AS NOT SEEN ON TELEVISION
BY PETER TERZIAN
From the 1950s, when members of the early gay activist group the Mattachine Society were interviewed in shadowed profile on local talk shows, through the endless sissy (“thithy”) jokes on Bob Hope’s comedy specials and Laugh-In, and the earnest “issue” episodes of seventies sitcoms (often presented with parental discretion advisements), to Ellen Morgan’s long-awaited outing over an airport intercom, gays and lesbians have searched for their faces and voices on the airwaves. In Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (Ballantine Books), gay activist and media studies specialist Steven Capsuto traces the roller-coaster ride sexual minorites have taken to the small screen. (Despite the book’s subtitle, only 1 of its 40 chapters is devoted to radio.) Capsuto points us to the so-called “liberated” years – the mid-seventies, the mid-nineties – and the alternating periods of repression and, at times, soft censorship. (When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, studio heads quietly rejected shows that reflected liberal values; regular gay characters didn’t resurface for a few years.) The history of gays on television may seem like a steady evolution, but, as Capsuto illustrates, progress is unerringly – and unnervingly – tied to what happens at the ballot box.
Capsuto’s obvious forerunner is The Celluloid Closet, the late Vito Russo’s 1987 history of gays and lesbians on film. Russo’s book benefited from copious movie stills and, later, a documentary that assembled film clips as damning evidence of Hollywood’s neglect and stereotyping of gays. Russo was also a breezy stylist; by comparison, Capsuto is dry and a little humorless. The book’s laughs stem largely from its recountings of good gags from Soap or The Golden Girls. And, alas, there are no pictures to complement the book’s inevitable nostalgia buzz. (Remember Edith Bunker’s “female impersonator” friend Beverly LaSalle?) As a history of the gay activist movement, Alternate Channels is nonetheless thorough and compelling. Capsuto patiently explains the day-to-day peregrinations of network indecision and activist campaigns, of story meetings and sit-ins. And he’s a dead-on analyst of trends and political patterns, championing the many people who have fought to bring gay lives and stories into our living rooms: Fannie Hurst, Phil Donahue, Roseanne, and, of course, Ellen DeGeneres. (Even Bob Hope came around in the end, taping a public service announcement for Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.)
What will the future hold? Capsuto cautiously predicts a convergence of television and the Internet, imagining “several online gay TV stations.” Capsuto speculates that the sheer number and diversity of channels available will inevitably encourage a new openness. If this Utopian ideal ever comes to pass, Will & Grace may look as quaint in 20 years as Rob and Laura Petrie’s single beds.