Concern for at-risk youth drove media historian’s project
The 1974 fall television season featured six prime-time dramas with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters. All were rapists, child molesters. or murderers, Rutgers alumnus Steven Capsuto recalls.
Set your TiVo forward two decades, and television debuted the hugely popular Will and Grace, with not one but two main characters who were gay.
Rutgers alumnus Steven Capsuto knows more about the checkered portrayal of LGBT life on television than your average viewer. He culled through 2,000 video recordings to trace the trajectory of images in broadcast media from the 1930s to 2000.
In his book Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television, 1930s to the Present, the Haddon Township resident takes readers from what he calls the “swishy male comic relief roles” of radio’s early years to the breakthrough coming out of Ellen DeGeneres and the two-second kiss between two female attorneys on L.A. Law that ignited a firestorm of controversy.
Armed with thousands of hours of research and an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure and short-lived TV series featuring a gay presence – anyone remember The Corner Bar or Hot l Baltimore? – Capsuto shares his findings on college campuses, film festivals, and community centers.
A freelance translator by trade, Capsuto says the project was driven in part by volunteer work he did with gay and lesbian teenagers in Philadelphia during the 1980s. He began gathering material after hearing from phone-in clients about the toxic images TV threw at them every day.
Many of these youngsters were so anguished, had so internalized the depictions, that they were contemplating suicide, he says.
Capsuto, who has known he is gay since age 11 and came out eight years later at Rutgers, recalls as an adolescent devouring the media for insights into the lives of gay adults. He found reassuring answers in such sitcoms as All in the Family, Maude, and Barney Miller, as well as in daytime talkies such as The Phil Donohue Show.
“These programs showed me responsible, productive, every-day lesbians and gay men who reflected a range of professions, personalities, lifestyles, and political views,” the media historian writes. “But by the late 1980s, when our young counseling clients were desperate for role models, television’s message had changed.”
Among the highs and lows Capsuto has documented:
- Thirty-two thousand letters of protest pour into ABC before the 1977 premiere of Soap, which was to feature a young man seeking a sex change operation to stay with his boyfriend, an NFL quarterback
- Dynasty, which Capsuto calls “the most influential show of the 1980s,” presents the openly homosexual character of Steven Carrington, torn between his love of men and his love of women
- In 1988, actress Gail Strickland plays the first lesbian regular in a prime-time drama when ABC casts her in Heartbeat as one of three founders of a women’s medical center. The network’s censors order the scriptwriters to keep her hands and her partner’s hands busy at all times, so no overt touching goes on.
- A gay-themed episode of Seinfeld in 1993 produces the famous catchphrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” when rumors surface that characters Jerry and George are linked romantically.
Capsuto is updating the overview to include current programing, reflecting what he sees as both gains and losses since the book appeared in 2000.
“Since last year, the number of gay characters on TV has decreased,” he notes. Lesbians and transgender characters are practically non-existent; gays and lesbians representing minority communities are few and far between.
Citing contemporary inclusive shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Happy Ending, Beverly Hills 90210, and Modern Family, Capsuto says he also is buoyed by ABC’s choice of Chaz Bono for the mega-hit Dancing with the Stars.
“The idea that there was an openly transgender person on a highly-rated television show is a really big deal,” he says. “What gets people used to things they’re uncomfortable with is seeing them on an ongoing basis.”
Invisibility is insidious, Capsuto believes.
“It’s important for members of the LGBT community to be seen as part of the picture, to be seen as ‘us’ rather than as ‘them.’ We should be part of the landscape, doing the kinds of things everybody does. If people don’t see you in the culture, it allows people to spread bigoted ideas.”
Growing up in what he describes as a “gay-friendly” family in Cherry Hill, Capsuto became vocal about LGBT equality as an undergraduate at Rutgers in 1983, at one point running the Gay Awareness Week on campus.
Although the climate nationally was still far from welcoming – not until 2003 would the U.S. Supreme Court strike down laws making sexual acts involving same-sex couples a felony – he decided that being closeted was not a healthy way to live.
In addition to majoring in Spanish with a translation track, Capsuto minored in U.S. history and mass media at Rutgers before earning his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Today his translating business specializes in medical and pharmaceutical clients, literature and theater, and business.