Presentation Tackles TV Interpretation
Written by Chloe Riley
Monday in the Escalante room of Manchester Hall, Steve Capsuto spoke on the history of lesbian and gay images – from the forgotten television programs of the late 1970s, to current popular sitcoms like “Will and Grace.”
“There was all this hype about the first lesbian kiss on television,” Capsuto said. “In fact, the first kiss may have been on ‘Star Trek; Deep Space Nine’, between a couple of aliens who were both women, but who used to be husband and wife in another life, so morally, it was okay.”
Capsuto went on to chronicle gay and lesbian characters in TV history, many of which were merely walk on roles before the 1990s.
“Barney Miller” (1975) was one of the first shows to feature a reoccurring gay couple.
“The network figured colorful characters should make appearances because it was set in Greenwich Village police station,” Capsuto explained. “They were told they could have either a prostitute or a homosexual. They chose the homosexual.”
Gay characters continued to be likeable and non-threatening, well-dressed and stereotypically flamboyant in the media. Until something changed politically in America in 1977 when gay rights became an issue.
“Anita Bryant led a movement called ‘Save Our Children,'” Capsuto continued. “Implying that homosexuals were all perverted and so it became Anita Bryant versus Gays. During this time you could turn on the television at any given point and find this on the news.”
Television incorporated these politics into more realistic stories. They involved a contrast from the negative homosexual images portrayed in previous shows.
“Stories were written about teachers who were fired for being gay or lesbians fighting in court for the right to keep their children,” Capsuto added.
Even in the early 1980s, shows depicting gay and lesbian characters made a strong effort to keep away from any real indication of sexuality among homosexual characters.
One such show was “Love, Sydney” (1981) starring Tony Randall, as a self-hating gay man who swears off sex after his lover leaves him. He offers boarding to a young woman with a child out of wedlock and a family sitcom was born.
“AIDS was a deciding factor as to when a gay character on ‘Dynasty’ had a boyfriend or not,” Capsuto said. “People were scared of gays and they were still unsure of the way AIDS was transmitted. When AIDS was in the headlines, the writers decided the character would be with women.”
But it wasn’t until the 1990s with shows like “Roseanne” which, until Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” had more gay and lesbian characters than any show in history. Shows like “Ellen” and “Will and Grace,” featured gays and lesbians as central characters.
“What was great about ‘Ellen’ was that the characters’ lives did not revolve solely around their gayness,” Capsuto said. “For so long before that, the gay community found themselves disheartened by gay stereotypes on TV and left wondering about the truth – what we know our lives to be, but never see reflected in the media.”
Recently, shows like “Once and Again” and “ER” have tackled issues such as teenage sexuality, and the difficulties teens deal with when confronting these feelings.
“I’ve had straight guys ask me, ‘how could you have known [you were gay] when you were 11,'” Capsuto said.
“I say, ‘well, at what age did you decide that girls were kinda cool?’ Eleven! You don’t actually have to be having sex to know what your feelings are.”
While Capsuto feels that some shows are progressing in the right direction with regard to gay and lesbian issues, he has problems with reality shows such as “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
“At first I was appalled,” Capsuto explained. “I mean, we had established in the 1950s that homosexuals could be accepted as hairdressers and fashion consultants. But the problem isn’t the show, it’s the implication that they are talented because they are gay.”
This sort of gay-asexual duality may stem from television plots from the 1970s and ’80s, Capsuto said.
“You could do stories on schoolyard homophobia as long as at the end of the episode it turned out that the kid who was the target was a straight boy who was mistaken for gay,” Capsuto said.
This changed in the late 1980s when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a nationwide study on youth suicide which found LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) teens to have three times higher suicide rate than the general teen population.
“I used to volunteer at a gay and lesbian peer counseling service in the late 80s,” Capsuto said.
“We used to get all sorts of suicide calls. When we asked the kids why being gay was so awful, they would say, ‘I only know what I see on television.'”
“Television is a very powerful medium,” Capsuto explained.
“It allows people who are living their lives in their [own] space to see what else was out there in the world. If all you ever saw were gay people who were miserable, unhappy and hopelessly single then that was your impression of gay life.”
Jamie Doucet, a sophomore psychology major, agrees with Capsuto.
“I think friends of mine see gay people as gay people are portrayed on TV,” Doucet said.
“If a man acts effeminately, ‘Oh, he must be gay.’ If a woman possesses more masculine traits, ‘Oh, she must be a lesbian.'”
“I thought it was a great idea to get people out here and expose them to this notion of the media which claims to have made these great leaps [with gays in television],” Doucet explained. “This presentation gives you a new perspective.”