The five-part series traces LGBTQ+ representation on American television from the medium’s beginnings
“Being on television makes people see you as part of the culture,” news anchor Rachel Maddow says in the Apple TV+ documentary series, Visible: Out on Television. The series -- and Maddow’s words -- gets to the heart of why representation matters and why it’s so important for young LGBTQ+ people to be able to see themselves on television, as part of the cultural conversation and included in images of the world at large. The series lays bare a very real, very recent, and very painful history where people were forced to hide who they were on screen and off.
The five-part series traces LGBTQ+ representation on American television from the medium’s beginnings, or what the series dubs the “Dark Ages” full of prejudice and ignorance, to today when shows like the critically acclaimed Queer Eye and Pose can bring in huge audiences. The story is told through archival film clips and interviews with over 90 LGBTQ+ stars, writers, producers, and allies from all walks of life, including narrators Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Waithe, and executive producers Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz, who know a thing or two about being out in Hollywood.Cruz recently joined Visible: Out on Television’s director Ryan White and producer Jessica Hargrave for a conversation at The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard’s Pride Summit moderated by journalist Tre'vell Anderson to discuss the series, the evolution of LGBTQ+ characters on TV, and why the work isn’t nearly over.
“We have been ripe for this conversation for 20 years,” Cruz says during the live chat. While he worked on the project for seven years, the story had been in development for two decades thanks to producer David Bender. Eventually they brought it to Apple TV+, who loved the idea and gave the producers, including Hargrave, and the director the space, time, and bandwidth to show the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation over the course of 70 years (and counting) of television history.
While the story of being out in Hollywood has been years in the making, the cast and crew came together at a remarkable time in human history -- a pandemic followed by a global anti-racism uprising. For Cruz, though, the timing just makes the story of representation told in Visible even more important. “It’s moving to me to see this community look to itself to see how we can be a part of the change in this moment,” says Cruz. “It’s also an opportunity to acknowledge that we have some work to do in our community.”
Representing the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community was very important to the producers and director of Visible, both on camera and behind the scenes. “We set out from the beginning to make sure the team was very diverse [across] all spectrums,” Hargrave says in the conversation. “Part of my job was to make sure we included as many voices as possible.” Their team included people who were decades apart in age, came from all over, and had a wide range of experiences to ensure that the story they told in Visible was as representative and honest as possible. While there are a lot of big names involved in the series (Anderson Cooper, Andy Cohen, Ellen DeGeneres, Caitlyn Jenner) they were more interested in having different perspectives and lifting voices that don't usually get to be heard. That diversity among the cast and crew, which transferred into the stories told in the series, was incredibly important for Wilson. “Personally, it’s the thing I’m most proud of,” he says.
The cast and crew were also proud to be involved in telling this important story to thank those who came before and fought for on-screen representation. During the conversation, White mentions a moment in Visible where Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres, and Margaret Cho talk about the fact that there were no lesbians on television when they were growing up. They were forced to devise back stories where, say, Alice from The Brady Bunch was a lesbian, just so they would have the opportunity to see themselves on television. That is one flight of fancy that kids these days may never have to undertake, but should not be forgotten. “Because our schools don’t teach our history, it was incredibly important for young people to understand how we got to this moment that you can turn on your television and LGBTQ+ people are ubiquitous,” says Cruz. “That didn’t just happen. That happened to continuous struggle.”
While Visible: Out on Television makes it clear that there has been a lot of progress in making TV shows representative of their audiences, it’s not meant to serve as a congratulatory missive for a job well done. Instead, it’s a reminder to keep going and keep striving for more progress and more representation both behind and in front of the camera. “We didn’t want it to just be a love letter, but to be a call to action,” says White, adding that while we are seeing milestones on shows like on Pose and Vida, this not a time to stop for a pat on the back, but a reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done.