“Wheel of Fortune” has always been a part of my life. I was introduced to the game show, which began airing in 1975, by my grandma, who watched it with a fervor she passed on to me like a fever when I was barely old enough to read. Now, nearly 40 years later, she’s gone, but if I’m near a TV at 7:30, I’m usually watching “Wheel of Fortune.”
I’m not alone. Millions of people in the United States tune in to the “most successful syndicated program in the history of TV” each night for a hit of Pat Sajak’s amiable cornball comedy, to critique Vanna White’s latest sequined sartorial selection, and to see if they can guess the answers to the hangman-style puzzles before that night’s trio of convivial contestants do.
In an increasingly insane and even dangerous-feeling world, it’s a safe choice — 30 minutes during which you can guarantee you won’t have to deal with anyone dying or losing their job or getting into a fistfight about abortion or the debt ceiling or which light beer to buy or boycott. Everyone is there to have a good time and maybe, if they’re lucky, win a life-changing amount of money, as Cody, a respiratory therapist from Tampa, Florida, who likes playing darts and bowling, did on April 19.
Cody was the show’s big winner that Wednesday night when he made it to the bonus round and managed to solve the final puzzle — “BRIEF POWER OUTAGE” — in just a few seconds, scoring a Ford Escape and a grand total of $80,635 in cash and prizes. But even more exciting (at least for me) was watching his boyfriend, Jason, appear on screen. As the show’s theme song swelled and their bodies collided, I did what I always do whenever a gay contestant wins and their partner ambles onstage to celebrate: I yelled “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” at my TV.
And then they ... didn’t kiss.
I was crestfallen.
It’s definitely not the first time I’ve been let down by the absence of a gay kiss in a spot where a straight kiss almost certainly would have unceremoniously and nonchalantly happened.
I’ve been searching for two men kissing on TV, in the movies, in books and magazines, in pop songs and just about anywhere else they could feasibly press their lips together, for as long as I can remember. An undeniably gay kid from birth (our neighborhood garbage man called me “queer” after I did a dance for him in our front yard in my Underoos when I was 5), I always knew that I wasn’t like the rest of the boys and, worse, I didn’t know if there was anyone else in the world who felt like I did.
This was the ’80s — years before queer adoption was legal or marriage equality was realized or we hit the “transgender tipping point” — and mainstream LGBTQ+ representation wasn’t what it was today. It wasn’t really anything. There was no Sam Smith or Lil Nas X or Kim Petras. There was no “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or “Heartstopper” or “Pose.” There was no Sasha Colby or Elliot Page or (Jesus help us) Caitlyn Jenner. Queer people obviously existed (we’ve been here as long as humanity has existed) but I didn’t know any in my small Wisconsin town and didn’t see any in mainstream American media unless it was a news report about AIDS.
Forced to find myself wherever and however I could by myself, I did the only thing I could: I dreamed. I wished. I pretended. I prayed. I got really good at looking for and inventing queer characters and subtexts in places they weren’t and normally would never be and I tried to conjure a universe in which my desires weren’t disordered or deviant or deadly — they were just like anyone else’s.
It didn’t work.
If you grew up the same way I did, you know it’s almost impossible to be something you’ve never seen or are constantly being told is disgusting, sinful and literally lethal by everyone and everything around you. If you didn’t grow up the way I did, it’s almost impossible for you to comprehend what not seeing yourself reflected in the world around you does to you.
It isn’t good.
By high school, I was spending study hall each afternoon brainstorming ways to kill myself when I got home, and it’s only my incredible family (including my grandma, who lived next door and always welcomed me in to watch “Wheel of Fortune” with a kiss and a cookie) and playing my Tori Amos albums on repeat that kept me here.
Eventually I got out of Wisconsin and came out and found others like me. Things got better. I discovered I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t evil, and I learned about all of the queer people who came before me and fought to be who they were — often at great costs — so that I could be who I am. I got a job at Out, a gay magazine, and then joined HuffPost in 2011 to launch Queer Voices (originally Gay Voices), the first LGBTQ+ section at a mainstream news site.
For close to a decade, my job was to help advance the LGBTQ+ movement and challenge the ways non-queer people thought (and still think about) queer people’s lives and love and desire. It was hard. It was exhausting. It was sometimes terrifying. I received hate mail in my inbox and at my home. The Westboro Baptist Church came to protest outside our office. (We held a counterprotest and handed out cupcakes.)
But I’m happy to say that I saw this country change in ways I had only ever fantasized about. Marriage equality was legalized. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. The Boy Scouts allowed openly gay troop leaders. Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine and cisgender people began to learn more — and more accurately — about what it means to be transgender. Laws were passed to give LGBTQ+ people many of the same rights and protections as non-queer people. More and more queer people appeared in TV shows, movies, on the radio, and in Capitol buildings. New ways of thinking about relationships and families developed and thrived.
The invisible became visible. The unthinkable became thinkable. The impossible felt possible.
It was breathtaking.
And still, we had only scratched the surface. Because although we had seen so much progress in such a short amount of time — the gay rights movement has been referred to as “the most successful social crusade in recent American history” and its strategies have even been co-opted by other social movements — an elemental and much too prevalent fear and loathing of queer people remained, especially in middle America.
Even though we managed to achieve some unbelievable changes in society, changing people’s minds was a much more formidable task. People still detested us ― especially queer people who existed on the margins, couldn’t or refused to assimilate into mainstream culture, or were poor, not white, and/or not cisgender. People still killed us. And right-wing politicians and evangelical Christian leaders did whatever they could to ensure that people stayed afraid of us.
On June 12, 2016, a gunman murdered 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Hours after the attack, the shooter’s father claimed his son might have been set off by seeing two gay men kiss in front of his family. I wrote a piece that morning titled, “It’s 2016 And Seeing Two Men Kissing Is Still A Stunning, Terrifying Sight,” which argued that despite how far we’ve come, “here we are: forced to face the fact that we are still misunderstood and hated for nothing more than who we are, who we love, who we fuck and how we live our lives. … We can pass all the laws we can to secure our equal rights and still, none of it matters when fundamentally we are still seen as less than, other than, sick, deviant, twisted, immoral and evil.”
Seven years later, this not only remains true, but things have gotten much worse.
Queer people have been (re)cast as pedophiles and “groomers,” often by influential elected officials. Trans people have been stripped of their rights in many parts of this country and could soon essentially be eradicated — unable to safely live as their true selves, much less access gender-affirming medical care. Drag has been vilified and made illegal. Books about queer history and lives have been banned. The very mention of queer people has been outlawed in Florida schools and other states are moving swiftly to pass similar laws. In fact, since the beginning of 2023, a record-breaking 469 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced into state legislatures. That’s at least twice as many as in all of 2022 and 10 times as many as in all of 2018. By the time you read this, there will probably be more.
After all we’ve gained, I naively never thought we’d find ourselves here. I knew the battle was nowhere near over, but I believed we’d come too far for the pendulum to swing this far in the other direction. I was wrong. It has. Here we are. And now it’s time to find a way out of this mess.
Part of the way forward will include time-tested strategies like voting, supporting pro-LGBTQ+ candidates and organizations, and direct action, including protests and walkouts. But, as I noted earlier, nothing will really ever change if we don’t address and overhaul how non-queer people feel about us — if we don’t vanquish their disgust and transform their panic and suspicion into the belief that we are just as deserving of living long, happy and fulfilling lives as they are.
How do we do that? By coming out whenever and wherever it’s safe to do so. By telling our stories. And by revealing and presenting ourselves and our relationships and our families (chosen or otherwise) and our lives every chance we get — especially in places we aren’t normally seen or welcomed. Places like the average middle American living room.
Which is why I so desperately want to see gay kisses on “Wheel of Fortune.” Those simple displays of affection would be seen by millions of people who may never be exposed to or confronted by queer love. People who want to deny us the ability to exist. Kids who may be looking for signs of queer life somewhere in the universe, as I spent my childhood doing, and who might feel a tiny — but potentially lifesaving and/or life-changing — jolt of hope if it unexpectedly flashes across their family’s TV screen.
Perhaps gay kisses have happened on “Wheel of Fortune” in the past and I’ve just never seen them, but if so, they haven’t happened much. In fact, the show didn’t even feature its first queer couple until February of this year. In 2019, Harry Friedman, the show’s then-executive producer, claimed that having a gay couple on is “something that’s been discussed and like everything else that we do, we take very measured steps. And we have just not made that decision to do that yet.” Now that the show is finally ready to feature queer couples, I want to see them living and loving and rejoicing the same way straight couples do.
I joked on Twitter last week that if I had won that car on “Wheel of Fortune” and my boyfriend came running onstage to celebrate, I would have stuck my tongue so far into his mouth it would have shot out the back of his head. But that doesn’t mean everyone is safe or able or wants to do the same.
Moments like this, however brief, can still be scary and can still have traumatic consequences. I’m a fairly fit 44-year-old guy covered head-to-toe in tattoos and I still think twice before kissing my boyfriend in a restaurant or holding his hand while walking our dog in the park — even in New York City. But I push myself to do it whenever I can because I know that’s how things change — that taking the risk and dealing with the discomfort and the potential stares or comments (or worse) is worth it.
I have no idea why Cody and his boyfriend didn’t kiss. Maybe they felt too much pressure. Maybe they felt uneasy. Maybe they just aren’t a kissy couple. Maybe they just didn’t. It doesn’t really matter — I don’t blame them. This isn’t about them. They shouldn’t have to play the hero. None of us should. And a kiss shouldn’t have to be political, but because gay kisses are still too scarce, they’re inherently dangerous, and daring, and filled with the kind of explosive radical potential that can make things happen. That can make things transmute. And that’s worth more than all of the money and prizes on that wheel.
I’ve seen a lot of things happen over the years that I never thought would happen and they only happened because a lot of incredibly courageous (and pissed off and, yes, scared) people made them happen. We can do it too. We have to take chances and be brave, which really means being ourselves whenever we have the opportunity and especially when we have the attention of the non-queer world.
So, we kiss. We loop our arms around each other’s waists and laugh as we walk through whatever neighborhood we find ourselves in. We search for and offer up signs to each other and everyone else that we exist. We let ourselves be seen living our extraordinary and ordinary lives — just like non-queer people let themselves be seen doing all the things they do without a second thought — and it slowly changes our culture. It dilutes the venom. It welcomes those who are curious about us to behold us in all of our queer magnificence and then get to know us.
And to the ones who want to see us fail, it says that we’re either going to leave this place with everything you have or we’re going to die trying. But we aren’t going to stop. We aren’t going to disappear. You’re going to see us on the streets, out of the shadows, just like you, because we belong everywhere — just like you. And hopefully, one of these nights, you’re even going to see us kissing on “Wheel of Fortune.”
Noah Michelson is the head of HuffPost Personal and the host of “D Is for Desire,” HuffPost’s love and sex podcast. He joined HuffPost in 2011 to launch and oversee the site’s first vertical dedicated to queer issues, Queer Voices, and went on to oversee all of HuffPost’s community sections before pivoting to create and run HuffPost Personal in 2018. He received his MFA in poetry from New York University and has served as a commentator for the BBC, MSNBC, Entertainment Tonight, Current TV, Fuse, Sirius XM and HuffPost Live. Find him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.