One of the first gay characters I remember seeing on television was Steven Carrington on Dynasty. My mom and I watched all the primetime soaps together: Dallas, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing. But I took in every bit of Steven Carrington that I could; his intense personal struggle, the striving for parental acceptance, the desire for a relationship. Although the show kind of pulled him in all directions, making him bisexual felt less like a progressive choice than a ‘gateway’ to ease viewers in, he was one of the few characters on the show to have a moral compass and I don’t remember gay characters being treated that well before.
From Emmy-nominated filmmakers Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, and executive producers Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz, Visible: Out on Television investigates the importance of TV as an intimate medium that has shaped the American conscience, and how the LGBTQ movement has shaped television. Combining archival footage with interviews with key players from the movement and the screen, the docuseries is narrated by Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe.
Each hour-long episode explores themes such as invisibility, homophobia, the evolution of the LGBTQ character, and coming out in the television industry. The docuseries features never-before-seen interviews with Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Billy Porter, Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Sara Ramirez, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and dozens more. Visible: Out on Television is directed and executive produced by Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, The Case Against 8, The Keepers). Jessica Hargrave, Wilson Cruz and Wanda Sykes also serve as executive producers.
I had the chance to talk with series creators Wilson Cruz, Jessica Hargrave and Ryan White on everything from their own first memories of LGBTQ representation on television, LGBTQ milestones and what’s next on the horizon.
What were for each of you your first memories of LGBTQ representation on television?
JH: One of the most amazing things for me about working on this show is getting to work with Wilson Cruz, because his character Rickie on My So-Called Life was so impactful for me, and I know it was for Ryan too. We’ve been best friends since we were kids, and that was a show we both loved and learned from. I had never seen anyone like Rickie on TV before and I felt very connected to him, subconsciously recognizing some of my own best friend in him.
RW: My first memories are definitely talk shows of the 80’s where the gay person was usually portrayed as some sort of freak or weirdo. And I loved Rickie on My So-Called Life. But my first formative LGBTQ character on TV was definitely Pedro on The Real World. I grew up during the AIDS crisis, so I sort of always assumed if I ever came out, that it would be a death sentence. Pedro really deprogrammed that for me and humanized what it’s like to live with HIV/AIDS, and MTV did such a thorough job of showing his life outside of the disease that I think it’s the first time I got to witness a gay guy just living his life.
WC: The very first memory of an LGBTQ person on TV is Billy Crystal in Soap. After that, I remember the character of Steven Carrington on Dynasty and I remember watching Aidan Quinn in An Early Frost with my mother. Each one being a gay, white, male character that I tried to see myself in, but never quite did.
What did you discover about how news organizations and television shows handled the LGBTQ community in the past? Were there any surprises or revelations?
JH: “Zapping” was a revelation for me. Activists would storm live news broadcasts or corporate media offices to demand better representation. Putting themselves in front of millions of viewers sparked a conversation and ultimately change.
RW: The fact that “experts” were coming on television in the 50’s and 60’s and talking about homosexuality as a mental illness was pretty appalling. If you have only have three television stations and tens of millions of people are tuning into each one of them, you can imagine the adverse effects these types of television shows could have on American families. I also had no idea that Stonewall was not covered by American television – that blew my mind.
Are there any shows, events or characters you wish could have been included? Honorable mentions?
JH: A journalist for Decider wrote a great article about Charles Nelson Reilly, and how he wished Reilly could have been more developed in the series (we only included two short clips of him). We knew we were going to upset some viewers by leaving some things out, which we had to do to fit the story in 5 hours. This article is great because the journalist acknowledges what we had to do – tell a fuller story for Paul Lynde – but basically says, “This series is prompting a conversation about representation on TV and I want Reilly to be a part of that conversation so here’s his story.”
RW: The worst part is seeing the tweets in which somebody feels let down. I know how important TV characters were to me growing up, so I understand how personal it is for people. My only defense was we had to leave things out to squeeze 70-80 years of TV into 5 hours!
WC: YES! Many. Schitt’s Creek, comes to mind. The Women of Brewster Place is another. There was a show on Showtime in the early 80’s called Brothers, is another… I could go on and on and on…. which is why there are editors!
Wilson, what the most significant impact for you personally and professionally as a result of My So Called Life? Do you feel it initially hurt or helped your career?
WC: Whether, initially, or in the long look back at my career, thus far, I have to believe that My So-Called Life and my choice of, not only, playing Rickie Vasquez, but choosing to come out, personally, while doing it, which is what we’re really talking about here, has only helped me. When you begin your career on a show that beautifully written and produced, it can only help. I was only one of a handful of openly gay actors at the time and I think because I made it clear that I was enthusiastic about telling the stories of LGBTQ people, great opportunities found their way to me, while I actively pursued them. I think it also helped that I saw myself as a collaborator with the creative teams I worked with in order to create three dimensional, complicated characters and stories and not stereotypes.
One of the things that stood out was highlighting that Ellen’s coming out episode and the finale of Survivor were huge, event television moments with record-setting ratings. In an era of 500 TV channels, multiple streamers, smart phones and everything else, will we ever see milestones as a part of telling LGBTQ stories?
JH: I think there will still be milestones but they won’t exist as singular moments anymore, mostly because people watch shows whenever they want now. Pose was released in this era of wide-ranging media but I would still call it a milestone – it changed the conversation and created a lot of opportunity.
RW: We have to remember that the new era of TV and streamers provides the platform for many more diverse voices to tell their stories. Shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black would have never existed without the advent of streaming platforms, and now we’re seeing shows like Special get the greenlight and find an audience. So while a TV show isn’t garnering the ratings that it did decades ago, we’re seeing more voices represented because of the diversification of TV, and shows outside of the box can still find an audience and becomes cultural phenomenons.
In the early days of LGBTQ storylines, characters were often only played by straight actors who were labeled ‘brave’ for doing so. Later, out LGBTQ often found themselves pigeonholed into those roles. Now we are in a time of demanding that queer people write, direct and play queer characters. This is obviously a nuanced situation but I’d love to hear your take on how and who should play queer roles and tell those stories.
WC: I am far more interested in telling stories with LGBTQ characters that are authentic and complex, than I am with the sexual orientation of the performer. I won’t sit here and say that only LGBTQ actors should play LGBTQ roles, but I will say that, in my opinion, LGBTQ people have the advantage of bringing their truth and their lived experience to the performance. That said, in regards to Trans actors and roles, given the lack of opportunities for Trans actors in this industry and the dangerous and mistaken view by some that Trans people are just playing “dress up,” I think it’s high time that Trans actors are given the opportunity to tell those stories and play those roles. As someone who, in the early days of my career, played a couple of Trans characters, I would absolutely decline to do that now. It’s a different time now and, I would hope, given what we know now about the effects of cis actors playing Trans roles, we would all make better choices and make space for new talent.
What do you think the responsibility is for an LGBTQ artist who achieves a high level of success and acceptance?
WC: I would hope that any LGBTQ artist who achieves some level of success and acceptance would acknowledge that, while we have made significant progress in many way as a community, we continue to work towards true acceptance and equality in the eyes of the law and that they would not only use their voice and visibility in support of that struggle, but reach back and make space and opportunity for other LGBTQ artists who come after them.
What is the next step in LGBTQ visibility and representation of television?
JH: A wider range of diversity within the LGBTQ spectrum, reflecting even more experiences of varying language, ability, socioeconomic status, etc.
RW: We often focus on TV characters and the actors playing them, because those are the famous faces. We need to remember that there are so many intersections of LGBTQ identities that are underrepresented behind the camera. I think the more LGBTQ people can get into the power positions behind the camera — the executives, the writers, the camera people, the grips — the more we’re going to see the paradigm shift of LGBTQ representation in front of the camera.
WC: I like to believe we are living in the early days of the next step of visibility and representation, as we speak! We’re already beginning to see a more diverse representation of LGBTQ people on television. For years, when we talked about representation on television we were really only talking about gay white men. Within the last few years that’s begun to change and we’ve begun to see a wider spectrum of characters in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. It’s a great start and I’m excited to see where we go now that we’re seeing more LGBTQ content created by LGBTQ writers, directors and producers who are reinventing television and redefining whose stories are told and who gets to tell them.
Visible: Out on Television is currently streaming on Apple TV+.