At a time when television is setting new records in terms of onscreen recognition for LGBTQ identities and issues, it might be easy – especially for the younger among us – to forget that it wasn’t always that way.
There was a time, not long ago, when one might never even know LGBTQ people existed based on what they saw on TV. Such figures as Liberace and Paul Lynde, who are now seen as representing a sort of queer proto-visibility with their flamboyant onscreen personas, passed in their day as straight to the majority of their viewing public, incredible as it may seem to us now; and Stonewall, now widely known as one of the most significant moments in the struggle for LGBTQ equality, was never mentioned in a single network news broadcast when it happened, a mere 50 years ago.
Partly because of the television industry’s suppression of all things queer during most of its history, most of LGBTQ history has long been invisible, preserved only in the memories of those who took part, and in greater danger of being lost forever with the passing of each succeeding generation.
Fortunately, embedded within the story of television itself is an entire narrative revealing the queer history that was taking place right before the eyes of millions of viewers, even as it was happening – and thanks to “Visible: Out on Television,” a new 5-part mini-docuseries debuting this weekend on Apple TV+, it’s a history that is now being told, out, proud and queer.
Created by Emmy-nomiinated filmmakers Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, the series investigates the importance of television as an intimate medium that has shaped the American conscience – and illuminates how the LGBTQ movement has shaped television. It combines archival footage, interviews with key players from the movement and the screen, and narrations by community icons Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe, to explore themes such as invisibility, homophobia, the evolution of the LGBTQ character, and coming out in the television industry.
Each hour long episode focuses on an era in the timeline of television history, paralleling the evolution of queer representation in the medium with the cultural history that was occurring around it.
*DISCLAIMER: SPOILERS BELOW
The first installment, titled “The Dark Ages,” gives us a chilling look at an era that surely exemplifies what the slogan “Make America Great Again” was meant to evoke in the minds of a nostalgic older generation – at least, those among them that had been privileged enough to ignore its inequality and injustices. We are reminded that the first mention of the word “homosexual” came in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, during discussions about the security risks posed by LGBTQ government employees whose “deviant” lifestyle presumptively made them vulnerable to manipulation by Communist agents; that during the 1960s, the news media, including respected CBS anchor Mike Wallace, hosted “experts” of the day who propounded the belief that homosexuality was a curable psychological disorder; and that in which the idea of non-heteronormativity as a psychological disorder was not only seriously discussed, but strongly stressed; and that Lance Loud, the first openly homosexual person to appear on television when he was part of “An American Family,” the docuseries that followed his household for thirteen weeks in 1973, was demonized and vilified by a press that called him “leechlike” and described him as “an evil flower.” In each case, it’s impossible to ignore the echoes of similar homophobic rhetoric that has resurged during the Trump era.
Yet in the same hour, we are also shown the signs of hope that blossomed in the midst of all this darkness, through the gradual foothold that was made by an LGBTQ presence on television, from the non-stereotypical gender presentation of coded characters like Sheila Kuehl’s Zelda on “The Many Adventures of Dobie Gillis” and Lynde’s Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched,” to the groundbreaking depictions of openly queer people on Norman Lear’s “All in the Family.” The episode ends with the glimmer of an even brighter future that appeared with the emergence of openly gay Harvey Milk as a substantial political figure.
That we know all too well how his story ends gives us all the more reason to want to binge watch straight through each of these five excellent episodes.
With insight and commentary from familiar contemporary figures (such as Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz, both of whom are also executive producers, along with director White), historic queer icons (like Ellen DeGeneres and Bruce Vilanch), and lesser-known voices from the early days of LGBTQ activism, “Visible” presents a thoughtful, emotionally resonant, clearly focused, and deeply informative look at queer history as it fought its way into mainstream consciousness through a powerful medium that still connects us all. It’s a must-see event for LGBTQ audiences who thirst for knowledge about the community’s past, yes – but also for anyone who wants to gain an understanding of how representation on TV works to shape the culture surrounding it, as well as why it matters.
The show drops on Apple TV+ on Friday, February 14. You can watch the trailer below.