Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America

Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America

Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America

Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America


A half century ago gay men and lesbians were all but invisible in the media and, in turn, popular culture. With the lesbian and gay liberation movement came a profoundly new sense of homosexual community and empowerment and the emergence of gay people onto the media's stage. And yet even as the mass media have been shifting the terms of our public conversation toward a greater acknowledgment of diversity, does the emerging "visibility" of gay men and women do justice to the complexity and variety of their experience? Or is gay identity manipulated and contrived by media that are unwilling -- and perhaps unable -- to fully comprehend and honor it? While positive representations of gays and lesbians are a cautious step in the right direction, media expert Larry Gross argues that the entertainment and news media betray a lingering inability to break free from proscribed limitations in order to embrace the complex reality of gay identity. While noting major advances, like the opening of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore -- the first gay bookstore in the country -- or the rise of The Advocate from small newsletter to influential national paper, Gross takes the measure of somewhat more ambiguous milestones, like the first lesbian kiss on television or the first gay character in a newspaper comic strip.


No one looking at the young woman who walked into a lesbian bar in Los Angeles in the summer of 1947 would have suspected they were witnessing a milestone in American social history. A 26-year-old secretary who called herself Lisa Ben (an anagram of lesbian) was distributing copies of a new publication she had created called Vice Versa—“because in those days our kind of life was considered a vice.” The magazine consisted of only fifteen type-written pages, but it signaled the first stirrings of the modern gay rights movement in the United States.

Fifty years later, in the summer of 1997, a 17-year-old high school senior in Wisconsin responded to Ellen DeGeneres's coming out on the cover of Time, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and nearly every other media forum by writing a column for Oasis, an “online magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth,” in which she proclaimed her intention of living her life honestly, “because I have nothing to hide.”

Between these two moments in modern American history lies a chasm bridged by transformations in culture, politics, and media that no one in 1947 could have foreseen.

This is a book about the emergence of lesbian and gay Americans from the shadows of invisibility and their entrance onto the playing fields of politics and culture. It is also a book about the role of media in bringing together a self-conscious community that was able to organize a movement and demand change; and about the role of media in portraying gay people to the majority and to gay people themselves, in ways that perpetuated harmful stereotypes and, eventually, also in ways that began to reverse some of that harm. While the stories told in this book constitute a chronology, because I am following several threads the narrative circles back occasionally to pick up . . .

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