David Bender and Wilson Cruz spent seven years crafting Visible: Out on Television, and it shows. Bender, the co-founder of Human Rights Campaign, and Cruz — who made history himself, playing the first gay teenage character on network TV — had smaller ambitions at first. Their original Kickstarter pitch was for a limited lookback to the 1990s, when LGBTQ characters began popping up on shows like Roseanne and Ellen.
With Apple’s help, however, that project evolved into Visible, a lovingly crafted and comprehensive history of American television, told from the perspective of people who, for much of that history, were thought to be out of the picture. Its focus notwithstanding, Visible doubles as an outstanding documentary on how TV developed in the second half of the 20th century.
Using archival footage of news and entertainment programs dating back to the early 1950s, Visible tells its story from both sides of the screen — the people making TV, as well as those consuming it — to explore the not-always-obvious journey of gay people from pariahs to pathbreakers and ultimately, shapers of the mainstream culture that had tried to shut them out.
“This project is a love letter to the power of television,” Cruz told me at the TCA winter press tour in California. “It was through television that we got to tell the entire society and culture what our lives are really like. And because of that honesty and that authenticity, we were able to move the needle to acceptance.”
As I say, this is more than gay TV history. Visible opens with a re-examination of one of television’s signal events, the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which ABC televised and 80 million (!) Americans watched. Though the hearings were mostly devoted to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of Communist infiltration of the U.S. government, McCarthy made clear he was going after not just “Reds” but “perverts,” a word that wound up in newspaper headlines. The culture wars, in other words, are nothing new, they’re as old as the Cold War.
Visible relies sparingly on narration and instead lets viewers and participants tell its story. Fashion icon Tim Gunn remembers how “explosive” the McCarthy hearings were. And yet, at the exact same time millions of straight viewers were lapping up The Liberace Show, featuring the concert pianist that Broad City star Ilana Glazer aptly describes here as “the gayest gay.” One of syndicated TV’s earliest and biggest hits, The Liberace Show aired in reruns for 15 years across middle America. “How did this not become an issue?” wonders actor and activist Michael Douglas (who played Liberace in Behind the Candelabra)
Well, it’s complicated. The homicidal lesbian and self-hating gay man persisted for decades as a TV-movie trope. Late-night hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson always got cheap laughs at the gays’ expense. And then there were the talk and news programs. Visible found a gold mine of material in the unscripted shows, many airing on local stations to housewives, where gayness was routinely treated as an illness or disorder requiring treatment. This is what makes Visible more than simply a small-screen version of The Celluloid Closet, the acclaimed LGBTQ history of film.
“The Celluloid Closet was such a huge inspiration for me as a filmmaker,” said Ryan White, who’s a producer of Visible along with Cruz, Wanda Sykes and Jessica Hargrave. “But television not only reflects fiction and scripted stories — it has always covered the real world.” Until the 1980s most cities had no cable TV and only a handful of channels dividing up a very large audience, That meant even a daytime talk show dispensing bad advice about your queer child reached more viewers than an episode of The Voice does today.
How bad was the advice? Try: “The most common expression of difficulty is the aggressive, dominant, controlling mother.” Or, “A child’s maleness should be emphasized when you suspect something may be wrong.” That whopper came from the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who suggested sports as the cure. On a 1967 CBS news special, The Homosexuals, host Mike Wallace interviewed psychiatrist Charles Socarides, who declared that to be gay was to have a mental disease — which his gay son Richard tells Visible was not something his dad actually believed, but it helped his career.
“A talk show today, I don’t even know what the ratings would be," said White, “but I don’t think it could be near as destructive as some of those talk shows were in the ’50s and ’60s, where the entire country was tuning in and people were looking to those experts for answers.”
In such an atmosphere, maybe a megastar like Liberace could be himself. But for LGBTQ actors wanting to work in television at a time when networks wanted everything squeaky clean, it was a different story. Supporting actors like George Takei or Sheila Kuehl, and even bona fide stars like Raymond Burr, learned to get comfortable inside a dark closet.
(“Raymond Burr was gay?” says Tim Gunn. He had no idea — neither did I. But we hear from Perry Mason’s partner, Robert Bonavides, and the couple’s mutual friend, Ruth Westheimer, who attest that the studio was in on Burr’s secret and protected its investment. Not so lucky was Kuehl, who almost lost her part as Zelda on Dobie Gillis because the head of CBS’ entertainment division thought she was “too butch.”)
After the 1969 Stonewall riot, things started to change. Visible captures the exact moment when newsman Walter Cronkite and his audience of millions discover that marginalizing gay people is no longer OK. Activists later stormed NBC headquarters to protest a Police Woman episode featuring yet another homicidal lesbian. That paved the way for the breakthrough TV movie A Question of Love (1978), starring Gena Rowlands as a gay woman in a custody battle with her ex-husband.
Part 3 of Visible is devoted to a refresher course on the AIDS crisis, the plague that changed gay activism and forced TV to change, not only in the narrative that news programs covered AIDS but how it was depicted in everything from soap operas to movies to the emerging genre of reality TV. Parts 4 and 5 chronicle the slow but steady on-ramp to acceptance and leading roles for LGBTQ actors and characters.
“It’s an homage to the storytellers throughout the medium, whether it be journalism, or scripted television, or reality TV,” says Cruz, the man who’s lived with Visible longer than anyone else. “It’s a love letter to all of the people — straight, allies, LGBTQ people who took it upon themselves to take the risks.”
Visible: Out on Television is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.