[After a 2003 lecture in Madrid, I was interviewed for Zero, a slick color magazine sold throughout Spain. The article appeared in the September 2004 issue. The English translation below is mine, as are the two bracketed corrections.]
He wrote one of the most comprehensive books about the portrayal of gay men and lesbians on radio and TV from the 1930s to the year 2000: Alternate Channels. More than a decade of research has made him a walking encyclopedia of broadcast fiction, and a treasure trove of information for any media buff. We took advantage of his visit to Madrid to ask this American (from New Jersey) a few things we always wanted to know about our beloved boob tube.
ZERO: I understand your interest in TV grew out of an unfortunate situation.
STEVEN CAPSUTO: I was volunteering with a gay peer counseling group, taking calls from teenagers and young adults. Some of them said they were considering suicide. When I asked why they were so afraid of being gay, they said that all they knew about gay people was what they saw on TV. That made me realize just how important television is in terms of visibility.
Z: And it gave you the idea for the book…
S.C.: It just piqued my curiosity at first, and I wanted to know how television had changed. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, the image of gay people was very positive, with depictions like Billy Crystal’s character on Soap. But in the 1980s, once AIDS exploded on the scene, everything changed, and I decided to write an article about it. I got more and more interested, and eventually spent eleven years researching the subject. The book was supposed to come out in 1996, but then Ellen happened and we decided to hold off and include that.
Z: What social factor most influences gay images on television?
S.C.: Definitely the news. I was lucky enough to interview one of the head writers for the series Dynasty. I asked him why, if Steven was gay, they kept having him romantically involved with women. He said that when AIDS first appeared, the public associated gayness with disease, so they decided to end Steven’s relationship with his boyfriend and marry him off to a woman. Later, when things calmed down, he went back to dating guys… until Rock Hudson’s death, in response to which they heterosexualized the character again.
Z: What were the first gay characters?
S.C.: The first was in 1954, on a series that aired Broadway plays. They staged a show called Lady in the Dark, and the gay character was a very swishy fashion photographer. He even had lines where he talked about his attraction to men. Around the same time [actually 13 years later], a series called NYPD ran a plot about blackmailers targeting gay men in New York City, and it drew an interesting parallel between racism and homophobia.
Z: When was television’s first man-on-man kiss?
S.C.: In 1983, in the TV-movie Trackdown, but it wasn’t in a positive context. He’s a killer about to go on the lam, and he gives his boyfriend a goodbye kiss. It was acceptable because he was the villain, and his gayness made him seem that much more evil and twisted.
Z: And the first kiss between women?
S.C.: You started to see those in the 1990s, but it was always something you could explain away as not a “real” lesbian kiss. The newspapers ran massive headlines about them, but it turned out to be things like the kiss on Roseanne or L.A. Law, where it was a lesbian [or bisexual woman] kissing a straight woman. The most devious example was on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The characters were two space aliens who get new bodies when they die. So you had two actresses playing a couple who, in a previous incarnation, had been husband and wife. That made it okay for them to have a long, steamy kiss.
Z: What’s the best image out there today?
S.C.: There’s a series in the United States called It’s All Relative. It’s a boy-meets-girl story where the girlfriend’s parents are a very cultivated gay male couple and the boyfriend’s parents are a straight couple who run a bar. It’s fun, but it falls into the new stereotype: what defines a man as gay isn’t homosexuality, but rather a flair for fashion, decorating…
Z: You don’t believe in that prevailing stereotype?
S.C.: Anyone who’s seen my apartment knows that not all gay men have a knack for decorating. But then there’s Will on Will & Grace, who’s always cleaning and very fashion-conscious. You get more of the same on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which was all the rage last summer. It’s the ultimate expression of the cliché that gay guys are fabulous and that straight guys are pigs.
Z: What is your favorite gay character, past or present?
S.C.: Carter on Spin City, because he’s a prominent role and he’s not desexualized, and yet they never reduce him to being just “the gay guy.” He was also groundbreaking as one of the first gay characters who wasn’t apolitical: he was very up-front about who he was, and was willing to take a practical stand on issues that affected him.
Z: What are the main differences between Europe and North America?
S.C.: Basically, that in America they censor sex and in Europe, violence. That’s the case on the mainstream networks, anyway. The premium channels, which don’t depend on advertisers, can run whatever they want, like the American Queer as Folk, which is at least as raunchy as the British series.
Z: What do you think of the situation in Spain?
S.C.: I love Diana on the sitcom 7 Lives (7 vidas), and in general I think the image of lesbians on Spanish TV is good. They are portrayed far less often than gay men, but they’re less stereotyped. Spain today reminds me of the U.S. in the 1970s, with its campy, comical celebrities like Boris Izaguirre, or male characters that fit some sort of stereotype, like the dance student who used to be on One Step Forward (Un paso adelante). That’s not to say that Spain is backward. You’re living through the same logical progression we did, but just slightly later.