“My God, what they got away with in pro wrestling!”

On the TV behind Steven Capsuto is Jack McFarland of “Will & Grace,” played by the Emmy-winning actor Sean Hayes.


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What he’s watching now: on video, HBO’s “Sex and the City” and vintage 1920s films; on TV, “Will & Grace,” “The West Wing,” “All in the Family” reruns and C-Span’s “Book TV”

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Steven Capsuto can probably identify every gay character who’s ever appeared on TV, going back to its infancy. He can also probably tell you about characters you may think are gay, but aren’t really.

This encyclopedic knowledge is a by-product of his research into thousands of television programs for his book “Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television, 1930s to the Present” (Random House, 2000). What he discovered was a much richer and more complex history than he had thought existed. It’s a shame we can only present a tiny piece of it here. Then again, that’s why he wrote the book.

Q. In your research, you actually found gay people on TV in the 1950s?
Yes. Some of it was prestigious TV productions of Broadway plays that happened to have gay characters. Also you had the Army-McCarthy hearings, which when you study them in high school, they tell you was about rooting out Communism in the military — well, it was about rooting out Communists and homosexuals.
   And then pro wrestling — my God, what they got away with in pro wrestling! Which in the late ’40s, early ’50s was just about the top-rated thing on television. There was this fellow named Ricky Starr, who was a former ballet dancer who became a pro wrestler and did this sort of swishy gay shtick.
   The difference between him and Gorgeous George was Gorgeous George just played this broad swishy character, even though I think he was himself straight, and then he would get beat up and everyone would cheer at seeing him get beat up. Ricky Starr would not only swish around the ring, but wiggle his butt in the face of his opponent and do these pelvic thrust routines that would just cause the announcers to go apoplectic and cut the camera away.

Q. It seems you found a series of peaks and valleys in your research. How did the high points come about?
Usually, the peaks have a lot to do with what’s happening in the news. If you think about the big peak in the mid-’90s, that’s coming off all of these issues that developed out of the ’92 election… gays in the military, the anti-gay referenda in Colorado and Oregon, [and] Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention. So whenever homophobia becomes really blatant, it becomes “OK” to do gay-rights stories. [And then] it’s OK to do characters who just happened to be gay.
   And this is what happened in the late ’70s. In 1977, you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about Anita Bryant and her crusade against gay people. And then coming out of that, you had ABC approve the sitcom “Soap,” with Billy Crystal as the first continuing gay character on a successful series.

Q. How did you do all your research and work on computer support at the same time?
I have done away with such luxuries as food, sleep and exercise. [laughs] It can be done. One of the reasons I like working at Penn is we get lots of vacation time. And that allowed me to travel and do research on the book. It also allowed me to travel around to various colleges and do my lecture.

Q. Is this a promo tour?
No, I’ve done this even before I knew this was going to be a book. I talk for a bit under two hours, and I bring about an hour of video clips, usually starting with Gorgeous George or something from the ’50s and [ending with] some clip from the week I’m doing the talk.
   And that helped me write the book. People in the audience would give me feedback. It got me to rethink some of what I was talking about. It also gave me some context to use in the introduction. When I first started doing these lectures in 1989, people would always come up to me after the lecture and say, You know, I know a gay character that I bet you hadn’t thought of. And it was always Dr. Smith from “Lost in Space.” So if you look at the book now, there’s a paragraph about what the book is not about.
   The book is not about Dr. Smith from “Lost in Space.” We’re not talking about Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched,” we’re not talking about Ralph, the butch woman carpenter on “Green Acres,” and we’re not talking about Tinky Winky from the “Teletubbies.” But somebody does need to talk about these somewhere.

Q. If you could identify one program as the high-water mark and another as the low-water mark, what would they be?
There is so much to choose from. The high-water mark is especially hard because it changes. There are things that are high-water marks if you look at them within the context of when they were aired. There’s a wonderful episode of “Maude” where Arthur’s trying to shut down the local gay bar. It doesn’t hold up very well now. “Tales of the City” is a high-water mark. The coming-out episode of “Ellen” doesn’t hold up very well in hindsight, but at the time it was a high-water mark.
   Low-water marks are easier to come up with. There’s a really hideous episode of “Police Woman” from 1974 called “Flowers of Evil.” It’s about this gang of killer lesbians who run this very upscale, posh nursing home, and they starve their wealthy elderly residents and sort of torment them and steal their money and then sometimes kill them.


Originally published on September 28, 2000