Home > Gay Rights, Mad Men, Marriage Equality, pop culture > Enabling “Mad Men” — Part III: Salvatore Romano’s Complex Closet

Enabling “Mad Men” — Part III: Salvatore Romano’s Complex Closet

In my first “Mad Men” post, I said that the women were generally the most interesting characters on the show. Given the repressive social and legal structures in place during the early 1960’s, their efforts at success, happiness, and simple self-esteem were a complex dance around the men who called the shots But the life of a gay man was, if anything, more difficult than the women’s: Gays weren’t allowed to exist, at least not in corporate society, so — they didn’t. As we can see from the increasingly interesting character of Salvatore Romano — played by Bryan Batt,  who is also gay — this negation was effective at driving some so far into the closet that they didn’t fully come to grips with their own sexual identity.

Sal is a particularly sad case. He rebuffs the advances of a client, even though the risk is negligible. He marries, and then spends an evening making goo-goo eyes at a colleague that the Romanos have invited to dinner. His wife, of course, is almost as much a victim of this sad trap as he is. For some, times haven’t changed. Here’s what one blogger had to say, to my semi-surprise:

The tension–and the torment–of homosexuals, especially married people, was the norm in 1962.  It is still very much the case today–a person who is sexually attracted or in love with a co-worker, a friend, a fellow student, a neighbor, a member of their religious community–but must refrain from saying or acting on their feelings, and can only communicate their interest and desire in very veiled ways.

In most cases, though, such feelings can’t be repressed forever. In one of my favorite plays, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, the closeted A.E. Housman confesses to the outrageous, liberated, proto-queer Oscar Wilde: “My life was not short enough for me to not do the things I wanted to not do.” Even in Victorian times, self-abnegation was hard and often unsuccessful.

And Sal can’t do it. In this season’s first episode, Sal has a sexual encounter with the hotel bellhop. (It goes wrong, though, in two ways: A fire alarm in the hotel stops the music, and then Mad Man Don Draper sees the two men in a state of undress as he climbs past their room on the fire escape.) What’s he going to do next? How much will he risk?

In terms of gay rights and awareness, 1962 was the Stone Age. Sal could have been fired for his sexual orientation. Even today, substantially more than 1/2 the states don’t protect gay workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation — but New York State does, so he’d be better off in that way. But these laws don’t fully reflect a much deeper change that’s taken place; a change that led to my surprise at the quote above. Because while some gay men and lesbians are still fired (or not hired in the first place) because of who they happen to be, for the most part the country’s moved on. (Now if we could just pass the damned Employment Non-Discrimination Act at the federal level to reflect that reality….)

By 2003, even the U.S. Supreme Court was bound to acknowledge this reality, with a clear majority of the justices holding, in Lawrence v. Texas, that criminalizing sexual conduct between gays was a violation of fundamental rights of liberty and equality. A dissenting, fulminating Justice Scalia, longing for the good-old-days of the early 1960’s when gays and lesbians remained neatly tucked away, foresaw the end of all “morals legislation” in the Court’s decision. But what the Court saw was its fellow gay and lesbian citizens, whose presence by 2003 was widespread, mostly accepted, and even — a touch banal, perhaps. In every area except marriage equality, clear majorities of Americans are supportive of the rights of gays to live and work as they choose.

What are the chances that today’s Sal would be married to a woman? Not great. And isn’t that progress, for Sal, for any woman who might once have become his wife, and for society? Watch any episode featuring Sal and tell me his is the kind of life is one you’d wish on anyone you know.

  1. Brian Cahill
    August 25th, 2009 at 00:46 | #1

    Love this show. Interestingly my company has a 100% HRC rating, domestic partner benefits, etc., but though I am out, it is a subject mostly verboten except among a few. Only one other person out of 200 (yeah, right) who I’ve identified and discussed, and she has no interest in coming out, though it’s painfully obvious to most.

    Anyway, I wonder that Don lingered a moment longer than needed to process the discovery in this episode. Perhaps he was considering a heretofore unexplored possibility for extending his history of infidelity?

    And unrelated, is it just me, or in the next episode, it seems Joan’s, er, prominence, has become more so, or was it just that the green blouse exaggerated the situation. Not that I’d notice.

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