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HBO’s LGBT History: The Beginning

Manuel here kicking off a mini-series of sorts focusing on HBO's decades-old commitment to telling quality LGBT stories. I spent much of this spring recapping Looking here at The Film Experience and as polarizing as many (both here and elsewhere) found the show, it remained the sole American television show centered on the gay male experience to air last year. As we all know, shortly after the season 2 finale, HBO understandably pulled the plug; the show garnered a mere 0.298 million viewers for that episode, a mere pittance when compared to their Westeros-set hit, but also nearly half of what Lena Dunham’s show metered that same evening. And so, to fill the void and build up to a very gay-friendly upcoming HBO film roster (Queen Latifah’s Bessie, that rumored Matt Bomer/Montgomery Clift biopic, the Looking wrap-up film), we’re diving headfirst into a crafting an oral LGBT history of the network that gave us Patrick, Richie, Kevin, Agustin, and Dom, but which had clearly paved the way for such a show with a long storied list of LGBT stories even before it became the ratings giant it is now.

To say HBO, as a cable provider, as a television network, and as an independent film producer, has changed the media landscape is perhaps a bit of an understatement. Its long-running tagline, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” spoke to the core of what has made HBO such an institution. Despite various attempts at replicating its successes, HBO remains staunchly and idiosyncratically itself. Netflix and Amazon may be sniping at its heels but with a bucket load of Emmys, a gigantic and zeitgesty fantasy series on hand, and its new streaming service (anyone sign up for HBO Now, yet?), the cable giant is showing no signs of aging.

[Angels in America and Your Requested Participation after the jump...]

As a brand, HBO remains unparalleled; the static noise intro that greets all HBO productions (already a relic of a time gone by and the subject of a recent Playboy article!) works to let us know that what we’re about to witness is, not TV, of course, but perhaps, mediated reality itself. From The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, from Sex and the City to Girls, from The Larry Sanders Show to Veep, its television brand has long become synonymous with “quality” while nothing quite spells prestige like an HBO TV movie or mini-series (John Adams anyone?). It’s also been quite an LGBT friendly network, not only featuring sexually diverse characters in their programming (Chris Keller on Oz, Mickey on The Comeback, Pam in True Blood, Shakima Greggs in The Wire) but supporting out writers and directors like Mike White (Enlightened), Allan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce), Lisa Cholodenko (Olive Kitteridge) and Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City, The Comeback). Indeed, its two season commitment to Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh’s Looking is what got me thinking about HBO’s legacy in these terms.

Since this is The Film Experience and since HBO has long been a mini-major when it comes to film production despite eschewing theatrical release in favor of the convenience of at home viewing, I figured we’d try and trace this history by looking at all the films (and miniseries) that HBO has produced which feature prominent LGBT representation, from Tidy Endings in 1988, an adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s AIDS one-act play of the same name, to The Normal Heart in 2014, Ryan Murphy’s star-studded adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS play. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of variety in between, though that pivotal 1980s decade is a recurring motif throughout and may perhaps end up standing as HBO’s greatest contribution to a communal remembrance of the earliest days of the “gay plague.”

The crowning jewel of HBO's LGBT roster

Next week: Tidy Endings, written by Feinstein and co-starring none other than Stockard Channing herself. It’s a hard film to find (shh don't tell anyone I sent you here) but I hope you’ll all catch it before next week

As we’ll only be making slight detours to television series, I was hoping you’d all help me out singling out specific LGBT moments you remember from the long list of HBO shows that might help flesh out this history of HBO we’ll be writing together. What’s your favorite LGBT character in HBO’s history? Do you have a scene from Sex and the City or Oz or Six Feet Under that you return to again and again for its portrayal of gay, lesbians and bisexuals (we’ll soon find out that trans representation remains meagre at most)?

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Reader Comments (35)

Love this idea for a series.

In terms of great LGBT moments on HBO, and although I wasn't a fan of the show in general, Lafayette's AIDS burger speech from True Blood was the show's most memorable moment for me. Like a lot of people, I suspect, Angels in America remains one of their greatest triumphs and holds such a special place in my heart.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterben1283

I'm a Stockard Channing completist and I've never seen Tidy Endings so I'm totally watching this tonight!

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

ben -- oh man. Lafayette and that burger. lmfao

peggysue -- i'd never even heard of it myself.

May 13, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

David on Six Feet Under was a pretty great mirror for me to see in many ways.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

as far as notable gay moments in series... i think sex & the city was often weird about the gay but there were a few undeniably gay oriented episodes like when Samantha had a lesbian affair with Sonia Braga... and that time where Stanford felt like Carrie was abandoning him for a new GBF (who i think was from australia?)

May 13, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

oh and there was also that weird episode where carrie dated a younger guy and discovered his crowd was really bisexual and she couldn't deal (i think alanis morrissette was in it)

May 13, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm definitely on board for this.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Lafayette and the "AIDS burger" in True Blood immediately comes to mind. Also the scene in The Wire when Kima is in the hospital and all the higher ups just now realize that her "roommate" is actually her girlfriend.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrittani

Ooh, I love this idea.

My favorite? Chris Keller from Oz. Not only did Christopher Meloni put in a fearless performance for that character but I found Keller to be endlessly fascinating. Sometimes you never knew what he was thinking. Plus, he was a character who was openly bisexual which you don't see much these days in regards to men on TV or in movies.

I also lived for his storyline with Beecher. It was a twisted, toxic, abusive yet oddly tender and romantic relationship between those two. Those two actors had chemistry in bundles.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Nathaniel - the Australian GBF was Murray Bartlett who played Dom on LOOKING! it all comes full circle...

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

Beecher-Keller, sick and wonderful.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

For characters who I think are still unique not only for HBO but for television in general, I'd have to go with Omar from The Wire and Alby from Big Love.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Yasss love love love love this is a great idea. I always think of during The Comeback's first season when Valerie receives flowers and misreads the note saying they're from her "favorite gay" instead of her "favorite guy", and then the camera tracks Mickey's and Valerie's reactions since he wasn't out at that point.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

And the Band Played On was recently on HBO Go, not sure if it still is. Also not sure if that was an original HBO production or if it was just picked up by them and they distributed it. Either way, relatively memorable; really enjoyed Lily Tomlin and Ian McKellan in that one.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

David on Six Feet Under was, for me, the first fully-realized multi-dimensional gay character on TV, and still my favorite gay character. HBO has looooong been a supporter of LGBT media and is the main sponsor of QDoc--America's only LGBT documentary film fest here in Portland this weekend.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

abstew: Whoa!

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

And the Band Played On is probably my earliest HBO LGBT memory, but I remember being somewhat obsessed with everything David and Keith from Six Feet Under.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

My mind went immediately to two weird examples from Sex And the City, both involving Samantha: The episode where she's terrorized by the "trannies" outside her window late at night/early in the morning, and the episode where she meets herself in drag queen form.

And to Angels in America, because it's hands down the best thing HBO has ever done. The "threshold of revelation" scene is maybe my favorite scene in anything ever.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

And the Band Played On is a definite, but let's not forget In the Gloaming. The fact that movie existed, showing a loving, if strained, mother-son relationship when it did was HUGE. As for SATC, the episode where Stanford has an online courtship that ends in an underwear bar was pretty advanced for its day, too (you know, porto-grindr).

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

Kyle, I'm so glad you mentioned In The Gloaming since I hadn't come across it! Swiftly adding it to the list and now I can't wait to watch Band and Gloaming back to back. Also, even without trying, the series might just be an actressexual's dream (to whet everyone's appetite: Close! Channing! Tomlin! Jolie! Redgrave! Streep! Sarandon! Lange! Linney!)

As my images suggest, that GIRLS scene (and the perfection that is Angels in America) are my favorite LGBT moments though Alanis kissing Carrie Bradshaw and Mickey on The Comeback (and THAT scene from season 2 with him and the young latino boy) are favorites of mine.

May 13, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

I do believe I'm the only person existing in the world who could mostly leave Angels in America.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I think one of the most memorable gay "moments" (and it is so brief as to truly be called a moment) was the season 3 episode of The Wire which has a scene taking place in a gay bar. There is a quick shot of Maj. Rawls (John Doman) hanging out in the bar that lasts just a second or two. The series never explicitly comments on it, nor does it return to any closer examination of the character's sexuality, yet the shot packs several punches worth of information, story, and questions in it.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

Great idea for a series! Would love to see discussion of the Vito Spatafore storyline on "The Sopranos" and how that show dealt with the issue of queerness in a violently hyper-masculine space.

There was an anal sex scene on Six Feet Under that was pretty memorable in season 2 between two Latino men.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I really really love the subplot with Mena Suvari and Claire in Six Feet Under. I doesn't get more realistic than that writing-wise and acting-wise.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMr.Goodbar

"A Private Life" from season one of Six Feet Under is one of my favorite episodes of the series and feature lots of great story involving David's homosexuality and religion in addition to dealing with violence against LGBT youth.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

I'm recalling the "bottle episode" of Six Feet Under where David smokes crack with the dude who then kidnaps him, and how the whole thing got into some intense exploration of internalized homophobia, shame and risk-taking.

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

While their LGBT themed projects have been groundbreaking and their LGBT characters revolutionary (Omar from The Wire is my all-time favorite), nearly every single narrative film/miniseries/series about LGBT people has centered around (and, by extension, been created by) white gay men. And some wonder why gay/gay rights is still viewed as a white thing by too many heterosexual people of color...

May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

Remember If These Walls Could Talk 2?

May 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Just caught up with this post. Love the idea. Eagerly anticipate the series. A few favorites:

- Joanie Stubbs on Deadwood. Possibly Calamity Jane as well. Season 3 is a bit hazy but I think they address Jane’s sexuality in that season.

- Brian on The Larry Sanders Show played by Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson. Brian is awesome. Don’t miss Brian.

- Someone already mentioned Rawls on The Wire but it is a fascinating example of a character who is not at all defined by his sexuality, to the point where all (including the actor, I believe) assumed he was heterosexual.

- Game of Thrones has both the cheerfully bisexual Prince Oberyn and the rare depiction of asexuality with Varys.

May 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

There are so many AiA moments I can't even count, but like a few people here, I remember Michael C. Hall's prayer on the floor with the ghost of a murdered gay man hovering over him ("Stop torturing me" "Make me") translating to his gorgeous "Let me never be ashamed" speech at his church. As a kid who grew up very religious and just finding the strength to come out, that meant the world to me. AiA is their hands down masterpiece though. Meryl's "An angel is a belief" moment is one of the highlights of her career.

May 14, 2015 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

LOVE this idea. Can't wait to follow along. Keeping it to movies and miniseries is a great idea, too, since we all clearly have attachments to and still talk about many of the series, but rarely any of the movies.

(it's not being sneaky if it's on YouTube if it's not even on DVD)

May 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I cosign all comments praising the character of David on Six Feet Under. He was the first TV figure I can remember who was fully fleshed out as a unique individual. Most importantly, when seeing or thinking of David, his sexual orientation was not the first thing I thought of, as was and still is the case of many gay characters on TV. He had a striking balance of confidence and vulnerability I really admired.

May 14, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Yes, David on Six Feet Under was a wonderfully realized, fully fleshed out character. There was a real truth to him.

Mickey on The Comeback is another wonderful character: completely endearing and silly (who could ever forget the scene of him and Valerie dancing for each other across the studio as Valerie riffs on "I WIll Survive"?) - but with a dignity and strength as well. He has a great scene in the last episode of season one, where he shows his mettle in protecting Valerie during her final humiliation at the series' premiere.

May 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRob

So much love for Six Feet Under! I'm still midway through season 3 and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Might have to remedy that soon.

NewMoonSon; that is something that I am very much aware of and you'll see it seep into discussions of the films ahead. The issue of diversity will not be ignored, I promise.

Lots to think about; can't wait to keep the conversation going in these coming weeks!

May 15, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

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