“Alternate Channels”: Interview with Author Steven Capsuto

Alternate Channels
Steven Capsuto is the author of the book “Alternate Channels: Queer Images on 20th Century TV” which focuses on how queer culture and members of the community were represented on television during the twentieth century.

Steven Capsuto is the author of the book “Alternate Channels: Queer Images on 20th Century TV” which focuses on how queer culture and members of the community were represented on television during the twentieth century. This was a time period in which sexual-minority groups (such as the 1950s Mattachine Society and GLAAD in the 1990s) and far-right religious organizations were lobbying networks, from opposite sides, about whether there should be queer portrayals at all and what they should look like. Scriptwriters and TV executives were frequently caught in the crossfire. The book expertly documents countless programs (some famous and some now forgotten), characters, and political skirmishes.

Steven Capsuto conducted an incredible amount of research for his book and is now proud to release a revised 20th Anniversary Edition that includes additional material which the original publisher edited out. This version also includes approximately one-hundred photos which were not present in the first edition.

Steven recently discussed his experiences researching and writing this book via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): What made you decide to write a book focused on media’s impact on queer culture per se?

Steven Capsuto (SC): Growing up as a gay kid in the 1970s and 80s—back when our history was taboo, kept hidden from us and from everyone else—it was almost impossible to find out how queer people had lived in the past, or even how they lived in the present. There was no sense of connection, no sense of what our lives might look like when we grew up or where we might fit in. Imagine being a teenager looking at the culture around you and seeing almost no hint of other people like you, and realizing that the few acknowledgements you did find in the culture were often terrifying and slanderous.

I was lucky to happen across a few positive images on TV and to have an older relative who had been out of the closet since the 1940s or 50s, who sometimes brought his boyfriend to family events. So, I had some sense of context for myself. But a lot of young people didn’t.

Later, when I was a student at Penn in the late 80s, I volunteered with an LGBT crisis hotline, and we were getting a lot of calls from lesbian and gay teens who were considering suicide. Our supervisor told us to ask them what they thought gay people’s lives were like, what they thought they were “doomed” to if they “let themselves” be gay. I always got the same answer from them, and so did the other volunteers: “I only know what I see on TV.”

So, I became curious about the role TV played in LGBT people’s self-image and in the general public’s beliefs about us at a time when the fight for our rights was growing tremendously.

Alternate Channels
“Alternate Channels” book cover.

MM: How long did it take to research this book and how did you gather materials?

SC: The first edition of “Alternate Channels” took eleven years, from 1989 to 2000. I had been wanting to write it for a while, and then I got a job near the central Free Library of Philadelphia, so I started spending lunch breaks going through periodical indexes and microfilms, year by year from the beginning of broadcasting to the present, looking for articles mentioning LGBT-themed shows. I quickly discovered that on America’s TV networks at that time, only the “L” and “G” were getting portrayed: with rare exceptions, network executives got very nervous when writers mentioned the prospect of an openly bi or trans character.

I entered each show in a database and started looking for recordings while continuing to do library and archival research. By 2000, I had information about more than 4,300 broadcasts in the database, and recordings of about 1,200 of them. Five years into the project, the World Wide Web came online, but there wasn’t much on it yet. So most of the research still meant going to research centers in different cities and making photocopies and taking notes. I flew to Ithaca to go through the papers of the old Gay Media Task Force, in the Kroch library at Cornell. And I spent countless hours in New York at the Paley Center for Media (then known as the Museum of Television and Radio).

Throughout the 1990s, I interviewed TV showrunners, network executives, and scriptwriters, and some of the pioneering gay activists who had lobbied the networks for better depictions and who had made early appearances on talk shows.

MM: What were some of the most memorable characters and plots you uncovered from shows back in the 20th century?

SC: There’s a wonderfully awful 1974 episode of “Police Woman” (“Flowers of Evil,” it’s called) about a trio of murderous lesbians who run an old-age home, and who steal the residents’ money and kill them. It’s important because the well-organized blowback against this episode is one of the main things that got queer media activism off the ground and got the networks to back away from some of the more horrific stereotypes they’d been peddling. In the early to mid-1970s, if you saw any kind of queer character on a drama series, they were usually murderers or terrorists or child molesters. Or perhaps you might catch an episode of a medical drama that presented homosexuality as the “disease of the week.”

Alternate Channels
The book discusses many shows in the 20th century.

In terms of more enjoyable shows from that era, I was impressed with almost all the queer stories on “All in the Family”: the one in which Archie’s old drinking buddy turns out to be gay, the one with the lover of Edith’s late cousin Liz, and the three episodes with the gender-nonconforming “female impersonator” character Beverly LaSalle. And some of the fact-based late-1970s gay civil rights TV movies are amazing: “A Question of Love,” about a lesbian mom (Gena Rowlands) fighting to keep custody of her son, and “Sergeant Matlovich versus the U.S. Air Force,” about the famous lawsuit by a military officer who had been kicked out for homosexuality.

And I enjoyed watching and analyzing some of the first series with queer regular characters (almost always presented as gay men): sitcoms like “The Corner Bar” and “The Nancy Walker Show” and “Hot l Baltimore.” (“Hot l” was “Hotel” with one letter burned out on the neon sign.) And the first hit shows with gay regulars: “Soap” with Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas, and the original 1980s version of “Dynasty,” with Al Corley and later Jack Coleman as Steven Carrington.

There were also a tiny number of surpisingly well-written shows with trans characters. I mean, they weren’t filmed the way we’d do them now—the parts were usually played by famous cisgender actors such as Robert Reed from “The Brady Bunch” or Vanessa Redgrave or someone like that, as a guest role or in a TV movie—but some of the scripts were good for the era. Why the famous actors? Network executives insisted on star casting, or at least familiar faces, on shows dealing with any topic they thought would make audiences uncomfortable.

There was even a 65-episode series (that relatively few people ever watched) called “All That Glitters,” in which one of the central characters was a trans woman, Linda Murkland, played by Linda Gray (later of Dallas). The first edition of the book only mentioned her in passing, because I wasn’t able to find any recordings of the show until 2019.

But probably my favorite LGBT character of the 20th century was Carter on “Spin City,” since he was a fully formed smart, funny, multifaceted character, never reduced to being just “the gay guy” or just “the black guy,” and he was never desexualized or depoliticized, and I liked that. And he had an actual life outside the workplace, even though it was mostly a workplace ensemble sitcom.

Alternate Channels
The book discusses many episodes and characters across a huge array of series.

MM: You secured a lot of interviews for the purposes of your research. How did you get a hold of these people and convince them to participate?

SC: Most of the interviews were pre-Web, so I couldn’t just Google people. For the TV professionals, I found their mailing addresses (or their agents’ addresses) in professional directories at the library, and wrote a ton of letters. For the activists, I started with people I knew personally and then networked from there. For many years I was the head of the LGBT library and archives of Philadelphia, so I had some contact with local early activists, who knew other early activists, and so on. I think the first three interviews I did were with Mark Segal (a gay media activist known in the 1970s for chaining himself to things), Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen (a longtime couple who had been involved with the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s and 1960s), and Randy Wicker (who had done early gay media activism in the 1960s in New York City).

MM: How did you find a publisher and how have you been marketing this book?

SC: For the first edition, I wound up at Random House’s Ballantine division mostly by luck. I had about half the book written and no agents wanted to look at it. And then one day I was helping a researcher at the LGBT archives in Philly, and he said “You know this collection really well. I’m guessing you’re also using it as a researcher.” And he asked what I was working on and I told him, and he recommended me to his agent. And she knew someone who had just started a new job as an editor at Ballantine and it seemed like a good fit for their catalog.

I publicized the first edition mostly by going on the college lecture circuit. I do a full-evening program where I talk through the history of LGBTQ characters on American TV, and about half the presentation is video clips from TV comedies and dramas and other types of shows from the 1950s to the early 21st century. I copied the format from Vito Russo’s old Celluloid Closet lectures, but I made it about TV instead of movies.

About two years ago, my agent agreed to try and get the rights back so I could put out a revised edition myself. Ballantine had been great to work with but there were too many aspects of the published book that I didn’t have control over. So, from 2018 to early 2020, I went through the whole 500-page original, fact-checked everything and made corrections where needed. And then I added about a hundred photos. The book went from zero illustrations in the original edition to 96 in the new edition. I was planning to publicize the revised book on the lecture circuit too, but that’s on hold until the quarantines are over.

Alternate Channels
Steven Capsuto is the author and researcher behind “Alternate Channels”.

MM: What do you hope readers remember most about this memoir?

SC: It’s not a memoir: I wasn’t a participant in the events. To me it’s the story of how a minority group that was treated as complete outsiders were able to fight against powerful, deeply prejudiced people and win. Although the book is ostensibly about queer images on television, it’s also a history of gay activism in general in the 20th century and a social history of America’s culture wars over sex in those years.

MM: What other books have you written, what are they about, and what themes might you like to address in future books?

SC: Mainly I’m a translator. Very little of what I translate is LGBTQ-related, but a couple of years ago, the Spanish queer publisher Egales contracted me to do an English translation of a book about homophobia in 1970s Spain, written by Manuel Ángel Soriano. Recently, I’ve done English translations of several books about Jewish community life in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace by Daniel Stauben (a beautiful, entertaining book that gets used as a college textbook in some folklore courses), Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language by Ángel Pulido, and a photo-illustrated translation of the very short book Jewish Immigrants in Early-1900s America by Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu. And about once a year I get hired to translate a stage play. The rest of the time, I’m translating mundane things for clients: medical charts, clinical trial documentation, corporate annual reports and so on.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

SC: I’ve started outlining a book about LGBTQ images on 21st-century TV, but it’s hard to figure out how to structure the discussion since there are now so many different networks and streaming platforms putting out so many types of niche-market programs. But I think I’ve come up with a workable format.

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To purchase a copy of the book, see here.