Wisconsin Magazine of History


The period between the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and the recognition of the AIDS pandemic in 1981 marks the beginning of a more visible and organized LGBTQ presence at the local level than any other time in US history. During this period, known as the gay liberation era, LGBTQ people challenged the status quo on concepts of race, gender, and sexual orientation in municipalities around the United States. This period saw the creation of local LGBTQ newspapers, community centers, and political and religious organizations. Local activists pushed for increasingly open LGBTQ participation in politics, religion, the women’s movement, and the arts. Through the contributions of LGBTQ activism, municipalities around the country enacted civil rights protections as dozens of city councils passed sexual orientation non-discrimination legislation, including in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1975.1

Although network television raised the issue of LGBTQ people’s civil rights on individual episodes of popular shows during the 1970s, recurring LGBTQ characters on TV shows were few. The exception was Billy Crystal’s character Jodie Dallas on Soap, the controversial ABC comedic parody of soap operas. Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981, was only the third network sitcom to have a weekly recurring LGBTQ character, but it was the first such character to make a substantial cultural impact, causing a prolonged and noisy national debate. On Soap, Billy Crystal played a gay man who dated a pro football player, considered a sex-change operation, had a baby with a heterosexual woman, and raised the child as a single father.2 When the series was announced in the summer of 1977, the National Council of Churches, concerned about the sexual nature of the show in general, denounced it and made threats to boycott series sponsors.3 In reaction, potential sponsors backed out, forcing ABC to offer discounted advertising rates. Fifteen of 195 affiliates refused to carry the series at all. At the show’s premiere, Time magazine declared that Soap would always “be remembered as the show that broke the TV sex barrier by spilling uninhibited promiscuity into the allegedly sacrosanct hours of prime time.”4 Dissatisfied with the portrayal of the Dallas character, the National Gay Task Force critiqued the program for trafficking in gay stereotypes at the expense of gay people.5

It was in this larger national context that an LGBTQ-themed cable access television show began its run in Madison, Wisconsin. From 1979 to 1983, Glad to Be Gay, produced by Madison’s newly founded lesbian and gay political advocacy group, the United, ran on Sunday nights in the 8:00 p.m. prime-time slot.6 According to reports in the gay press, when it premiered on January 28, 1979, Glad to Be Gay was one of five LGBTQ cable access television shows in the nation, along with programs in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Miami.7 Produced out of a public access television studio in the Midwest, it broadcast in-depth LGBTQ content not found elsewhere on local or national television: explorations of lesbian parenting, the trans community, the fight against the military ban on gays serving openly, male victims of rape, being out in the workplace, and more. As Michael Henry, one of the show’s founders, explained, the purpose of the show was to “help people understand what the experience of being gay is all about.”8

How did a small city in America’s heartland come to, much of the written history of the gay liberation movement has been limited to the stories of large coastal cities, leaving the impression—through omission—that gay liberation work was not taking place throughout the nation. Yet as the breadth of topics covered in shows, there was a thriving gay liberation movement in Madison that included more interaction across gay–straight lines than might conventionally be assumed. The televised dialogue among LGBTQ activists and local clergy, politicians, police, and healthcare professionals reflects a Midwestern, small-city ethic of engagement, with open discussion and polite disagreement. It also reflects Madison’s environment as a progressive university city, with student activism and a politically engaged public contributing to the gay liberation movement.

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