"Visible": The impact of TV on queer identity, before and after Ellen

In the new Apple TV+ series "Visible: Out on Television" LGBTQ celebrities discuss their most formative TV moments

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published February 13, 2020 7:40PM (EST)

Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Waithe and Janet Mock in Apple’s “Visible: Out on Television,” premiering February 14. (Apple TV+)
Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Waithe and Janet Mock in Apple’s “Visible: Out on Television,” premiering February 14. (Apple TV+)

Earlier this year, Ellen DeGeneres became the second-ever recipient of the Carol Burnett Award, an honor bestowed at the Golden Globes for "outstanding contributions to television on or off the screen." It's yet one more significant achievement for the producer, talk show host, and LGBTQ trailblazer who became the first openly queer performer to play a queer character on TV.

The new five-part Apple TV+ series "Visible: Out on Television," which premieres on Feb. 14, traces the history of how LGBTQ issues, actors, and characters have appeared on the small screen. DeGeneres' triumphant coming-out on her 1990s sitcom "Ellen" gets ample coverage, along with the backlash and period of unemployment that followed. 

It's this unflinching and well-documented dichotomy of the LGBTQ celebrations and struggles that makes "Visible" essential viewing. The first hour of the series starts with footage of the televised Army-McCarthy hearings that didn't just target suspected communists, but homosexuals as well, which led to the far-reaching Lavender Scare. From there, the series delves into the various ways that TV disseminated misinformation – such as the pseudo-scientific programming that classified homosexuality as a mental illness – or dangerous tropes that fed homophobia.

Balancing the archival footage from newscasts and talk shows are also the wealth of scripted TV, storytelling that served to uplift (Billy Crystal in "Soap") and move forward (Asia Kate Dillon in "Billions"), but also consistently stereotyped and confused, as with John Ritter's problematic faux gay character on "Three's Company." Throughout an eye-opening survey of the many decades' worth of programming, the series boasts an impressive roster of talking heads, including DeGeneres herself, Billy Porter, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Anderson Cooper, Neil Patrick Harris, Tim Gunn, Adam Lambert, and Caitlyn Jenner, just to name a few.

Wilson Cruz, the first openly gay actor to play a gay teenager on TV with "My So-Called Life," and comedian Wanda Sykes are among the interviewees and double as executive producers on the project.

Salon spoke to the series' director and executive producer Ryan White ("The Keepers," "Ask Dr. Ruth") to gain insight in putting together "Visible: Out on Television."

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about this series' origin story? When did you join the project? I believe  Wilson Cruz was on it first.

Two years ago at Sundance was when I had my meeting with Apple about this. "Visible" has been in the works for over a decade. For two of our producers – David Bender and David Permut – it was a passion project for many years, and they partnered with Wilson [Cruz] on it. We'd been trying to get this project off the ground long before the streaming platforms even really existed 

Being LGBTQ myself, I knew how formative television was for me. I knew the opportunity to work with Apple was new in the game. And so I said, "If you guys are willing to give me the leeway to try to make this as like a real documentary series and not a clip show that's rapid-firing through history, where we can take storylines or characters or actors, and give them a beginning, middle, and end – almost make this like a series of short films about TV moments – then maybe I'm the right person for it."

There's quite a bit of news and unscripted content in here too. I was unaware of gay activist Mark Segal ambushing or "zapping" news broadcasts.

We were very conscious in the series of – this is one of my initial conversations with Apple, which was – I don't want it to be so star-f**kery that there's no sense of the people who were pounding the pavement, who weren't famous faces – and Apple was totally on board with that. Many of the activists, especially in the early episodes, were using TV as a tool and aren't necessarily famous names or famous faces or certainly not to the extent that some other people in the series, but they had impact. 

Like Mark Segal, he's the guy who stormed Walter Cronkite and Barbara Waters. I interviewed him in New York. As his interview was ending, Anderson Cooper's interview was next. So as Mark was getting off set, Anderson was coming on ... and, I watched the interaction between them, and it was so genuine and authentic the way they were thanking one another. It was a real reminder to me of why why these moments are important whether it was famous people or not.

It also shows the power of using news versus scripted on TV.

I love nonfiction. I love scripted too, but I'm not a TV aficionado. I'm really excited to also be able to show the way television reflected the real world, which is what differentiates television from cinema really. The storytelling is somewhat similar, but the way TV reports what's happening in the real world, cinema doesn't do. 

So getting to watch those early talk shows from the '50s, I could've made a whole episode out of them. They're so horrifying but fascinating. And to think you know there were only three or maybe four television stations, so a quarter of the country was watching the esteemed psychologist talking about how overbearing mothers are causing homosexuality and dads need to go throw the baseball more with their sons if they sense a problem. It was to us, just mind-boggling.

That said, scripted TV has had its share of misinformation in how they depicted LGBTQ issues or characters. On "Three's Company," Jack Tripper (John Ritter) pretended to be gay so he could be roommates with two women. It was such a problematic portrayal, and yet such an impactful one. That show was huge.

I'm so glad that you brought up "Three's Company" because I find that to be one of the most interesting examples in my series. Interviewees in their 40s, maybe early 50s, when I would ask them who the first queer character they would remember on television, they would say [Jack on] "Three's Company." 

Then you would watch them kind of work it out in their own minds as they thought about the show more and say, "Wait, I don't think he was actually gay. I think he was pretending to be." And so to watch people grapple with confusion that television caused for them was so interesting. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a famous actor on television saying, "John Ritter – wait. That was a fake gay character." Carson Kressley, saying the same thing, and Tig Notaro even – they worked out their childhood in front of me, on camera during the interview.

Besides the bad science/psychology from the 1950s, much later in the 1980s and '90s, there were all the talk shows like "Geraldo" and "Jerry Springer" that used gayness or trans identities as big reveals for shock value. It created a dangerous narrative. The most notorious one was the "Jenny Jones" episode in which one man found out his male neighbor had a crush on him and then later murdered him after the show's taping. What do you feel about those shows, and did you run into any problems getting footage that wouldn't cast the shows in the best light?

It's hard to get your hands on some of that stuff. That "Jenny Jones" episode actually never even aired. My incredible research team got their hands on it. 

The total confusion of "Is this me?" was the talk shows of the '90s. I remember watching "Jenny Jones" way before that episode ever happened. But there were more like "Jerry Springer," then "Geraldo," "Ricki Lake." I would say Ricki was still sensationalized, but it was much healthier than the confrontations that were organized on "Jerry Springer," which totally put the queer or trans person at the butt of the joke. 

Whereas with "Ricki," I remember often the subject matters were so absurd, but I remember being excited watching her show when there'd be a gay person acting really fabulous. I just felt like some kinship with that person. And I'm able to like secretly watch it out of the other side of my eye. 

It was like I felt some sort of connection to Ellen far before she came out. I was like this weird kid who loved lesbian comics. I loved Paula Poundstone and Ellen DeGeneres. I bought all of Ellen's books and CDs long before her first show "These Friends of Mine" became "Ellen." I don't think there was overtly a connection to her, but when the rumor mill started running in '97 that she might come out, I remember feeling so excited, like whatever that feeling might be, could be right. Here I was, a gay boy in Georgia totally connecting with this lesbian comic from Louisiana.

It's a good point though, as more letters are added to LGBTQ, now you add a plus to it. Queer people are not a monolith, but there's this sense from the show that however the character was being portrayed, it didn't matter; as long as you were underrepresented or marginalized in that way, you would identify and root for them.

An example would be [transgender activist and "Pose" producer/writer] Janet Mock for instance. She's so brilliant, and she looks at everything through a very discerning lens. And so where I might have expected her to be more critical of certain shows that were very white or very cis[gender], in the absence of representation that she had for someone like herself, she was often very willing to still give shows credit. 

Like "Will and Grace" for example. We do talk about how white that show was. MJ Rodriguez, who is also a trans woman of color on "Pose," saying how she did internalize the show in a positive way, like, "Okay, look at this representation, look at Sean Hayes. It's not me, the show isn't me, but maybe I can do that one day." 

Even [transgender personality and avowed conservative Republican] Caitlyn Jenner who we know is super-problematic in many ways, and especially in the trans community – Janet [Mock] went to a conference in Africa when "I Am Cait" was coming out and was talking about how big of a phenomenon that show was in Kenya. Even though Caitlyn might be problematic, there also can be problematic progress and these people can have a large impact, so people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to these other people, shows, or characters that came before them.

Since this series follows the timeline of representation and LGBTQ visibility on TV, where you start is pretty clear because these stories weren't as plentiful at the beginning. But how did you decide when you'd cut off coverage? Representation is on the rise, and so there was no way you could cover everything on TV today. But shows ranging from "Steven Universe" and "Danger & Eggs" to "Sex Education" and "Please Like Me" aren't featured.

There's so much important representation on television now. I had a huge team working on this – of researchers, editors and all very diverse on the LGBTQ spectrum but also racially and with gender identities. We'd have group meetings of 25 of us and figure out what we would always say, "What makes a storyline remarkable for some reason?" An example that just popped into my mind is "The Fosters" and the kiss between the two pre-adolescent boys and how controversial that was.

What was important we often gleaned from the people we were interviewing. The questions were very open-ended, like have them tell us how they grew up, tell us the first image on TV that represented themselves. And so you have kind of like this survey or census in a way where you would get a sense of people from different ages, which moments had been the epicenter boom in their lives, and then we would collate around them. 

I'm 38. So the TV shows highlighted at the end of Episode 3 and the beginning of Episode 4 are very formative for me. Everything before that I knew very little about and everything after that, I'm like, I don't know anything about – you know, young kids on TV today. 

Talking to people like MJ Rodriguez and Nicole Maines ("Supergirl"), two trans stars on major TV shows now, as they're talking about how important "That's So Raven" was for them. And to me, I'm like, Raven-Symone is the little girl from "The Cosby Show." I never watched "That's So Raven." It would have been creepy for me to be watching "That's So Raven." To see how that had an impact on people, it's so fun. It's like the relay race of life, passing down the baton throughout history where you feel like a real sense of unity in meeting all these people.

History is constantly evolving. There's probably things in my show that are outdated already. Even after watching Janelle Monae opening Oscars – what a moment. An out queer person of color opening Oscars – it's like a Super Bowl. And Ryan O'Connell, who's the star of "Special" and the creator is a friend of mine, but his show "Special" came out on Netflix just as we were finishing our series. 

I'm happy that Apple is releasing it soon because I wanted to be reflective of where history is right now. And hopefully, it can always exist as a time capsule or be added to at some point. There's still a long a long way to go a lot more work to do. I'm more interested in reflecting the moment of today.

What are the next steps that you would like to see as far as representation?

I think so much what I learned about in the making of process was about representation behind the camera. We so often have a conversation about actors because they do get the glory, win the awards, are the famous faces. 

But getting to interview someone like Elliot Fletcher – the trans male actor on "Shameless" and "The Fosters," and I believe will be on a show even playing a non-trans character – but to hear his stories about what it's like on set, feeling so isolated, or trying go up to a showrunner or writer and saying, "We wouldn't say this," and getting pushback like, "Know your place, dude. We're not asking for your voice here. You're the actor." 

I think it's a reminder that we have a long way to go and I think you're seeing definite progress. I think Janet [Mock] has signed an exclusive deal with Netflix to create content with them, which is incredible. But like, we need a lot more Janets or a lot more Elliot Fletchers, more people on all parts of the spectrum who are creating the content, or the ones hiring the PAs or the writers room or crafts and services, where people feel like truly comfortable on the set. Or in the writers' room where they feel comfortable speaking up and asserting their voice, which everyone deserves.

"Visible: Out on Television" will be available to stream on Apple TV+ beginning Friday, Feb. 14.

By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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