"I am not foul, Mr. Carson. I'm not the same as you, but I'm not foul."
Thus, Thomas Barrow, the skulking, scheming, snippity and sometimes just plain unlikeable servant on PBS's Downton Abbey, makes his claim for gay self acceptance and complexity in this show's recent episode leading to the third season finale, which aired on Sunday, February 17, 2013. This third season of Downton has been the most highly watched PBS series since Ken Burns' Civil War aired in the 1990s.
While there certainly were gay men in Edwardian England and in the United States of the 1920s, we don't see very many portraits on television of these lives. Downton series creator and writer Julian Fellowes has written of the importance of this portrait to 21st century audiences, many of whom are unaware that "Perfectly normal men and women were risking prison by making a pass at someone."
As recently June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that state laws that criminalized private, non-commercial sexual activity between consenting adults at home on the grounds of morality are unconstitutional. In the United Kingdom, most anti-sodomy laws were struck down by the early 1960's. But anti-sodomy laws still exist in many places in the world.
In previous seasons of the show, Thomas has wormed his way into our hearts with some memorably dastardly deeds. He unsuccessfully blackmailed his well-placed closeted lover, the Duke of Crowborough. He stole food from Downton's larder to start his own black market food trade. He plotted the humiliation of his fellow servants in order to protect his position as First Footman.
As the show's only gay character, Thomas would seem on the surface to bring up old stereotypes. Indeed, his lonely, brooding and often amoral approach to life in Yorkshire's great house in the first decades of the 1900's echo some of stereotypes held by social scientists in the early 20th century that linked the white working class, criminality and queerness, documented by historian Siobahn Somerville in her book Queering the Colorlines.
Thomas is often filmed eavesdropping on others, face in the shadows, body pressed against the wall, though actor Robert James-Collier makes this lurking Thomas easy on the eyeand popular with many gay fans. (Indeed, James-Collier is the coverboy for Out's special Valentine's Day "Love" issue, in February 2013.)
Yet James-Collier's portrait of Thomas also reveals complexity. In the second season, which covers World War I and its affects on the lives of the Downton Abbey masters and servants, Thomas enlists to escape the limited world of service. He purposely lets his hand be shot in order to escape the frontlines, and serves as a medic.
And in the current season, we also see and despite ourselves empathize with Thomas's struggles, which intersect both sexuality and class. When Thomas falls in love with fellow (straight) servant Jimmy Kent, he risks both limb and position to steal a kiss. When his failed attempt at a love connection is spied by another servant, he is nearly fired without a letter of referencethe equivalent of professional blackballingand is questioned by the police. It is not until the other servants come to his aid, admitting that they've known all along Thomas's secret that Thomas is freed from the threat of prison. We understand through Thomas the psychic and even economic costs of homophobia in his time.
In this age of the increasing acceptance of marriage equality for gay people, and the changing climate of the military, it is important for television to not only represent queer lives, but to allow them complexityto allow us to love them, and hate them, too.
In recent years on television, in the effort to escape stereotyping, we have had our share of fresh-faced, huggable gay and lesbian people: Ellen Degeneres's girl next door, the charming, dimpled Will of Will and Grace. And even though The L-Word's Shane, and others could be scheming, self-destructive, and self-involved, they always looked flawless while they did it.
The time has come for more difficult, realistic portraits of gayness. Thomas's contemporary counterpart might be Cyrus, the somewhat openly gay chief of staff on ABC's Scandal. He exercises both the privilege of a powerful white man, and the somewhat still marginalized life of a happily married gay man. Cyrus is a big time player in world events, and is not above spying and eavesdropping on the president. The show make us think about self determination, as well as the costs of assimilation and identification with the status quo. At the same time, the show unblinkingly depicts Cyrus and his husband through the everyday lens of marriage. They debate over every day things like working on Sundays and adopting a child. Though Cyrus never gets to let his hair down to discuss his relationship with most of the other characters on the show, we watch Cyrus and his husband, argue, kiss and, to a surprising extent for network TV, make love.
Thomas would be proud.