita fights for their right to freedom from parents and evil doctors who want to lobotomise them. With millions of fans worldwide, the show was a sensational hit, possibly paving the path for newer, more diverse characters.

With no real-life examples to know or understand from, watching these amazing queer characters on screen helped shape the idea of how similar they really were to me.

For most part of our lives, LGBTQ representation has been amiss or ignored in our social fabric. These characters have breathed a new life into our pop culture, making us more human along the way. So when I made my first gay friend in college, I discovered to my delight that he was as close to Jack as could be. He wore purple shoes, had purple highlights in his hair, loved Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar and most importantly, gave me honest advice. It was like meeting an old friend, the same likes and dislikes neatly wrapped in a quirky and way more stylish package.

And so, while I bow to the great activists who have worked tirelessly to bring down this archaic law, I also thank my fictional queer friends – characters that have brought me closer to understanding and loving our world better.