When Star Trek's Captain Kirk kissed the lovely Lieutenant Uhura onscreen in 1968, for what is thought to be the first black and white kiss on American TV, it was involuntary—telekinesis made them do it. Whoops! (Haven't we all been there?). It was the best way to get it past the network censors of course, because a white man kissing a black woman simply because he or she wanted to would have been far too provocative. (Click here to follow Julia Baird).
When former American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert kissed his male keyboard player on the American Music Awards on Sunday night, he too claims it was not premeditated but "in the moment." The passion, and excitement apparently, overwhelmed him: "The adrenaline kind of took me over, and I'm proud of the fact that I did get a little carried away," he reportedly said afterward. (Article continued below Lambert's 'The Early Show' appearance…)
As he had promised fans he would do a "sexy" closing act, it is hard to believe the thought of a same-sex kiss just occurred to him in the middle of an act that was being broadcast to millions. He also clumsily thrust a male dancer's face into his groin, simulating oral sex. My major problem with the performance was not that it was edgy but that it was both confused and derivative—from the faux-sexual choreography and the crotch grabbing to the scenes of quasi bondage accompanied by lyrics about rough play. Yawn. It seemed like just another awards night.
But no. This was an openly gay man kissing another man on television. ABC received 1,500 complaints and promptly canceled a performance that Lambert was due to give on Good Morning America Wednesday. He did not suffer due to ABC's timidity, as CBS snapped him up immediately.
ABC said it was too early in the morning for viewers to be exposed to "controversial" raunch like that. Now there are many things I don't like seeing early in the morning. Sweaty joggers, dirty nappies, trash cans emptied on the sidewalk, too-bright sunlight, and plastic, hole-punched footwear. Even, or perhaps especially, people who are cheerful and talk too much.
But two men locking lips? Even daytime soap operas have featured gay and lesbian kisses. Haven't we seen this all before? In 2003, Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera—and these starlets were not just the same sex as Madonna but much younger as well. We all know Katy Perry kissed a girl. The indomitable, glam-pop performance artist Lady Gaga, who performed earlier in the AMA show, has also sung about rough sex and says she is bisexual. She told an audience in Palm Springs, Calif., that the lyrics in "Poker Face" referred to fantasizing about sleeping with a woman while in bed with a man. Care much?
So let's be clear: a girl kissing a boy is romance, a girl kissing a girl is titillation, and a boy kissing a boy is a controversial act of perversion? What do people think gay men actually do when they like each other?
It's hard to understand why, in 2009, an act like Lambert's could provoke outrage. I know, homophobia exists and is easily whipped up by overt, public demonstrations of same-sexuality. In a Gallup poll taken in May this year, 18 percent of Americans said they felt uncomfortable around someone gay or lesbian. Almost a quarter said they would not like to see a gay person as a member of the president's cabinet, and more than a third said homosexuals should not be employed as high-school teachers.
But this whole episode is surely another illustration of the generational divide in attitudes to homosexuality. I doubt the people dialing the ABC complaints line on Sunday night were spring chickens. A 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found 58 percent of people aged 18–34 thought gay marriage should be legal, compared to 24 percent of those over 65. And young people were very cranky Tuesday: on Twitter, the hashtag "#ShameOnYouABC" started by blogger and gay activist Perez Hilton, was receiving roughly 3,000 comments per hour all afternoon. That's double the total number of phone calls ABC received—every hour. (Article continued below…)
It is tempting to write the whole thing off as lame and overblown, a fight over the cautious sensibilities of a middle-American TV audience against the need of a gay pop singer to garner attention, entertain, and push back on shame. But then I think of the self-loathing and destructive behavior of many young gay people coming to terms with their identity and the violence of ignorant people toward them. Homophobia isn't an abstract debate—it can be ugly and dangerous.
Staring down his critics, Lambert seemed cocky, tough, and defiant. He told Rolling Stone that he was doing what female performers had been doing for years—"pushing the envelope about sexuality," even if his image is a touch contrived. He said that in 2009 it was time to take risks: "My goal was not to piss people off; it was to promote freedom of expression and artistic freedom."
Looks like this time we can't blame it on the telekinesis.
Julia Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Follow heron Twitter.