PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, October 20, 2011
Haddon Township man chronicles gay
TV characters through the decades
By Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist
Professional translator Steven Capsuto is also an expert about gays and lesbians on TV.
"I have more than 2,000 video recordings," the Haddon Township resident says. "I have every queer episode of Medical Center except two."
That creaky Chad Everett melodrama of the 1970s had gay content? Who knew?
Capsuto, 47, knows. He's the author of Alternate Channels, a soon-to-be updated examination of homosexuality's emergence from the broadcasting closet.
It's a subject he regularly lectures about on college campuses. And, having started his research in the VCR era, he finds that keeping up with the proliferation of (mostly) positive images is much easier in these digital days.
"Today is a totally different world from when the book came out 11 years ago," Capsuto said. "YouTube didn't exist. . . . The reality TV revolution hadn't started.
"Now I can go on Hulu and watch episodes of shows. So much more is available, faster."
A bright, affable guy who resembles the actor Jason Alexander (George on Seinfeld), Capsuto grew up watching local kids' shows and, later, Norman Lear sitcoms in what he calls "a liberal Jewish household" in Cherry Hill.
"Television was where I was learning about the world," he says. "I remember Soap, and seeing gay people on Phil Donahue."
Capsuto graduated from Cherry Hill East in 1982, earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish at Rutgers, and did graduate studies in Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania. He began researching his book after volunteering at a Philadelphia gay counseling center in the late 1980s.
"We'd get calls from suicidal teenagers," said the author, who knew he was gay by age 11 and came out while at Rutgers. "They said their only image of gay people was from TV."
Capsuto recorded and researched hundreds of shows, including the memorable (All in the Family), the forgettable (Nash Bridges), and the in-between (Private Secretary).
He found that after the relative gay invisibility of the 1950s, the "liberated" 1960s ushered in homicidal or otherwise vile lesbians, as well as gay men beset by blackmail and other calamities.
So much for the dramas. On sitcoms, the occasional witty queen (the late, great Paul Lynde comes first to my mind) got laughs, but was rarely if ever central to the action.
As for news coverage, gay life was historically presented as a problem. A "daring" CBS documentary of 1967 focused on lives ruined forever by forbidden desires; one poor gay soul was so afraid to be seen on camera that he sat behind a potted palm, safe in the shadows.
"There were no happy gay people on television," Capsuto says. "Things really didn't change until Ellen and Queer as Folk."
Capsuto, whose flat-screen TV is as modest as his DVD and VHS collection is impressive, clearly loves his subject.
He reels off the episodes and plot lines and cast changes of shows, pointing out the landmarks of progress: Tales of the City, Spin City, and, of course, Will and Grace.
These landmark series of the '90s and early 2000s have been followed by serial boomlets in quantity, and quality, of characters and coverage - although gay people of color and transsexuals and other sexual minorities are still rarely seen. And men still outnumber women, shows like The L Word notwithstanding.
"I think we're going to see a more casual attitude toward inclusiveness on TV" going forward, Capsuto said.
He loves that a fairly standard show like the sitcom Happy Endings has a character whose homosexuality is presented simply as a fact of life.
Rather than "having to think about whether sexual orientation is an issue that needs some sort of special handling," Capsuto said, "I hope that 20 years from now, shows will just tell stories about people."