Before Logo, before here! Networks, before Ellen and Will & Grace, there was — and is — In the Life. Now in its 16th season, this LGBT newsmagazine à la Frontline and 60 Minutes has brought the faces and stories of LGBT people to households all over the United States via public television.
What began as a variety show with a live audience airing on six PBS stations in 1992 is now an Emmy Award–nominated newsmagazine shown on more than 245 PBS stations. Originally titled Out on TV, what became In the Life was the brainchild of John Scagliotti, director of the Emmy-winning documentary Before Stonewall. He found volunteers for his vision of an all-gay television show among his friends and colleagues, as well as via advertisements in publications like the New York Blade and the now-defunct Outweek.
The “Let’s put on a show!” attitude was heartily embraced by the LGBT community, who in 1991 had just seen the first U.S. televised same-sex kiss on L.A. Law. The community wanted a show of its own and raised the $10,000 needed to fund the first episode.
In the Life’s early team: (L.-R.) John Scagliotti, Pamela Jennings,
Despite the fact that In the Life did not (and has not, even today) received money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the nonprofit organization created and partially funded by Congress to promote public broadcasting — the show made the news before the pilot episode even aired. Bob Dole, then a U.S. Senator, denounced the show from the Senate floor, appalled that a gay show could be on the same station as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Scagliotti tapped comedian Kate Clinton to host the pilot episode of the show. Clinton recalled: “I have fond memories of my first line in that first show: ‘I know what you’re thinking — not another gay and lesbian TV show.’ I hadn’t planned it. I just looked at the audience and thought, ‘This is an amazing thing that’s happening.'”
John Scagliotti (left) & Kate Clinton
The first show featured dancers, comedians, musicians and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. Though that may not sound groundbreaking or controversial now, In the Life was canceled by a station in North Carolina after only one airing and by another station in Pittsburgh before it even aired.
Getting In the Life on the air was one of the main challenges the show’s early volunteer staff faced. Longtime host Katherine Linton recalled that one of the many hats she wore when she first started working with the show was broadcast liaison. “I would call every PBS station every month, ask when they were going to air us, beg them to air us,” she said.
Public television stations have a mandate to air programming that represents the communities they serve. When reminded of this by Linton and others involved with In the Life, many station managers would simply say, “We don’t have any gays here.”
Stations that did air the show in the early years often put it on after midnight, and LGBT viewers were outraged. Clinton commented: “What I’ve learned in the gay movement is that you can never ever predict what people are going to get upset about and what is going to become their final straw. For a lot of people who had been pretty steady PBS contributors — and put up with winter fundraising drives, spring fundraising drives and the auctions — to find that there was not a space for them on their local PBS channel got lots of people upset, and it really activated them. People were outraged that what they considered a liberal bastion, which welcomed different opinions, was not going to carry something about gays and lesbians.”
Nonetheless, air it did, in expected places like New York City and San Francisco, but also in Nebraska and Dole’s home state of Kansas. Yet, the scrutiny In the Life faced from PBS station managers intensified. “Viewers complained that we were too conservative, but they had no idea what we were up against,” Linton said. “Our show was so fine-tooth-combed. They were just waiting for us to put sexual content in.”
Linton continued: “We covered Carnival in Brazil, and one drag queen had a penis-shaped water pistol aimed at the camera. It was on the screen for two seconds, if that. We got dropped across the country because of that. We had to pull the show, pull the shot, reupload it [to the American Public Television satellite].”
Though some of the refusals to air the show may have been personal choices of individual station managers, much of the resistance was due to a very real fear of reprisals. “People forget that it’s individual people who get the backlash,” Linton said.