the author’s village
By C.A. Lawver

Steven Capsuto: Alternate Channels

Ellen, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under, Will and Grace, Spin City – television has become rich with gay and lesbian characters in recent years. An uncensored look at LGBT images on radio and television reveals that while gay men and lesbians in the media are not an altogether new phenomenon, the context in which they are presented has changed dramatically. Steven Capsuto has written a book that surveys the landscape of radio and television from the 1930s to the present, exposing the intricate link between broadcasted public images and the political climate of our nation. In the book Alternate Channels, Capsuto proves that the two are often inseparable.

Capsuto’s inspiration for writing Alternate Channels germinated in volunteer work he was doing for Gay and Lesbian Peer Counseling of Philadelphia. “In the mid and late eighties, I volunteered for a group that ran a crisis hotline and referral service,” Capsuto explains. “At the time, there were not many positive gay and lesbian images in the media. It was the height of the anti-gay backlash in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. We found most of the really intense crisis calls we were getting were from teenagers who knew they were Gay or thought they might be.” According to Capsuto, counselors were instructed to question those callers that were calm enough on what they thought gay peoples lives were really like. “As I took calls like this and looked through the log books of other counselors, I realized we almost always received the same responses.” “Invariably, Capsuto says, the response was, ‘I only know what I see on television.'” These images were mostly culled from daytime talk shows and TV dramas. “None of which inspired much optimism about their possibilities for the future,” according to Capsuto.

Initially, Capsuto set out to write a cutting expose. “I was really pissed off at the beginning; we had kids who were being taught that their lives were worthless. I was going to write this very political scathing expose. By 1993, that kind of polemical book wasn’t necessary,” says Capsuto. “By the nineties, when I started to wrap up the book, there were alternative types of characters and their gayness wasn’t the only reason for being in the plot. A lot of them were more positive portrayals and some were regular characters you would see week after week,” he explains. “So what I ended up writing instead was a history.”

In the past, gay and lesbian characters tended to show up in the media as the issue of the week. “They would do one of two things,” Capsuto explains, “either they would kill or kidnap someone, or if more sophisticated, it would be a coming out story.” Most of us remember some of these early portrayals. Often, a character would come out to loved ones halfway through the show, which would then cut to a commercial. After the break, the loved one of the poor hapless homosexual would freak out for the majority of the second half, finally coming to the conclusion that he still loved the poor misguided gay man or lesbian five minutes before the end of the show. Then, of course, the gay or lesbian character would fade into obscurity and never be seen again. The other images were much darker. Who can forget the killer lesbians on the Police Woman episode Flowers of Evil or the tormented murderer in Looking for Mister Goodbar?

Alternate Channels begins to explore Gay and Lesbian images in the media by focusing first on radio. “You couldn’t say a character was homosexual […] What you could do is pile up the stereotypes so high that everyone knew what was being made fun of,” Capsuto says. Comedies would portray gay men as swishy, effeminate, sissy, high strung, and neurotic. If not that, then they were villains made all the more evil by their sexuality. Women characters were often bitter – usually they’d had a bad experience with men – or again killers. According to Capsuto, “The men were made funny and the women dangerous.”

“If you look at the power dynamics of race or gender, when the person in the more privileged position gives up some of their power and pretends to be the person in the lesser position, that’s funny. For example, for years, blackface was seen as funny, but a black person in white face was seen as threatening – that was usurpation,” Capsuto says. In gay and lesbian terms, “A woman who becomes more mannish was seen as dangerous – the man who becomes womanish is a buffoon.” He adds, “It wasn’t until the gay liberation movement started to specifically lobby the networks and sponsors that there began to be a change.”

According to Capsuto, there were some definite occurrences that helped to erode the ban on discussing ‘sexual abnormalities’ in the media. “Christine Jorgensen is very important in a historical perspective. The networks had rules against talking about homosexuality but transsexuality was a new phenomenon. When Jorgensen came back from Copenhagen as a woman, it made headlines and comedians started to make jokes. This was all happening about the same time as the McCarthy hearings,” Capsuto says. All these factors began to coalesce, and despite the fact that traditional heterosexual ideals were enforced, the once unspeakable slowly became a topic of debate. Not that the environment was a friendly one. Usually, any type of panel discussion would place God, the law, and science – traditional sources of authority – on one side and if lucky, maybe a gay activist on the other trying to defend the community. Most often, the gay spokesperson would only appear in silhouette or disguised.

Regardless, according to Capsuto, during this period, broadcast executives learned they could stretch the rules without tragic consequences. This freedom, he says, quickly spread to network variety shows. Live television provided comedians room to ad-lib, slipping things in under the censors. Into this environment entered the Mattachine Society, an early gay support group in the early 1950s, and a campaign launched by Congress to remove homosexuals from government jobs. As the two movements, pro-gay and anti-gay, grew side by side, more and more press was generated. “I tried to get inside the minds of the writers and the producers, the gay activists and the anti-gay activists,” Capsuto says. These very different factions were all taken into account because what was being viewed on the airwaves was in many ways the result of the confrontation between these groups. Even as the ban slowly changed, the few sympathetic portrayals of gay characters remained single, celibate, and surrounded by straight people.

 “Gay activism became a highly visible, if unpopular, part of America during 1970s,” Capsuto says. By the mid-seventies, the discriminatory political activities of Anita Bryant, the radical religious right, and politicians like Senator John Briggs in California, helped redefine the issue of being gay or lesbian in the public mind as one of civil rights. “Gay rights issues – employment discrimination, child custody, couples rights, and anti-gay harassment and violence – became familiar TV fare through shows like All in the Family, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Barney Miller, and Lou Grant,” says Capsuto.

“The next transition was in 1981 with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan; everyone began to pull back from gay content. It was also during the early eighties that gays and lesbians began to operate as ‘political insiders.’ Soon, ‘professionalized’ LGBT organizations began to use positive reinforcement such as awards or political donations to encourage gay-friendly behavior. Capsuto says that, appropriately, television reflected the gay civil rights movement’s new suit-and-tie image. Early 1980 broadcasts focused on lobbying groups and the gay vote. Another factor soon came into play – AIDS. “By 1983, much of the public found it impossible to distinguish the word ‘AIDS’ from the word ‘gay.’ The fear of AIDS turned into a widespread, absolute terror of gay people,” Capsuto explains. Not surprisingly, perhaps, networks avoided the issue of homosexuality in sitcoms and movies, even as network news continued to fan the flames of fear. It wasn’t until the 1984-85 season television season that another turning point was reached.

“The custody battle for viewers between cable and broadcast TV intensified as the 1984-85 season approached. Cable’s stock in trade,” Capsuto says, “was sex, violence, and controversy. As always, sexual minorities were a handy way to prove how cutting edge a show was.” The return of gay characters was sudden. During this time, AIDS had now become the issue of the week. In 1986, LGBT images on screen began to diversify. “It was the 1990s however”, Capsuto says, “that brought an unprecedented growth of sexual minority images throughout American culture,” – reflected in television.

“Roseanne, The Real World, Northern Exposure, Friends, Ellen, Will and Grace – some fifty network series had Gay or Bisexual recurring roles in the 1990s,” Capsuto says. LGBT characters began to be normalized and some shows casually incorporated LGBT regulars whose sexuality was not made an issue. This shift was not an easy one to make. The decade began with the freeze-out of LGBT characters on TV as movie scripts that included homicidal LGBT roles like Basic Instinct, JFK, and The Silence of the Lambs reached the screen. Anti-gay groups were successful in forcing advertisers to pull ads from shows deemed offensive because of the inclusion of LGBT characters. From this point on, the landscape of television began to change more and more.

“Television’s sexual minority images today are a mixed bag – sometimes encouraging, often disheartening,” says Capsuto. While the frequency of LGBT characters is more frequent and less terrifying, Capsuto says ongoing sexual minority roles are fewer and less varied than just a couple of years ago. He is not incorrect in this observation. To those individuals who grew up during the 1950s – 1970s, today’s television may seem to feature a wealth of positive LGBT roles, but it still fails to represent us in numbers sufficiently representative of our percentage of the population. The media, for the most part, also tend to narrowly define us as white and middle class. It is encouraging to note that many LGBT characters are more fully developed than in past years. This doesn’t mean we, as a community, can let down our guard. The intricate link between media images and the political climate cannot be dismissed; politics, the news, and entertainment walk hand in hand. “There’s a two-way relationship between social history and what appears in entertainment television. Things don’t change by themselves. People can take a positive hand in changing the media,” says Capsuto.

Steven Capsuto has traveled the country presenting a multimedia lecture on the subject of LGBT media images for more than a decade and has been a member of research teams for several public television documentaries. He is currently the director of the LGBT Archives in Philadelphia. He will be in San Francisco April 3 – 4. If you would like more information, visit his website at