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by Marene Gustin
May 1, 2012.
Mark it down because it was an historic day. The day that the very first U.S. international travel commercial aired in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada.
Oh, and it featured a gay couple.
“It just aired, and suddenly it’s on gay blogs and websites,” says New Orleans actor Edward R. Cox, who appears as one half of the gay couple in the commercial. “It’s bigger than us. It’s not just a step forward for the GLBT community but a stride forward.”
Two years ago the Travel Promotion Act of 2010 established the Corporation for Travel Promotion, a public-private entity that began operations in May 2011 and does business as Brand USA.
“Our goal is nothing short of rekindling the world’s love affair with the USA—the place, the spirit, and the dream,” Brand USA CEO Jim Evans said in a press release.
There’s a website, www.DiscoverAmerica.com, that invites international travelers to explore the diversity of America, and the campaign includes social media sites and TV commercials.
The first spot, now airing in three countries, has a budget of $12.3 million for the first three months. A second wave will follow in Brazil and South Korea, with several other markets to follow.
The commercial is a music video featuring Roseanne Cash, daughter of legendary singer/songwriter Johnny Cash, performing “Land of Dreams,” a song she wrote for the campaign. The video shows the diversity of America and its people in beautiful cinematography. There’s a Hindu festival, a multiracial marriage ceremony, surfers, diners, a low-rider parade, two Muslim women shopping in New York City, and—at one minute and 15 seconds in—a gay couple sharing a quiet moment on a streetcar. Cox is the goateed man leaning his head against the window, his arm around his partner.
“My agent sent my real life partner and me for it because we are both Equity actors, and they were looking for gay actors and in particular gay couples,” he says.
Unfortunately, after they were cast, his husband of 20 years, actor Vatican Lokey, had a conflict and couldn’t make the shooting date, so actor Gideon Hodge stepped in to play Cox’s mate.
What started as just another paycheck for a working actor quickly turned into a groundbreaking role.
“You know how you always see travel commercials on TV?” he asks. “Well, I thought our country had been doing them just like all the other countries you see. But when we started, they told us this was the first-ever travel commercial for America. And they wanted gay representation in it! They didn’t have to do that, but they did.”
Cox says the filming, from beginning to end, was the most positive, professional experience in his 50 years of acting.
“I started acting and designing costumes when I was five,” he says. “People don’t think I’m 55 now, but I am. Cut me in half and count the rings!”
He went on to tour in Broadway shows and this year he already has five movies under his belt including G.I Joe: Retaliation and the hotly anticipated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. “I’m just a guest waltzing in the ballroom scene where Abe and Mary meet,” he says, although he was thrilled to be in the film version of the cult classic by Seth Grahame-Smith.
But not even that can compare to the attention he is getting now from the Brand USA spot. “They’re calling Gideon and me the Face of Gay America to the World,” he says. “It’s just so weird. It’s a little scary, but I am so proud of it.
“And there’s no bells and whistles and red wigs screaming We’re here and we’re queer. It’s just two gay guys sharing a quiet moment on a streetcar. It’s not offensive, but it’s there.”
Anne Madison, spokesperson for Brand USA, has been surprised by the groundswell of attention from the LGBT community. “I find that interesting,” she says. “We just wanted to show all of America and maybe open up some minds as to what America really is. And different orientation is just a part of life.”
But whether the shot of the gay couple will be in commercials aired in antigay countries remains to be seen. Madison says the campaign will evolve as it rolls out, but so far she says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “The most positive I’ve seen in any campaign.”
Cox says he can’t speak for the U.S., but he can speak for what it’s like to be a gay man in America and what an honor it was to be chosen to be in this international commercial.
“The country needs this,” he says. “Both the tourism dollars and the positive message it sends. Is it an idealized version of America? Is the GLBT community here still struggling? Yes. But this is just so exciting and humbling.”
Here’s the video of “Land of Dreams.”
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.