Can I be self congratulatory for a moment—or I should say for another moment? When I heard that AppleTV+ was doing a docuseries about gays on television, which started streaming in February, I messaged one of the producers to tell him that I should be included. When I got no answer, I was certain it was because he simply didn’t get the message!
Either way, I feel I should be a part of the history. Yes, people like Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper are huge stars and have made a big difference for open queers on the tube, but I was outing them back in the day when they were closeted and I was already an out TV personality. I’m not deluding myself that I’m in a league with anyone of that caliber. I’m just saying that I was gay on TV when it wasn’t as easy to do so, and I kept going at it, despite the serious challenges along the way.
So let’s hear it for—no, wait. Before I complete my tawdry act of autoeroticism, let me thank some of the incredible people who helped pave the way for all of us.
Lance Loud was an out gay rebel on the wave-making reality show An American Family (1973). Seventies disco singer Sylvester, drag star Divine, and director John Waters were all their fab selves on various talk shows. Openly gay Terry Sweeney did a funny Nancy Reagan impression on Saturday Night Live, which hasn’t always been that queer-friendly (1985). The gay comedy trio Funny Gay Males appeared on talk shows, together and individually. The out-and-proud Bobby Rivers did colorful entertainment segments on the local New York news. Norman Korpi was on the reality show The Real World (1992), while Pedro Zamora openly battled HIV on The Real World: San Francisco (1994). Also, RuPaul Charles and Lea DeLaria both appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993. The RuPaul Show was a fun talkfest on VH1 (1996), and Frank DeCaro started doing zippy gay film segments for The Daily Show at the same time. And there were plenty more out icons, along with gay themes explored in TV movies and series like That Certain Summer, The Naked Civil Servant, Tales of the City, and on and on.
And little old me? Way back in the 1980s, I did some cable segments about fashion and nightlife and was flamboyantly myself, showing off my different ensembles and witticisms, wondering the whole time, How long can this last? It didn’t—word came down that I was “too gay”—though I did remain as an occasional commentator.
But in 1993, when I landed on E!’s The Gossip Show—on which various gossip columnists took turns to look at the camera and serve their tea—things were looking brighter. I had a confident feeling when I realized that both of the show’s top producers were gay. That doesn’t always mean anything—sometimes gays happen to be self loathing and other times they have to answer to icky higher-ups—but these guys were super supportive and even encouraged me to wear a dress during one of my earlier items, for a sight gag, making me know right away that I was at home!
The show went on for years, and I was unselfconscious the whole time and actually said openly gay things on the show. Suddenly, the ‘80s felt like a long time ago, but towards the end of the run, a new overseer came in and told me to wear solid colors while also putting the kibosh on any gay items I suggested. It seemed like perhaps ratings had declined and some network biggie had decided that my gayness was the problem! Still, for most of the 1990s, I had been as fruity as a fruit cocktail—and I have to mention another gay Gossip Show correspondent, Ted Casablanca, and the E! News Daily co-host Steve Kmetko, who came out in 1999.
Alas, road blocks kept getting in the way of me being myself. At a New York nightclub, I once shot a segment for a national entertainment show, and the publicist who’d set it up—a gay man—instructed me to not walk “so gay” when they were shooting me for B-roll. I was so stunned at this bit of direction from a fellow queer (really, hon?), but fortunately, I wouldn’t know how to walk in a “non-gay” manner if I tried.
In 2001, I found myself the cohost of a local magazine-style show called New York Central, and I assumed I could be as gay as I wanted to be on it. Never assume! At one point, the producer gently sat me down and asked me to not be openly gay during the interview segment of the show, for some reason related to outside pressure (not from him). When he said that, I choked back tears and begged him not to make me turn into the kind of TV personality I loathed and was regularly deriding in my columns. This was my worst nightmare, and I thought I had averted it by simply standing up for myself in a way that the old me probably wouldn’t have had the spine to do.
In 2002, I did a movie review show pilot with a female critic and a male TV personality, who was calling the shots. During the shooting, I joked that the three of us were like the cast of Three’s Company, and I was Joyce DeWitt. I had assumed they wanted me to be my campy gay self, but the male star looked absolutely sick when I said that, clearly disapproving the moment. I knew this show was not meant to be, and it wasn’t.
And then there was a fascinating twist in the culture. Gay suddenly became so okay that the reverse happened: I was asked to be even gayer! By 2003, the success of the original Queer Eye For The Straight Guy had prompted a network frenzy for other gay-related shows. As a result, I thought I might finally get some payoff for having helped pioneer an out TV presence. If I was reading the signs right, it seemed that I should now be not only not dismissible, but downright desirable! Sure enough, in ’04, I was chosen to be an on-air host for Divine HD, a pay-per-view channel where we celebrated LGBTQ movies. The gig didn’t last long, but at least it paid while it did, and it was as queer as a Pride parade.
The same year, me and a bunch of other males were courted to shoot a pilot for a gay version of The View, where we were urged to be even more, “you know.” Unfortunately, the whole thing was more doomed than the Golden Girls follow-up, The Golden Palace. During shooting, I couldn’t manage to flap my wrists any harder and yelp, “You go, gurl,” and when the show wasn’t picked up, I figured it was because even if we had all amped up our stereotype level to the max, the premise involving gays talking about women’s issues was ill-conceived.
My head spun around one more time in 2006, when I was cast on a revamp of the old game show I’ve Got a Secret. This was a big advance, but it seemed like they had a secret all right. “You’ll all be gay, but we won’t say you are,” came the bizarre direction for the panel. I wasn’t thrilled, though I was willing to do it since I love game shows, this looked enjoyable, and I knew that by this point, I screamed “gay” with my very presence. (And I did end up seeing a gay magazine article that emphasized the show’s queer factor.) But I was reluctant to relocate, so I turned down the opportunity, sticking with all sorts of other appearances while biding my time. I didn’t realize that the show would only last one season.
It all evened out in the long run. In 2015, I landed on a Logo show called Cocktails and Classics and felt I was finally getting my just reward, and on a gay channel yet. By now, there was lots of gay TV and many out celebs, and the show—on which we screened and discussed old movies—encouraged me to bring every fiber of my being to the table. It was very gratifying and a whole lot of fun. Now, I pop up on networks like CNN, where I get to discuss entertainment topics as an openly gay man who is accepted and appreciated.
Having grown up with no out gay visibility to turn to (and certainly no positive stuff), I always strove to personally help change that in my writing and on TV. What we see now is the world I fought for and am happy to be a part of, so it would please me ever so much if I got my props, thank you. My pal Norm Korpi and I don’t appreciate being left out of the history, and we will write ourselves back in every chance we get. And we will also continue congratulating the vast slate of out TV actors, personalities, and shows that entertain and inspire us and send a great message to kids in the heartland. You make Grandpa proud.
Main image: Musto (R) with Harvey Fierstein at the 2016 Logo Trailblazer Honors.