Back in about 2003 I started a column and radio spot in the gay media, which became known as TV Tonight, in response to a plethora of Queer television.
There was so much going on it needed a place to alert viewers and comment on the good, bad & ugly. There was Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Oprah episodes, Nip / Tuck, Melrose Place, Will & Grace, The L Word, Little Britain, Torchwood, gay contestants on Survivor, The Amazing Race and more.
Even Australian TV had ramped things up with Mardi Gras broadcasts, an Aussie Queer Eye edition, Playing it Straight, Rove asking “Who would you turn gay for?”, Farmer Dave came out on Big Brother, Bent TV was on community television and ABC’s Strictly Dancing had two boys dancing together years before it was embraced by the UK last year (sheesh…).
Now a 5 part US documentary series Visible: Out on Television on Apple TV seeks to document the American experience and I have to say they’ve done an impressive job. As they say “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” -representation is so crucial to the GLBTQi community, especially to teens growing up isolated or in rural areas.
The roll-call of interview subjects is exemplary: Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Wanda Sykes, Caitlin Jenner, Billy Porter, Billie Jean King, Tim Gunn, Dustin Lance Black, Laverne Cox, Neil Patrick Harris, Jill Soloway, Rufus Wainwright, Wilson Cruz, T.R. Knight, Armistead Maupin, Carson Kressley, Margaret Cho, Jesse Tyler Ferguson …that’s just for starters.
Throw in Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Dick Cavett, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Alexander, Michael Douglas, Norman Lear, Lena Dunham, Sheila James, George Takei, William Katt, Dr. Ruth and Hal Holbrook (a handful are archival interviews) and you can see this means business.
The first mention of homosexuality on American television was in 1954 during Live broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy Senate Hearings. It triggered “The Lavender Scare” a moral panic about homosexuals in the US government.
It wasn’t long before gay men and women were only ever depicted in television as morally corrupt, villainous, figures of tragedy or comedic punchlines. Mostly they were invisible, including to news coverage, whether as characters or as actors.
1961’s The Asphalt Jungle portrayed a homicidal lesbian. 1963’s Channing taunted a young man who was believed to be gay, who subsequently drowned.
Liberace was celebrated for his flamboyance, but his personal life was only ever hinted in gossip columns. Actress Sheila James, who was widely popular as Zelda on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in the early ’60s, had a spin-off series cancelled when execs decided she was “too butch” (she relates telling a young George Takei to be cautious). Raymond Burr, star of Perry Mason, also remained in the closet.
By 1967 anchor Mike Wallace fronted CBS Reports: The Homosexuals speaking to men mostly in shadows about their private life -one was bravely unapologetic and on camera. The Stonewall riots of 1969 -ignored by television news- would later lead to a Live protest in the middle of Walter Cronkite on CBS Evening News. To his credit Cronkite stayed in touch with Gay Raiders protester Mark Segal for many years afterwards and began to document news events.
But it was Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family, who is credited with helping to shift the narrative in primetime television. While Archie Bunker was known for his racist views, he was challenged by learning his ex-footballer friend Steve was playing for the other team, in 1971. Another episode saw Edith Bunker express sympathy for a lesbian who had lost her partner, after years in the closet. On The Jeffersons patriarch George Jefferson was confronted with a friend who became transgender (the role was played by a CIS woman). Veteran Lear relates how much opposition he had from the network over such storylines.
The list of archival milestones, even in the first 2 episodes, is significant: documentary An American Family on PBS in 1973, Robert Reed playing transgender on Medical Center, gay romance telemovie That Certain Summer in 1972 with Hal Holbrook & Martin Sheen, Billy Crystal in Soap, Renee Richards challenging the world of sport, and the impact of openly gay politician, Harvey Milk.
Produced by actors Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz and filmmakers Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, this displays extensive research and rarely-seen archival footage. The interviews add a personal touch, from Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn talking about his homophobic FBI father to Billy Crystal reacting to awkward studio audience laughter during Soap tapings.
It’s a shame the lens did not travel beyond US borders –Number 96‘s Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham) was the first regular gay character anywhere in the world.
But much like The Celluloid Closet‘s essay on Hollywood film, this arrives as the definitive time capsule on America’s queer small screen.
Visible: Out on Television airs Friday on Apple TV+.