When ‘Will & Grace’ premiered in 1998, America was a far more hostile place for LGBT people

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The reviews are in. “Will & Grace” is the same. It’s America that’s changed.

A reboot of the hit sitcom “Will & Grace” premiered on Thursday at 9 p.m. EST on NBC with a joke in the final scene featuring a red baseball cap in the Oval Office and a slogan “Make America Gay Again.”

The show won 16 Emmy Awards during its eight-season run. It premiered on NBC on Sept. 21, 1998. It wasn’t the first to feature gay characters as members of the main cast, but its success was seen as groundbreaking.

In 1998, it was a luxury to have such a show and a renaissance of sorts for gay people in popular culture, given that it marked the end of the worst years of deaths from the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. After a 10-minute special was aired last year to urge Americans to vote, NBC CMCSA, +1.75%  commissioned a new 16-episode ninth series and 13 more episodes for a 10th season. It has since more than 7.7 million hits.

Would “Will & Grace” have been rebooted as a half-hour network television without the power of social media behind it? Google GOOG, +1.01%  was launched in 2005, Facebook FB, +1.27%  in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. Cast members have suggested that the reaction to that helped fuel momentum for a full-scale relaunch of the show itself.

It was a luxury to have such a show and a renaissance of sorts for gay people in popular culture, given that it marked the end of the worst years of deaths from the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. It wasn’t the first to feature gay characters as members of the main cast, but its success was seen as groundbreaking. 

The series featured best friends and roommates Will Truman (Eric McCormack), a New York-based gay lawyer, and his friend Grace Adler (Debra Messing), a straight interior designer, and their friends Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), an often out-of-work gay actor, and Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), a rich, cocktail-swilling, pill-popping socialite.

The writers injected the same zingers and risque humor into the scripts, judging by the early reviews and trailer. The only real difference are references to location-based dating apps like Grindr, first made possible by the advent of Apple’s iPhone AAPL, +0.55% the year after “Will & Grace” went off the air.

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In the 2016 one-off special, Jack wonders if he should vote. “Does my vote even matter?” he asks. “How can one unemployed white fella registered in Pennsylvania make a difference?”

“‘Will & Grace’ delivered three promises that made it popular and pioneering,” says Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications Inc., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. and a marriage equality advocate.

“First, it showcased gay flamboyance on network television, delivering Jack as a gay Jerry Lewis. Second, it never ever shied away from same-sex romance, flirting and dating. Finally, it reminded us that if it’s truly funny, people will be hooked. They were.”

The reboot addresses the political divide in Trump’s America

The new season is only slightly political. Karen voted for President Trump and — in the fictional universe of the show at least — is friends with Melania Trump. In her review, Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan wrote: “It makes sense that ditzy rich lady Karen would be friends with Melania Trump (who is not seen on the show). But the stakes for all marginalized Americans at the moment are still very high.”

In the first episode, the four main characters visit the Trump White House. But Ryan writes that the efforts to inject politics into the show “reeks of the kind of smarmy self-congratulation that marred many otherwise decent comedies that came up around the same time as ‘Will & Grace.’ In that installment, there’s an obliviousness on display that makes the whole thing feel smug and more than a little dated.”

‘It makes sense that ditzy rich lady Karen would be friends with Melania Trump. But the stakes for all marginalized Americans at the moment are still very high. There’s an obliviousness on display that makes the whole thing feel smug.’

Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan

It’s not the first time an actor from “Will & Grace” went head-to-head with Trump. While in character, Mullally performed a version of “Green Acres” with Donald Trump — then host of “The Apprentice” — dressed in denim dungarees and a straw hat, at the 2005 Emmy Awards in an “Emmy Idol” segment (inspired by “American Idol,” the big show at the time).

Trump reportedly called Mullally after the show aired, congratulating her on winning Emmy Idol. “The next day, I was in my ‘Will & Grace’ dressing room and the phone rang,” she later said. “It was Donald Trump. And he said, ‘You know what? We really needed to win that thing and we did. And you were a big part of that. Not only did we win it, we killed them. It was a landslide.’”

In the new show, Karen voted for Donald Trump, and her liberal friend Grace voted for Hillary Clinton. Both actors voted for the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. But Messing has gotten into a skirmish on Twitter TWTR, +0.12%  with fellow actress Susan Sarandon, a Bernie Sanders supporter, after Sarandon said she would not vote for Clinton.

From 1998 to 2006, marriage equality in America was still a dream

In 2017, same-sex couples across the land can get married. It’s no longer gay marriage. It’s just marriage. That was not possible in 1998, the year “Will & Grace” premiered. And when the show ended in 2006, it was only possible in one state (Massachusetts, which legalized it in 2004).

In 1998, Alaska voters approved a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, while Hawaii approved constitutional language allowing their legislature to determine policy on same-sex marriage, “effectively overturning a series of earlier court decisions that may have required the state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed,” according to the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

In 2017, same-sex couples across the land can get married. That was not possible in 1998, the year ‘Will & Grace’ premiered. And it was only possible in one state, Massachusetts, in 2006, the year the show went off the air.

In a historic 5-4 decision in June 2015, the Supreme Court extended marriage rights to all Americans, ruling that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional and that states don’t have the right to refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriages from other states. Seen by many as the biggest civil-rights movement of its time, this ruling extended marriage equality from 37 states to all 50.

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Donald Trump and actress Megan Mullally at the Emmy Awards in 2005.

‘Will & Grace’ premiered during a particularly bleak year for LGBT people

There were far darker sides of American life for LGBT Americans. When “Will & Grace” premiered in 1998, it highlighted the relative privilege of these characters. But the real world was a far harsher place. In 1998, Maine was the first U.S. state to repeal a law that prohibited discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation.

There were some truly horrific events in 1998 that have since become tragic and unforgettable landmarks in the history of gay civil rights. In Laramie, Wyo., 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die on the evening of Oct. 6, 1998. He died from his injuries six days later. His killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder.

There were some truly horrific events in 1998 that have become unforgettable landmarks in the history of gay civil rights. In Laramie, Wyo., 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die on the evening of Oct. 6, 1998.

Shepard’s story was turned into a 2002 TV movie and a play, “The Laramie Project,” by Moisés Kaufman, which drew on hundreds of interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Project in Shepard’s hometown, chronicling the reaction to Shepard’s murder.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama, gave federal authorities more legal clout to investigate hate crimes that local authorities choose not to pursue. (Byrd was murdered by three white supremacists on June 7, 1998. He was 49.)

Sadly, the rate of hate crimes hasn’t much changed since 1998 when 7,755 hate crimes were reported, 16.2% of which were due to sexual orientation, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2015, the latest year for which FBI data is available, there were 7,121 victims of hate crimes, 17.7% because of a sexual orientation bias.

Many of the biggest advances in gay rights came in the last five years

And while there were many incremental improvements in the rights of LGBT Americans over the last two decades, many occurred within the last five years. In May 2013, the Boy Scouts of America lifted the ban on gay scouts after a proposal to partially remove the ban was submitted to the 1,400 voting members of the National Council. Two years later, the Boy Scouts of America officially announced an end to that ban of openly gay scout leaders.

And while there were many incremental improvements in the rights of LGBT Americans over the last two decades, many occurred within the last five years. In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In 2013, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. It aimed to prohibit employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation, although religious organizations would be exempt.

Two years later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that it considers employment discrimination based on sexual orientation to be prohibited under the sex-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that transgender people were covered under that Act.)

Before the Supreme Court marriage-equality ruling in 2015, same-sex couples were effectively unable to adopt a child together in states where they were unable to get married or enter into a civil partnership. When the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling came through, same-sex families simply became families under the law, which allowed all same-sex couples to adopt.

Indeed, same-sex couples are disproportionately providing care for the country’s most vulnerable children given their high rates of adoption and fostering, says Gary J. Gates, who is now retired and previously worked as research director of the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California.

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‘Will & Grace’ returns on Sept. 28 on NBC.

‘Will & Grace’ exclusively focused on young, upwardly mobile professionals

Will, Grace, Karen and Jack rarely had financial problems. The show was canceled just before the Great Recession, so it’s not clear how any of the characters would have been impacted by those years, if at all. But the show’s somewhat privileged demographic also reflected the upwardly mobile “gayborhoods” in urban centers around the country.

Indeed, earlier this year, dating site OKCupid IAC, -0.05%  and real-estate site Trulia calculated the impact of “neighborhood pride” on property prices. They cross-referenced the percentage of OKCupid users in each zip code with households headed by same-sex couples, based on the 2015 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. (If 30% of OKCupid users in one ZIP code were looking for love and 15% of those households were same-sex couples, they got a score of 0.45.)

What did they find? These “neighborhood pride” scores spiked in New York, the home city of Will & Grace, New Orleans and Boston, and fell the most in Miami, Buffalo and San Francisco.

The highest premiums per square foot to live in a “gayborhood” were in West Hollywood, the Castro District in San Francisco, Uptown in Dallas, Palm Springs in southern California, Hillcrest in San Diego and Edgewater in Chicago.

Since gay individuals and couples tend to have fewer children and higher disposable incomes, they may also seek to live in neighborhoods with more desirable amenities, or they may simply attract such amenities after they move in. Whole Foods, Starbucks, SBUX, -1.45%  and other house hunters follow.

“Will & Grace” puts a glamorous sheen on many social issues that still need to be addressed, Gates says. “‘Will and Grace’ is a show about older, successful, gay white men,” he says. “That’s a shrinking demographic in the LGBT population.”