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Sun Mar 8, 2020, 11:22 PM

Visibility: Out on Television.

Visible: Out on Television review – a fabulous history of small-screen gayness

There are moments of dark humour in Visible: Out on Television (Apple TV+), but they are buried deep. This history of mostly late 20th-century LGBTQ life, as seen through the lens of American TV, moves from the televised McCarthy hearings to the dominance of the celebratory Ryan Murphy empire (Glee, Pose, etc). When it settles for a period on Dynasty in the 1980s, it becomes clear that it has been a long, hard journey to get to a show such as the drag ball drama Pose. Dynasty’s Steven Carrington was gay, until he wasn’t, but when he was again, his male love interests tended to meet a sticky end. “Multiple male partners were killed,” intones the voiceover in hilariously sombre tones.

In 1995, a feature-length documentary called The Celluloid Closet looked at homosexuality in Hollywood and in the movies. It was a story of subtexts, codes and moral outrage. Visible performs a similar task for the small screen. But television has always felt more intimate and homely than cinema, which allows Visible to go deeper and wider when it comes to social and cultural changes. So this thorough docuseries from the team behind The Keepers covers the reality TV, news interviews and footage of riots and protests, sitcoms and dramas that all lay down another paving stone on the path to visibility. Over five episodes, loosely chronological and each gathered around a theme, it sees television as both a portrait of what was happening and as a catalyst for cultural shifts.

The early episodes are its most fascinating, and the archive footage is a treasure trove of prejudice and ignorance. When LGBTQ people did appear on TV in the 50s and 60s, it was, at best, as specimens or curiosities. One contributor recalls being asked on to a talk show for which the subject was disability. As a lesbian, she joined a deaf man and a man with multiple sclerosis. Grave psychiatrists spoke soberly about homosexuality as an incurable mental illness. When, in the early 60s, a sitcom pilot was not picked up because the closeted lead was considered “too butch”, it drove her out of acting altogether. George Takei, one of a number of big talking heads, remembers thinking: “I’ve got to watch my behaviour if I’m going to build my career as an actor.”

Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz (who played the groundbreaking character Rickie in one of the best teen dramas of all time, My So-Called Life) co-produce the series, and appear on screen along with Ellen DeGeneres, Armistead Maupin, Caitlyn Jenner, Ryan Phillippe, Neil Patrick Harris and Oprah Winfrey, among many others. Some are more measured than others – on a segment about why the Stonewall riots were not televised, the activist Miss Major Griffin-Gacy says “We were fighting for our fuckin’ lives”, while Billy Porter’s fury about the Aids epidemic is utterly shaming for those who have forgotten it already. But this is ambitious, comprehensive and, vitally, inclusive.


Visible: Out on Television

This is on Apple TV+. If you have this platform or know someone who has it...RUN, do NOT walk to the nearest TV and watch it! Make it a party! This is something many straight people should watch given the surprising and alarming level of homophobia and especially heterosexism we are seeing, but queer people need to watch our history too!

It is 5 parts in hour-or-so long segments. WATCH IT!

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