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Alternate Channels

Book Review by Jack Nichols

Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (1930s-to the Present) by Steven Caputso, Ballantine, 2000, 495 pages, $18, softcover

Alternate Channels is the fourth definitive media history that now completes a circle of American accounts of how gay males and lesbians have fared in public discourse. The three previous histories—the truly definitive ones-- cover Hollywood (The Celluloid Closet) the rise of the gay and lesbian press (Unspeakable) and mainstream media's approaches to same-sex love (Straight News).

Steven Capsuto now provides us with another angle, a 70-year look back at how radio and TV have portrayed gays, covering not only our movement's activism, but more pointedly giving focus to how fictional portraits of homosexuals have emerged, slowly but surely, in sit-coms and dramas.

Those who've watched this attitudinal transformation during the three-score years-and-ten allotted us, may enjoy a spirited stroll with the author down a memory lane, one which proves how America's cultural landscape remains ever open to seismic changes.

Since 1990, Capsuto's scholarly talents have been put to use as director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Library/Archives of Philadelphia. In 1989, he began delivering a series of lectures which have since turned into this volume. His examination of fictional characters on radio and TV rounds out gay and bisexual content in entertainment shows, mainly prime time broadcast theatre.

Except in passing, Caputso's narrative doesn't focus on such undeclared gay and lesbian stereotypes as "Dr. Smith" in Lost in Space or the carpenter-woman, "Ralph", from Green Acres. Nor is the author willing to speculate on the doings of Tinky Winky, of whom he notes that some Religious Right leaders "consider part of a scheme to promote acceptance of gay men among toddlers."

Related Features from the GayToday Archive:
Review: Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media

Review: Unspeakable

Christian Radio Host Urges Death To Gay People

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Instead, Alternate Channels provides knowledge gleaned from 4,300 relevant broadcasts about which Steven Caputso had long been compiling informative notes. Approximately 1,200 of these broadcasts he's studied in detail, pouring over scripts, program transcripts, and network censors' reports. Among his amusing findings is that the Religious Right keeps far more copious notes on gays in programming than does any existing gay organization.

In any case, readers who find GLAAD's ongoing media reports significant, will find Alternate Channels even more riveting. It covers not only benighted periods in America's past, but provides a context for media students of the 21st Century by helping to give future gay and lesbian images— that will hopefully improve—meaningful backdrops.

Dr. Smith from Lost in Space Caputso fears—and perhaps rightly so—that gay activism may suffer if improved TV images suggest that there has been greater social acceptance than is actually the case. “Some argue,” he writes, “that society has progressed so far that all GLB activism is obsolete. Others think, as I do, that things have improved, but that these insufficient changes have made gay and bisexual people a bit complacent.

As society moves farther from the 'bad old days,' it becomes harder to remember what it is that the antigay activists want to bring back. And with time, the sexual-minority communities also forget their own victories and how they achieved them."

Caputso, clearly an activist's scholar, doesn't want us to forget. His book is a must in any gay library that hopes to call itself complete. It serves admirably, as Caputso has hoped it would, as “a reminder, a reminiscence,” and it adds to our “broader understanding of how mainstream broadcasters have attempted to make peace with historically marginalized segments of society.”

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