And what shall we say about the fact that there is to be a homosexual in Riverdale?
You know where Riverdale is, of course. It lies at that junction of wholesomeness and Americana where, for almost 70 years, it has been home to Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Jughead Jones and the other eternal teenagers of Archie Comics. Last week, the company announced a new addition to the cast. In September, it said, in Veronica 202, Kevin Keller debuts in a story that finds the titular spoiled rich girl mysteriously unable to get his attention despite using all her feminine wiles.
“She’s not so bad,” Kevin confides to Jughead. “I’m just not interested in dating her. ... It’s nothing against her. I’m gay.”
And what shall we say about that?
A handful of those who commented on CNN’s Web site didn’t have to think twice. Or, for that matter, once. One vowed to ban Archie Comics from his or her home, in order to protect children from “perversion.” Another moaned, “This is crazy, why do they have to bring gay people into everything.”
Of significantly more interest was a piece on Salon.com by Douglas Wolk, who has written a number of books on comic books. Wolk put a skeptic’s spin on the news, noting correctly that Kevin Keller is hardly the first openly gay character in comics — just the first in Archie’s world. And he predicted — probably also correctly — that poor Kevin is doomed to be Riverdale’s token homosexual, allowing the company to crow its commitment to diversity while he exists on the periphery, never breaking into a core cast that hasn’t changed since the Roosevelt years, much less getting to kiss a handsome boy.
But even stipulating all that, it would be a mistake to dismiss what’s happening in Riverdale. This looms as a watershed moment.
That’s precisely “because” Riverdale exists at that junction of wholesomeness and Americana. There are few entities in mass media more conservative than Archie Comics; indeed, some years back, the characters were licensed for a Christian evangelical series of books. So when it comes to introducing Riverdale’s first openly gay teenager, the salient issue isn’t how well they do it or what they stand to gain from doing it, but that they are doing it at all.
Can you imagine the company feeling compelled to introduce this character 20 years ago? Or even 10? Of course not. Twenty years ago, homosexuality was dangerous, 10 years ago, it was risque. The appearance of a gay character in Archie Comics strongly suggests that it has become, is becoming, mainstream. Even safe.
So people like those on CNN’s message board must surely know they’re fighting the rear-guard action of a battle they’ve already lost. When a Kevin Keller enrolls in Riverdale High, that’s a white flag running up the pole, enemy soldiers raising their hands.
Which is not to suggest the fight for full gay citizenship is won. But it is to suggest that the parameters of that fight have changed. It is to suggest that, message board malcontents notwithstanding, we are at least done contesting the very right of gay men and lesbians to simply “be” — and to be seen, being.
Occasionally, and understandably, one hears gay people complain about the slow pace of their progress. But progress has this way of sneaking up on you, of suddenly being there when you didn’t see it coming. We think progress is a lightning bolt and sometimes, it is. But more often, it is a series of incremental changes whose full importance we see only in hindsight.
This will likely be one of them.
So what should we say now that there is a homosexual in Riverdale? How about:
Welcome to the 21st century. We’ve been waiting for you.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org