I once had an epiphany while watching a bad sitcom - I'm not sure how relevant this is to media, or to anything really, but it's one of those little things that's stuck out in my mind for about twenty years now, so I thought I should write it down.
This needs a little context. I was a pretty sheltered kid, kind of a homebody, and very close to my family. Nonetheless, we didn't talk about certain subjects, sex being the one most relevant to this little trip down memory lane. I'm one of those poor, tragic souls who had to look up sex in the dictionary, and didn't figure out the actual mechanics of being in flagrante delicto until college. To prove the point, my usual Saturday night ritual in junior high was watching "The Golden Girls" with my mother. It was the raciest program that I was regularly exposed to. I'm dead serious. Upon reflection, I'm pretty sure it's where I learned what an affair was, plus about two dozen charming euphemisms for intercourse. And it was on the spinoff, "Golden Palace" that I finally figured out what being gay meant.
"Golden Palace" was a terrible show, a bald act of desperation to keep the audience of "Golden Girls" after Bea Arthur quit. The remaining ladies, along with Cheech Marin and Don Cheadle, were placed in charge of a ramshackle hotel and subjected to painfully contrived sitcom shenanigans over the course of the show's first and only season. It was a low point in the careers of everyone involved. Why a simpler change in scenery couldn't have sufficed for a follow-up show I will never understand. Have Blanche, Rose, and Sophia move to New York! To San Antonio! Just because a premise worked for Bob Newhart doesn't mean it works for anybody!
Anyway, you get the point. I watched "Golden Palace" because it was on in the same timeslot as "Golden Girls," and the characters were familiar. I couldn't tell you what happened on any single episode. However, I do remember the subplot of one episode, where Rose, played by Betty White, was running the front desk. After noticing several couples checking in as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, she finally caught on that people were meeting at the hotel to conduct affairs, and spent the rest of the episode tying herself in disapproving knots with each new arrival.
All of this built up to the big joke at the end of the episode. Rose, finding yet another guest signing in as "Mr. Smith," asked wearily if there was a "Mrs. Smith" with him. No, there wasn't but there was a "Mr. Jones" sharing the room. And as Rose brightened up in obvious relief, she completely missed the sight of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones merrily walking off to their room, hand in hand. You couldn't have a better visual representation of love in bloom.
Keep in mind that I didn't have more than a vague understanding of what sex actually was at this point, but I understood all the business of serious and casual relationships that went on around them. Until that second, I didn't realize that there was such a thing as a homosexual relationship in the romantic sense. I didn't know they could do that. I knew gay meant different, and gay was about men liking men. I just never equated it with the same feelings that there were between heterosexual men and women. This was the early 90s, so anything more than a vague reference to homosexuality was still pretty rare on television. If it did come up, the AIDS scare was almost sure to follow in the next breath.
The joke on "Golden Palace" was so simple, it was almost sweet, and there weren't any tawdry or negative connotation attached to the pair at all – it was just met with a burst from the laugh track and then went to credits. My mother was watching with me and didn't say anything to explain. I think she acknowledged that they were gay, but her reaction was neutral. I didn't learn until years later that she had spent a lot of time in San Francisco in her twenties in the hippie days and was used to people with alternative lifestyles, though she's fairly conservative otherwise. It wasn't the sort of thing we talked about.
Media can be a powerful thing, even in its most seemingly innocuous moments. "Golden Palace" might be remembered by most as an embarrassing mistake. But I learned something important from it, even though I don't think that anybody meant for me to. But as someone with a pretty blank slate as far as attitudes toward sexuality then, having no real religious upbringing and parents who did not acknowledge such things in the presence of their teenage daughter, it stuck. To this day I can remember that joke crystal clear, and that moment where suddenly I understood years of innuendoes and offhand remarks. And it was strangely thrilling – like discovering a new continent populated by people I didn't know existed.
I turned out to be straight, but I'm glad that from fairly early on, I knew it would have been okay if I wasn't. And I have a bad sitcom to thank for that.