June was Pride month, commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots that birthed the gay liberation movement. As in other journeys toward recognition, equality and freedom to be, the world has come far, and not far enough. And as always, there are arguments about which way to go.
June may be over. But television goes on, and we would like to propose some recent relevant series to keep the party going. One caveat: Not all that follows constitutes a party.
Mostly a party is the isolation-shot “Pose-a-Thon,” a fundraising special featuring the cast and creators from the FX ballroom drama “Pose” that dropped on the eve of the Stonewall anniversary weekend. (It is still available to stream.) Offering songs, stories and testimonials, with a history of Stonewall from showrunner Steven Canals, the show makes a point of declaring that the “queer liberation movement was begun by black and brown trans women,” the very people at the heart of “Pose.”
‘Visible: Out on Television’
TV has indeed made progress in the intervening years, if stumbling along the way. Last year brought a same-sex marriage on the PBS cartoon “Arthur,” while the May series finale of Netflix’s “She-Ra and the Princess of Power” made explicit what fans already understood, that it was a long arc lesbian love story. The five-part documentary “Visible: Out on Television,” which premiered on Apple+ in March, reaches back to the earliest days of the medium and gives a pretty thorough account of how LGBTQ people have been portrayed and employed across the decades — from invisibility to subjects of (invariably misguided) analysis, to objects of censure and pity and low comedy, to fodder for concerned social comment and big drama.
A running theme of “Visible” is that we should look for ourselves reflected in popular culture, how what we find or fail to find changes us and how in the absence of real representation, we look for what we can adapt and use. (Kate Jackson was not explicitly lesbian on “Charlie’s Angeles,” but, on the testimony here, she was for many lesbian viewers.) LGBTQ characters have moved from guest shots to supporting parts to central roles — to being played, in the bargain, by performers whose identity matches the character’s — as queerness has become something not always worth comment in and of itself. This too raises issues in a still imperfect world — as Times TV editor Matt Brennan pointed out in his piece on the series, the arc toward justice will require more bending.
“Visible” pairs well with (and overlaps) “Disclosure,” a Netflix documentary specifically about trans actors and images, directed by Sam Feder and narrated and featuring “Orange Is the New Black” superstar Laverne Cox. Its view is less historical — though it supplies ample context, back to silent film — than it is concerned with the present and immediate future. Autobiographical, philosophical and political at heart, “Visible” and its contributors are erudite, articulate and disinclined to simplify.
‘Welcome to Chechnya’
HBO has put up a pair of documentaries that demonstrate in different ways the effects of homophobia. The just-premiered, ironically titled “Welcome to Chechnya” is an on-the-ground documentary shot in 2017, when authorities in the Russian Federation republic waged war on its gay and lesbian population. They carried out what has been described as a “purge” — allegedly making arrests, torturing citizens to name other citizens, encouraging “honor” killings and generally trying to will difference out of existence. It feels shockingly medieval. (As so much does nowadays.) The film, directed by David France, focuses on a group of underground activists smuggling refugees through halfway houses and out of Russia to countries willing to take them. It has all the elements of a classic escape film and is often difficult to watch, both for the subject matter and cinematic tension. But it is not without hope.
‘Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn’
Seven minutes into the first episode of “Visible,” legal attack dog Roy Cohn turns up next to U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, which, among other things, targeted gay people as security risks during the so-called Lavender Scare. (“The pervert is prey for the blackmailer,” someone “explains” to viewers.) Broadcast to an audience of some 80 million over its run, the hearings introduced the fact of homosexuality to television and, one would suppose, to much of America. Cohn is never heard from, or, for that matter, talked about, in “Visible,” but HBO ‘s excellent “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” discusses him at feature length.
The film takes its title from a panel in the AIDS memorial quilt that director Ivy Meeropol and her father happened upon. It was a moment of particular significance for them, as Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn helped send to the electric chair; he also was, significantly, a closeted gay man, who would die of AIDS complications. (Playwright Tony Kushner, interviewed here, made Cohn a main character in his “Angels in America.”) A high-living social climber who made it a point of honor to pay as few bills as possible, and no taxes, Cohn was a mentor to Donald Trump, if that word may be used in such a negative context, and an attorney for various organized crime figures.
Cohn died in 1986, and Meeropol’s film offers a picture of a gone world — a time when gay culture was influencing the mainstream, without the mainstream quite recognizing that fact. (Cohn was a regular in gay-friendly Provincetown, Mass., and at Studio 54.) Given the Rosenberg connection, “The Story of Roy Cohn” is remarkably even-handed, nearly sympathetic and more than a little sad. Cohn may have been a villain, but he was a victim not only of HIV but also of his generation. In hiding his sexuality, even as he was dying, his case was little different from that of actor Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS complications a year before Cohn. Both were 59.
‘Hollywood’/ ‘Now Apocalypse’
A fictionalized young Hudson, played by Jake Picking, is a central character in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix miniseries “Hollywood.” It’s an alternative-history postwar fantasy in which fear of a gay Hollywood is overcome as early as 1947, giving Rock the happy beginning, and we assume the ending life denied him — or he denied himself in life. It is a weird mess of a show that works best taken not quite as seriously as it wants to be. But it works as a kind of camp art film — something along the lines of Gregg Araki’s exuberant, future-camp, polysexual, porn-adjacent sci-fi farce “Now Apocalypse,” a Hollywood fable of a different sort. Starz sent it into the world last year. But the glossy, madcap first season is still available to stream, and worth seeking out.
Coming out is the main plot engine of “Love, Victor,” a likable high school comedy-drama, from Hulu and a sequel to the film “Love, Simon.” New kid in school Victor (Michael Cimino) wonders why he can’t stop thinking about hot classmate/co-worker Benji (George Sear), even as popular Mia (Rachel Naomi Hilson) is ready to go steady. As modern teenage stories go, it’s rather chaste and gentle, if rife with well-meaning confusion. Benji’s conservative Latinx family will have some learning to do, and it is never in doubt that they will.
‘A Secret Love’
For a lovely documentary take on the theme, see “A Secret Love,” which debuted on Netflix in April. It tells the story of Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, a lesbian couple who didn’t reveal the nature of their relationship until they were in their 80s. Made by a family member, Chris Bolan, it’s moving not only for its somewhat reluctant, matter of fact intimacy but also for its sweep. The film takes in their younger lives with photos and home movies that capture a full domestic, romantic and social life in a time when exposure might mean ruin, even imprisonment. That Donahue was a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the one pictured in “A League of Their Own,” is a historical bonus.
‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’
Josh Thomas, whose imported 2013 Australian comedy “Please Like Me” aired here on the now-extinct network Pivot, was an earlier coming out, or perhaps a coming around, comedy. In the first episode, his character is dumped by a girlfriend who tells him, “You’re probably gay.” In the smart, California-set “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” (Freeform), he plays the much elder half brother to two American teenage girls who becomes their guardian after the death of their father.
Fans of his earlier series will welcome again Thomas’ particular brand of annoying charm. (It has been a while since we’ve seen him, but as he possesses the unique quality of appearing at once older and younger than his actual age — 33 now — he seems essentially unchanged.) Queerness is a given here. Parenting is more the issue, which does make this a sort of turn on “Family Affair.” (“Do you know how many gays had to die for us to do bingo?” is as political a line as you will hear.) The question of emerging identity is offloaded onto the girls, one of whom is autistic and sexually experimenting in a particularly scientific sort of way. And she may just turn out to be queer.