Busting Barriers Not Always Easy

“Six Feet Under” charts a gay couple’s touch slog, and also an actor’s personal hurdles

On June 6, HBO’s ode to dysfunctional families who happen to be undertakers began its fifth and final season. This critically acclaimed drama, created by Oscar-winning Alan Ball (“American Beauty,”) has been nominated for and garnered just about every major TV award for which it qualifies.

So why should we care? Besides its weekly sardonic look at mortality, the show’s portrayal of homosexuality and lesbianism has been unflinching.

Just ask TVTome.com which swears: “Many shows have tried to tackle homosexuality and failed in the process, playing on clichés once too often or else overstating the problem. ‘Six Feet Under,’ however, has been a shining example of how to do it right… with genuine insight into the minds and hearts of gay people, and always framed in a compelling story.”

Take David, played by Michael C. Hall, who’s one of the brothers running the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home in Los Angeles. He started out as closeted, fussy and frustrated—terrified that someone would learn about his sexuality. His family, especially his widowed mom Ruth (Frances Conroy), helped him to cope.

Ruth: David, are you bringing a special friend to dinner?

David: Why are my friends always special?

Ruth: Okay, then, is the man you’re having sex with coming to dinner?

But soon David met Keith (Matthew St. Patrick), a policeman, and this couple’s frantic sexual bouts slowly transformed into a solid relationship, so solid that this season they will dance together at a wedding and try to have a child. That the attractive St. Patrick plays Keith, who happens to be black, bald and very muscular, has no doubt been a major reason for the show’s huge gay following.

St. Patrick was previously nominated for two NAACP Image Awards for his portrayal of Adrian Sword on the daytime soap “All My Children” and has made guest appearances on shows such as “Beverly Hills 90210.” But it has been “Six Feet Under” that has given him newfound career clout. In fact, next season he will star in “Reunion,” a Fox network offering whose lead-in will be “The O.C.”

St. Patrick found the time to have a national tele-conference call with half a dozen gay publications. Opening up the chat, I asked the cable TV sex symbol about his statements that he tried to center his character in love, that he didn’t want to “paint the portrayal of gays that we’ve seen before.”

“I just felt that more often than not that gay characters portrayed on television and in film are very stereotypical,” St. Patrick replied. “They’ve been very surface. And they have never really talked about love. Just about the physical. My goal was for this particular character was to paint a whole human being. A whole picture of life. The center is love.”

This “love” wasn’t always easy to attain—especially during the first season when the actor’s off-camera admissions that gay love scenes made him a bit uncomfortable stirred up some controversy. Have his onscreen intimacy become easier?

St. Patrick laughed.

“Not quite. No, they only initially made me feel uneasy because when you’re working on a new show… when you are working… people that you never worked with before…. you have to make sure that everybody’s on the same page in terms of taste. In terms of what we’re doing. And I was just… because if you look at the history of television movies, all you see is stereotypes.”

He paused, then said, “Listen! I’m a black man. I know what stereotypes are out there, and I don’t want to perpetuate those stereotypes. I hope that kind of clarifies what it is that I’m about in terms of the work that I do and how important I felt that this character be painted as a positive image and in a respectful light.”

“You know, you are taking a white and black couple to begin with,” St. Patrick added. “Normally we don’t see those sorts of relationships portrayed on television. So I thought Keith and David’s coupling was completely groundbreaking on its own. Then take the fact that Keith and David are two gay men who come from a place where Keith was the out one. He says, ‘I don’t care who knows I’m gay. I’m happy about who I am, what I have accomplished, and what I’m about as a human being.’”

It is Keith who takes David’s hand in public, who leads his partner to the dance floor, who insists that if they have a child, they have the right to have the baby be the biological offspring of one of them. And it is David, the more financially secure white partner, who is reticent, holds back from making too bold a public statement about his sexuality and sometimes feels as though he is not sufficiently proud of who he is. The tensions between the two men on these sorts of issues create a dynamic plot theme in depicting their relationship, and on several occasions their ability to break through that dissonance has sparked intense eroticism between the two characters.

St. Patrick explained that playing a gay character has changed his sense of what it means to be a minority of a different sort.

“You know in the letters I’ve received and the communication that I’ve had within the gay community, I’ve learned lot of people have not been able to come out to their families,” St. Patrick said. “They have had a hard time. I think the show has done a really great job of showcasing how difficult that situation can be. I think it has shown things evolve in many different ways. Keith really has gone through some tough situations. So we kind of go from that place to self-acceptance to family acceptance to societal acceptance.”

St. Patrick noted that despite the challenges that Keith and David have faced, both individually and as a couple, a bottom line running through the series has been their determination to make it work.

“They’re a couple,” he emphasized. “They’re actually going to make a run of this.”

St. Patrick said that many straight viewers are “cheering on David and Keith’s relationship, hoping it will last. Older people. Younger people. It doesn’t make a difference what color they are.”

As an African-American man, St. Patrick said, he also senses that “Six Feet Under” has broken down color barriers.

“I think a lot of the credit for our success I must give to the gay community,” he said, adding, “Thank you for embracing me.”

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