Today in Gay History: Real Gay on Public Television

1.15.2014

By Andrew Belonsky

Lance Loud broke barriers, with his best face forward.

The upcoming gay HBO dramedy Looking would probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the 1973 PBS mini-series An American Family. The first reality show, An American Family followed The Louds — parents Bill and Patricia and five teenage children — for twelve episodes. The format was revolutionary, and so was the content, most of all eldest son Lance, an out and proud homosexual. His appearance 41 years ago this week marked the first time an openly gay person had been put on national television. It was a revelation for millions: Lance Loud wasn’t a sad sack or deranged or depressed, as popular culture had portrayed gays in books and movies. No, Lance was happy and healthy and vibrant and free.

(The Loud family, with Lance on the left.)

“[Lance is sometimes described as the first gay man to ‘come out’ on TV, but that is inaccurate,” playwright Justin Tanner wrote in 2004. “Lance just was. His family adored him and didn’t question his ‘orientation.’” Nor was his “orientation” ever discussed on camera, thanks to editing and Lance’s own ambivalence to growing acceptance. “Homosexuality is pretty boring unless you can do it without somebody knowing about it. I’m coasting around now with no sexual preference. It [homosexuality] is too accepted,” he said in 1974. He made a similar remark in a 1973 visit to Dick Cavett’s show (video included below). It was also during that appearance that Loud, critical of the show from the get-go, accused to editors of making him seem “obnoxious.” That was not the face he wanted to put forward. And, yes, he and his family, he said, were putting their best faces forward.

Lance and the rest of the Louds helped spark a new pop culture psychology: reality versus unreality. We’re all familiar with it, of course, but to give you a sense of history, here’s an excerpt from a 1983 Christian Science Monitor article:

"A new generation of young people, nourished on television, seems to be growing up slightly confused about the boundaries between real life and television fantasy-life. American TV today isn’t helping at all — it is increasingly blurring the line between TV and reality, as in the case with ‘reality entertainment’…"

The writer, Arthur Unger, traces this epidemic back to, you guessed it, An American Family. “The whole family became pop celebrities,” he gripes. And none more than Lance.

For all the hoopla around his homosexuality, Loud was ambivalent about sexual labels in general. “Homosexuality is pretty boring unless you can do it without somebody knowing about it. I’m coasting around now with no sexual preference. It [homosexuality] is too accepted,” he said in 1974, after performing with Frank Zappa in New York City, where he moved during the show. His confidence, sociability and fame helped him and his band, The Mumps, find a following in the Big Apple’s burgeoning punk scene. They performed alongside the likes of Blondie, Cheap Trick, and, yes, Television through 1980, when the band broke up.

BIG GAY TV TIMELINE: HOW THE EVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED

In those years and the ones that followed—hopping from stage to Warhol's Factory to gallery to side gig to make some bread—Lance learned to embrace his place as a gay icon. In addition to writing for Creem, Interview, and Rock Scene, he wrote a column for The Advocate. His final submission was “Musings on Mortality,” penned during his final days in hospice. He died on December 22, 2001, HIV positive and suffering from Hep C after two decades of crystal meth abuse. In 2003 months later, PBS aired a followup to its groundbreaking show, Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family.

Lance Loud’s influence on pop culture was fast and furious, just like him. Within two years networks were toying with gay characters, something unthinkable before January of 1973. In 1975 seminal producer Norman Lear included a gay character on his short-lived ABC sitcom Hot’l Baltimore. One year later NBC tried the ill-conceived Snip, about a gay hairdresser, and in that time Bob Newhart and fictional housewife Mary Hartman would also co-star gay characters. In 1977, Lear launched Soap with Billy Crystal as gay man Jodie. None of this, nor the other gay depictions, good and bad, fictional and otherwise, would have come to be had it been for Lance Loud being himself — or a facsimile of himself — on public television. They were so influential that in 2011 HBO made a movie about the Louds and An American Family, titled Cinema Verité. Thomas Dekker played Lance.

It’s worth noting that, although Loud said he never watched the program when it aired, he told Cavett in 1973 he did tune in for the endings. He loved the cliff-hanger drama. “I like to see about the last 10 minutes of every show," he said. Even though it doesn’t portray us as the way we had wished and dreamed it would, [the producers] really do, all of a sudden, no matter how draggy the hour seemed, they suddenly pull themselves together and throw on that old drama at the end and freeze out and play some good music or something. I really like that.”

WATCH this video below of Loud matriarch Patricia visiting her son in New York. He was living at the Chelsea Hotel at the time and hanging out in the city's underground art scene. The night of this video, they went to La Mama.

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