Picketing EqualityNon-religious Queer Storylines Still Rule the TV Roost

During their wedding, Ruby, left, and Sapphire stand underneath a chuppah as Steven officiates on Steven Universe (Photo credit: YouTube/Steven Universe)

Ten years before Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, Springfield—the green-hilled fictional home of Kwik-E-Mart and the Simpson family—passed its own marriage-equality legislation. In the 2005 episode “There’s Something About Marrying,” Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage in an attempt to attract more tourists. But there’s one Springfield resident who opposes this decision: Protestant minister Reverend Lovejoy (Harry Shearer), who adamantly refuses to marry same-sex couples because, in his view, the Bible forbids him from doing so. The episode resolves itself in typical Simpsonian fashion: Homer (Dan Castellaneta) discovers there’s a buck to be made in officiating the weddings, so he swoops in to be ordained as a minister and marry all the queer spiky-haired couples that come to his makeshift altar.

Sure, the episode portrays one of the most popular, albeit tired, tropes in queer storylines—the reluctant religious officiant—but it also diverges from the archetype by turning Homer into a minister, clerical collar and all, instead of having him officiate areligiously. In doing so, The Simpsons suggests that religions aren’t monolithic in their attitude toward gay marriage and that there are progressive and accepting individuals and sects. Though this sentiment seems rather obvious, it’s not one that has been reflected in the queer pairings we see on TV—not in 2005, and not in the five years since the United States legalized marriage equality. It’s understandable that religion has been characterized as an obstacle in a queer person’s journey to self-acceptance: Historically, religious judgment on the naturalness of sex carried over into medical and scientific communities, resulting in many different public institutions holding bigotry toward queer individuals.

Many of the parameters for diagnosing someone as ill stemmed not from biological research but from conceptions of morality, meaning that anything found “sinful” could be identified as a disorder. Homosexuality, which was classified as a mental illness until 1973, is one of the most prominent examples of this. And so, knowing the systemic nature of religious oppression, it’s unsurprising that depictions of religious zealots—think Father Maxi (Matt Stone) on South Park—rightfully appear as villains in queer storylines. But, as in the medical community, religious attitudes toward queer people have evolved. This isn’t to say that homophobia has been completely eradicated but rather that a predominantly Christian, biased lens is not one that is representative of the times.

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Judaism, particularly in North America, is a great example of a community that has made strides on the tolerance front but is still underrepresented onscreen. Jewish leaders have long been on the forefront of queer issues—the activism of Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk being worthy examples—and yet, TV shows rarely reflect the past or present realities of queer Jewish people. This is despite the fact that a number of milestones of queer progress in the past decade have been Jewish: For one, the first legal gay wedding to take place in Los Angeles was a Jewish ceremony. In 2015, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) elected Rabbi Denise Eger, its first openly lesbian president. And, most notably, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, the lesbian couple at the center of the 2013 United States v. Windsor case, whose decision resulted in same-sex couples finally being recognized by the federal government, were both Jewish. 

However, though it may be tempting to track religious progress along the timeline of legality, communities often precede both the government and their own congregations in becoming more tolerant. The growth and advancement seen in Judaism has come largely from communities looking to their own members and to the social movements happening at the same time. “The people within [religious] communities inspire the change, because they speak with their voices or their feet,” Rabbi Sandra Lawson, one of the first openly queer Black rabbis to ever be admitted into rabbinical school, told Bitch. “Judaism, for the longest time, has only been seen through the eyes of men of a particular tradition. When the feminist movement came along, we all of a sudden were looking at these texts through the eyes of women, which means we’re still looking at the same text, but we’re seeing different things. We’re lifting up stories that weren’t being lifted up before.”

In studying these texts through different perspectives, scholars have found that the passages that bigots, both in real life and on TV, like to cite when arguing against same-sex partnerships are actually being misinterpreted. “We’re seeing rabbis and scholars that are looking at the texts and lifting up some of the relationships that appear in the Torah, like Ruth and Naomi, and Jonathan and David,” Lawson says. “Lifting up those stories as love, and showing that the text that we use to condemn ‘gayness’ is really not about relationships or love but about violence and nonhospitality.” These progressive ideas have been springing up in Jewish sects since the 1970s—the decade marked by vigorous Black Power, gay rights, and feminist movements—and when the CCAR released their first resolution condemning homophobia. And this progressiveness has trickled its way into many different Jewish communities around the world, making inclusivity the norm. Yet, even as the religion evolves its perspective on marriage equality, references to gay Judaism in pop culture remain subtle, if not completely hidden.

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When Ruby and Sapphire are married in a lesbian wedding on Steven Universe, they’re standing under a white cannopied chuppah, meaning their ceremony is Jewish. But there’s no outright mention of it. On One Day at a Time, a Netflix reboot that now airs on Pop TV, Pilar (Stephanie Beatriz) mentions that she converted to Judaism to marry her wife, but there’s no further discussion because Pilar appears only in a single episode. Then there’s Schitt’s Creek’s David Rose (Daniel Levy), whose down-on-their-luck family is part Jewish, but at his wedding to Patrick Brewer (Noah Reid), Rose’s mother, Moira (Catherine O’Hara), wears a bedazzled papal regalia as she officiates. It’s a fabulous affair, but not exactly representative of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. Grace and Frankie featured an interfaith same-sex wedding between Sol Bergstein (Sam Waterston) and Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen), but the couple struggles to find an officiant willing to marry them.

Bergstein’s and Hanson’s ex-wives, Frankie (Lily Tomlin) and Grace (Jane Fonda), respectively, find a rabbi willing to officiate a same-sex wedding but unwilling to marry an interfaith couple. “It’s unfair for the Jewish community to say that you have to be married to a Jewish person but not confront the homophobia and racism that exist within [our] communities,” Lawson said. “I’ve had gay Jewish men talk to me who really wanted a Jewish partner, but they couldn’t find people to date.” Whereas heterosexual interfaith couples appear in many popular TV shows, like The Nanny, Mad About You, and New Girl —often prompting characters to do some introspection and come to terms with their identities—the few interfaith gay couples on TV skirt around their religions as best they can, effectively burying any opportunity to confront intercommunity prejudice or intolerance.

Adi Loevsky, a university student in Toronto, said that she sees no hurdles to having a lesbian Jewish wedding. “I see myself getting married and having a same-sex Jewish wedding because it would give me the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors, as a queer woman.” Adi’s girlfriend, Emily Pennock, agrees, adding that religious weddings are also important for families to come together to celebrate. “Incorporating elements of Judaism into my gay wedding will make my family happy, as well as myself.” Loevsky and Pennock aren’t alone in incorporating religion into their same-sex weddings, but onscreen this idea is far rarer. Take, for instance, Showtime’s long-running drama Shameless, which boasts one of TV’s  most iconic gay couples. 

By acknowledging the progress of our religious communities, we can dive beneath the surface to see just how conditional this progress really is. 

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In Season 5, Ian Gallagher (Cameron Monaghan) and Mickey Milkovic (Noel Fisher) attend a soldier’s funeral only to be interrupted by a picketing religious group that’s protesting gay marriage. Ian lashes out at them and enacts a plan to take revenge on the church’s pastor, but this conflict ends up being less commentary on the strained relationship between religion and homosexuality and more proof that Ian is in a manic phase of his bipolar disorder, which results in him being hospitalized. Three seasons later, Gallagher, now Mickey-less, finds himself back in a religious plot that stretches over the course of the entire season instead of being a quick one-off arc. After confronting a pastor who preaches conversion, Gallagher anoints himself “Gay Jesus” and gathers a group of van-burning followers to teach the church a lesson.

The arc is heavy-handed, and its painting of religious leaders as Kim Davis clones is less than subtle, but it portrays a real and palpable anger toward oppressive establishments—an anger the show immediately quashes, in the same uninspiring manner you would dump a bucket of ice water to extinguish a lone burning candle: by once again chalking up Gallagher’s actions to his disorder. It’s clear that Gallagher has a tumultuous relationship with religion, so it’s fairly surprising that a minister, clad in a stole and maniple with rainbow accoutrements, officiates Gallagher and Milkovic’s wedding in the Season 10 finale. Had Gallagher acknowledged the significance of the officiant, it could’ve provided a stellar end to an arc five seasons in the making: Gallagher’s discovering that religion isn’t a hateful monolith full of members hell-bent on picketing same-sex marriage and converting gay youth.

Though the wedding is an incredibly rare and touching moment in a series that elects largely to show anything but, it feels remiss to ignore the fact that the figure uniting the couple in marriage is a member of a community Gallagher spent years battling. Shameless’s approach to Gallagher’s storyline showcases the easiness of leaving a well-known trope untouched and the difficulty of acknowledging progress, even when it’s incremental. “I think it’s assumed that queer people stray away from religion because of some of the negative attitudes it may hold toward the queer community, when this really isn’t the case,” Pennock says. “For that reason I think queer weddings on TV are areligious due to a general misconception that there are no queer religious people.” 

Cameron Monaghan as Ian Gallagher, left, and Mickey Milkovic as Noel Fisher on Shameless (Photo credit: Tony Rivetti Jr./Showtime)

That’s the reason this kind of representation matters: By acknowledging the progress of our religious communities, we can dive beneath the surface to see just how conditional this progress really is. It’s hard to develop a meaningful storyline about the prejudice toward interracial or interfaith couples, when the focus is instead fixed on a religious officiant cartoonishly waving his coiled fists to claim that “God hates gays!” The fact of the matter is, Christianity is still the default religion in Western countries. “The assumption often is that religion means Christian,” Lawson confirms. This is why almost every TV show has a seasonal Christmas episode, even if the characters have never so much as alluded to their denomination—the only way we know a character differs is if they explicitly say so themselves.

Because of this lack of consistent and normalized representation of other communities, Christianity—especially at its most vague—has come to symbolize other religions. This becomes difficult to reconcile when most of the religious figures you see onscreen are hateful and homophobic, while the people in your community are anything but. Sour-faced Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons, the picketers in Shameless—even Grace and Frankie has an episode where, you guessed it, a bigoted pastor attends a homophobic rally—are all remnants of a trope that no longer holds the urgency it once had. This isn’t to say that every sect of every religion has kindly opened its doors to queer people, but rather that not all pastors or rabbis would cheer a gay man seeking conversion therapy à la Pastor Terry Veal (Alan Tudyk) in Arrested Development.

The fact that this performative bigot is a comfortable archetype—meaning, audiences aren’t challenged by his presence and may even, in some cases, expect it—is a sign that we need more sophisticated storylines pertaining to religion and tolerance, storylines that give meaningful representation to minority communities, storylines that acknowledge progress while also pointing out pitfalls and blind spots. And so, in this case, queer representation holds a twofold importance: It can catch up Western media’s understanding of religious positions on gay marriage, giving representation in turn to sects—like the Jewish community—that are genuinely lacking of it, and also pave the way for more nuanced and pertinent conversations, particularly ones having to do with racism and intercommunity discrimination.

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by Michelle Krasovitski
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Michelle Krasovitski is a freelance writer based in Toronto, covering all things pop culture, baseball, and Judaism. Her writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Alma, and The Varsity.