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A matter of choice?
Five-part ‘Nightline’ series looks at that question, and gay life in small-town America

Ted Koppel
'Nightline' anchor Ted Koppel says his five-part series about gay life is meant primarily for 'people who may never have sat down with a gay friend and said 'Tell me what your life is like." (AP Photo/2000 ABC, INC., Bob D'Amico)

By BILL ROUNDY

One of the first questions gay people often face, when coming out to friends and family, is "Is it a choice?"

Now a five-part series from the news program "Nightline" uses that question as a basis to examines the lives of gay people who don’t normally appear on national news shows. "A Matter of Choice?: Gay Life in America" talks with gay retirees, teenagers, and gays living in a small town in Virginia.

"It is amazing how often that issue of choice comes up," says Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor of "Nightline." "In a community that is as religious as Roanoke, [Va.] that notion, that it is a matter of choice, is very much in then forefront of every discussion you have… whether you’re talking to people who are gay, who are asking ‘Why would I choose to live a life of deception?’ And it comes up among the most ardent critics, who need to believe, for their own reasons, [that being gay is a choice.] If, for instance, it is predetermined by genetics, how can you blame them any more than you would for being short, or having straight or curly hair?"

That question frequently marks the heart of any debate over gay civil rights, and gay people, who overwhelmingly say that they did not choose their sexual orientation, are deeply wary of assertions to the contrary.

"It gets used as a tool to marginalize people," observes Cathy Renna, news media director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "People say ‘See, there is a choice, and [gay people] could choose something else, so there’s no need to give them special rights.’"

The subject is controversial enough that when the title "A Matter of Choice?" was first announced last September, GLAAD sought a meeting with the producers and issued a statement urging them to reconsider the title.

Although confident that ABC would portray members of the gay community fairly and accurately, Renna said then, in a statement: "The series’ title, ‘A Matter of Choice?,’ misrepresents the nature of sexual orientation and perpetuates the outdated but still harmful stereotype that one’s sexual orientation is merely a simple choice. While the standard ‘form of a question’ title may work in a press release, framing a five-part series in such a sensational way threatens to taint the experience for viewers."

"Nightline" chose to retain the name of the series, but Renna says that she’s content that GLAAD’s objections have been heard by the public and by ABC.

"Those [concerns] haven’t changed," she notes, but "we sort of came to a peaceful truce."

For his part, Koppel says that he understands GLAAD’s point, but feels that the title is appropriate in this context.

"To put that as a title -- with a question mark -- I think is apt. I certainly never want to offend anyone, but if getting people to watch this series can be helped by causing controversy on both sides, then it is more important to me that the series as a whole strikes everyone as being fair and honestly done."

‘An area TV barely covers’

The series first began percolating more than a year ago, Koppel recalls, when he realized that almost all the discussion about gays in primetime news had focused on AIDS or on hate crimes.

"This is an area that television barely covers," says Koppel, and he felt that exploring gay life fit perfectly with the in-depth format of "Nightline." "When we’re not focusing on hard news, we should focus on issues that either grip the American public’s attention, or should grip the American attention," he says.

Of course, the topics covered by the series will be long-familiar to any gay viewer -- but they aren’t really the target for the series.

"I doubt that there’s anything that we’re going to present that will be news to members of the homosexual community," Koppel observes. The series, he says, is meant for "people who may never have sat down with a gay friend and said ‘Tell me what your life is like.’"

Planning for the series started, in fact, with Koppel doing just that.

"We really began the work on this series by turning to some people on our own staff, who are openly gay, and asking them, ‘Would you mind sitting down with me and the producers and talking with us about these issues?’ And the response was terrific. We had two or three lengthy discussions that guided us."

Throughout the series, the question of choice comes up repeatedly, as gays assert that they never had a choice about their sexual orientation, and opponents say that homosexuality is a choice, and a sinful one.

Koppel asked several individuals why anyone would make such a choice, given the discrimination that gay people are subject to.

Their answers, Koppel notes dryly, "were not very compelling."

Originally scheduled to run in late September, 2001, "A Matter of Choice" was pushed back by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Barring another catastrophe, the first of the half-hour programs will air May 20 at 11:35 p.m. The series will conclude May 24 with a live, 90-minute town hall meeting, moderated by Ted Koppel.

Much in this country has changed since the series was filmed in the summer of 2001, but the program remains largely intact -- about 90 percent of the editing had been completed by early September, says Koppel. And despite initial feelings that Sept. 11 had erased the differences between gay and straight Americans, much remains the same for gay people around the country.

"I think in times of immediate crisis, whether that’s hurricane or a drought or a terrorist attack, they tend to draw us all together," says Koppel. "As our lives return to another normal that sort thing kind of dissipates... To the degree that anything has changed, or it hasn’t, I think that will come up in the town meeting."

"I’m hoping people will listen to each other," he continues. "I’m hoping it’s not just going to be a dialogue of the deaf, which sometimes happens.

Many news programs have dealt with gay issues, of course, but for a prestigious show like "Nightline" to devote an entire week to gay life, during the middle of May sweeps, no less, is truly remarkable.

But the series isn’t perfect. The show does not include any gay people of color, for instance, and the opinions of some of the subjects can seem markedly conservative to gays who live in urban centers, as they condemn, for instance, the decadence of gay pride parades. "I think it gives the gay community a bad name," harrumphs a gay retiree in Florida.

FOR MORE INFO
Nightline airs weeknights on ABC at 11:35 p.m.

Koppel unapologetically acknowledges those gaps, but says that this show is really just the beginning.

"This won’t be the end of it. We don’t presume to say ‘Give us five episodes and we’ll tell you everything there is to know about gay life in America.’ There’ll be more programs in the months and years to come."

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This article appeared in the issue of:
May 17, 2002