|Over the 15-season history of Dick Wolf’s hit series Law and Order, at least 17 episodes have featured queer characters, and nine of those focused on gay or bisexual men. Six of those nine episodes aired during sweeps periods when television programmers try to raise their ratings in order to generate ad dollars. |
Although it is debatable whether television drama follows cultural trends or sets them, the Law and Order franchise, with its numerous ripped-from-the-headlines storylines, seems to be more reflective of developments in American culture than an influence on it. Given the show’s unique long-running status, taking a look back at its episodes featuring gay men reveals how attitudes about homosexuality have changed over the past 15 years (for issues of scope, this article does not include episodes in the three L&O spinoffs, just the original series).
From AIDS to Gay Marriage
When Law and Order premiered on NBC in September 1990, America was still embroiled in the AIDS crisis, so it’s not surprising that one of the first episodes to deal with gay issues focused on AIDS. In the series’ third episode, “The Reaper’s Helper,” attorneys prosecuted Jack Curry, a man who admitted to mercy-killing men dying of AIDS in San Francisco and Los Angeles. When it turns out that Curry himself also has AIDS, Assistant DA Ben Stone (Michael Moriarity) provides key evidence for the defense that results in Curry’s acquittal. Although “The Reaper’s Helper” can’t be said to have presented a happy, healthy image of gay men, it was sympathetic to AIDS victims and was not sensationalistic in its tone.
By 2004, the AIDS crisis had faded from the nation’s consciousness, and although it is still closely linked with the gay community, other issues had come to the forefront. The November 2004 episode “Gov Love” was a ripped-from-the-headlines episode based on former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey’s resignation and outing, but the legal argument hinged on the hot-button topic of gay marriage.
In this episode, a fictional Connecticut governor has an affair with a male state employee named Richard Kaplan; the secret relationship is disclosed when the governor’s wife is murdered. Kaplan confesses to his lover (not the governor) that he killed the governor’s wife to prevent her from outing the governor and their affair. But A.D.A. McCoy (Sam Waterston) is stymied in his attempt to get Kaplan’s lover to testify about the confession when Kaplan argues that he and his lover were married and therefore should benefit from spousal privilege. This leads McCoy to the state supreme court to debate the question of gay marriage.
While “Gov Love” does fall back on old-school fear-of-being-outed storyline as motive for murder, its usage of spousal privilege puts a novel spin on the defense, and highlights one of the many issues that can arise when gay marriage is not recognized.
What Makes a Hate Crime
One of the most interesting developments over the course of the series has been the changing definition of a hate crime. In a Season 3 episode, “Manhood,” which originally aired on May 12, 1993, a gay cop is wounded in a shootout and dies because his backup does not arrive in time. The investigation reveals that the other police officers were purposely slow because they knew the man was gay and wanted to scare him.
During the trial, a court psychiatrist testifies that the straight cops’ homophobia is both pathological and uncontrollable, leading to an acquittal. This verdict echoes both the twinkie defense that successfully acquitted Harvey Milk’s murderer, and the gay panic defense that most recently led to a deadlocked jury in the Gwen Araujo trial earlier this year. A.D.A. Ben Stone concludes sadly, “four cops let him die and twelve citizens did it again.” “Manhood,” which despite the straight cops’ acquittal puts a decidedly negative spin on homophobia, won a GLAAD award in 1993.
In comparison, a Season 11 episode, “Phobia,” which aired on February 14, 2001, a gay man is beaten to death and his adopted baby is kidnapped. The police discover that the kidnappers were the baby’s birth mother, an ex-junkie named Celia, and the birth father, Robert. When Celia told Robert that the baby was adopted by gay dads, Robert was upset and decided to take the child back. During the kidnapping he assaulted the gay father while shouting “Faggot!” and ended up killing him. The fact that Robert was hurling homophobic epithets at his victim enabled the prosecutors to classify the murder as a hate crime, and in this case the killer was successfully convicted.
“Phobia” showed how the definition of a hate crime had evolved during the seven years since “Manhood” aired. During that time, several high-profile murders had occurred involving LGBT victims, including the Brandon Teena murder and the Matthew Shepard murder, that established precedence for convicting killers who committed hate crimes.
The Politics of Being Outed
Although the stigma of being gay has declined considerably since 1990, being out about one’s sexual orientation continues to be problematic for public figures, particularly politicians. Law and Order has told three stories about closeted gay politicians, beginning with the 1992 episode “Silence,” in which a closeted gay city councilman is blackmailed and murdered by his gay lover, who happens to be a convicted felon.
This was followed by the Season 5 finale, “Pride,” which originally aired on May 24, 1995. Based on the Harvey Milk assassination in San Francisco, “Pride” told a bittersweet story about the murder of an openly gay city councilman named Richard Durban. Despite circumstantial evidence that strongly suggests that Durban was murdered by ex-cop-turned-right-wing-councilman Kevin Crossly, the jury remains deadlocked.
Most recently, “Gov Love” again featured a closeted politician, this time the fictional governor based on New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. Although “Gov Love” doesn’t closely hew to the McGreevey scandal (since nobody died in the New Jersey case), it does accurately reflect that coming out can still be a tricky issue for today’s politicians.
While Law and Order’s treatment of gay men has largely been sympathetic and fair, its portrayals of bisexuals have not been as positive. Bisexuals are typically portrayed as psychotic and homicidal, as in the Season 8 episode “Castoff,” which originally aired on January 28, 1998. This episode, based loosely on the Andrew Cunanan murders, begins with the death of an attractive blonde social worker. The trail of clues leads investigators to Eddie Chandler, an openly bisexual man who seems to be killing his lovers across the country.
During the trial Chandler’s attorney argues that Chandler was negatively influenced by violent television, but Chandler himself admits that is not the case, and he is soon convicted of murder in the second degree.
While the episode, taken in the context of all of Law and Order’s episodes, does not stand out as being particularly vicious or ill-intentioned, it remains one of a very few episodes with bisexual characters. A recent episode, “Obsession,” which aired on February 9, 2005, included a bisexual woman who also exhibited psychotic personality traits.
These episodes illustrate the general trend on television dramas when it comes to bisexuals: they tend to be categorized as insane, and their bisexuality often symbolizes the characters’ lack of mental clarity.
Better Than Most
Despite falling into the stereotypical crazy bisexual trap, Law and Order has done better than most crime dramas in its portrayals of gay and lesbian characters. They have by and large treated gay killers and victims fairly, and episodes featuring gay characters tend to reveal flaws in the legal system rather than time-worn stereotypes of gay behavior. In addition, the series regularly includes gay or lesbian witnesses or bystanders who are neither victims nor killers, and the cast members are generally shown to be tolerant and open about gay issues.
For a show that’s been around since 1990, that’s certainly an accomplishment to be proud of.