It was rather sweet to see Shonda Rhimes dismiss the criticism—delivered in real time by way of Twitter—that the new ABC hit How to Get Away With Murder had one too many gay scenes the way she did. Ever cognizant of everyone’s humanity, Rhimes tweeted back, “There are no GAY scenes. There are scenes with people in them.”
It reminded me of an episode of Sesame Street—a compliment, I promise—in which we learn at the end the valuable lesson that people are just people. The sentiment is endearing, but our differences and labels make note of another reality.
I don’t subscribe to the logic that labels are bad. Yes, they can be limiting, but oftentimes it’s not so much the label that’s the problem as it is the associations that the linear-thinking sect attaches to it. You can remove the label—e.g., refer to “scenes with people in them” as opposed to “GAY scenes”—but it proves to be a fool’s errand because the person who has the problem with two people of the same gender simulating sex on camera will have a problem no matter what you call it.
So let’s just call it exactly what it is: gay sex. More important, gay male sex. How to Get Away With Murder features a lot of it. That gay sex has since sparked debate on specific topics related to bottoms and the notion of “bottom shaming,” as well as a broader conversation about what all of this gay sex on a key night of network TV means.
Ultimately, it means the normalization of sex between two men in a meaningful way. Support for marriage equality may be thriving, and the movement will eventually triumph with nationwide recognition, but a lot of that has to do with packaging. Straight people have increasingly accepted gay marriage because it is presented to them through a heteronormative filter: Two consenting adults want their love recognized. Maybe they’ll then go have a family.
It’s shrewd, but many can get used to the idea of two people in love, wanting a wedding. But the thought of what happens during the honeymoon may still trigger some discomfort.
We have seen lesbian sex featured on various sitcoms through the years, but that feat was accomplished far sooner because of the boost it was provided by certain circumstances—say, the way the imagery might play into a heterosexual man’s fantasies.
Two gay men having sex does not play into that; therefore, the struggle to see it regularly in certain places has remained. Even on gay-centered shows like HBO’s Looking, the sex scenes are never as explicit as those you’d see involving straight characters. How to Get Away With Murder and its gay male lead—Jack Falahee as Connor Walsh—are changing that. The more you see gay men—gasp—expressing themselves for this big audience the way every other horny person does, the more that discomfort will be tamed over time.
And though Rhimes is not the creator of How to Get Away With Murder, she is the reason it’s on the air. Her contributions cannot go unnoted. The same goes for the irony.
For years, black people have been subjected to accusations that we are more homophobic than any other group. Such charges came from the likes of sex columnist Dan Savage, though there have been blacks who inserted themselves into the debate to serve as cheerleaders of this theory about us colored folk.
Now, in 2014, it is a black woman who is helping gay men express their sexuality on television as explicitly as any other characters. Rhimes may consider these scenes to have “just people in them,” but for the people in real life whose sexuality mirrors Connor Walsh’s, these are not just regular people. They are us.
To that end, thank you, Shonda Rhimes. For those who continue to cling to this idea that blacks are more homophobic than others, you remain wrong. Rhimes’ help in spearheading this change in pop culture is another example of such. She may not want the special recognition, but she deserves it. And you’re welcome.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.