When After School Specials Made Gay People Seem Not-So-Special

click for other “the way we were” posts

June is LGBT Pride Month, so we’re celebrating all of our pride by feeding babies to lions! Just kidding, we’re talking about lesbian history, loosely defined as anything that happened in the 20th century or earlier, ’cause shit changes fast in these parts. We’re calling it The Way We Were, and we think you’re gonna like it. For a full index of all “The Way We Were” posts, click that graphic to the right there.

Previously:

1. Call For Submissions, by The Editors
2. Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987-1989, by Riese
3. The Way We Were Spotlight: Vita Sackville-West, by Sawyer
4. The Unaccountable Life of Charlie Brown, by Jemima
5. Read a F*cking Book: “Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America”, by Riese
6. Before “The L Word,” There Was Lesbian Pulp Fiction, by Brittani
7. 20 Lesbian Slang Terms You’ve Never Heard Before, by Riese
8. Grrls Grrls Grrls: What I Learned From Riot, by Katrina
9. In 1973, Pamela Learned That Posing in Drag With A Topless Woman Is Forever, by Gabrielle
10. 16 Vintage “Gay” Advertisements That Are Funny Now That “Gay” Means “GAY”, by Tinkerbell
11. Trials and Titillation in Toronto: A Virtual Tour of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives, by Chandra
12. Ann Bannon, Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Autostraddle Interview, by Carolyn
13. 15 Ways To Spot a Lesbian According To Some Very Old Medical Journals, by Tinkerbell
14. The Very Lesbian Life of Miss Anne Lister, by Laura L
15. The Lesbian Herstory Archives: A Constant Affirmation That You Exist, by Vanessa
16. When After School Specials Made Gay People Seem Not-So-Special, by Riese

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In 1986, HBO and some Canadian cable companies produced the After School-Special-style drama, The Truth About Alex, starring Peter Spence as Alex, an All-American football player and passionate pianist harboring a big scary secret… he’s a homosexual! Scott Baio co-stars Alex’s tough-guy best friend Brad Stevens, who also plays football. Brad has a mean military father with severe white hair who wants his son to get into West Point and not associate with homos. The setting is initially very wholesome, with lots of lawns, ponytail ribbons and girls in white pants, but then it gets really dark.

lightness

1986 might seem early for this kind of mainstreaming teen-oriented content, but after-school specials have always been permitted to “go there” because tackling a controversial issue is the genre’s explicit intention. So there we were on the television along with the drunk kids crashing cars into trees, sad pregnant teenage girls with abusive boyfriends and the rascals smoking joints in the schoolyard. Scott Baio was in a lot of After School specials, like All the Kids Do It, Stoned and The Boy Who Drank Too Much. They all seem so hilarious now, see:


The Truth About Alex is profoundly depressing. That’s the thing about these After School Specials, simply permitting the gay protagonist to survive or be passively accepted was considered progressive or even positive. For many young homosexuals, The Truth About Alex was the first time they saw themselves onscreen, and that was profound enough, and positive. But the real lesson of the film hides behind the ostensibly decent portrayal.  Because outside of those things — the survival, the eventual acceptance from a handful of friends or family — the life of a gay person was seen as a relentless and destructive battle against the world. If you come out, be prepared for everything to unravel around you.

Like if you’re gay, you’re actually a virus. You were wrong to think of yourself as a human being all this time, you’re not a human being! You’re a tornado, or a disease. That’s the topic of The Truth About Alex.

This movie was so stupid but also so brutally dark, which is a confusing combination of attributes, if you think about it. Stupidity is too stupid to be dark, usually. But this is. There’s a sliver of hope at the end, if you’re good at sports, kinda.

Here’s The Truth About Alex, part one. There’s also part two, three and four.

In The Truth About Alex, Alex is outed after he’s hit on by a guy in a truck stop who beats him up when Alex denies his advances. That’s how boys get outed — by their insatiable sex drives. Girls get outed when they fall in love with their best friend, or get married and have babies.

In 1987, the CBS Schoolbreak Special What If I’m Gay? portrayed a teenage guy named Todd who’s outed when his friends stumble upon his gay porn collection. Like The Truth About Alex, the gay guy is white and boring-looking and he plays sports and wears t-shirts. Charlotte York’s husband plays his best friend Allen. Charlotte York’s husband has a full head of bushy black hair. The gay guy has a bowl-cut and free weights in his bedroom and in one scene, he tells Charlotte York’s husband that he thinks he’s gay and Charlotte York’s husband is pretty cool about it. If these scenes were the only scenes of the movie, then this’d be an example of it being okay to be gay. Maybe it’s better that we only see these scenes.

embedding is disabled so you’ll have to click through to youtube

What If I’m Gay? was nominated for three Daytime Emmy Awards and snagged one for Outstanding Direction in Children’s Programming.

In the 90s, it seemed like things were changing a lot in big cities, quite a bit in college towns and other liberal enclaves, and not so much in the rest of the country. Right? It’s hard to explain what things were like then for me, like in 1997 when Ellen came out and so did my Mom.

I lived in a college town packed with politically conscious academics and their nervous, weed-smoking, string-instrument-playing, Salinger-reading offspring — an inherently gay-friendly group of ambitious human beings, for sure. Where we lived things were… fine. It was okay to be gay. We were low on bias and discrimination, but intolerance and unease still simmered beneath it all. It was socially acceptable to be homophobic just as long as you didn’t do anything about it.

But things still happened in weirder, more insidious, nerve-wracking ways in allegedly tolerant environments. Stories that make headlines now about lesbians getting kicked out of prom or a restaurant or a coaching position were everyday events back then, par for life’s course. It felt like gays were allowed in the room, but they couldn’t be sure anybody wanted them there, and they could be certain somebody wished they weren’t. If the PTA at my public high school flipped out about a gay guy speaking at an assembly on diversity, I couldn’t imagine how much worse that would’ve gone down in a conservative part of the country.

In the CBS Schoolbreak Special Other Mothers, which aired in 1993, the two mothers of a fresh-faced teenaged son, played by Jimmy from Lois & Clarkhit up a booster club meeting at his new school. Jimmy kinda doesn’t want his friends to know about his two Moms though.

Joanna Cassidy plays his birth mother, Linda, and Meredith Baxter plays his other mother, Paula. The episode won three Daytime Emmys and was nominated for two.

The Two Moms are an inconspicuous pair, they blend in with their hair styled like fussy foliage, tasteful jewelry and faces full of Avon. So they aren’t kicked out of the booster club meeting or anything. But there’s this melodramatic unease everywhere. Then there’s this heavily-made-up woman in an assertive pink blazer who isn’t, you know, okay with the two moms. She shuns them at the meeting, but saves her most pointed attack for a private home visit. That’s when she tells Meredith Baxter that the booster club is only for “real parents,” not Other Mothers.

Meredith Baxter came out as a lesbian 16 years after Other Mothers was on the air. It was okay to play the role, but not to be the role.

The rest of the video isn’t online, but I think that things got much worse from there.
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Next: More Than Friends: The Coming Out of Heidi Leiter (Claire Danes was in it!) and The Truth About Jane.

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Avatar of Riese

Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1731 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    We watched two things in my health class, “Emergency Paramedic” and “Life stories: Families in Crisis”. I actually remember seeing the Heidi Leiter episode, it was the source of much amusement to the boys in the class…throwback!

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    Wow Riese, This was really great. I missed out on a lot of TV in the nineties because my parents didn’t like it and refused to own one and yet, I’ve still seen enough awful, cliched or downright offensive portrayals to last a lifetime. Things definitely have gotten better. I appreciate the research you had to do for this but I don’t think I’ll be watching those any time soon.

    I’m curious, is there going to be any coverage of the new season of Pretty Little Liars on here? I know plot developments coming to light are really pissing people off (me included).

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      lizz will be doing fashioncaps when she gets back from europe, she’s been gone for the last two weeks and is still gone. nothing lez has happened, however!

      my parents were super-strict about tv, and when shit got crazy and my mom kinda gave up regulating our television consumption, i became obsessed with television for like three years, wanting to catch up on everything i’d missed. which had to be done by carefully taping syndicated reruns, etc., and started reading a lot about television too. i do find it fascinating in ways, still

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    Thanks for posting this. I really enjoyed watching the clips. I know they’re dark, and more than once, I felt so bad so the characters, I wanted to look away, but that discrimination is a part of our history, right?

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    I am viscerally inclined to like everything Stockard Channing does, so maybe I should watch The truth about Jane?
    That being said, I feel like the after school special had a purpose in normalizing and suggesting topics of conversation, as dark as they may make them appear. We watched a Barbara Walters special on trans* kids in my health class once upon a time, and it was the first time most people had even heard of preferred pronouns. I had a point but I lost it, or I may have made it?

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    I have a friend who actually gas a bunch of these after school specisls on tape. We watch them when we’re bored and a sharp blow to the head just isn’t enough. The Truth About Alex pissed me off in so many ways. He’s actually “outed” when a random trucker tries to pick him up in a bathroom and then beats the Hell out of him when he doesn’t comply. Wonder how much therapy gay kids needed on that alone! Ah well, I’m sure there’s an After School Specisl that tackled that. Or better yet: “Next…On a very special Blossom…”

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      were these really watched, or looked to? I’m not trying to bait anybody, I’m genuinely curious – what I do recall of them is that as I was grabbing my bike or going outside to play with the neighborhood kids (outdoor play, another lost art) they’d flash the promo and we’d snicker and go outside. I think I saw a few, all in school, and the only one I remember even remotely was “The Wave” and its “surprise you’re all Hitler youth” ending.

      But yeah, they were barely noticed in my childhood. I think they disappeared at some point altogether, so I wasn’t hurt by them.

      You’ve given me a nice YouTube hole to fall down into, though, and I will be having a look.

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        i didn’t watch them at the time they came out ’cause that was before i was allowed to watch tv, but i remember seeing one about eating disorders that was out in the mid-90s that really affected me and i still remember it to this day! and me and my friend called each other right afterwards to talk about it, and she had an eating disorder at the time.

        i think like most things, if you were gay and didn’t know other kids like you, if you saw a preview or heard about a gay episode coming on, you’d go see it, you know? like we do now, still! but more extreme. it set the tone when nothing else did.

        they weren’t big where i lived, but friends and family i knew in more rural areas talked about after school specials a lot, and I’ve read quite a bit from gay people for whom this was their first intro to the issue.

        i do think that these kinds of shows, and the ones that are on today, did a lot of damage by thoroughly normalizing the insane reaction to somebody coming out. in all of these movies, even the truth about jane, the cruel classmates, furious parents and disgusted friends aren’t even condemned for their condemnation, it’s painted like a perfectly normal reaction that the gay person deserves or should’ve expected.

        I know that’s realistic, unfortunately, but I think that TV could’ve stepped up a little sooner to provide new models not just for the gay kids, but for their friends/families. the first time i saw a calm measured reaction to a teenage “coming out” scene on TV was Kurt in Glee and the second time was Fiona on Degrassi. LAST YEAR! that’s why i really appreciated the episode where Kurt’s male buddies go to bat for him when he’s bullied rather than the traditional reaction which is to be lemmings. i’d never seen that happen on tv before.

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          I think that’s the scary thing about entertainment — that it sets the boundaries of the expected so much more than people think. But being a business it’s cautious and falls behind reality and trends. There were plenty of people becoming comfortable and supportive with/to gay kids even as these films were being broadcast in the 80′s, so I definetly don’t think what you’re saying is unrealistic — it’s another avenue that could have been taken, if these networks had decided to be bolder. Yeah, there could have been angry letters or a threatened boycott, but it could have been done anyway.

          that’s good though, that one of these specials helped your friend. too bad it couldn’t be the same for everybody.

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          yes, this, exactly: here were plenty of people becoming comfortable and supportive with/to gay kids even as these films were being broadcast in the 80′s, so I definetly don’t think what you’re saying is unrealistic — it’s another avenue that could have been taken, if these networks had decided to be bolder. Yeah, there could have been angry letters or a threatened boycott, but it could have been done anyway.

          (also the After School Special on eating disorders didn’t help her, it just amped up her romantic obsession with eating disorders and inspired her to pair up with another friend of ours to motivate each other to stick with their “diets” — the special was about two friends who were ED’ed together, one was anorexic and the other was bulimic. the idea of an eating disorder being a social contract was new, it’d always been portrayed and experienced as such an isolating experience. i ended up in a situation like the one in the special a few years later.)

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      oh yeah, you’re right ! (re: truck stop). I will go change that. marni and i watched it again the other night and i felt like so profoundly depressed and sad afterwards, like its one of the most subtly depressing things i’ve ever seen.

      I LOVED VERY SPECIAL EPISODES OF BLOSSOM

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    This actually made me really sad. I think I just realized that things seem to be improving for us in the rest of the country, but where I’m from (Idaho) and where I live now (Utah) there’s either an uneasy tolerance or no tolerance at all. I live in Salt Lake City, and the gay community is amazing, the gay supportive community is amazing (including some Mormons, even), but the people who are homophobic are SO SO SO homophobic. It wears me down.

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    Yes! HBO! I’ve seen them all. I learned about eating disorders, teen pregnancy, date rape, homosexuality,not playing with guns,gangs, steroids, abortion etc. We got cable when I was 7 and while we were instructed to only watch Disney and Nickelodeon we watched whatever we wanted because my parents were pretty much never home. Initially I think watching all the LifeStories allowed me to understand how other people manage to live life since nobody ever talked about it. I think it is probably why I love watching Intervention now.

    For me, when I was a little kid it was kind of like people have this option of being different if they are white, or boys, or play sports, or girls, or white, or have attentive parents, but that it would most likely be difficult and other people wont like them, will be stressed out by their honesty, but will say they still love them because thats how it works on tv. So for a very long time I just decided to try and avoid at all costs any issues that might render us a family in crisis. My mother is also a social worker, so a lot of her work issues really drove home the point that people have problems, are complicated, can still be loved.

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    Lol I know this is laced with sarcasm, but it’s kind of true, no?

    “That’s how boys get outed — by their insatiable sex drives. Girls get outed when they fall in love with their best friend, or get married and have babies.”

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    I don’t remember many of them after about 1978 or 1979 (yeah, I’m old)…not that any of them could have remotely made a difference on me coming out or having influenced my life direction :) The ‘edgy’ ones when I was a kid always seemed to be the blending of families when one divorced parent decided to remarry. On rare occasion, they would get into alcohol use or MAYBE the teen pregnancy thing. And yes, they were just as cheesy in the 70′s as it sounds like they got later in life.

    The adult version of a cheezy after-school special would probably be ‘Doing Time on Maple Drive’ which was early 90′s and actually had Jim Carrey in a dramatic role as the alcoholic adult son. Forget who played the gay son who tried to kill himself rather than tell his mother the marriage wouldn’t take place…and too lazy to google it.

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    “Postcards from Buster” (spin-off of Arthur. My godsons and I loved it) had an episode in the early 2000s where Buster visited a whole group of kids who lived in Vermont and had sets of lesbian moms who taught him about maple trees and other wholesome Vermont-y things. They never said that these characters were gay, though, just “Boy, that’s a lot of Moms!”

    I work at a daycamp, and the other day my supervisor came up to me apologetically after I had spent a huge chunk of the morning working with a kid who had been acting out all summer. “Oh, you know, she has two daddies”. Like any kid with two dads is doomed to steal juiceboxes at daycamp and grow up to sing “On My Own” alone on a dark stage while Idina Menzel broods in the shadows.

    I should have said: “Golly, that’s a lot of Dads!”

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    Oh my god I totally watched The Coming Out of Heidi Leiter when I was 14 and coming out to myself in small-town Wyoming. What a blast from the past. It meant something to me at the time, definitely wouldn’t be interested in it now other than nostalgia. At the time, it was important for me to see “gay” on my TV because I sure wasn’t seeing it anywhere else.

    Thanks for this post.

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