Bravo’s TV Revolution: Out of the Closet purports to be a serious documentary about the history of gays and lesbians on television, but despite the earnest narrator and fuzzy black-and-white footage from television’s early years, it’s quickly apparent that Out of the Closet is just another slap-it-together look at a “controversial” topic—and it’s not nearly as fun as VH1’s Totally Gay series.
This “documentary,” one of a four-part series about revolutionary trends in television history, either ignores or swiftly skips over most of the history of lesbians and bisexual women on television. Once again the gay television revolution appears to be primarily (if not all) about gay men, and when Out of the Closet does choose to turn its lens on lesbians, its choices don’t make a whole lot of sense.
This is unfortunate not only because lesbians and bisexual women continue to be postscripts in the dialogue about gay rights in many areas of our culture, but also because there really is a revolutionary story here—one in which lesbians on television have evolved from mental patients or homicidal maniacs to intelligent and sexy women with careers and characters.
Just don’t expect the network that brought you Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to tell that story.
Out of the Closet begins in the dark ages of television history—that is, in the 1950s. But after showing some black-and-white clips of happy postwar mothers in their shiny suburban kitchens and announcing that gays were nowhere to be seen on TV, the documentary quickly moves to 1967 and Mike Wallace’s news program on “The Homosexuals.” In this episode of CBS Reports, Mike Wallace interviewed several openly gay men (who were disguised by potted plants placed in front of their faces) and psychiatrists, who discussed the fact that homosexuality was a mental illness.
While “The Homosexuals” was certainly an important milestone, it was not the first time that homosexuality had been discussed on TV. Many local news programs had broadcast segments about homosexuality before 1967, usually focusing on the impact of gay men on the broader public. Although some lesbians were featured on these programs, as Steven Tropiano argues in The Prime Time Closet,“The public’s ignorance and denial [of lesbianism] was certainly reinforced by TV talk shows and documentaries, which consistently treated female homosexuality, if mentioned at all, as a secondary issue” (page 7).
Out of the Closet’s analysis of the 1970s includes programs such as All in the Family (one of Archie Bunker’s buddies turns out to be gay), That Certain Summer (Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook play gay men struggling to come out to Holbrook’s son), An American Family (early reality TV with gay son Lance Loud), and Soap (Billie Crystal plays a gay man). The narrator declares warmly, “For the first time, gay men and women are beginning to see images of themselves on TV.”
Maybe the producers weren’t looking, because there were no images of gay women in Out of the Closet’s rendition of the 1970s.
This is unfortunate because the 1970s were very important for women, both gay and straight. In 1972, an episode of Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law featured the first self-identified lesbian character on TV, journalist Meg Dayton (played by Kristina Holland). Dayton is called on to testify that her friend Ann Glover (played by Meredith Baxter, who later was the mom on Family Ties and a lesbian mom in the CBS afterschool special Other Mothers), who is accused of sexually molesting a fifteen-year-old girl, is not a lesbian.
Although the storyline falls into the long history of conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, the character of Meg Dayton is actually fairly stable and does not reject her lesbianism.
Despite this relatively positive representation of a lesbian, however, 1970s America was not nearly ready to accept lesbians as normal human beings. In one of the most controversial events in television history, a 1974 episode of Police Woman, titled “Flowers of Evil,” featured a trio of murderous lesbian nurses (dubbed “the Butch, the Bitch, and the Femme” by Lesbian Tide magazine) who run a retirement home in which they kill and rob their patients.
Originally scheduled to air on NBC in late October 1974, the program was pulled for editing after the National Gay Task Force and other gay rights organizations protested the storyline. “Flowers of Evil” was edited to remove all explicit references to lesbianism, but it remained patently obvious that the murderers—particularly the butch leader who was described by one character as someone who “ought to be driving a diesel truck”—were lesbians.
According to Steven Tropiano in The Prime Time Closet, “‘Flowers of Evil’ remains one of the most blatant examples of negative stereotyping on television. By today’s standards, the episode is so outrageously offensive it borders on camp” (p. 69).
But NBC was apparently satisfied with its editing job, and it decided to air “Flowers of Evil” on November 8, a week earlier than planned. This unexpected development resulted in an uproar of protest from lesbian and feminist groups and a sit-in led by the Lesbian Feminist Liberation at NBC’s New York headquarters, accompanied by protests on the street below.
In 1975, NBC agreed to never re-broadcast this episode. The protests required to finally shelve this episode played a major role in mobilizing gay activist groups as well as forcing the networks to consult with gay and lesbian media advisors before airing programs that might be offensive.
Out of the Closet, unfortunately, completely ignores this important moment in the history of gays and lesbians on television, skipping blithely onward to Billy Crystal’s role as the somewhat-effeminate but lovable gay man Jodie Dallas on the comedy Soap.
The documentary neglects to mention that there was also a lesbian on Soap—Jodie’s friend Alice, whom he meets while considering suicide at the top of the Triborough Bridge (she is also considering suicide). They become best friends and roommates, but their relationship ends when Jodie is forced to choose between custody of his daughter or living with a lesbian (he chooses his daughter).
Soap was groundbreaking not only because it had a gay man as a regular cast member, but it also contained a recurring lesbian character and one of the few happy lesbian-gay friendships to be seen on television.
In the 1980s the US was forced to deal with the AIDS crisis, and much of television in the first half of the decade revolved around this illness. Out of the Closet discusses the TV movie An Early Frost which deals with this issue, the sometimes-gay character Steven Carrington on Dynasty, and the 1989 Thirtysomething episode “Strangers” in which we see our first gay male couple in bed together.
But Out of the Closet ignores the short-lived medical drama Heartbeat (1988-89), which featured television’s first regular lesbian character, nurse Marilyn McGrath (played by Gail Strickland), who was in a long-term relationship with her partner Patti (Gina Hecht). On Heartbeat, Marilyn and Patti were never allowed to touch affectionately or sexually (the case with most gay couples on network TV), but they were fully accepted by the other characters on the show and thus provided a relatively positive image for lesbians and bisexual women.