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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

After six seasons, the final episode of the "The L Word" aired on Showtime this past Sunday. Some viewers expressed disappointment with the finale's cliffhanger ending, but some also wrote about how important the program's been to them over the years, and how much they'll miss it. It was the first show on mainstream TV to feature a largely lesbian cast, and it addressed a wide range of issues, including adoption, marriage, custody and race.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The L Word")

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, it's a shame Johnny Cochran's dead.

Unidentified Woman #2: Mm. Flamboyant, African-American lawyer arguing on behalf of your picture-perfect white, hetero family. That would have been perfect for you, because as you know, we're going to be playing the race card.

Ms. WARN: It's not a card. Something I know to be firmly and intrinsically true: Tina's not qualified to parent a biracial child.

Ms. LAUREL HOLLOMAN (Actor): (as Tina Kennard) Oh, yeah. And I was qualified to live and sleep with one for eight years?

Ms. WARN: Obviously, you weren't qualified for that, either.

CONAN: Over the years, "The L Word" became a source of both validation and frustration to many lesbians and bisexuals who watched it, and following its departure, it's impossible not to note that there are now no lesbian lead characters on any mainstream, prime-time cop shows, sitcoms or medical dramas. If you watched "The L Word," what did the program mean to you? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, your letters, including a note on a dated reference we made to Spock and Kirk. We'll be talking with the author of a book called "I Love It When You Talk Retro." So 'fess up, geezers. What expression do you use that leaves the younger generation clueless? Email us now, if you know how: talk@npr.org.

But first, the last word on "The L Word." We begin with Sarah Warn, who joins us from her home in Washington State. She's the founder and editor of a Web site called AfterEllen.com. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. SARAH WARN (Founder and Editor, AfterEllen.com): Hi. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I have to confess that until I started preparation for this show today, I'd never seen "The L Word." What have I been missing?

Ms. WARN: Well, I hope that you didn't start with this last season, because it was not one of its finest. But as - you described it pretty well, actually. It's a series about the lives of a group of mostly gay women in L.A. exploring their romantic relationships, friendships, families, work; and touched on all sorts of different issues: race adoption - stuff that's both specifically of concern to the queer community and stuff that's of interest to everybody, things like, you know, infidelity. So it ran for six seasons, and I think the way that you described it as both validating and frustrating for viewers is really good way to put it. A lot of people really feel a very strong emotional attachment to the show, also are very frustrated with it, especially with how it ended.

CONAN: With how it ended, without spoiling it for those who maybe missed the final episode - and pay cable being pay cable, this is going to be running for a while - but nevertheless, what was the frustration about?

Ms. WARN: Well, the good news is, is I can't actually spoil it, because nothing happened in the finale, and that's actually what the outrage is about.

CONAN: Oh, really?

Ms. WARN: Yeah.

CONAN: A "Sopranos"-style ending.

Ms. WARN: Exactly, except a little bit worse because they - "The Sopranos" at least had the element of surprise going for it. And it was the first one to really do that in recent television history. This is basically like a knock-off of "The Sopranos," but with the creator having announced halfway through - because the whole sixth season was revolving around this question of who killed Jenny, who's one of the most annoying characters on the show. And so, throughout the season, they laid the groundwork for every one of the characters to have a motive to kill her. And then they didn't answer the question. And the problem is, is that Ilene Chaiken said publicly and to the L.A. Times, kind of in the middle of the season, I don't have any plans to answer it. So there wasn't even this element of surprise. Everybody knew they weren't going to answer it. She didn't answer it, and then she also didn't leave a - didn't resolve most other plotlines, and it was very disjointed and not well-written, very uneven, bad pacing, not - you know, well-acted. That's the one that's been pretty consistent. But very depressing to a lot of people.

CONAN: It sounds like the last season of a lot of television shows, which is why it's the last season. But nevertheless, in terms of the validation, over six years, that's been awfully important to a lot of people.

Ms. WARN: Absolutely. You know, a lot of people have said that - to put it in one way, that "The L Word" has helped them both - helps a lot of women come out, and it's also helped a lot of people feel good about being gay. Because the one - if "The L Word" - and "The L Word" has definitely left its mark. I mean, it has left a big legacy, and probably the biggest one being that it made lesbians cool - which sounds kind of silly, like, big deal. But for a group that's been so marginalized and so scorned in our society, that's actually a big deal.

And the other thing it did is it made lesbians the focus, for the first time ever, rather than peripheral supporting characters. And it also countered other stereotype. It showed the diversity - some of the diversity within the lesbian community, from deaf lesbians to trans lesbians, to sort of the - that all lesbians aren't white. So it did a lot of really good things and made a lot of people - it gave us a show of our own, so to speak. But then it also, along with that, there was a lot of - the show itself wasn't always the best. Particular seasons, especially, a lot of uneven writing, lack of continuity. It sometimes had an after-school special feeling to it, you know, where you were just - like the creator was hitting you over the head with storylines, with messages…

CONAN: The issue of the day, yeah.

Ms. WARN: Yeah. Like the latest one being with Max having a baby, because we all know about the guy who had a baby that was in Newsweek because he's trans. And so, then all of a sudden, that shows up on the "The L Word." And, you know, a little too much of being - stuff being shoved down our throats. Or killing off Dana - who's one of the more popular characters - in the third season and then repackaging it as if the show was doing a service by showcasing the horrors of breast cancer and really it was more about just getting rid of a cast member for cost, petty reasons, or whatever it was. And you know, and people can see through that.

And I think what it all boils down to is that with every show, the creator has to achieve a balance between filling her - his or her creative vision and satisfying the show's fans. You're never going to completely satisfy everybody. But neither should you try to make it all about your creative vision and not at all about the fans. And this show erred far too much on the side of fulfilling Ilene's creative vision and really - to the point where Ilene even said publicly: I don't really care what the fans think. And then - yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Warn about "The L Word," which completed its six-year run this past weekend. If you watched the show, what did it mean to you? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Amy, Amy with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

AMY (Caller): Well, hey, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

AMY: I've had my radio down, so I missed some of the latest comments. I guess what I'd like to say about the show is I feel kind of ambivalent about it.

The storylines made me cringe a little bit. I felt - rich people hang with rich people, at least in my world, and poor people hang with poor people, kind of regardless of our sexuality these days. I'm not saying there aren't issues any longer, because obviously there are. But Shane, you know, the ex-prostitute, hanging out with - and I forget that character's name, the one that worked in the museum.

CONAN: Right.

AMY: I kind of found it hard to believe. And some of the stories, just the longer the seasons kept going, they became more and more incredible, and I was just a little disappointed. It had an opportunity to be really great, and I felt like it was just kind of fantastic.

But I watched it for the fantasy. I mean, I'm 39 years old, and it made me feel like a teenager because I'm in love with Carmen.

CONAN: You're in love with Carmen.

AMY: Yes, I am. (unintelligible)

CONAN: We have a clip of tape from the program, which features, in fact, Carmen talking to her partner, Tina, from the third season.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The L Word")

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, listen to this: Monogamy is common among birds.

Unidentified Woman #2: That's great, because I love birds.

Unidentified Woman #1: It is the practice of having a single mate during a period of time. Does that mean anything to you?

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm willing to try.

CONAN: There's Carmen for you.

Ms. WARN: Yeah, that was actually Carmen with Shane, but close enough. You did better than most straight men would do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WARN: So you get props for that. But…

CONAN: I'm not sure that's a compliment, but go ahead.

Ms. WARN: It is. I promise it is. But to Amy, who called in, yeah, I think Carmen is one of the most popular characters on the show, even though she was only on for two seasons, actually - has quite a lot of followers.

CONAN: Amy, thanks.

AMY: Thanks for letting me call in.

CONAN: All right, appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Susan, Susan with us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

SUSAN (Caller): Yes, sir. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm very well, thank you.

SUSAN: I'm great, yeah. Yeah, I just wanted to make the comment that growing up as a lesbian in America, I'm actually in my 40s, I feel like - well, obviously, we grew up in a heterosexual world in the sense of the media, that is - we see it every day. We live it every day with newspapers, magazines, television shows, etc., and I feel like this has incorporated us alongside of the heterosexual society.

CONAN: And obviously, if you're not living in a place like Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUSAN: Exactly. Like Raleigh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I didn't want to pick any place out in particular.

SUSAN: I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Will you miss it, Susan?

SUSAN: What's that, sir?

CONAN: Are you going to miss it?

SUSAN: Oh, absolutely. I feel it's kind of a disappointment, not so much that I enjoy watching the program as much as it gives us a continued voice to live alongside of the heterosexual society.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, we're going to talk more about that in the next segment of the program. But in terms of that voice, are you going to miss the fact that there are, in fact, no programs at this point on prime-time TV that do have lesbian main characters?

SUSAN: Absolutely. And I think it surprised me that nothing has jettisoned from that program as a result of its existence.

CONAN: Nothing has spun off from the program or, you know, that hadn't had more of an effect. Sarah?

Ms. WARN: Yeah, well, she's right, and we should talk about that more, about the total invisibility. But just to clarify, there is, actually, officially a spinoff of this show in the works, but it's a women-in-prison drama. And that's actually one of the problems with the way the show ended, is that a lot of people felt like, and me included, like the last season was just teeing up the - was one big launching pad for this spinoff about women in prison, and that's why they incorporated a murder mystery in a show that was not at all a - it's like all of a sudden, "Brothers and Sisters" or "Grey's Anatomy" being all about who killed, you know, Doctor McDreamy. You know, it just didn't make any sense, and the whole season was about that. But it was a lot of people's perception that that's just teeing up this spinoff, in which one of the characters, Alice, goes to prison.

CONAN: Susan, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

SUSAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And this we got from Katie. As a 20-something bisexual female, "The L Word" was my "Sex and the City" of the queer world. It helped me feel comfortable exploring my sexuality and becoming confident in it.

With that being said, I also felt that it could be somewhat hurtful in the depiction of lesbians, trans, bisexuals, in the sense that it sexualized them. The show depicted the queer community as a trendy and Barbie-esque L.A. scene. However, that's television.

I will miss the show tremendously, especially the first two seasons, which gave a special place in my heart at a time in my life.

Thank you all for that. We're going to ask Sarah Warn to stay with us. When we come back, we're going to talk about how mainstream TV does not have lesbian lead characters anymore after the departure of "The L Word."

How do depictions of minority groups on TV, or the lack of those stories, affect attitudes among viewers? More on that in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about mainstream TV and depictions of gays and lesbians and other under-represented groups, how those depictions change people's attitudes or not.

Showtime's "The L Word" signed off last weekend, the only prime-time, mainstream show with lesbian lead characters. If you watched "The L Word," did you learn anything? Does television change your mind about groups you're not familiar with? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And there's a conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sarah Warn is still with us. She's the founder and editor of AfterEllen.com. And joining us now from a studio at KUSC in Los Angeles is Larry Gross. He's a professor at the University of Southern California-Annenberg, and the author of "Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America." Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor LARRY GROSS (University of Southern California Annenberg; Author): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I have to say we've gotten a bunch of emails after I said in the introduction that the departure of "The L Word" left no main lesbian characters on prime-time television shows - mainstream television shows. And we got these emails. From Frank: Doesn't 13 on "House" count? From Randall: She's not in drama, but she certainly is on prime time and she's openly lesbian: Rachel Maddow. And this from Lindsey: One of the main doctors on "Grey's Anatomy" is a lesbian, Dr. Callie Torres. She struggles with her sexuality on the show and dates women.

Well, obviously, Rachel Maddow is not in a scripted show, but the other two are not main characters, are they?

Mr. GROSS: No. No, they're not. They also - you could've mentioned the character of Bianca on the soap opera "All My Children." In many ways, that's one of the more important examples, because soap operas are a genre that develop characters and keep them for a long time, Bianca being a central character as the daughter of probably the most central character on that program.

CONAN: But if we go outside of prime time, I guess we'd have to say the most important lesbian on TV is certainly Ellen DeGeneres.

Mr. GROSS: Yes, although part of Ellen DeGeneres's sort of bargain with the media is to underplay that aspect. It sort of became her most defining characteristic when she came out on her show, "Ellen," in the late '90s. But when she came back as a talk-show host, for the most part, that has been unstated and implicit rather than explicit.

CONAN: Now does - do we know or can we know - do representations of minority groups - whether they're lesbians or African-Americans or Latinos or anybody else on television - do they actually change people's attitudes towards those groups?

Mr. GROSS: I think you can say that they do. They do it in part because the fact that they show up is a statement of validation to the society. We are - as I think you can tell from some of the discussion with listeners about "The L Word" - we are a society in which presence on that center stage of the media is considered part of being a full citizen, part of being a member of society.

You know, you've heard people say this is the time when I see myself reflected. You know, that sense is very important. So for gay people, it's a validation of a level of acceptance, and I think it also communicates that message to the society at large - one reason why there are a fair number of people who are upset and opposed when these images appear because they are taken as a kind of conferral of respectability.

CONAN: Sarah Warn, do you agree with that characterization?

Ms. WARN: Yeah, you know, I do, absolutely. I think television is also sort of our campfire, our cultural campfire, around which we share stories as a society. And so for us not to be represented in those stories means we're kind of not represented at all. So it's almost like we're invisible.

But I want to go back to something you said a minute ago with the readers who wrote in. Those characters that they mentioned, 13 and there's a character on "Bones" and Callie on "Grey's Anatomy," they're all actually bisexual. They're not lesbians. They're explicitly not lesbians. They've made that clear on the show. And I think that that actually - the fact that they call them lesbians - and that is indicative of the problem. Most TV writers even do that. Shonda Rhimes even called Callie a lesbian just a few days after the episode in which she decides she's not a lesbian. She's bisexual.

So there's this general unwillingness to acknowledge or inability to acknowledge a difference between lesbian and bisexual women among straight people and even some lesbians. But for most people in the queer community, there is a difference.

And it's great that bisexual women are getting more visibility, but they're actually getting visibility to the exclusion of any lesbian character, to this point.

CONAN: Except on lesbian or gay TV channels, in which…

Ms. WARN: Yes, except on gay TV channels, absolutely.

CONAN: In which case, you've written, in fact, bisexuals are underrepresented.

Ms. WARN: Yeah. And that's been an interesting trend. It's funny. As soon as - you know, it's the old saying about you take care of your own house before you point at others.

I mean, as much as we do talk - we do a lot of television criticism on AfterEllen.com and movie reviews and stuff, and it's - generally, bisexual women are portrayed very badly, frequently, in film. On TV recently, they've started being portrayed well.

Within lesbian-only shows, like "Exes & Ohs" on Logo or "The L Word" on Showtime, bisexual women pretty much don't exist, or bisexuality is sort of dismissed and marginalized.

So it's kind of interesting that we're doing the same thing, in a way, to a minority within our group that the larger society is doing to us as a minority.

CONAN: And we should mention, AfterEllen.com, the place you work for is - write for, is associated with Logo, the TV channel.

Ms. WARN: Yes.

CONAN: So just to make interests clear here. And I was interested, Larry Gross, in your theory that, in fact, minorities - and whether that's lesbians, bisexuals, whatever - there's a continuum that television seems to work on in this regard, that they start as minor characters and work their way up to being leads.

Mr. GROSS: Well, yeah. This is true. It was true of movies and then it, you know, it was carried over into television, that minorities begin by simply not being there or being there in very limited ways.

As they begin to, you know, get on stage, to be more visible, they tend to come on as victims or villains. Villains are quite common because then the hero can defeat them, and they're sinister.

Lesbians very often were - showed up as sinister, villainous characters. They can also be victims. They're victims of violence, which is often why we feel sorry for them, and then, you know, sort of treat them as human - which is nice, I suppose, as they're, you know, suffering or dying - AIDS brought out a lot of that - or victims of ridicule, which is one of the most common ways in which particularly gay male characters, but also lesbians appear, where simply their stereotypic attributes, which is how you know they're gay, are treated as funny, as amusing - the mannerisms, the talk, the walk, the gestures.

This can be turned around, much more recently as the - say, the character of Jack on "Will and Grace." But for most of the history of gay people in the media, all of those attributes were treated as just, you know, inherently funny.

CONAN: Comic relief.

Mr. GROSS: Comic relief, yeah. Think of the sissy characters in 1930s and '40s movies - very common.

CONAN: And then they move on to become the sidekick sometimes?

Mr. GROSS: They're often the sidekick. It's partially what we were talking about before, which is they almost never - and, in fact, in non-cable programming - are never the center of the story. They're never center stage. They're always peripheral.

The new, I guess, progressive development is to have them part of an ensemble, a family. "Brothers and Sisters" would be a good example of that, where you have this weaving of threads of members of a family.

So they're part of it. Or "Six Feet Under" would've been an example of that, where they're part of that thread. But they're never the protagonist of the story. That was begun with "Ellen" and, you know, backed away from quickly.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Let's go to Joey, Joey calling us from Oakland.

JOEY (Caller): Hi. I wanted to say, you know, first of all, I love a lot of the things that the woman from AfterEllen has been saying. I want to echo an earlier caller, though.

I, for one, as a butch-identified lesbian, I'm really glad that the show is off the air and done. And I think it's a series that should've ended at the second season. The writing was so horrible, and it has done a lot to bring up certain issues, for sure, but really, it just kept representing over and over and over again this very tiny portion of what is - you know, what lesbian culture is. And in that regard, it has done a lot of damage, I feel, to lesbians and their image of themselves, particularly butch lesbians. That is a whole subculture that, within the lesbian culture, gets smashed on all the time.

It's as if it - you know, it's as if we don't exist. And to have "The L Word" be something that got so popular and yet we, as a group, were not represented, and, you know, there was these little teeny, little hints here or there with certain characters, but never really - it's always that, it's supposed to be the middle class, you know, lesbian with, you know, that's skinny and pretty. And it's created this term now that we even joke about called "The L Word" dyke, the "The L Word"-type of lesbian, "The L Word" dyke. And that's one that is not going to be threatening to the culture at large.

CONAN: And Sarah Warn, I know you've also written and carried comments by people who would agree with Joey. And nevertheless, isn't that an awful lot of freight to put on one show when there's just one show?

Ms. WARN: Yeah. You know, I do, I totally hear Joey and I - and there are a lot of other women who feel that way. I personally think it was probably too much to ask of the first lesbian show to include butch lesbians, who have been - especially when the show started, who were really taboo in our society. What I love now, though, is that you can have someone like Ellen and, frankly, Rachel Maddow who is single-handedly making butch chic cool in her own way. I love that we have that now.

I think "The L Word" could have done a little better job of integrating at least even one butch character. But on the other hand, they did have everything else and the kitchen sink in there. But I think it goes back to, again, you know, it's a balance between - you want your show to stay on the air. You want it to attract a broad audience, including straight people, but you also don't want to turn your back on the audience that it's aimed at. And, you know, I think they could've done a little bit better job, but I also - you know, they are working in Hollywood. And I think most lesbians understand that it is a show - I think the second or third "L Word," the next shows that come along, if there ever are any, better include some butch characters.

CONAN: Joey, thanks for the call.

JOEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Randy, Randy with us from Hoover, Alabama.

RANDY (Caller): Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Randy. Go ahead, please.

RANDY: Well, hey. Basically, I come from a little bit different background. I am a heterosexual (unintelligible). I'm married, two kids. I have been somewhat of a homophobe, mainly because I just didn't know anything about it or how to appreciate people despite their differences. And, you know, I guess to start off my comment, I - my set of beliefs have taught me to appreciate people, but not necessarily everything that they do. So I'm not here to bash or anything like that. It's actually a positive comment I have.

Basically, I believe in a straight philosophy. And what I've seen, though, with Ellen Degeneres is that I, myself, can relate to just being a human being. You know, it has nothing to do with homosexuality, but seeing her on TV dancing to music, you know, enjoying people, talking to people and then looking at myself, and I'm going, well, I do the same thing. You know, I'm not on TV, but you know, I turn on music and I dance and have a good time. I love talking to people. I love being in front of people. And it gave me a chance to relate to a different type of person, and it actually took - it took the difference away. You know, we make different choices, but I'm able to appreciate a person, you know, really, despite, you know, what choices they make.

And like I said, it really took the difference away. And, you know, I don't really - I can't really say I appreciate when the focus of somebody's, you know, national appeal or TV appeal is their sexual preference. You know, I really - that doesn't make any sense to me. But, you know, if you have a choice of what you're doing and then you're still relational as a human being, that's something I can appreciate. You know what I mean? Basically, I like the fact that she's still -she's down to earth. I like the fact that there are a lot of people out there who are down to earth. And I do have some homosexual friends who - you know, we don't agree with the same things, but we're still able to appreciate and respect each other on a human level. And, you know, Ellen Degeneres, you know, she's…

CONAN: Right.

RANDY: …she is kind of like that example for me. Like I said, not that I agree with her, it's just I'm able to relate…

CONAN: Randy, we have this email on a similar point from Adam in Salt Lake City. I think Ellen Degeneres does more to help the lesbian and gay community than some of these other shows precisely because it is subtle. You judge her based on all her characteristics instead just her sexuality. Some of these other shows, as mentioned earlier, push too hard. They seem to show sexuality above all other aspects of their life. I don't like "Sex and the City" for the same reason. Gay or straight, oversexed shows are oversexed shows.

Thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

RANDY: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about - well, the last word on "The L Word" and about representation on mainstream broadcast television. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on. This is Tom, Tom with us from Syracuse, New York.

TOM (Caller): Hi, yeah. In regards to your earlier comments about gay people being seen in the media and if that's helpful, I'm a gay man who grew up with a dad who was in the Navy stationed with the Marines for 20 years, then he became a police officer. I mean, we'd never once talked about being gay or mentioned the word gay. And one day, he's sort of like, so, you like that show "Will and Grace"? You know, I think you might like it. And I was like, well, why am I going to like this show, Dad? And he's like, well, you know, there's a guy on it. He's gay. And, I mean, that was the first time he had ever said the word gay. So it was - I kind of sometime think of the world as pre-"Will and Grace" and post-"Will and Grace" because these weren't only non-threatening people, they were people that you liked. And then Jack ended up being powerful. You know, he wasn't just a victim.

Ms. WARN: You know, I think you're - I think that's a really good point. And it really gets to a lot of the emails that I get from all of our readers saying that this - these shows help open up dialogue with straight people or - or as Randy and Adam were talking about Ellen's influence. You know, I think a lot of people, as Larry has said, have mentioned Ellen's sort of bargain and somewhat criticized Ellen for her role being that she - she has sort of - her popularity is partly based on the fact that she doesn't talk about being gay that much. I actually think you need both.

And I appreciated Randy's honesty about where he's coming from and his point of view about how he can relate to her. And I think it's true that you need people like Ellen who - for whom they sort of downplay their sexuality because that helps some straight people relate. And you also need shows like "The L Word" or other, you know, "Exes & Ohs" or other shows, where being a lesbian is sort of front and center. You really need both, I think, and they appeal to different people and achieve different goals. And hopefully, there are more shows like "Will and Grace," there are open dialogues between - especially a lot of kids and their parents.

CONAN: And Larry Gross, isn't that the point? If you can find out that there's an awful lot of different ways to be black or a lot of different ways to be Latino or a lot of different ways to be lesbian, well, they turn out to be people.

TOM: I think that's a really important point, that, you know, it's not just one thing or the other. There's lots of different types of - not just sexuality, but people inside of their own skins. And the more we see that, I think the more we all kind of become a group of people rather than individuals within a group.

CONAN: Larry Gross?

Prof. GROSS: Absolutely. The burden that gay people bear as a minority -because every minority is similar, but also unique and different from others - is that of invisibility and unspeakability. So for many years, and for most of the lifetimes of many of your listeners, simply saying the word gay, as your caller said - you know, that his father had never said the word. The unwillingness to admit, to acknowledge and to say the word, to speak the word, has been the problem. So simply being there, and being there in many different guises - and as some of your other callers have said, being there as butch, as well as femme. Being there as working class, as well as middle class. Being there in all the variety of humanity is really an important accomplishment.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: Hey, thanks for the program.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And Larry Gross, thanks for your time today.

Prof. GROSS: Sure.

CONAN: Larry Gross joined us from KUSC in Los Angeles, where he directs the School of Communication at USC Annenberg, and he's the author of "Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America." And we'd also like to thank Sarah Warn for her time, the founder and editor of AfterEllen.com, with us from her home in Washington State.

Up next: Your letters - the conversation about retro references. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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