Are the days when LGBTQ+ communities stormed the gates of power in direct action long behind us? Some of us lived through the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, the Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 and other global examples of resisting and fighting oppression.
Then the HIV/AIDS crisis of the late ‘80s and '90s hit: LGBTQ+ activists, angry and afraid, witnessed, firsthand, its devestating impact. The support of LGBTQ+ communities fueled civil rights activism, made homophobia less acceptable and led to LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations around the world.
I was trained through ActUp, New York, in how to participate in civil disobedience campaigns. ActUp followed lessons from groups of the smartest protesters in the world. We pointed to political structures that blocked our causes, shouting: “The whole world is watching!” And it was.
I thought of those days as I recently watched EastSiders. The show’s first 2012 episode started with disruptive innuendos — something suggesting a satirical take on apocalypse, as the date “12.22.2012” (Dec. 12, 2012) flashed across the screen. Popular media explained this date heralded the end of one cycle of the ancient Mayan calendar — and this was widely misunderstood to signal the end of the world.
But four consecutive seasons of EastSiders floated into a mundane, entitled soap opera world of handsome white men who seem unaware of, and untroubled by, larger political histories.
'Netflix and chill’
EastSiders stands as an incarnation of LGBTQ+ folks who likely expect a certain “Netflix and chill” experience. Translated into 30 languages, the show features ongoing promiscuous sex — without, regrettably, a similar proportion of energy dealing with LGBTQ+ anxieties about sexual stigma or sexual health.
Is this what the whole world is now watching?
EastSiders premiered on YouTube as a 14-minute episodic melodrama. The promising apocalyptic opening shot didn’t lead where I hoped it might: Was this a metaphor for the HIV/AIDS crisis? Would the show confront America’s class and racialized inequities? Imagine the transformative potential of LGBTQ+ popular culture that recognizes our multiple realities as well as our catastrophic loss of role models, voices and leaders because of HIV/AIDS.
It wasn’t. The show has mostly stuck to promiscuous sex, cheating and substance use and abuse plot lines in the context of one couple’s ongoing relationship.
Kit Williamson raised money through a Kickstarter campaign. The show’s ensemble won two Indie Series awards in 2014 and 2016, which may explain the influx of cash from Netflix. Then the show received six Daytime Emmy nominations from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
EastSiders didn’t win. But their red carpet antics looked fabulous.
Unsuccessful LGBTQ+ inclusivity
Viewers got to know creator, producer and star Kit Williamson, for a recurring role on Mad Men as copywriter Ed Gifford. EastSiders, set in the Los Angeles neighbourhood Silver Lake, stars Williamson as leading man Cal, with his onscreen boyfriend, Thom, played by Van Hansis.
We met Cal’s best friend Kathy (Constance Wu), her boyfriend Ian (John Halbach) and in later seasons, a host of contemptuously fashionable folks who define the show’s LGBTQ+ world — an unsuccessful attempt at LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Halbach, also a producer, married Williamson in 2016.
The exclusive ensemble needs to review LGBTQ+ geopolitics to more accurately represent the obstacles faced by many LGBTQ+ communities around the world. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association lists 78 countries with criminal laws against LGBTQ+ sexual activity. Homophobic laws and legislation subject many LGBTQ+ identities and communities to daily discriminate.
It’s remarkable that today’s media landscape provides any public role models for LGBTQ+ youth. But surely today’s LGBTQ+ audiences want more: yes to more sex, but also more accurate representation of what’s at stake for LGBTQ+ lives on our queer planet.
A full 20 per cent of television audiences ages 18 to 34 identify as LGBTQ+, according to a 2019 survey, Accelerating Acceptance, taken by The Harris Poll on behalf of GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
The 2018-19 version of “Where We Are on TV,” GLAAD’s annual study of LGBTQ+ TV inclusion, offers advice to media creators: to include more LGBTQ+ characters who are also Black, people of colour, Latinx and Asian-Pacific Islander; portray more LGBTQ+ characters living with disabilities, who are trans or non-binary; and tell stories about HIV/AIDS in an era of prevention and treatment, helping to ending the stigmas and stereotypes of people living with HIV disease.
EastSiders could do better.
I support EastSiders’s sex-positive stance, but its characterizations of sexual health may reinforce LGBTQ+ anxieties around sexual stigmas.
In my view, seasons 2 and 3 portrayed irresponsible promiscuous sex — ouch. In-depth conversations about “barebacking”(coitus sans condom) were absent among these men who have sex with men. The term “barebacking” is part of the show’s vernacular and appears in the several seasons but doesn’t come under serious scrutiny. Such representations can unwittingly fortify dangerous sexual activities.
Williamson acknowledged in a 2018 interview that the show had not (yet) dealt with HIV in a storyline, but drew attention to “frank conversations about PrEP and sexual health.” PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a drug treatment for HIV-negative people that protects against exposure to HIV. In season 3, Cal and Thom meet an older gay couple who say they have been monogamous for 10 years because of AIDS; a character tells Cal: “I’m on PrEP, we use condoms and I’m sorry he kept bringing up AIDS.” Season 4 includes two undetectable characters.
In EastSiders, PrEP is code for something many LGBTQ+ audiences may not understand.
Here’s what I saw: In one episode, the boys require painful injections as treatment for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis with minimal discussion about safer sex; the doctor’s humiliating name-calling (“because you’re slutty”) replaces any valuable information about the politics of treatment as prevention and PrEP. Viewers may miss that the doctor is a former partner.
In another episode, a doctor assumed the boys wanted permission to play; no admittance to the sex party without a doctor’s note. In this scene, PrEP and condoms are fodder for laughter without discussion of reducing one’s risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.
Wrap it up
I appreciate EastSiders cannot sound like a public service announcement. However STIs and seroconversion continue to stand as silent reminders of our not-so-distant past. The show’s creators seem to have missed the history lesson about the subjugation of our communities, lives lost in pandemic proportions and legacies of sex-positive party lines. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Wrap your bait before you mate!”; “Don’t be a fool, cover your tool!”; “Don’t be a loner, cover your boner!”; “Don’t be a joker; wrap your poker!”; “No glove, no love!”; “Wrap it up!”
EastSiders is largely free from the political histories and past conflicts that haunt LGBTQ+ worlds. Williamson and his team created an imaginative LGBTQ+ world where sex and infidelity are represented in ways unimaginable forty years ago. This, in and of itself, is powerful. But today, homophobia and HIV/AIDS are not eradicated; these continued realities mean it’s hard to find transformative potential in EastSiders’s characters.
What’s to come in season 4: full frontal nudity? Why not? Eastsiders isn’t tackling controversial subjects or making claims about any political stakes in today’s troubled times. Yes, the stakes are high in LGBTQ+ media representations. Expecting more is not an insult; it’s a compliment. EastSiders’s producers can do better.
This is an updated version of a story published on Jan. 8, 2019. The original story said the creators of EastSiders had “missed the memo” from GLAAD on including more character diversity and stories about HIV/AIDS. In fact, EastSiders does mention HIV/AIDS and includes two characters who are HIV positive and undetectable (have undetectable viral loads). The original story also said there was no discussion about safer sex in an episode where characters require treatment for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. In fact, the episode does contain some discussion of safer sex. The update also clarifies and contextualizes discussions about HIV/STI prevention, PrEP or safer sex in the show. Kit Williamson, creator, producer and star in EastSiders, wrote in an email to The Conversation that he “disputes any claim that the series endorses irresponsible sex, having worked with numerous sexual health experts to develop messaging in keeping with the show’s darkly comic tone.”