History of LGBT: Television

Steven Capsuto. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 

Television was the dominant mass medium of the second half of the twentieth century, a time of tremendous change in public perceptions of sexual and gender minorities. This influential medium both reflected and shaped popular views about LGBT people. In the new millennium, it continues to hold an influential place in society, though increasingly it shares that place with such media as DVDs and the Internet. In the United States, television traditionally has reached its largest audience via the major commercial broadcast networks, which tend to underdevelop and desexualize LGBT characters. More unapologetic portrayals could be found in less heavily censored areas of television: public broadcasting, premium cable, and—to a lesser extent—basic cable. Since the 1970s, there have also been up-front channels and programming targeted specifically at sexual and gender minorities, often distributed via local community-access or leased-access cable stations and satellite.

The Major Commercial Networks

In the 1940s and 1950s, television was censored heavily in the United States. Industry and government leaders reasoned that because TV signals reached into every home, reverence and good taste were necessary. U.S. television’s commercial nature compounded the need for censorship. Early sponsors often urged producers to avoid unpleasant or controversial subjects. In an era when homosexuality was considered a crime, an illness, and a sin, and when many people assumed that homosexuals were child molesters, TV was not about to deal openly with sexual and gender minorities. Transgenderism could be discussed in limited, vague ways, as a medical curiosity. Male homosexuality could only be hinted at, and lesbianism and bisexuality remained invisible on television for years.

The first ongoing “queer” depictions were in professional wrestling shows, a staple of early TV. One of the most famous television personalities was Gorgeous George, a hulking, sissified “villain” wrestler. George and his imitators made a fortune acting out gay stereotypes in the wrestling ring. In varying ways, other types of shows also marked homosexuality and gender nonconformity as a worrisome form of otherness, whose mere mention on television was somehow an act of naughtiness. What started as a cultural taboo quickly became an official act of transgression. In 1952, the major networks adopted a set of decency rules called the Television Code. Among other things, the Code prohibited depicting sex crimes and “sex abnormalities” and ruled that “illicit” sex relations could not be presented sympathetically. Despite this, shows could still play with LGBT stereotypes as long as there was no hint of actual same-sex desire.

Some male comedians got big laughs by lisping, mincing and flailing their wrists, or acting giddy and effeminate on screen. Sitcoms and dramas sporadically presented prissy male secretaries, florists, gossip columnists, and fashion photographers as objects of ridicule or scorn. Their professions marked them as different as clearly as did their speech and mannerisms. The most famous of these roles was comedian Ernie Kovacs’s regular character of Percy Dovetonsils, a purse-lipped, lisping Greenwich Village poet. Lesbians were only depicted later.

Clearer references slipped through when sexual and gender minorities were in the news. Starting in 1952, after headlines announced that Danish surgeons had successfully turned American George Jorgensen into Christine Jorgensen, there were prime-time jokes about Denmark and gender-reassignment surgery. Jorgensen herself made some TV appearances in the 1950s as the first celebrity transsexual. After 1954’s televised Army-McCarthy hearings discussed male homosexuality as a threat to national security, the subject of gay men migrated to talk shows, then drama scripts. TV dramas’ rare gay roles were supporting characters whose gayness was conveyed in indirect ways. They had fey speech patterns and gestures, and other characters referred to them as “perfumed,” “delicate,” and so on. In the late fifties, sketch-comedy shows were allowed a bit more leeway in portraying both sissies and topical humor about gay men. However, even taken together, all of these types of visibility did not amount to much. For the average person watching television day to day in 1950s America, there was no affirmation or acknowledgment of sexual or gender minorities.

Only in the mid-1960s would a more sustained visibility develop. Even then, it was indirect visibility and almost exclusively portrayed gay men. Apparently, the only lesbian role in prime time in the 1960s was a psychiatric patient, a guest character on NBC’s The Eleventh Hour in 1963.

From roughly 1963 to 1968, TV tended to refer to gay men as strange people who presumably existed somewhere off camera and whose mere mention was cause for laughter or concern. Television did not make jokes about homosexuality: homosexuality was the joke. In 1966, on The Hollywood Palace, Joan Rivers quipped that it was hard for women to meet a potential husband in show business, because “everybody you meet is either married (pause) or a dancer.” Johnny Carson joked that in New York’s tickertape parades, after the motorcade goes down Wall Street and businessmen throw memoranda out the windows, the hero reaches Greenwich Village, where the businessmen throw kisses. In a Christmas show, the Monkees camped it up and flicked their wrists while singing “Don we now our gay apparel.” Dramas like Espionage and The Nurses could depict homophobia, as long as the targeted guest character was a wrongly victimized straight man. In other words, gay people could be talked about or laughed at but could not appear on screen as three-dimensional people.

Even so, many viewers interpreted some prime-time characters as gay. Often, people would speculate—seriously or in jest—about characters like Miss Hathaway, the “old maid” banking assistant on The Beverly Hillbillies; Dr. Smith, the cowardly, campy, high-strung villain on Lost in Space; or Batman and Robin. Dialogue clearly marked most of these characters as straight. Only in an era of profound invisibility could they stand out as leading lights of gay visibility.

When talk shows from the 1950s to the mid-1960s discussed sexual minorities (again, usually male homosexuality), the producers invited psychiatrists, vice squad police, and criminologists to speak as the experts. Seldom were open LGBT people allowed to speak for themselves. When they were, they had to debate doctors and other authorities whom most viewers would take more seriously. The best a panelist could hope for was to appear with liberal therapists who believed that homosexuality was only a minor illness and that gay people deserved pity, not punishment.

An Era of Social Change

All that changed around 1967, amid the sudden growth of syndicated talk shows. Programs like David Susskind’s and Phil Donahue’s sometimes had gay men and lesbians as the sole guests. Bisexual and transgender people broke into the talk show circuit in noticeable numbers in the 1970s, but as early as 1967 Christine Jorgensen could get television bookings to promote her new autobiography. Finally, LGBT people were being listened to rather than talked about behind their backs.

For prime-time television, the breakthrough year for gay male visibility was 1967. That March, CBS Reports broadcast its much-hyped, long-delayed documentary, “The Homosexuals.” It portrayed gay men as unhappy, lonely, sex-obsessed, and troubled. However, at least they were finally considered palatable enough to show on camera on a major network at an hour when people would be watching. That fall, ABC’s police drama NYPD debuted with a gay-positive episode about criminals who extort money from closeted gay men. It marked the first time a TV character identified himself as “a homosexual.” NYPD was not the only series of the 1960s or 1970s to deal with homosexuality in its pilot or first regular-production episode. Alice, WKRP in Cincinnati, and others did the same, presumably to make clear up front what a hip, daring, topical series it would be. Except for NYPD, such series almost never dealt with sexual minorities after that initial episode.

In the 1960s, the show that did the most to accustom viewers to gay references was the hit sketch-comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in (NBC, 1968-1973). Almost every Laugh-in featured gay or transsexual jokes and sissy characters (as usual, however, gay women were ignored). The premiere included allusions to an alleged gay scandal in California governor Ronald Reagan’s cabinet and poked fun at the supposed homosexuality of effeminate singer Tiny Tim. “Well,” said cohost Dan Rowan after Tim’s performance, “it kept him out of the service.” Dick Martin replied, “I bet the Army burned his draft card.” Series regular Alan Sues played a string of bubbly, lovable, camp-queen characters, including swishy sportscaster Big Al and a prisoner apparently involved with his cellmate.

To capitalize on the rapid social changes of the early 1970s, TV writers sought nonthreatening ways to incorporate controversial subjects into familiar genres. “Relevance” was the industry’s new buzzword. Even advertising agencies were open to controversial scripts, since many advertisers suddenly preferred reaching young, college-educated urban audiences, who were perceived as interested in the era’s social-change movements. At the height of “relevance,” ABC aired a landmark TV movie about a divorced gay father: 1972’s That Certain Summer, starring Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen. Its success in the Nielsen ratings and at the Emmy Awards proved that gay content was viable in prime time. Nonetheless, such TV movies remained rare. Instead, gay guest characters—mostly gay men—were incorporated into 1970s series through two main types of scripts: coming-out stories and stories about gay villains.

The coming-out stories preached that one cannot spot a homosexual just by looking, and that lesbian and gay people are as trustworthy as anyone else. The lesbian and gay guest characters were gender conformists: macho, athletic men who were often former pro football players, and feminine lesbians who were teachers or health-care workers. Their roles usually were a straight regular’s relative or old friend. Typically, the lesbian or gay character came out just before the mid-show commercial, the straight regular reacted badly, and they reconciled before the closing credits. The lesbian or gay person was not in a relationship, nor was there any indication that he or she knew other homosexual people. A viewer knew these people were lesbian or gay because the dialogue said so, but it was invariably a very theoretical kind of homosexuality. Among sitcoms, Norman Lear’s revolutionary, issue-oriented All in the Family pioneered this formula in 1971, and other sitcoms imitated it for the next decade. A variation of the coming-out script had a show’s protagonist interested romantically in a guest character who turns out to be lesbian or gay. Here homosexuality was defined negatively, as the inability to love someone of the other sex rather than the ability to love someone of the same sex. Such portrayals turned up on Medical Center, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the sitcom The Practice, among many others. Whether an old friend or an unavailable potential lover, the lesbian or gay character never was heard from again after the one episode.

LGBT Villains

Scripts featuring lesbian and gay villains allowed more varied plots and characterizations. It was easy to spot “bad” lesbian and gay characters: unlike “good” lesbian and gay people, they had a sex drive and could be in long-term relationships. In the 1970s, lesbian characters in TV dramas were far more likely to turn up as violent criminals than in any other context. The trend toward queer villains peaked in the fall 1974 TV season, when a half-dozen nationally aired dramas portrayed sexual-minority characters. All were violent criminals, from a child-raping male teacher on Marcus Welby, M.D. to three lecherous, deadly lesbians on Police Woman; from a lustful male couple who worked together as hit men on Harry O to a murderous drag performer with multiple personality disorder on The Streets of San Francisco. The uniformly unsavory portrayals convinced some prominent lesbian and gay organizations to make media activism a priority.

Lesbian and gay activists had targeted entertainment shows as early as 1970, when the New York-based Gay Activists Alliance tried to open negotiations with the producers of The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show. (In the latter case, they succeeded: several gay activists appeared on Cavett’s show.) In 1973, NBC began using the Gay Media Task Force (GMTF) as a technical consultant on scripts that included LGBT characters and references. However, lesbian and gay groups in different parts of the country seldom talked to one another or worked together. That changed after the prime-time portrayals started to turn ugly. In late 1974, television inspired the gay liberation movement’s first coordinated, national campaigns. Tactics included sit-ins, picketing, and letterwriting campaigns. Activists pressured sponsors and built alliances with such professional organizations as the American Psychiatric Association, which then contacted the networks to raise concerns.

In the mid-1970s, the New York-based National Gay Task Force and the Los Angeles-based GMTF met with high-ranking executives from all of the networks and most of the major production companies. Given recent portrayals, their argument was easy to make. Most executives were willing to concede that the depictions of LGBT people had become very lopsided. The activists handed out an eight-point platform that asked the networks to use the same guidelines for lesbian and gay characters as for other minorities. “Homosexuality isn’t funny,” it began. “Sometimes, of course, anything can be a source of humor. But the lives of twenty million Americans are not a joke.” “If all blacks (or Jews, Irish, Chicanos, etc.) were presented as anguished, oddball or insane, blacks (etc.) would be angry,” it said. “Gays are angry.” By late 1975, the three major networks agreed to run all relevant scripts past GMTF for suggestions. This practice continued into the 1980s. Newt Deiter, the driving force behind GMTF, insisted that he did not want only saintly, heroic, or nonstereotyped characters. LGBT criminals were fine, he said, as long as there were LGBT cops as well. Stereotypes were fine—butch lesbians and screaming queens do exist—as long as there are also other portrayals.

The negotiations paid off. The criminal characters vanished almost completely, replaced by more sympathetic (and often more complex) roles. In the fall of 1976, numerous TV episodes featured likeable gay roles, and the sitcom The Nancy Walker Show had a gay male regular character. Newsweek and TV Guide called 1976 television’s “Year of the Gay.” The swing toward sympathetic roles continued in the late 1970s, when the newly politicized Religious Right movement mounted a well-publicized crusade against LGBT people’s civil rights. Antigay organizers like Anita Bryant were making blatant statements on national TV, encouraging discrimination in employment and housing. Their campaigns turned “gay rights” into one of the top news stories of 1977 and 1978. One could hardly turn on a television or pick up a magazine or newspaper without hearing about Bryant’s crusade and the LGBT-friendly backlash it was generating in some areas. For years, activists had struggled to convince the public that homosexuals were a legitimate minority that faced oppression. Bryant and California state senator John Briggs succeeded where gay organizers had failed: they convinced the media to reconceptualize homosexuality as a civil rights issue. The assassination of openly gay politician Harvey Milk in 1978 added fuel to the fire. From 1977 to 1980, lesbian and gay characters on TV were saintly, put-upon, squeaky-clean characters who were—as often as not—fighting prejudice and discrimination.

During this period, ABC’s serialized sitcom Soap premiered. Regulars included openly gay Jodie, played by comedian Billy Crystal. He was not the first gay regular on a series, but he was the first one on a hit show. He was also in a more prominent role and with a better developed character than previous gay regulars. Although Jodie dated a professional football quarterback for a time, he spent much of the 1977-1981 series involved with women, even though the dialogue continued to mark him as “gay” and “a homosexual.” Around the same time, Norman Lear coproduced two syndicated comedies with groundbreaking roles. On Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Gloria DeHaven played Annie (aka Tippytoes), television’s first openly bisexual regular. Meanwhile, on Lear’s All That Glitters, future Dallas star Linda Gray played TV’s first transsexual regular, a fashion model. Previously, transgenderism had only turned up in a handful of prime-time scripts, usually medical dramas. All in the Family had a recurring role in the mid-1970s—an implicitly gay drag performer named Beverly LaSalle (played by drag headliner Lori Shannon).

In 1979 and 1980, the networks considered several series with gay protagonists, and numerous gay-focused TV movies and specials. Scripts for such shows were flying in and out of the office of GMTF. Then, suddenly, all of those projects were canceled.

The Pullback

The 1980s were a time of political and moral conservatism. Early in the decade, the networks faced two strong incentives to pull back from gay TV characters. First, Ronald Reagan and a host of conservative candidates swept the 1980 elections. In many cases, candidates backed by Religious Right groups replaced liberal politicians who had held office for more than a decade. Network executives took this to mean that risqué or controversial shows no longer reflected public tastes. Word went out in Hollywood that scripts with sexual-minority roles were unwelcome. The second incentive to avoid such characters was the growing public awareness of AIDS, especially in 1982 and 1983. Here was a terrifying, oftentimes fatal disease whose means of transmission was unknown, and that seemed primarily to affect gay and bisexual men. An absolute public terror of being around (or even hearing about) gay people set in. The networks, which had switched largely to escapist entertainment, deemed gay men too depressing and frightening to portray on television.

However, ABC and NBC had already committed to two series with gay regulars. ABC’s Dynasty—a prime-time soap about a ruthless oil magnate—debuted in January 1981. The magnate’s son, Steven Carrington, spent much of the series romantically and sexually involved with women, though the producers insisted that he was gay, not bisexual. According to Ed DeBlasio, whose job it was to turn Dynasty plotlines into scripts, the producers paired Steven with women during years when AIDS received heavy news coverage and paired him with men in between. NBC’s Love, Sidney caused Religious Right groups to threaten sponsors with boycotts long before the sitcom’s fall 1981 debut. It starred Tony Randall as the first gay title character on a TV series. Groups like the National Federation for Decency had fits over the idea of a middle-aged gay hero who helps his lodger—an unwed mother—raise the bastard baby she conceived in an affair with a married man. The morality groups called off their protests once they saw that the hero was rather closeted, permanently celibate, and just as morally conservative as they. It was one of the most family-oriented series of the early 1980s. Only shortly before its 1983 cancellation did it start to deal with Sidney’s sexual orientation in concrete terms.

AIDS’s impact on television was multifaceted. Behind the scenes, the deaths of many creative people and executives in the industry led to greater and more open support for LGBT equality and AIDS causes among TV professionals—especially starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s. On entertainment shows, before the fall of 1985 only St. Elsewhere had dealt with the disease in a gay or bisexual context. In 1982 and 1983, the networks mostly shunted AIDS and gay issues into newscasts while ignoring them in prime time. In the mid-1980s, around the time of Rock Hudson’s death, a number of shows dealt with gay or bisexual characters with HIV or AIDS: most notably a late 1985 episode of CBS’s Trapper John, M.D. and a landmark NBC TV movie, An Early Frost. AIDS also led—directly and indirectly—to more visibility for lesbian characters. Homosexuality was still useful as evidence of how edgy a show was, but gay men were more or less off limits. That left lesbians. No longer pigeonholed as killers, corpses, and victims of discrimination, lesbians began to appear in sitcom episodes. Increasingly, LGBT negotiating groups were led by women, so the networks and producers had more of an incentive and context for lesbian inclusiveness. The first series with a lesbian regular, a full sixteen years after TV’s first gay male regular, was the short-lived 1988-1989 medical drama Heart Beat. By the end of the decade, no network had yet presented an openly bisexual or transgender regular.

The Queer 90s and Beyond

The 1990s were a revolutionary period in the diversification and growth of mainstream TV’s LGBT images. Same-sex couples were increasingly visible. The old tendency to portray LGBT people as white, gay men in their twenties to forties began to break down, with more portrayals of lesbians, people of color, teenagers, and older characters. Yet the biggest change was the sheer number of depictions. Some fifty series had regular or recurring LGBT roles during this decade, more than twice the combined total for all previous decades. L.A. Law introduced TV’s first bisexual regular, C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe), whose two-second, on-screen kiss with a female coworker made headlines. At the time, in early 1991, the networks’ only other ongoing LGBT roles were Blaine and Antoine, the campy snap-diva film critics on Fox’s In Living Color. However, things changed quickly. Roseanne, one of the top-rated shows of the 1990s, eventually introduced no fewer than six recurring LGB roles, including same-sex couples and an elderly lesbian. The early and mid-1990s brought an explosion of queer characters. In 1996 alone, there were ongoing portrayals on The Crew, Cybill, E.R., Ellen (though not yet the title role), Fired Up, Friends, High Society, Lush Life, Mad About You, Melrose Place, NYPD Blue, Party Girl, Party of Five, Relativity, Roseanne, The Simpsons, Spin City, and Unhappily Ever After, and the daytime serials All My Children and The City. Gay male roles, at least, were so mainstream that even family-oriented shows like Touched By an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman could air gay-positive episodes.

The late 1990s brought series television’s first out-and-proud lesbian and gay leading roles. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres’s Ellen paved the way. In 1996, two years into its run, rumors circulated that the title character, Ellen Morgan, would come out. DeGeneres’s own lesbianism was something of an open secret, and neither she nor the sitcom’s writers thought her character’s attempts at straight romance were convincing. ABC approved the idea pending acceptable scripts. However, the network kept stalling, finally approving the script in early 1997. The hour-long, star-laden coming-out episode in April pulled impressive Nielsen ratings, after which the show returned to its usual viewership levels. The coming out of both DeGeneres and her character neither helped nor hurt the show. When Ellen returned in the fall, it became an unprecedented lesbian romantic comedy. By mid-season, however, the bitterness of the producers’ battles with ABC censors over lesbian and gay content started to seep into the scripts. By spring 1998 the ratings dropped, and ABC cancelled Ellen. However, the precedent had been set. Over the next three years, at least three sitcoms would debut with openly gay protagonists, among them the wildly successful Will and Grace.

From 1999 to 2002, established characters on several shows came out mid-series. Notable examples include Jack on Dawson’s Creek, Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Kerry Weaver on E.R. These last two were notable for both the prominence of the characters and the nuanced, complex development of their love lives. In the 2001-2002 season, more than a half century into the networks’ handling of LGBT images, a network series finally included a prominent transgender regular: a college professor played by Helen Shaver in CBS’s drama The Education of Max Bickford.

In the early 2000s, the rise of the reality TV genre of game shows—Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and so on—allowed viewers to get to know real-life lesbians and gay men on an ongoing basis. Building on the tradition of earlier PBS and cable “reality” shows, it has become almost a cliché to include out-of-the-closet participants.

Despite the increases in visibility, commercial networks continued to desexualize and in some ways marginalize LGBT figures. An obvious example is Will and Grace, touted for its gay inclusiveness. In its first four years, the sitcom’s straight heroine had a well-developed love life, but audiences were shielded from her gay best friend’s romances. Except for such unusual series as Ellen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ongoing LGBT characters always bordered on celibacy or lived their love lives safely off camera.

PBS and Mainstream Cable

Since the 1960s, public television has been a prime source of unapologetic, up-front portrayals of LGBT people. More recently, cable television, with its ability to “narrowcast” to specific target audiences, has also broken considerable ground in terms of portraying homosexuality, bisexuality, and—less often—transgenderism.

PBS grew out of the earlier NET, which had aired relatively gay-positive educational programming as early as 1961. When Congress created PBS in the late 1960s, its mission was to broadcast types of programs that were not commercially feasible on the major networks. These included documentaries and cultural shows, which were meant to include voices of underserved minorities. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, PBS was almost the only venue for unapologetic LGBT content, whether in dramas such as The War Widow or in politically charged documentaries such as The Times of Harvey Milk. Much of PBS’s queer-inclusive programming was imported from Britain. Notable examples include the TV movie The Naked Civil Servant, and such miniseries as The Roads to Freedom, Brideshead Revisited, and Portrait of a Marriage. In addition, many PBS stations bought other inclusive productions from the United Kingdom, such as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Since the 1990s, however, cable stations have been overtaking PBS in this area, by not only being inclusive of LGBT people, but also actively courting them as a market.

Pushing the envelope has long been a selling point for cable TV. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime have traded on their uncensored content for decades as a subscription incentive. One way to prove that daring was to include sexual content not seen on mainstream TV, including same-sex activity. In the 1980s, that largely meant lesbian scenes in soft-core porn targeted at straight men. In the early 1980s, however, HBO began developing a weekly, no-holds-barred sitcom based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels. The books’ LGBT characters were to be left intact, as was the casual portrayal of drug use. However, by the time the show was ready for casting, the mood of the country had changed, and the show was scrapped. There seemed no way to set it in the present in an era of AIDS and antidrug campaigns. (PBS aired a British production of Tales of the City a decade later.) HBO’s rival, Showtime, ran its gay-inclusive sitcom Brothers from 1984 to 1989. It focused on three brothers, one of whom came out in the premiere. Cable’s uncensored nature cut both ways though when it came to LGBT issues. Standup comedians—notably Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison—were able to use AIDS as an excuse to spout hate-filled screeds. In the early 2000s, Showtime and other cable stations began explicitly courting LGBT viewers through shows like Queer as Folk, a drama series whose characters are almost all gay men or lesbians. HBO series have been willing to sexualize both sympathetic gay roles (as in Six Feet Under) and unsympathetic ones (as in the prison serial Oz).

Since the 1990s, even some advertiser-funded basic-cable stations have provided a level of LGBT inclusiveness not seen on the mainstream networks. MTV cable made a commitment to LGB inclusiveness and to promoting acceptance of sexual diversity. LGB housemates appeared in almost every season of the “reality-based soap opera” The Real World, though as of the early 2000s no openly transgender housemates have appeared. MTV’s low-budget late-night serial/anthology series Undressed has portrayed many same-sex couples of diverse backgrounds and situations. In the late 1990s, amid heavy news coverage of the antigay murder of college student Matthew Shephard, MTV began promoting tolerance of LGB people in all sorts of shows as part of that network’s “Stop The Hate” campaign. In the early 2000s, a few basic-cable shows such as the FX network’s police drama The Shield were willing to show same-sex couples being affectionate and even sexual.
Niche Marketing

The growth of cable and home video machines in the late twentieth century changed the nature of television profoundly. Shows no longer had to be multimillion-dollar productions aimed at a broad viewership.

In New York City and Miami, Florida, where cable TV was in place as early as the 1970s, there were early shows created by and for LGBT people. The video committee of the Gay Activists Alliance created several documentaries about early 1970s LGBT events in New York, including the first Gay Pride Day. In Miami, the man behind the porn magazine Blueboy packaged a regular gay series that he sold to pay-TV outlets under several titles. Back in New York, the late 1970s and 1980s brought such cultural cable series as Emerald City and Out in the ’80s. In the late 1980s and 1990s, several companies marketed gay cable “networks,” which were actually branded, prerecorded programming blocks that aired at different times and dates in different cities. They had such names as Gay Cable Network and Gay Entertainment Television.

Innovations of the 1990s included Network Q, a monthly gay newsmagazine distributed on VHS via subscription. Shows by and for the community also appeared on PBS stations—notably In the Life, which debuted in 1992. Series such as Dyke TV were distributed primarily to small educational cable outlets.

By 2000, slick, mainstream channels started to target LGBT people as a niche market. In 2000, Showtime cable launched a massive marketing and merchandising campaign for its U.S. adaptation of the British series Queer as Folk. It advertised the show via LGBT periodicals, booths at Pride Day events, and giveaways at LGBT film festivals. The series is generally credited with boosting Showtime’s subscription levels. Through Queer as Folk and other programs, Showtime has positioned itself as the LGBT-friendly premium station.