Playing the telephone game 

This is supposed to be serious. Showtime, in light of its success in gay programming with Queer as Folk, has switched its promotions into high gear to match the timely annual lip-syncs of gay pride in a city near you. As the crescendo to it all, they've decided upon a countrywide conference call to alert the gay media to its philanthropy, offering a member of the business side and, to ensure interest, a personality from the talent side, Peter Paige, otherwise known as Emmett on the show.

The only problem is, with gay programming at its Will and Grace peak, the cracks are starting to show. Assembled via telephone, the journalists are getting restless. Not so much Woodwards and Bernsteins as Marys, Tylers and Moores, some of us are pushing pencils into styrofoam cups to create Cher dolls that spin while we wait. Twirl, Cher, twirl!

Aglow and gloating, Showtime's VP of marketing, Stephanie Gibbons, is the first to speak. Her televised gay baby, "Queer as Folk" is revolutionizing television, you see, if only for making sure that straight people know how gay people do "it": usually in a public place and always with a baby oil rubdown.

Stillo, for all of her glory, Gibbons is taking some heat from the get-go. Peter Cummings, the publisher of the teen magazine of gay abandon, XY, has eeked his way into an opportunistic journalism role and means to dominate the proceedings with a Hester Prynne lashing.

"Stephanie, do you know XY magazine, and do you know everything that's been going on there?" he quizzes, beads of sweat dripping into Cher's paper hair.

"Sorry, can you talk a little louder?" sighs Gibbons.

"All right," he screams into the phone. "This is Peter Cummings. I'm the publisher of XY magazine, and we're the largest national magazine for gay youth," he simpers. "I'm just wondering what particularly you are doing for youth, and my reason is because we've been having a problem this year because Showtime withdrew their advertising on the grounds that people under 18 aren't supposed to watch "Queer as Folk" -- and even though the majority of our readers are over 18, like 80 percent."

OK, so the publisher of a magazine "for gay youth" is revealing that it isn't really at all, but rather for dirty old men. And Showtime is supposed to be sorry for not caring. Let the inconsistencies begin.

"Peter, this is Joan Ziff. I'm in the PR department," a call breaks in. "And I just think that maybe this is a conversation we need to have off line."

"Billy Manes, Orlando Weekly," I chime. "Regarding your involvement with the pride events and GayDays and whatnot, how much of what you're doing is promotion and how much of it is what you would consider ... evolution?" I burp, nonsensically. "I mean, is there a conscious effort being taken by Showtime to kind of, I don't know, bolster these promotions, you know, with a higher sense of what it is that we're all fighting for?"

What? What have I just said?

"Well, that essentially was my question," Nelly Olsons the XY publisher, leaning back into the imaginary spotlight.

"Well, we are a network that provides entertainment," scripts Gibbons. "And all of our agendas are within that realm. We don't align ourselves politically with any organizations."

Fine, then. Back to spinning Cher, until they bring on the celebrity. The hackneyed hacks (yeah, me too) attempt to lighten the mood a little with some airy quippery. The question sweeping the country breezes in as if on cue.

"Has anybody seen the new Cher concert yet?"

To which everybody responds with their city and seating reservations for the next two months. Who needs "Queer as Folk" to reveal our depths of tragedy?

When Paige hops into the mix, I autopilot my same sort of grounding polemical question in his direction: something about difficulties and "the cause."

"Well, you know, I mean, obviously we're facing an administration that is not entirely sensitive to our issues. But I think that's really useful," he half-fulls. "You know there was a wonderful complacency that we all developed during the Clinton years. Like, oh, we've got somebody basically in our corner, so let's just kick back and rest for awhile. But now I think we need to regalvanize, reenergize and focus our energies again."

Someone, inexplicably, asks about Paige's feelings on Palm Springs; perhaps, just to denote the impotence of this entire conference call situation.

"I was at an event and the other 'sort-of' special guest was Tammy Faye Baker, and she was incredible," he blurs. "I can't even tell you." Don't.

"She was saying how she had been on a Christian radio station that morning, and they said, 'Tammy, how do you do this? Why do you talk to those gays? Why, why, why?'

"And she said, 'Because I have never felt so much love in the world!'"

At this revelation, my Cher cup violently crumbles into shards. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but Tammy Faye Baker.

The devolution has been televised.

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