Tamara Kaye Sellman of the Writer's Rainbow Literary Services asserts on the cover of my gay detective novel, The DVD Murders, “The time for gay protagonists in all sorts of commercial fiction has come.” Has it? Is the straight world really ready for an invasion of gay heroes into all genres of mainstream fiction, such as fantasy, romance and mystery? Will the girl next door become the boy next door, Plain Jane, Plain Jim, or the clueless husband, the clueless domestic partner?
Gay characters have made great strides on network television. The Jodie Dallas character as portrayed by Billy Crystal on Soap in the late 1970s is generally regarded as the first openly gay male as a regular cast member in a series. Thinking has progressed until we now have had such credible gay characters as the precocious Justin Suarez on Ugly Betty and the sociopath Andrew Van De Kamp on Desperate Housewives.
Sometimes you may get the impression that everywhere you look on TV these days you see a gay, lesbian, or bisexual character. Not quite. According to estimates by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) such characters account for only 2.6 percent of all the regular characters in TV Series in 2008-2009 season. While that was up from 1.1 percent of the previous year and was a positive sign, more work is needed to achieve fair balance. Cable, with its two gay-oriented channels, Logo and here, customarily offers a greater number of GLBT characters.
Hollywood, on the other hand, has not kept pace and seems stuck in the twentieth century. True, the major studios have turned out many films with gay characters over the years. Most of them, however, have been in minor roles, such as the flighty costume designer in Broadway Melody, closeted characters like the female schoolteacher in The Children's Hour, stereotype jokes, such as the policeman in Wild Hogs, or victims like the AIDS patient in Philadelphia.
In the four years since the groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain the major studios have only produced one gay film, the award-winning Milk. Hollywood execs claim a lack of high-quality gay scripts or that TV has a lot more time over the course of a series to develop a character whose sexuality is only a part of his life while a film only has two hours. Others suggest movie executives tend to be older than TV executives and therefore less comfortable with homosexuality.
Whatever the reason, Hollywood is out of touch. Attitudes have changed, particularly among young people who tend to be more accepting of alternative lifestyles. Unfortunately, as of yet, this acceptance has not carried over into mainstream mysteries. Ask any typical mystery lover: when was the last time you read a whodunit that had a gay detective?
Gay characters have appeared in mystery novels for a long time, but like the movies they were mostly cast in minor roles as villains, victims or freaks. It wasn't until Joseph Hansen introduced the Dave Brandstetter series that we had a detective--here an insurance investigator--who was unashamedly and unapologetically gay.
The relative success of the Hansen novels paved the way for other gay protagonists and was followed by the breezy mysteries of Nathan Aldyne's gay gumshoe Daniel Valentine, the lesbian amateur sleuth Jane Lawless in the Ellen Hart books, and many others. Few, however, have made the crossover to mainstream mysteries, unless you count the Alex Delaware novels of Jonathan Kellerman which feature Milo Sturgis, a gay cop friend of the protagonist or the lovable bisexual psychopath Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith novels. Not all gay mysteries are parts of series, of course, and there have been a number of notable stand-alone novels over the years, such as Butterscotch Prince by Richard Walter Hall and Rough Trade by Lou Rand.
Despite the many advances made for gays and lesbians, and in particular the legalization of same-sex marriages in a growing number of states, some readers because of religious beliefs or prejudice are simply not ready to accept a gay protagonist in a mystery novel or any other work of fiction. That's too bad, especially if you are a mystery fan, since not only do these novels provide us with more rounded and realistic images of gays and lesbians but some of them are simply crackerjack mysteries.