July 20, 2007
V 35 Issue 29

search only SGN online
Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021



Cost of the
War in Iraq
(JavaScript Error)
Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Milestones for Queers on Television (Part 1)
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer Television is a major influence on American popular culture, and the evolving presence of LGBT people on the small screen has both reflected and fostered acceptance of Gays in mainstream society

In the 1950s and 1960s - a time when homosexuality was regarded as a crime or a mental illness - a few brave Queers began appearing on local television talk shows. In April 1954, Los Angeles station KTTV ran a program called Confidential File featuring a policeman, a psychiatrist, and a Gay man, Dale Olson. Asked whether he would change his sexual orientation if he could, Olson replied that he would not; the next day, he was fired from his job. Four years later, New York's WABD ran a similar program featuring sympathetic psychologist Albert Ellis and Gonzolo Segura, a Gay chemist who wore a hood to hide his identity.

In November 1964, New York Mattachine Society member Randy Wicker went undisguised on the popular Les Crane Show, and in 1967, activists Franklin Kameny, Jack Nichols, and Lilli Vincenz appeared on channel WOOK in Washington, D.C. "Once we started appearing on TV and on talk radio shows, [the public] started seeing us as more real," Vincenz later said.

LGBT people garnered a national audience in March 1967 with a special episode of CBS Reports entitled "The Homosexuals," hosted by Mike Wallace. The program - which ran with virtually no ads since sponsors wouldn't touch it - featured Jack Nichols, author Gore Vidal, a federal judge, and conservative psychiatrist Charles Socarides; though Nichols used an alias, he too lost his job. That same year, New York Mattachine president Dick Leitsch appeared on The David Susskind Show, which aired on PBS stations nationwide.

In 1971, Susskind featured a panel of lesbians, including Daughters of Bilitis member Barbara Gittings, who proclaimed, "Homosexuals today are taking it for granted that their homosexuality is not at all something dreadful - it's good, it's right, it's natural, it's moral, and this is the way they are going to be."

By the late 1960s, talk show host Phil Donahue also began featuring queer people (originally on his local program in Dayton, Ohio, which was later nationally syndicated), despite his fear that some viewers might think he was Gay himself.

After the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, occasional Queer characters began to appear on TV with increasing frequency. The CBS series Medical Center (1969-1976) featured, perhaps, the first-ever sympathetic portrayals of Gay and Lesbian characters on television.

During the first season of ABC's All in the Family in 1971, Archie Bunker was taken aback to learn that an old drinking buddy - a former pro football player - was Gay. The show prompted then-president Richard Nixon to complain to his staff, "Goddamn it, I don't think you glorify [homosexuality] on public television." In a later episode, Archie saved the life of a female impersonator, and in the spin-off The Jeffersons, lead character George reunited with an old Navy buddy who was now a woman. The 1970s also saw the first sympathetic made-for-TV movies, including That Certain Summer (1972), in which a teenage boy discovers his father is Gay.

While reality TV is often regarded as a recent phenomenon, the 1970s PBS series An American Family portrayed the real-life travails of a Southern California family, the Louds. Teenage son Lance came out on screen in January 1973, sparking both condemnation and applause. He performed in a punk rock band and wrote for magazines, including The Advocate, before dying of liver failure related to HIV and hepatitis C at age 50.

Variety shows of the 1970s, such as Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live, addressed homosexuality in their skits, often by making fun of stereotypical Gay characters. By mid-decade, three Gay men - Paul Lynde (who previously played a bachelor warlock on Bewitched), Charles Nelson Reilly (who had a role in the children's show Lidsville), and Wayland Flowers (with his puppet "Madame"), had become flamboyant fixtures on popular game shows, though they did not openly acknowledge their sexuality.

While several programs in the 1970s occasionally featured Queers, regular LGBT characters were scarce. The first, in 1972, was Peter Panama, a Gay designer on the short-lived ABC sitcom The Corner Bar. This was followed in 1975 by the first Gay male couple, on the network's Hot L Baltimore. An unhappily married woman on the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives admitted she was Bisexual in 1977, but the storyline was brief. A longer-running and better-known example of a recurring Queer character was Jodie Dallas on ABC's Soap (1977-1982).

As the Gay liberation movement gained political clout, the National Gay Task Force and other activists protested against shows that cast Queers in a negative light, including a 1974 episode of Marcus Welby, M.D., in which a male teacher molested a boy. During the first season of Soap, the campy, effeminate Jodie dated a closeted football player and planned to have a sex-change operation, until the Task Force successfully demanded that the script be altered. By the late 1970s, however, the religious right had also become more powerful, and producers and advertisers began to face competing boycott threats from queers and conservatives.

(To be continued.)

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at

For further information:

Alwood, Edward. 1996. _Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media_ (Columbia University Press).

Eisenbach, David. 2006. _Gay Power: An American Revolution_ (Carroll & Graf).

Raymond, Susan and Alan. 2002. _Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family_ (PBS documentary).


Seattle Gay Blog
post your own information on
the Seattle Gay Blog

copyright Seattle Gay News - DigitalTeamWorks 2007