He hired openly gay actor George Takei. He gave a rave on-air review to "Brokeback Mountain" a while back. He's an "L Word" fan and he's vehemently not a fan of anti-gay athlete Tim Hardaway. The most shocking thing about shock jock Howard Stern: He's not who you think he is.
Most people in the gay community -- at least those not familiar with Stern, and few have bothered to familiarize themselves -- believe him to be a loudmouth and a homophobe, a nothing-is-sacred Don Imus type who does nothing but make faggot jokes and exploits lesbians on air by reducing them to sexual objects.
But as a lesbian who's been listening to Howard daily for more than 20 years, I can say that this is so not true: Just take a look beneath his shtick, and you'll find one of the most pro-gay media personalities in the country. And his show on Sirius Satellite radio is better than it's ever been...
By the late '90s, one of Howard's standard interview tactics was to ask female guests if they'd ever had sex with women -- and you know what? I didn't care how late for work I was: Even if the lady on the hot seat was a C-list celeb like Daphne Zuniga, I wanted to know the answer! And not only was I interested back then, I'm still interested years after he found the balls to start asking the question. For the record, Lisa Marie Presley (she said yes), Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, Kyra Sedgwick, Courtney Love, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Carol Alt and Pink are just a few of the many celebs who have been willing to respond.
But perhaps the most striking example of Stern's matter-of-factness on the subject is his interaction with frequent guest Sandra Bernhard. Howard is really the only mainstream interviewer to ask Bernhard about her lesbianism, even though a large part of her career is based on the openness of her sexuality. Here's a summary of one of Stern's Sandra interviews from the blog site marksfriggin.com: Howard spent a little bit of time talking to Sandra about her 2-year-old daughter and how she's going to break the news to her that she's bisexual. Sandra didn't really say how she'd break that news. Howard asked her how she'll react if her kid comes up to her and tells her that she's going lesbo. Sandra said [her daughter] probably wouldn't just come up to her and tell her that, but if she did, she'd just tell her to be with someone who would treat her right and not abuse her. This exchange goes beyond the titillating. It's an honest conversation with a professional conversationalist about something that neither Jay Leno nor even David Letterman would ever ask her about -- and yet it's a subject that much of her public persona is built around. Make no mistake: As much as Howard loves lesbianism, he doesn't necessarily like all lesbians. Anyone who listens knows that Howard has great disdain for Ellen DeGeneres, but he's never pounced on the fact that she's a dyke; he just doesn't think she's especially funny or talented, and her dancing bugs him.
As someone who admires and respects Ellen as much as I (and the majority of the gay community) do, it's always painful to hear him rag on her. However, his anti-Ellen rants are almost always followed by something like, "Man, as much as I don't like her, she gets the hottest women! She's out there banging the hottest chicks in Hollywood -- how does she do it?"
But what about gay men? If a gay man were to tune in to Howard's show for the first time, he would very well be turned off (and would tune out) after hearing the proliferation of gay jokes and words like "fruit," "faggot" and fairy" that are routinely thrown around on the show. But if he stuck it out, there's no doubt in my mind he'd grow to love Howard, realizing that beneath the jokes lies a genuine attitude of tolerance.
Howard revealed himself as subversively gay-friendly in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard's murder. Of course, every person in the media was shocked and horrified at the murder of Shepard, but Howard went beyond paying mere lip service. He took the unheard-of step of inviting the "God Hates Fags" people (who picketed outside Shepard's funeral) onto his show. He did so to let them embarrass themselves -- something more powerful and effective than simply stating that these people are imbeciles. This modus operandi is completely consistent with Howard's approach: to let guests be responsible for their own demise. Since then, the "God Hates Fags" people have appeared on the show several times, and it's always clear Howard is doing this to show his audience what buffoons they are. In another nod to gay men, one of the show's most beloved interns was "Gay Rich." Sure, Howard quizzed him on his sex life and gave him a hard time, but it was with fondness. It was obvious that Howard liked Rich because he was a good guy and a good employee -- and had a good sense of humor. The Stern show is built on honesty. Dishonesty can make for good radio, but can also be downright frustrating. Such was the case of the "reformed gay" Howard hosted several months back. Howard listened all ears as he let the guy say his piece, but at the end of the segment he made it clear that not only did he not believe this guy was reformed, but he didn't understand why gay people needed to be reformed.
In the months before his move to Sirius, Stern constantly talked about how the show would be situated next to the gay channel and how excited he was about that -- both for the wealth of joke potential and, as he once said, "I'm sorry, but gay people always look like they're having so much more fun than me."
"Some people have an issue with Howard, but he treats his LGBT guests with the same probing questions and lack of respect he uses with his straight guests," Sirius talk host Derek Hartley told Gay.com. "He is very supportive of gay issues, and by not treating gay guests differently, we are treated with genuine equality."
Will he say something immature about gay people tomorrow, the next day and every day for the rest of his career? Of course (just this week, he did a ''Buttcrack Mountain'' parody) -- but there's a world of difference between playful humor and derogatory statements. Howard Stern doesn't just walk that fine line with professional grace; he does so with good intentions.
So should anyone be surprised that he gave "Brokeback Mountain" a glowing review? Not really. Howard is a man who speaks the truth, for better or for worse. And when it comes to all things gay, he calls 'em like he sees 'em. There is no way to accurately measure the impact that Howard's perspective on gays and lesbians has on his millions of wildly devoted listeners, but you can't help suspecting that when the world's largest radio personality says he would "bang every guy out there" were he gay, the entire audience laughs, while one listener's whole perspective shifts just a little bit.
By Jenny Stewart, Originally Published 2008, PlanetOut.com, Gay.com