Although the Q Television Network recently tanked due to its inability to secure funding, owing some $7.6 million to vendors and employees, Here!, the country's first gay television network, established in 2002, is now beaming into 50 million households nationwide. It is offered by most major cable providers as a subscription video-on-demand service, as well as via satellite and broadband. Here! Interactive Media, its online division, enjoys more than 2 million visitors a month to sites like GayWired.com, GayMonkey.com, LesbiaNation.com, and GaySports.com.
Logo, owned by Viacom's MTV division, is celebrating its first anniversary and reaches more than 19 million homes. Unlike QTN and Here!, Logo is advertiser-supported and has struck deals with DirecTV, Charter Communications, Adelphia, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable of New York, and RCN to carry the network for free. Logo senior vice president and general manager Lisa Sherman says, "We've exceeded all expectations we had for the channel, with an enormous library of films and series, and have signed over 50 world-class advertisers. Logo is providing LGBT audiences a home base, whether online, air, or channel."
Sherman herself is gay and says her employees include both gays and nongays: "We have a very diverse team who are all very committed to delivering great product." Logo's programming includes a 10-hour Gay Pride "Madonnathon," and Sherman points to Noah's Arc, the channel's first scripted series: "We're very proud that our first scripted series reflects the lives of African-American men, which we really don't hear a lot about. There's a new series with the comedian Ant, U.S. of Ant, which dispels the notion that gay people only live in New York or Los Angeles. He goes on the road looking for gays in Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina, with amazingly warm and funny stories. CBS News on Logo is one of the franchises that we're very proud of, bringing daily, relevant news to our audience."
Diversity is indeed alive and well in the LGBT community, which often leads to healthy dissent. Enter Ann Northrop, veteran producer and host of the nationally syndicated cable news show Gay USA, which airs Thursday nights at 11 p.m. on Channel 57 (Time Warner) and Channel 109 (RCN). Says Northrup, "My co-host, Andy Humm, started this over 20 years ago with Lou Maletta on leased access, which is the channel available for people to buy time on, which is even more public than public access because you don't have to go through any screening process. If you've got the money, you can buy the time. But then Lou got tired and cranky and decided he didn't want to do it anymore. We got viewer contributions to help us stay on the air, and then [producer] Barry Z said he wanted to pay the costs, before he got cranky. Then, three years ago, Manhattan Neighborhood Network invited us to come over to public access. They offered the show to Free Speech TV," a publicly supported nonprofit channel, founded in 1995 and devoted to progressive social change, diversity, and covering perspectives ignored by the mass media. FSTV "put us on cable systems around the country and on the Dish network, a national satellite service, as well as podcast."
What does she think of Logo? It's "one of the biggest wastes of money I've seen in a long time," Northrop says. "It's tragic how they're missing an opportunity to do intelligent programming. I knew when this was coming out of MTV/Viacom that this was going to be a homogenized, commercial thing to make the most money, but I think they're missing the boat completely: movies that run 9,000 times a month that everyone's already seen, very little original programming, mostly appalling." She is particularly unimpressed with the network's foray into her own bailiwick: "The worst part of it is the so-called 'news connection.' Someone got the bright idea to install a hookup with CBS News, which is also a Viacom company, and the problem is that they then become a function of a network news department that really doesn't know anything about gay stuff. I was on a panel with their gay anchor, Jason Bellini, and I asked him if they were going to cover gay marriage using their experience as gay people. He told me, 'Oh, no, we're neutral.' Logo prides itself on being neutral, which means that they're not pro-gay. One of their news cut-ins was two minutes about Angelina Jolie being pregnant. How can you waste those resources? With literally nothing, my co-host and I put on a news show every week which I like to think benefits from our experience and ability to analyze and discuss. You don't see any of that on Logo, and they have all the money in the world."
Northrop and Humm are facing their own woes with the possible demise of cable access channels. No, it's not the threat of censorship by the religious right, but telephone companies lobbying for bills that would allow them into the business: They want to start providing television services but don't want to be bound by the same local franchising agreements that obligate cable TV companies. As Humm wrote in Gay City News in May, "Under the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006, the phone companies would be able to establish national franchises, bypassing the local franchising process entirely…. Across the nation, this will be the end of what is called PEG TV—public access TV, educational access TV that allows for long-distance learning in isolated regions of the country, and governmental access TV that cablecasts local public hearings and meetings. The COPE bill also contains two other sinister provisions. One ends 'Net Neutrality' and allows Internet service providers like AOL to prioritize emails based on the sender's willingness to pay. Another lets cable TV providers redline low-income communities that they believe would be less profitable to serve."
Northrop says that people have asked if she and Humm applied for jobs at Logo, whose target audience Sherman describes as 21 to 54. Northrop replies, "Are you kidding? They don't want us. They want young, buff boys! I don't agree with that marketing strategy—I certainly understand it—but what could be more predictable and stereotypical? Andy and I are a couple of gray-hairs in our 50s who couldn't be more idiosyncratic and cranky, but we have people all over the country, since we're now nationwide, telling us they adore the show—straight, gay, young, and old. This middle-aged black mechanic in a bike shop recently pulled me aside to tell me how much he likes the show, which warms my little heart!"
Dissent aside, there's no doubting the success of Logo's Noah's Arc, for which creator Patrik-Ian Polk independently shot a pilot episode back in 2004. Now filming the show's second season in Vancouver, Canada, Polk says, "I took [the pilot] on a 26-city promotional tour of film festivals, with a plan to do it as a straight-to-DVD series. MTV was just developing Logo and interested in originally scripted programming, and they picked us up."
Noah's Arc is the most popular show on Logo, as measured by the number of hits its website receives. Its fan base includes everyone from its target audience of black gays to straight women. "They're just crazy about the show, follow it religiously, watch it multiple times, and there are fan sites and Yahoo! groups," says Polk. He was hesitant about moving his location to Vancouver, but says, "It's worked out, with a great crew, and it looks amazing. We're really working hard to raise the bar of the show in every way, and I'm excited about the scripts and some exciting additions to our cast: Keith Hamilton Cobb and Victoria Rowell from The Young and the Restless, Rachel True, Rockmond Dunbar, and Raz B from the singing group B2K. There's that dramatic, soapy element to the show, so it's hard to tease your readers without giving away too much plot, but from the very first scene of our new season to the last finale, we will continue to surprise and, hopefully, shock."
Asked about the "down low" theme of closeted gay men that recurs on the show, Polk says, "It's the naturally flamboyant gay man who's a lot more courageous than the hypermasculine closeted guy. They're not terribly interesting: It's cowardice, and I think to a certain extent we glorify that lifestyle, even in the black gay community. There's a mystique and appeal, still finding that whole persona very attractive—and it's just not [attractive] to me. That stuff comes up on the show, but I'm not exploring it in a way that glorifies it. [We] treat it in a very critical manner."
Polk feels that sexuality is a very tricky issue, and not everyone is comfortable about coming out, "but my hope is by having shows like mine with people who are out and proud, people will start to learn by example. My biggest gripe is that the media has hyped it to such a degree. Men living double lives is nothing new, but now they have this term to stick on black men who are closeted. White guys have been doing it forever, but that label gets put on black men, and I find it really annoying."
Polk's advice to aspiring LGBT filmmakers is "be true to yourself as an artist. I started Noah's Arc because I was feeling frustrated knocking on Hollywood doors. I'd had Punks, a hit film at Sundance—every independent filmmaker's dream. But being a black gay film, it didn't open doors the same way as it would had it been a white gay film or hetero. That was a little disheartening, but rather than wallow in it, I decided to take control of the situation and do something I was passionate about. It wasn't about trying to pitch it to networks, because in my wildest dreams I never thought any network would do a black gay TV series. It was very grass-roots, taking it to the Web and streets—directly to the audience. Hollywood heard the noise and came a-callin', totally unexpected, but everything worked out. Hollywood is a tough nut to crack. You can spend a lot of time spinning wheels, chasing trends. And now I'm happy to be hearing about new projects: These young filmmakers are doing something called The DL Chronicles"—a TV series produced and directed by Deondray Gossett and Quincy Le Near, which premiered at L.A.'s Outfest, about a journalist researching a book about men who sleep with men, known as MSM, and live secret, sexually duplicitous lifestyles. "And there's another one called Christopher Street these New York guys are doing, about a younger group of gay 20-something kids."
The gay film festivals at which Polk showed the Noah's Arc pilot continue to be vital outlets for new projects. But with cable channels and video stores constantly offering new product, Basil Tsiokos, director of the just-wrapped NewFest, New York's largest LGBT film festival, still gets asked whether the festivals are really relevant now. "We get that every year," he says. "It's a ludicrous question that nobody necessarily believes but feel they have to ask. Even though we love working with Logo, Here!, Sundance Channel, etc., they can only show a handful of films. We will always have more films to show than they're able to, because of rights issues, content, marketability. Plus, there's something about watching a film in a communal, celebratory environment with other film lovers and gay people—that will never be lost, no matter how bifurcated the market becomes—that is preferable to a semi-solitary viewing experience. Brokeback Mountain absolutely was to some extent a touchstone moment—for that film to break through [from] segregated audiences and reach the masses. Most films for a niche audience are never going to achieve that kind of success, but it did draw attention to a gay cinema that has always been there."
One film Tsiokos was especially proud of showing was Camp Out, Larry Grimaldi and Kirk Marcolina's documentary about the first-ever overnight gay Christian youth camp; it focuses on 10 LGBT youths, ages 15–17. "The gay audience was very accepting of it, and straight audiences should really see that story for what it said about this kind of impact on youth," Tsiokos says. "It helped to sort of draw a line to remind people that it's not so much us versus them—those gay Republican Christians. It's not all one-sided; there has to be a place in our community for all voices to be heard."
Queer filmmakers everywhere are doing it for themselves, like Peter Paige of Queer as Folk. Proving that there's definitely life after the series, Paige wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Say Uncle, which opens June 23 in Los Angeles and June 30 in New York. He plays Paul, a rather confused gay artist searching for love. But it isn't the usual woe-is-me-it's-so-hard-to-find-a-decent-guy-in-the-city search. Paul loves little children—not in a carnal way, but in a nanny/playmate fashion—and this affection lands him in hot water when he is suspected of being a pedophile.
"Around season three of Queer as Folk, I wanted to do something different," says Paige, "so I dragged out this old script I'd been toying with for two years and thought there was something here. I sent it to some producer friends, and about a year and two months later we were shooting. It's been a couple of years since then, and now we're coming out, so I'm very happy. I hesitate about calling it autobiographical in any way, because I don't have any kind of unnatural thing for children. Although I love children, I'm a lot more in touch with the reality of how things get perceived than Paul."
Paige says the film addresses one gay man's experience to explore universal themes: "The film is as much about what it might be being a person of Middle Eastern descent in this day and age, as much as [it's about] a gay man who likes children. It's a precautionary tale about how quick we are to judge someone, and how regularly we're told to be afraid of each other, how hysterical our society has become. Every day, you turn on the news and it's something else: the mailman, foreigners, mercury in the fish, mad cow disease. We're so frightened that we aren't really present in our own lives anymore." The directing bug has bit Paige bad, and he is currently developing two other scripts, as well as a "dream role" that he's hesitant to detail due to rights issues.
Another gay actor-turned-auteur, Craig Chester, describes the thrill of traveling the world with his film Adam & Steve: "I took it to Barcelona; Cardiff, Wales; Texas; saw it with so many different kinds of audiences, and their reactions were amazingly all pretty much the same. It was always fun to see the 'big moment,' when Malcolm Gets has diarrhea: people screaming in the balcony. But there are little moments when people come up to you, like some guy in tears at the end because he appreciated the fact that nobody died and it was sort of uplifting. A lot of people responded to that. John Waters, who was such a big inspiration to me and whose irreverence I strived to recapture, was in one of my audiences. He tried to help us with it, called New Line. And to see it at the Castro Theatre [in San Francisco] with Armistead Maupin and hear him laughing so loud. When your gay heroes give you the thumbs up, those are moments I'll remember my whole life."
I attended an early reading of the script of Adam & Steve almost four years ago, when Chester was trying to attract backers. "We had that cliché of lots of false starts," he says, "but once it got going, it was fine. We were the first gay film released right after Brokeback Mountain, and we had the biggest theatrical release of any low-budget gay film ever. We broke records that weekend, opening in 17 cities, where most small gay movies only open in L.A. and New York. That had never been done before, and was due to TLA Releasing, who picked us up."
Being in front of as well as behind the camera was nerve-wracking for Chester: He had to be not only the last person on the set at night and the first one there in the morning, but look good for the lens, too: "There are scenes in which I see myself and think how exhausted I look! Our second day of shooting was the diarrhea scene, with a crew of mostly straight guys going, 'What kind of movie is this?' We're all naked and running around, doing coke, and Malcolm Gets has diarrhea and I'm throwing up. I remember thinking, 'This is surreal. I can't believe people are actually acting out things that were in my head all these years.' "
Chester is currently in Los Angeles, researching his next project, a film about Montgomery Clift. "I've been talking to a lot of people who knew him," he says. "His two biographies in the 1970s basically laid his pathology on his being gay: 'He was alcoholic because he was a self-loathing gay man.' What we know now is you can be alcoholic and be gay, straight, rich, or poor. What I'm finding out is that he was just the opposite of [a self-loathing gay man]. He was as in your face about being gay as one could be at the time. He never lived in L.A., never got married like Rock Hudson or had these phony hetero relationships. He's kind of like the opposite of what he's gone down in history as. That's been amazing to find out, that he had long-term boyfriends, with whom I've spoken."
Northrop, who has been on the scene longer than any of my interviewees, is—as curmudgeonly as she may be—hopeful for the future: "You have this soap opera, As the World Turns, with a teenaged boy coming out, and the interesting thing is that his mother is the only one having any problem with it. Everybody else—his father and friends—are saying, 'If that's who you are, great!' A few years ago, everybody would have freaked out and it would have been a much more horrendous experience. After Brokeback, what we're seeing is slowly but surely advancing along that track of normalization.
"I just looked at the local news coverage today of the New York State Court of Appeals argument on gay marriage. The local news is playing it up quite big, which surprised me. It's not a decision, it's just an argument, but they seem to be quite straightforward about reporting the argument, pros and cons, and what's likely to happen. Everyone has just advanced another few inches in their understanding of this stuff. They're a little more sophisticated than they used to be, and I think it's just a gradual, inevitable process, which happens to be happening in our lifetime, which makes us kind of lucky."