For better and for worse, television has defined our existence as queer people in America. From the airing of the Army-McCarthy hearings to the launch of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for the presidency, the images and stories of our lives have been interpreted and broadcast by writers, producers, and newspeople. To see the evolution of queer representation on television over the past seven decades is to see us emerge from the shadows, challenge others’ narratives, and begin to craft our own presence in the public eye.
We’ve all grown up noting both the absence and the appearance of ourselves as queer folk on television. Each of us remembers when and how we first saw ourselves there, and we’re indelibly marked by the ways straight society used the 20th century’s most important communication medium to make us the punchlines of their jokes, the villains of their morality tales, and the lurking menace of their fears. But we remember also the first time television became a mirror that reflected us and gave us hope that the world might actually see us as we see ourselves.
“Visible: Out on Television”, the newly released documentary series on Apple TV+, tells the history of how television has shaped our lives and how we, in turn, have used to television to shape America’s concept of who we are.
I myself am too young to remember Lance Loud and too old to have been a teen inspired by My So Called Life. For the cohort of my generation, AIDS defined our presence on television. From the first reports of “gay cancer” in the early 80s to ACT UP’s 1990 protest at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., growing up gay in Reagan’s America meant fearing the day we might all get sick and die.
As I was finishing college, the nation had begun to finally see hope for the end of the worst days of dying in the AIDS epidemic and was debating “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (a piece of our history sadly missing from the documentary). With Ellen’s coming out in 1997 and the public discussion surrounding it, I resolved to build a life for myself fully outside the closet.
I don’t recall much of Will & Grace, even though I was among the millions who regularly tuned in for it. But I felt a deep connection to Showtime’s Queer as Folk, with its diverse ensemble cast, realistic depictions of sex, and willingness to explore the politics of navigating a straight world as a queer person. Both shows would ultimately inform my thinking as an activist.
As with all things, we see on television what we choose to see. During the early aughts, I saw myself well represented. But I was completely blind to the near-total absence of queer people of color and remained oblivious to persistent stereotypes about the trans community. I didn’t recognize how narrowly defined my way of existing in the world was despite all the progress of the previous decade.
To watch Wanda Sykes, Janet Mock, MJ Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Sara Ramirez, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, Billy Porter, Wilson Cruz, Don Lemon, Neal Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper, Peter Paige, Peter Staley, and others tell their stories of how television shaped their experiences is a potent reminder that we’re no longer just unseen members of the viewing audience.
The power of television has always been its ability to influence society with imagery and dialogue that people willingly accept into their homes. As a prism of the world, television has demonstrated for straight people what it means for us queer folk to live among them. For us to be on TV has confirmed our existence because if someone is telling our story then we can’t possibly be “the only one.”
“Visible: Out on Television” is and does as its title promises. More than mere documentary, it’s a part of the same evolution in the representation of queer people that it chronicles. Every minute of every episode is worth seeing. Watch it as soon as you can — for the nostalgia, for the education, and for the reminder that what will always matter most is being out, being seen, and being our most authentic selves.
Brian Gaither (@briangaither) is a gay writer and activist in Maryland.