TV

10 Fascinating Things “Visible” Taught Us About Queer TV History

Apple TV+'s new docuseries spotlights LGBTQ visibility on the small screen.

The five-part Apple TV+ docuseries Visible: Out on Television (which premieres February 14) gives a very real, and sometimes emotionally raw, look at queer representation on American television. The series interviews a “who’s who” of LGTBQ people and allies who’ve made significant contributions to TV’s evolving representation of queerness, including Ellen DeGeneres, Billy Porter, Oprah Winfrey, Norman Lear, Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Anderson Cooper.
 

Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris, and Lena Waithe each narrate an episode and are interviewed in the series. Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz, who are also interviewed, are among the executive producers. The series has a few omissions—there’s no mention of bisexual NBC talk-show host Lilly Singh, and no reality TV drag queens are interviewed, although RuPaul gets positive shout-outs—but overall the show is very comprehensive.

Visible covers moments in queer TV history that might surprise some people. Here are 10 of these fascinating facts:

  1. The first time the word “homosexual” was said on American TV.

    It happened during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, which tried to find out if government attorney Roy Cohn pressured the Army to give preferential treatment to Cohn’s Army buddy G. David Schine, who was rumored to be Cohn’s secret lover. (Cohn, who died in 1986, spent his life as a closeted gay man.) The U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee investigated the whole mess that had the U.S. Army and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (who was Cohn’s mentor at the time) at each other’s throats over McCarthy’s aggressive anti-Communist tactics and Cohn’s alleged abuse of power to get perks for a pretty boy.

  2. A lesbian would’ve starred in a planned Dobie Gillis spinoff.

    The smart and sassy Zelda Gilroy character (played by Sheila Kuehl) was so popular in the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1963) that the network decided that Zelda should have her own spinoff show. But, as Kuehl tells it, network head honchos canceled those plans because Zelda looked “too butch” in the spinoff’s test scenes. Kuehl, who was a closeted lesbian at the time, was so devastated that she quit acting, had suicidal thoughts, and eventually started a new career as a politician.

  3. The Brady Bunch dad played the first trans woman on TV.

    In 1975, the CBS drama series Medical Center had the first episode on TV to not only show a trans woman but also portray a trans woman getting gender confirmation surgery. Robert Reed played the trans character Dr. Pat Caddison in a guest appearance that earned Reed an Emmy nomination. Reed, who was most famous for playing The Brady Bunch dad, was gay in real life and privately out to his friends and family, but his sexuality was hidden from the public until after his death in 1992.

  4. Reality TV’s first openly gay star was never in the closet.

    Long before The Real World and Queer Eye made out-and-proud queer people the stars of reality TV, openly gay Lance Loud of PBS’s 1973 docuseries An American Family lived his truth in the show that chronicled his family’s everyday life. And he was never in the closet, according to his mother Pat Loud, who’s interviewed in Visible: Out on Television.

  5. The gay rights movement literally crashed into TV news.

    Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

    It would be called a viral moment today, but back in the early 1970s, Mark Segal and his activist group the Gay Raiders stage-crashed TV news studios during live broadcasts to shout messages about gay rights. Segal most notably pulled this stunt during Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News broadcast and during a Frank McGhee/Barbara Walters segment on NBC’s Today. As a result, the shows—and TV news in general—began covering more gay-rights stories.

  6. Lesbians held outraged protests against an Angie Dickinson TV show.

    In 1974, lesbians got really fed up with being portrayed as villains on TV, and took over NBC headquarters with protests, including occupying NBC offices at night. What sparked this outrage? NBC’s Police Woman drama series (starring Angie Dickinson) had a “Flowers of Evil” episode that showed a trio of lesbians robbing and murdering residents of a nursing home that was run by the lesbians. After the protests, NBC agreed never to show the episode again.

  7. Billy Crystal’s Soap character wasn’t gay but was queer or bisexual.

    You might have heard that Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas character on the sitcom Soap was the first openly gay character to be part of a TV series cast—not a guest star. But after Jodie presented his identity as gay, Soap (which originally aired on ABC from 1977 to 1981) had Jodie dating and falling in love with women, and he refused to label his sexuality.

  8. The first gay kissing on American broadcast TV didn’t happen until 1994.

    It wasn’t until 1994 when broadcast TV in the U.S. caught up to cable TV by finally showing same-sex smooches—real ones, not kisses played for laughs. It happened on the original Tales of City, which aired on PBS. The anthology drama series—based on Armistead Maupin’s novels of the same name—is about a group of San Francisco residents, including gay Jon Fielden/Fielding (Billy Campbell), gay Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Michael D’Amico), and sexually fluid Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson), who have various romantic entanglements.

  9. Logo TV’s Noah’s Arc broke certain color barriers before Pose did.

    Long before FX’s Pose became an Emmy-winning critical darling, Logo TV’s 2005-2006 dramedy Noah’s Arc was the first TV series about African American queer culture—told from the perspectives of gay men in Los Angeles. The show included the first non-white HIV-positive character on a TV series as part of the cast, not a guest star—Afro-Puerto Rican character Junito Vargas, portrayed by My So-Called Life alum Wilson Cruz. Visible: Out on Television includes interviews with Noah’s Arc creator Patrik-Ian Polk and former cast member Darryl Stephens, who played Noah Nicholson on the show.

  10. The first openly nonbinary character on an American TV series didn’t happen until 2017.

    Apple TV

    Hedge-fund analyst Taylor Amber Mason (played by Asia Kate Dillon)—who first appeared in 2017 on the second season of Showtime’s Billions drama series—is the first openly nonbinary character who’s part of the cast on a U.S. TV series. Dillon is nonbinary in real life, and Billions’ Taylor will go down in history as the first TV character to declare on TV that their pronouns are “they, theirs, and them.”

Writer and editor whose work has appeared in AXS.com, Examiner.com, Lifetime, People, and Billboard.