At Work And On TV, Gays Make Progress

Actress Sienna Miller, her mother Jo Miller and her boyfriend, actor Jude Law, attend the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera 2006-2007 season at Lincoln Center Sept. 25, 2006, in New York. The city's glitziest celebrities turned out for the annual black-tie affair.
GETTY IMAGES/Evan Agostini
CBS News has learned that some leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention will soon call for action against the big three automakers for their decision this week to offer benefits to same-sex couples.

CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports the issue will come up at the Baptists' annual meeting next week, and—whatever the outcome—is an indication of just how far gays and lesbians have and have not come in their quest for popular acceptance.

It was only three years ago that comedian Ellen DeGeneres caused a huge controversy with a simple, two-word statement on her ABC sitcom -- "I'm gay."

In 2000, the reaction is different for an openly gay team member on the CBS reality show Survivor, or the two openly gay characters of the NBC hit sitcom Will & Grace, which was honored this week by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

"I think media is helping the rest of America come to terms with this," said GLAAD Entertainment Media Director Scott Seomin. "The entertainment media is here to entertain, but there's an ancillary function, and that's to enlighten."

Still, the state of gays and lesbians on television still has not satisfied many activists, whether they want more diverse television casts or oppose them.

For advocates of inclusion, the progress gays have made on the small screen is not nearly enough.

In its 1999 fall TV scoreboard, GLAAD reported that while 28 "lesbian, gay and transgender characters" were featured on programs, only nine were in lead or supporting roles, and all of those lead characters were male.

On the other side of the debate are vocal critics who think the new, gay presence on television doesn't reflect mainstream America.

"The media is very, very pro-homosexual," said Rev. Lou Sheldon of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition. "It says to a male or a female, 'Hey this is no big deal. Don't get upset.' It desensitizes people."

Sheldon is not alone. In 1997, the Southern Baptists boycotted Disney when that corporation offered same-sex domestic partner benefits to its employees.

Now it appears General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler division of Daimler Chrysler, which Thursday announced they would offer medical, dental and prescription benefits for their employees' same-sex partners, may be in for some retaliation from the Baptist convention.

Sheldon insists the trend of offering same-sex benefits won't spread far since "the majority of businesses in America are very, very small. They're cost-conscious, not political-correctness-conscious."

Indeed, a recent survey finds that only 19 percent of the nation's workforce is employe at large companies that offer same-sex benefits. Just 7 percent of workers at state and local governments are offered same-sex benefits.

Plus, only about 1 percent of employees who work at those companies wind up applying for same-sex benefits because, experts say, most gays are still in the closet at work.

But the cloak is lifting: Just this week, the CIA hosted a gay pride rally for its homosexual employees, and already issues a booklet for gay intelligence workers.

This year alone, companies like Citigroup, Boeing, Motorola, American Airlines, Texas Instruments and General Mills joined the list of about 3,400 companies—including 93 Fortune 500 companies—that offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

And the fall television season is scheduled to feature even more gay characters than the 20 or so on programs now.