Considering the conservative pall hanging over the country, it’s amazing how 2003 became the most definitive year in terms of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender culture in over a decade. Winnie Stachelberg, of the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, marveled at all of the unexpected landmark moments by summing them up as her “Big Fat Gay Summer.” Turns out Winnie should have waited, because it just kept going. Although social conservatives screech about the monolithic gay agenda coming home to roost, more than a few of 2003’s fabulous events were pretty much serendipitous. Here’s what made 2003 the queerest year:
1 Oh, Canada: Our progressive neighbor took the world by surprise when a court in Ontario decided it was time to refine its marriage laws so that same-sex couples had as much right to make each other miserable as straight people do. Puny Old European countries like the Netherlands and Belgium already allowed gays to wed, but suddenly someplace real to the average American brought the issue right to our back door. Even better, Canada allows foreign couples to come up and do the dirty deed, creating a new cottage industry for her-and-her cakes and rainbow wedding boughs.
2 Yes, Lawrence, yes!: The GOP’s hold on the presidency in the ’80s and early ’90s was supposed to make the beginning of the third millennium a conservative’s wet dream. With all those true-blue Republican judges on the court, how could things not go their way on social issues? But just weeks after Canada’s big announcement, the Supreme Court, led by Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy, struck down anti-sodomy laws in the dozen or so states where private consensual monkey love was still illegal. “The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime,” Kennedy wrote for the 6-3 court majority. For the first time, the highest court in the country told people it was okay to be gay.
3 The Gay State?: If conservatives didn’t like Lawrence v. Texas, they sure hated the marriage decision in Massachusetts, which had the state’s highest court ruling 4-3 in November that there was no good reason to prevent Bay State gays from getting married. Canada’s one thing, but an actual state, even one in New England? And Massachusetts could just be the beginning. There’s already a case brewing in New Jersey, and there are sure to be other challenges in places as varied as Florida and Texas. Guess Howard Dean wasn’t so out there after all.
4 Eye on Bravo: What’s a struggling cable station best known for rerunning the life out of Inside the Actor’s Studio supposed to do to bolster ratings? A make-over show, maybe? But those have already been done. What hadn’t been done was to set five queens on a real live heterosexual man to help him look good for his lady. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a full-scale phenomenon, doing such a good job in the waxing and re-dressing departments that parent company GE put it on during NBC’s plum Thursday prime time — teaching millions more men that they should apply hair product from the back and work forward. Besides making the Fab 5 household names, it gave the green light for straight men to embrace their inner metrosexual. Straight women across America are surely weeping for joy.
5 And the Tony goes to: The truth is no one was ever going to confuse the Tony Awards with The Man Show or a monster-truck rally, but the nationally televised program has always kept its gay urges mostly under control. Until this year, when John Waters’ Hairspray propelled a drag queen and her fag-hag daughter to the top of the Tony pile. Winning for best score, Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman made out like kids at a prom, inducing Take Me Out winning director Joe Mantello to say, “I think I just saw two guys kiss on CBS, which is cool.”
6 Oh, Rosie: For years LGBT fans of Rosie O’Donnell who were impressed by her success as the “Queen of Nice” lamented that she closeted herself in order to play to the Wal-Mart crowd. The nadir for some was her slavish obsession with Tom Cruise, acting like a jittery schoolgirl when the movie star made his late-1990s appearance on her talk show. What a difference a few years make. In 2002 Rosie became the poster child for gay moms everywhere, and in 2003 she embraced her inner bitch by talking like the foul-mouthed comedian she used to be and shaving off the PTA-approved hair. Then Rosie produced the musical Taboo on Broadway for Boy George. Taboo got bad reviews, but in November she signed autographs at the show and gave the finger to critics. Good to have you back, Rosie.
7 The Gay Bachelor: Having seen the Queer Eye light, apparently, Bravo also jumped on the mating-show wagon. On Boy Meets Boy, James, an unsuspecting Prince Charming, got the chance to meet a bunch of supposed eligible bachelors in order to pick The One, but a few of the single guys were actually straight arrows, planted to make things a bit more interesting. Some gay viewers wailed about the inhumanity of it all, while others tuned in faithfully to see if their gaydar was working, making Boy Meets Boy the ultimate queer interactive TV game. In the end, James chose a gay guy, but only after being told one of his final picks was indeed straight. Hey, it wasn’t exactly Angels in America, but it was a whole lot of fun.
8 Such a DeGeneres: After her CBS sitcom tanked, everyone wondered if Ellen DeGeneres’ best days were behind her. But then came this summer’s blockbuster kids’ pic Finding Nemo, in which DeGeneres voiced the memory-challenged blue tang Dory to the tune of $340 million at the box office domestically. And in the fall, DeGeneres launched her daytime talk show, avoiding the Rosie comparisons by offering up a smart, sophisticated take on the usual afternoon-chat pabulum. Glamour magazine named her to its list of this year’s inspiring women. Good to have you back, too, Ellen.
9 Put it in print: After Vermont’s civil-unions decision last year, gay-rights groups began pushing for mainstream papers to list queer nuptials right next to the ones lauding the mergers of pearl-bedecked debs and their Ivy League fiancés. More than 200 papers now list same-sex announcements, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and even the Orange County Register. Since civil unions are valid in the Green Mountain State and legal in Canada, many of the papers argued, they had the responsibility to report them. Everyone at Pottery Barn’s bridal registry is surely weeping for joy.
10 Angels Soar: At long last, Mike Nichols brought Tony Kushner’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Angels in America to HBO. Weeks before its premiere, right-wing cranks goaded CBS to boot The Reagans off the air for being too anti-Gipper, winning a culture battle but losing the war. Angels, with its look at life, love, power and politics, is a far more scathing indictment of the go-go ’80s, and just happens to be one of the best things ever on TV.
11 The Governator: A lot was made out of Schwarzenegger’s comments over the years on women and drugs, but Beefcake Arnold also had a few things to say about homosexuality. “Well, I have absolutely no hang-ups about the fag business. Though it may bother some bodybuilders, it doesn’t affect me at all.” The question now, of course, is whether AB 205, the extended-benefits domestic-partner bill that Davis signed before leaving office, gets the governator’s seal of approval. If 2003 was the year of the fabulous, it could mean gay folks need to gear up for the backlash in ’04 — which could play out butt ugly in the November elections. Until then, they can watch Queer Eye’s Fab 5 transform America, one het at a time.