Do Ask, Do Tell: Freak Talk on TV

At the end of his 22 years, when Pedro Zamora lost his capacity to speak, all
sorts of people stepped into the vacuum created by multifocal
leukoencephalopathy, the AIDS-related brain disease that shut him up. MTV began
running a marathon of The Real World, its seven-kids-in-
an-apartment-with-the-cameras-running show on which Pedro Zamora starred as
Pedro Zamora, a version of himself: openly gay, Miami Cuban, HIV-positive,
youth activist. MTV offered the marathon as a tribute to Zamora, which it was,
and as a way to raise funds, especially crucial since Zamora, like so many
people with HIV, did not have private insurance. Yet, of course, MTV was also
paying tribute to itself, capitalizing on Pedro's death without quite seeming
as monstrous as all that.

President Clinton and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles made public statements and
publicized phone calls to the hospital room, praising Zamora as a heroic point
of light rather than as the routinely outspoken critic of their own HIV and
AIDS policies. The Clinton administration, in the midst of its clampdown on
Cuban immigration, even granted immigration visas to Zamora's three brothers
and a sister in Cuba-a kindly if cynical act, given the realities of people
with AIDS awaiting visas and health care in Guantanamo Bay.

Thus, according to People magazine, did Zamora reach a bittersweet
ending. He was unable to see, hear, or speak, yet with his family reunited,
"his dream had come true." Behind the scenes, one who was there for Zamora's
last weeks told me, the family actually separated Zamora from his boyfriend,
quite out of keeping with the "dreams" of Pedro's life. When Pedro had his own
voice, he had spoken powerfully of how antigay ideology and policy, typically
framed as "pro-family," contributed to teen suicides and the spread of HIV; in
death, those speaking for him emphasized individual heroism and the triumph of
the heterosexual family.

That others appropriated Zamora on his deathbed hardly tarnishes his
accomplishment. As an MTV star, Pedro had probably reduced suffering by more
lesbian and gay teenagers, and generally affected the thinking of more
teenagers, than a zillion social service programs. He spoke publicly to
millions in his own words and with the backing of a reputable media
institution, and he did not just tell them to wear condoms, or that AIDS is an
equal- opportunity destroyer, and he did not just explicitly fill in the sexual
blanks left by prudish government prevention campaigns. He also told them and
showed them: Here is me loving my boyfriend; here is what a self-possessed gay
man looks like, hanging out with his roommates; here is what my Cuban family
might have to say about my bringing home a black man; here is me at an AIDS
demonstration, getting medical news, exchanging love vows.

To speak for and about yourself as a gay man or a lesbian on television, to
break silences that are systematically and ubiquitously enforced in public
life, is profoundly political. "Don't tell" is more than a U.S. military
policy; it remains U.S. public policy, formally and informally, on sex and
gender nonconformity. Sex and gender outsiders- gay men, transsexuals,
lesbians, bisexuals-are constantly invited to lose their voices, or suffer the
consequences (job losses, baseball bats) of using them. Outside of the
occasional opening on MTV or sporadic coverage of a demonstration or a parade,
if one is not Melissa Etheridge or David Geffen, opportunities to speak for
oneself as a nonheterosexual, or to listen to one, are few and far between.
Even if the cameras soon turn elsewhere, these moments are big breakthroughs,
and they are irresistible, giddy moments for the shut-up.

Yet, in a media culture, holding the microphone and the spotlight is a
complicated sort of power, not just because people grab them back from you but
because they are never really yours. If you speak, you must prepare to be used.
The voice that comes out is not quite yours: It is like listening to yourself
on tape (a bit deeper, or more clipped) or to a version dubbed by your twin. It
is you and it is not you. Zamora's trick, until his voice was taken, was to
walk the line between talking and being dubbed. The troubling question, for the
silenced and the heard alike, is whether the line is indeed walkable. Perhaps
the best place to turn for answers is the main public space in which the edict
to shut up is reversed: daytime television talk shows.


For lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, drag queens, or transsexuals, or some
combination thereof, watching daytime television has got to be spooky.
Suddenly, there are renditions of you, chattering away in a system that
otherwise ignores or steals your voice at every turn. Sally Jessy Raphael wants
to know what it's like to pass as a different sex, Phil Donahue wants to
support you in your battle against gay bashing, Ricki Lake wants to get you a
date, Oprah Winfrey wants you to love without lying. Most of all, they all want
you to talk about it publicly, just at a time when everyone else wants you not
to. They are interested, if not precisely in "reality," at least not (with
possible exceptions) in fictional accounts. For people whose desires and
identities go against the norm, this is the only spot in mainstream media
culture to speak on our own terms or to hear others speaking for themselves.
The fact that it is so much maligned, and for so many good reasons, does not
close the case.

I happened to turn on the Ricki Lake Show yesterday, for example, which,
as the fastest rising talk show ever, has quickly reached first place among its
target audience of 18-to-34-year-old women. The topic: "I don't want gays
around my kids." I caught the last twenty minutes of what amounted to a pro-gay
screamfest. Ricki and her audience explicitly attacked a large woman who was
denying visitation rights to her gay ex-husband ("I had to explain to a
nine-year-old what `gay' means," and "My child started having nightmares after
he visited his father"). And they went at a young couple who believed in
keeping children away from gay people on the grounds that the Bible says
"homosexuals should die." The gay guests and their supporters had the last
word, brought on to argue, to much audience whooping, that loving gays are a
positive influence and hateful heterosexuals should stay away from children.
The antigay guests were denounced on any number of grounds, by host, other
guests, and numerous audience members: They are denying children loving
influences, they are bigots, they are misinformed, they read the Bible
incorrectly, they sound like Mormons, they are resentful that they have put on
more weight than their exes. One suburban-looking audience member angrily
addressed each "child protector" in turn, along the way coming up with my new
favorite apostrophe, and possible new pageant theme, as she lit into a
blue-dressed woman: "And as for you, Miss Homophobia. . . ."

The show was a typical mess, with guests yelling and audiences hooting at the
best one-liners about bigotry or body weight, but the virulence with which
homophobia was attacked is both typical of these shows and stunning. When Ms.
Lake cut off a long-sideburned man's argument that "it's a fact that the
easiest way to get AIDS is by homosexual sex" ("That is not a fact, sir, that
is not correct"), I found myself ready to start the chant of "Go, Ricki! Go,
Ricki!" that apparently wraps each taping. Even such elementary corrections,
and even such a weird form of visibility and support, stands out sharply. Here,
the homophobe is the deviant, the freak.

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Lake's show is among the new breed of rowdy youth-oriented programs, celebrated
as "rock and roll television" by veteran Geraldo Rivera and denigrated as
"exploitalk" by cultural critic Neal Gabler. Their sibling shows, the older,
tamer "service" programs such as Oprah and Donahue,
support "alternative" sexualities and genders in quieter, but not weaker,
ways. Peruse last year's Donahue: two teenage lesbian lovers ("Young,
courageous people like yourself are blazing the way for other people," says
Phil), a gay construction worker suing his gay boss for harassment ("There's
only eight states that protect sexual persuasion," his attorney informs), a
bisexual minister, a black lesbian activist and two members of the African
American theater group Pomo Afro Homos ("We're about trying to build a black
gay community," says one), the stars of the gender-crossing Priscilla, Queen
of the Desert
("I have a lot of friends that are transsexuals," declares an
audience member, "and they're the neatest people"), heterosexuals whose best
friends are gay, lesbians starting families, gay teens, gay cops, gay men
reuniting with their high school sweethearts, a gay talk show. This is a more
diverse, self-possessed, and politically outspoken group of nonheterosexuals
than I might find, say, at the gay bar around the corner; I can only imagine
what this means for people experiencing sexual difference where none is locally

Certainly Donahue makes moves to counter its "liberal" reputation,
inviting right-wing black preachers and widely discredited and relatively loony
"psychologist" Paul Cameron, who argues that cross-dressing preceded the fall
of Rome, that people with AIDS should be quarantined, and that sexuality "is
going to get us." But more often than not, Phil himself is making statements
about how "homophobia is global" and "respects no nation," how "we're beating
up homosexual people, calling them names, throwing them out of apartments,
jobs." The "we" being asserted is an "intolerant" population that needs to get
over itself. We are, he says at times, "medieval." In fact, Donahue
regularly asserts that "for an advanced, so-called, `industrialized'
nation, I think we're the worst." Questioning an officer about the treatment of
gay police, for example, he cannot stop the almost desperate how're-we-doing
flow: "But what would you say, regarding law enforcement today? How are we? Are
we getting there? Are you pleased? Is it better than in the military? Is it
worse? What?"

Oprah Winfrey, the industry leader, is less concerned with the political
treatment of difference; she is overwhelmingly oriented towards "honesty" and
"openness," especially in interpersonal relationships. As on Lake's show,
lesbians and gays are routinely included without incident in more general
themes (meeting people through personal ads, fools for love, sons and daughters
you never knew), and bigotry is routinely attacked. But Winfrey's distinctive
mark is an attack on lies, and thus the closet comes under attack-especially
the gay male closet-not just for the damage it does to those in it, but for the
betrayals of women it engenders.

On a recent program in which a man revealed his "orientation" after 19 years of
marriage, for example, the biggest concern of both Winfrey and her audience was
not that Steve is gay, but that he was not up-front with his wife. As Winfrey
put it on that program, "For me, always the issue is how you can be more
truthful in your life." One of Steve's two supportive sons echoes Winfrey ("I
want people to be able to be who they are"), as does his ex-wife, whose anger
is widely supported by the audience ("It makes me feel like my life has been a
sham"), and the requisite psychologist ("The main thing underneath all of this
is the importance of loving ourselves and being honest and authentic and real
in our lives"). Being truthful, revealing secrets, learning to love oneself:
These are the staples of Winfrey-style talk shows. Because of them, not only do
gay and bisexual guests find a place to speak as gays and bisexuals, but the
pathology becomes not sexual "deviance" but the socially imposed closet.

All of this, however, should not be mistaken for dedicated friendship. Even
when ideological commitments to truth and freedom are at work, the primary
commitment of talk shows is, of course, to money. What makes these such
inviting spots for nonconforming sex and gender identities has mostly to do
with the niche talk shows have carved out for ratings. The shows are about
talk; the more silence there has been on a subject, the more not-telling, the
better talk topic it is. On talk shows, as media scholar Wayne Munson points
out in his book All Talk, "differences are no longer repressed" but
"become the talk show's emphasis," as the shows confront "boredom and channel
clutter with constant, intensified novelty and `reality.'" Indeed, according to
Munson, Richard Mincer, Donahue's executive producer, encourages
prospective guests "to be especially unique or different, to take advantage of
rather than repress difference."


While they highlight different sex and gender identities, expressions, and
practices, the talk shows can be a dangerous place to speak and a difficult
place to get heard. With around 20 syndicated talk shows competing for
audiences, shows that trade in confrontation and surprise (Ricki
Lake, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer) are edging out the
milder, topical programs (Oprah, Donahue). Although Winfrey is
still number one, with an estimated 9.4 million viewers, her ratings have
declined significantly. Unquestionably, "exploitalk" is winning out, and the
prize is big: A successful talk show, relatively cheap to produce, can
reportedly make more than $50 million a year in profits.

One way to the prize, the "ambush" of guests with surprises, is fast becoming a
talk show staple. As Ricki Lake, whose show reaches an estimated audience of
5.8 million, told a reporter, the ambush "does so much for the energy of the
show." Even without an ambush, a former Jane Whitney Show producer told
TV Guide, "When you're booking guests, you're thinking, `How much
confrontation can this person provide me?' The more confrontation, the better.
You want people just this side of a fistfight."

For members of groups already subject to violence, the visibility of television
can prompt more than just a fistfight, as this year's Jenny Jones murder
underlined. In March, when Scott Amedure appeared on a "secret admirer" episode
of the Jenny Jones Show (currently number three in the national
syndicated talk show ratings), the admired Jonathan Schmitz was apparently
expecting a female admirer. Schmitz, not warming to Amedure's fantasy of tying
him up in a hammock and spraying whipped cream and champagne on his body,
declared himself "100 percent heterosexual." Later, back in Michigan, he
punctuated this claim by shooting Amedure with a 12-gauge shotgun, telling
police that the embarrassment from the program had "eaten away" at him. Or, as
he reportedly put it in his 911 call, Amedure "fucked me on national TV."

Critics were quick to point out that programming that creates conflict tends to
exacerbate it. "The producers made professions of regret," Gabler wrote in the
Los Angeles Times after the Amedure murder, "but one suspects what they
really regretted was the killer's indecency of not having pulled out his rifle
and committed the crime before their cameras." In the wake of the murder, talk
show producers were likened over and over to drug dealers: Publicist Ken Maley
told the San Francisco Chronicle that "they've got people strung out on
an adrenaline rush," and "they keep raising the dosage"; sociologist Vicki Abt
told People that "TV allows us to mainline deviance"; Michelangelo
Signorile argued in Out that some talk show producers "are like crack
dealers scouring trailer park America." True enough. Entering the unruly talk
show world one tends to become, at best, a source of adrenaline rush, and at
worst a target of violence.

What most reporting tended to gloss, however, was that most antigay violence
does not require a talk show "ambush" to trigger it. Like the Oakland County,
Michigan, prosecutor, who argued that "Jenny Jones's producers' cynical
pursuit of ratings and total insensitivity to what could occur here left one
person dead and Mr. Schmitz now facing life in prison," many critics focused on
the "humiliating" surprise attack on Schmitz with the news that he was desired
by another man. As in the image of the "straight" soldier being ogled in the
shower, in this logic the revelation of same-sex desire is treated as the
danger, and the desired as a victim. The talk show critics thus played to the
same "don't tell" logic that makes talk shows such a necessary, if
uncomfortable, refuge for some of us.

Although producers' pursuit of ratings is indeed, unsurprisingly, cynical and
insensitive, the talk show environment is one of the very few in which the
declaration of same-sex desire (and, to a lesser degree, atypical gender
identity) is common, heartily defended, and often even incidental. Although
they overlook this in their haste to hate trash, the critics of exploitative
talk shows help illuminate the odd sort of opportunity these cacophonous
settings provide. Same-sex desires become "normalized" on these programs not so
much because different sorts of lives become clearly visible, but because they
get sucked into the spectacular whirlpool of relationship conflicts. They offer
a particular kind of visibility and voice. On yesterday's Ricki Lake, it
was the voice of an aggressive, screechy gay man who continually reminded
viewers, between laughing at his own nasty comments, that he was a regular guy.
On other days, it's the take-your-hands-off-my-woman lesbian, or the
I'm-more-of-a-woman-than-you'll-ever-be transsexual. Here is the first voice
talk shows promote, one price of entry into mainstream public visibility: the
vicious one, shouting that we gay people can be as mean, or petty, or just
plain loud, as anybody else.


The guests on the talk shows seem to march in what psychologist Jeanne Heaton,
coauthor of the forthcoming Tuning in Trouble, calls a "parade of
pathology." Many talk shows have more than a passing resemblance to freak
shows. Neal Gabler, for example, argues that guests are invited to exhibit
"their deformities for attention" in a "ritual of debasement" aimed primarily
at reassuring the audience of its superiority. Indeed, the evidence for
dehumanization is all over the place, especially when it comes to gender
crossing, as in the titles of various recent Geraldo programs, in which
the calls of sideshow barkers echo: "Star-crossed cross-dressers: bizarre
stories of transvestites and their lovers," and "Outrageous impersonators and
flamboyant drag queens," and "When your husband wears the dress in the family,"
and "Girly to burly: women who became men." As long as talk shows make their
bids by being, in Gabler's words, "a psychological freak show," sex and gender
outsiders entering them arguably reinforce their inhuman, outsider status, by
entering a discourse in which they are bizarre, outrageous, flamboyant
curiosities. (Often when they do this, for example, they must relinquish their
right to define themselves to the ubiquitous talk show "experts.")

Talk shows do indeed trade on voyeurism, and it is no secret that those who
break with sex and gender norms and fight with each other on camera help the
shows win higher ratings. But there is more to the picture. This is the place
where "freaks" talk back. It is a place where Conrad, born and living in a
female body, can assert against Sally Jessy Raphael's claims that he "used and
betrayed" women in order to have sex with them, that women fall in love with
him as a man because he considers himself a man; where months later, in a
program on "our most outrageous former guests" (all gender crossers), Conrad
can reappear, declare himself to have started hormone treatment, and report
that the woman he allegedly "used and betrayed" has stood by him. This is a
narrow opening, but an opening nonetheless, for the second voice promoted by
the talk show: the proud voice of the "freak," even if the freak refuses that
term. The fact that talk shows are exploitative spectacles does not negate the
fact that they are also opportunities; as Munson points out, they are both
spectacle and conversation. They give voice to those systematically silenced,
albeit under conditions out of the speaker's control, and in voices that come
out tinny, scratched, distant.

These voices, even when they are discounted, which is often enough, in fact
sometimes do more than just assert themselves. The people from whom they
emerge, whatever their motivations, can sometimes wind up doing more then just
pulling up a chair at a noisy, crowded table. Every so often, they wind up
messing with sexual categories in a way that goes beyond a simple expansion of
them. Talk shows attract viewers not only through public airings of personal
problems, but also through public airings of problematic persons. In addition
to reaffirming heterosexuality as normal and natural, or affirming both
heterosexuality and homosexuality as normal and natural, talk show producers
often make entertainment by mining the in-between: finding guests who are
interesting exactly because they don't fit existing notions of "gay" and
"straight" and "man" and "woman," raising the provocative suggestion that the
categories are not quite working.

The last time I visited the Maury Povich Show, for instance, I found
myself distracted by Jason and Tiffanie. Jason, a large 18-year-old from a
small town in Ohio, was in love with Calvin. Calvin was having an affair with
Jamie (Jason's twin sister, also the mother of a three-month-old), who was
interested in Scott, who had sex with, as I recall, both Calvin and Tiffanie.
Tiffanie, who walked on stage holding Jamie's hand, had pretty much had sex
with everyone except Jamie. During group sex, Tiffanie explained, she and Jamie
did not touch each other. "We're not lesbians," she loudly asserted, against
the noisy protestations of some audience members.

The studio audience, in fact, was quick to condemn the kids, who were living
together in a one-bedroom apartment with Jamie's baby. Their response was
predictably accusatory: You are freaks, some people said; immoral, said others;
pathetically bored and in need of a hobby, others asserted. Still other aspects
of the "discussion" assumed the validity and normality of homosexuality. Jason,
who had recently attempted suicide, was told he needed therapy to help him come
to terms with his sexuality, and the other boys were told they too needed to
"figure themselves out." Yet much talk also struggled to attach sexual labels
to an array of partnerships anarchic enough to throw all labels into disarray.
"If you are not lesbians, why were you holding hands?" one woman asked
Tiffanie. "If you are not gay," another audience member asked Calvin, "how is
it you came to have oral sex with two young men?"

This mix was typically contradictory: condemnation of "immoral sex" but not so
much of homosexuality per se, openly gay and bisexual teenagers speaking for
themselves while their partners in homosexual activities declare heterosexual
identities, a situation in which sexual categories are both assumed and up for
grabs. I expect the young guests were mainly in it for the free trip to New
York, and the studio audience was mainly in it for the brush with television.
Yet the discussion they created, the unsettling of categoric assumptions about
genders and desires, if only for a few moments in the midst of judgment and
laughter, is found almost nowhere else this side of fiction.

The importance of these conversations, both for those who for safety must shut
up about their sexual and gender identities, and for those who never think
about them, is certainly underestimated. The level of exploitation is certainly
not. Like Pedro Zamora, one can keep one's voice for a little while, one finger
on the commercial megaphone, until others inevitably step in to claim it for
their own purposes. Or one can talk for show, as freak, or expert, or
rowdy-limits set by the production strategies within the talk show genre.

Those limits, not the talk shows themselves, are really the point. The story
here is not about commercial exploitation, but about just how effective the
prohibition on asking and telling is in the United States, how stiff the
penalties are, how unsafe this place is for people of atypical sexual and
gender identities. You know you're in trouble when Sally Jessy Raphael
(strained smile and forced tear behind red glasses) seems your best bet for
being heard, understood, respected, and protected. That for some of us the
loopy, hollow light of talk shows seems a safe, shielding haven should give us
all pause.

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