What Gay TV Has in Common With Gay Bars

It’s not just for gay people anymore.

The Real L Word (Season 3)

Sara and Amanda of The Real L Word (Season 3).

Photo by Patrick Wymore/SHOWTIME.

When is a TV channel like a bar? When it’s gay.

Logo, America’s first gay TV channel, is transitioning. When it launched in 2005, Logo aired news segments, sketch-comedy shows, and original scripted dramas focused on the lives of gay people. Now, in the age of openly gay—and who you might call openly closetedtalk-show hosts, news anchors, and actors, Logo has embraced the slogan “Beyond Labels” and is shifting away from shows about gays to programming for gays (and the people who love them).

Just as that venerable institution the gay bar has undergone a fundamental transformation now that gays and lesbians have more places, real or virtual, where they can socialize, Logo, too, is evolving away from separatism and toward integration. “A lot has changed in seven years in terms of this community being accepted and more fully integrated into the world,” Lisa Sherman, Logo’s executive vice president and general manager, told me.* “We feel that if we’re going to be true to our audience, we have to have programming that reflects their lives today.”

That means reruns of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Reno 911!. Sherman says they’re a good fit for Logo because, in the case of Buffy, “the show is not about being gay, but it has a gay character and a gay sensibility.” Then there are series like Absolutely Fabulous, Nip/Tuck, or Golden Girls, which Logo will air starting in spring of next year. They don’t necessarily have gay characters or gay storylines, but as Sherman put it, they’re “a little outrageous, and they’ve got a lot of heart.” They’re camp, in other words. The most surprising part of the new Logo lineup is the imports from sister channel MTV. What appeal do shows like 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and True Life have for gay viewers? According to Sherman, “They give you a peek at situations where underdogs have struggled to rise up against a society that’s condemning their circumstances. That’s a theme all gay people can relate to.”

This new attitude is also on display in one of Logo’s own shows, RuPaul’s Drag U, the third season of which launched last week. Earlier seasons felt like filler programming intended mostly to remind viewers about the fabulous queens who had won their hearts in RuPaul’s Drag Race—the warmest, sweetest, bitchiest reality contest on television—which is Logo’s biggest hit. Drag Race favorites became Drag U faculty members, tasked with teaching biological women how to get in touch with their inner divas. The contestants were given drag names, donned over-the-top outfits, strutted their stuff on the catwalk, and lip-synched to boost their Drag Point Average. This year, the focus is more down-to-earth. The women are offered makeup tips they can use in real life. They’re even given clothes they can wear on the streets, as well as their extravagant “dragulation” gowns.

Of course, there’s a practical reason for these decisions. Logo doesn’t have a monopoly on gay TV programming anymore. Every weekday morning, After Ellen and After Elton (both of which are owned by Logo) publish recaps highlighting same-sex subtext and generally draw attention to “lesbianish” or “gayish” television, most of which, these days, airs elsewhere on the dial.

If the rest of television has become more gay-friendly, is it any surprise that Logo should become more straight-friendly? When I asked Sherman if Logo would ever bring back the gay newscasts that were once part of the lineup, she told me that while the channel will do some specials—around the presidential election, for instance—“Gay news is on CNN and CNBC now. Gay people are consuming their news elsewhere. I just don’t think that’s something we could do as well as those other 24/7 networks.” Last weekend, there was little evidence on Logo that it was Gay Pride Day in New York and other cities—but the parade was all over my local TV news.

The competition isn’t just coming from other TV networks. Logo has always aired gay-themed feature films and documentaries. Now most of those movies—as well as many of the other shows on the channel—are available on Netflix, iTunes, or other streaming services. Those alternative options don’t just offer a more flexible schedule: Because Logo must obey the rules of basic cable, they cut sexual content and bleep bad language, so watching shows imported from premium cable, British television, or art-house cinema can be a frustrating affair.

According to Sherman, Logo’s revenues and ratings are booming since its recent realignment. Advertising income has grown by double digits every year they’ve been in business, and the second quarter of this year was its highest-rated to date. That doesn’t mean everyone’s happy. I’ve done my own share of griping about Logo’s programming. (My public complaints were mostly limited to snarky tweets about The A List: New York, the channel’s feeble attempt to produce its own version of the Real Housewives franchise. The A List’s slogan: “Housewives. With Balls.”) But online articles about Logo are inevitably accompanied by negative comments accusing it of betraying the gay community. CBS, the most successful network on broadcast television, generates a fraction of that passion. We hold family to higher standards than strangers, so while it’s easy for me to ignore the Real Housewives, I feel obliged to watch and whine when people who are playing on my team—whether it’s the A-Listers or the women of Showtime’s The Real L Word—make fools of themselves in public.

Last year, when I wrote about gay bars, I realized that while I rarely patronize them, I’m still grateful they’ve survived. They provide a much-needed refuge in tough times or when I simply want to be with my own people. I feel the same way about gay television. Logo is prospering by providing programming that gay people can connect with, but sometimes I want to see shows that are for, by, and about the community. That’s when I thank Sappho for In the Life. The PBS stalwart is earnest, sincere, and slightly uncool. But it regularly tackles a topic that dares not speak its name on Logo: activism. In the Life’s coverage of the New York state fight for marriage equality focused on legislative strategy. Its segment on “Orgullo Latino,” Latino pride, made the obligatory mentions of Ricky Martin and heroic Gabrielle Giffords intern Daniel Hernandez. But it also talked about leadership and discussed—albeit in broad strokes—how financial mismanagement caused gay Latino group LLEGO to disband. The show’s 20th anniversary episode, which aired last fall, included moving scenes of AIDS activists at work. It was a powerful reminder of what is too easily forgotten when we spend all our time being entertained.

Correction, June 28, 2012: This article originally misidentified Logo general manager Lisa Sherman as Lisa Swanson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)