There is a Roger Ebert quote that will always stick with me. In 2005 in Chicago, Ebert spoke at a plaque dedication about how films can make us understand perspectives of other people. He said, “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.”
I didn’t realize how much that related even more to the images that we see on television. We don’t have to venture out of our houses to watch something with characters that come from a different background. Apple TV+’s documentary series, Visible: Out on Television, is a celebratory event that proves that minds and hearts can be changed, and producer Wilson Cruz reveled in learning about some of television’s richest moments for the LGBTQ community.
I admitted to Cruz that Visible had me crying during every episode, and we shared a laugh when he replied, “Oh, good!” He added that he was eager to aid in telling these stories. “I jumped at the opportunity to be of service to the filmmakers. They wanted to talk to specific people—diverse people. As someone who had a story to tell, I realized that some people never have that opportunity. This whole documentary is a love letter to those who risked their lives to live as themselves and be who they are.”
It’s possible that some people may take for granted that we have an abundance of television that features the experiences of LGBTQ characters, and some younger viewers may not know about sitcoms like All in the Family or ABC’s Soap featuring people coming to terms with their sexuality or coming out. I’ve always considered myself to be quite knowledgeable about these moments, but there is a lot to learn. Cruz also shared about discovering pivotal moments on television. “One of the first things David Bender showed me was the Nixon tapes. The country was being torn apart and to hear the president at that time having a conversation in the Oval Office about how All in the Family was glorifying homosexuality. It showed how TV is an agent of change and a catalyst and we need to start having a dialogue.”
In a time when HIV and AIDS was obliterating a generation of young men, television was able to educate people–especially in smaller cities–about the death toll. It’s one of the hardest episodes of television to watch, but it’s essential. With dramas like FX’s Pose leading the fight to commemorate these men on the drama side, Visible uses its power to show images of real people fighting this disease. Cruz said, “The reason is we have to remember. Hopefully, we look back and remind us how resilient these men were and what has been done for us. We’ve never looked at homosexuality through the lens of TV like this before—especially as people who lived through that time through the nightly news. Back then there was no infrastructure. GLAAD and the HRC came out of these struggles. If we look back, we can see how problematic news coverage was, and we get a good look at how culture itself viewed gay men during that time. We needed to communicate who we are—it’s the only way to gain our freedoms.”
Visible isn’t all bleak, though. There are joyous moments to remember like when the world celebrated Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out story or Asia Kate Dillon reading the character description of their Billions character as non-binary. We chatted briefly about Will & Grace‘s cultural impact, and Cruz added, “I’m with Joe Biden that Will & Grace went a long way to humanize LGBTQ people. They were inviting us into their home and we got to enjoy that. There is nothing more communal than laughter.”
We ended our conversation on a difficult and hopeful note. This is a documentary series that we could revisit in the next five or ten years–additions to this series as we chart progress would be very welcome. Cruz acknowledged that these times we are living in are tough, but we have to remember to be resilient, “We need to be better. What gives me hope is the generation behind me. Young people have a very low tolerance for lack of respect and they will never turn that clock back. Remember…Donald Trump is a moment in time. He will pass and we will still be here.”
Visible: Out on Television is streaming on Apple TV+.