The Forgotten Gay Cable Network That Changed LGBTQ History

Apr 26, 22
The Forgotten Gay Cable Network That Changed LGBTQ History

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Lou Maletta was determined to get gay life—from porn reviews to political coverage—on TV. Forty years ago, he succeeded.

Four stacked 1980s-era TVs showing GCN programs
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bet_Noire/iStock/Getty Images Plus and GCN via NYU Fales Library.

This piece is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On the evening of Dec. 25, 1982, residents of Woodstock, New York, turned on their TVs to find gay porn airing on their local public access station. The program, technically a review of gay pornography called Men & Films, included a clip of two naked men kissing in bed. Area residents called and complained to the station about the steamy footage on their screens—and airing on Christmas, of all nights. Town Supervisor John LaValle agreed with their objections: According to an article in the Advocate, he claimed the show was so “degrading to human behavior” that the station itself should be disconnected. But the board of directors of the channel countered that doing so would violate New York state law forbidding censorship of public access cable television. The controversy soon attracted national attention: Playboy and NPR covered the town’s cries to censor Men & Films, and the Village Voice asked, “Does constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression extend to public access TV shows depicting consenting gay males getting it on with, pardon the expression, equally consenting fruit?” (One of the reviewed films apparently involved a banana.)

Eventually, the channel’s board of directors rejected the demands to censor programming. Instead, it rescheduled programs with “explicit sex” to slots airing after midnight and instructed that these programs had to air with disclaimers about their “adult” material. Despite these new restrictions, the board’s decision was a win for the show: Men & Films continued to air.

Men & Films was created in early 1982 by gay entrepreneur Lou Maletta. On the show, which first aired on Manhattan Cable’s racy leased access Channel J, Maletta interviewed gay porn stars and reviewed slightly edited X-rated clips from newly released videos of gay pornography. Maletta was motivated by more than just a healthy libido: He believed that showing queer sex on TV could help destigmatize it. In a 1983 interview with New York City News, he said, “If we keep acquiescing in people’s ideas, we are not going to put forth the truth. … I don’t understand why everyone gets upset about looking at male genitalia.” Maletta would produce Men & Films for years. It became so notorious for its unapologetic depictions of on-screen sex, in fact, that it inspired a series of satiric and controversial skits called “Men on Film” performed by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier in the 1990s TV show In Living Color.

Between 1982 and 2001, Maletta continued to push boundaries, creating and executive producing a dozen other LGBTQ-oriented shows. To support his programs, he launched the Gay Cable Network, one of the first production companies dedicated to creating LGBTQ television series. GCN shows included Be Our Guest, a satire of 1950s game shows hosted by drag queen Sybil Bruncheon; Candied Camera, a queer variety and sketch show similar to Saturday Night Live; In the Dungeon, an informational series about New York’s leather and BDSM scene; Sixth Floor Harrison, one of the first scripted gay soap operas on TV; and Gay USA, a news show that offered LGBTQ political commentary, on-location coverage of LGBTQ events, and interviews with LGBTQ artists, activists, and public intellectuals. GCN programming received numerous commendations and awards, including from the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the Gay and Lesbian Press Association, and the GLAAD Media Awards.

But 40 years after the premiere of Men & Films, Maletta and the network’s place in LGBTQ history is relatively unknown. This is unfortunate, because GCN programming contains remarkable footage of the last four decades of LGBTQ history. While interviewing the producers and hosts of GCN series for my doctoral research, I realized that these shows expand the scope of what we mean when we talk about “LGBTQ television.” The typical narrative has it that between the 1950s and 1980s, gay characters on TV were few and far between, and were depicted primarily in stereotypes or innuendo. Yet long before Ellen came out or Will & Grace premiered, Maletta and his team of volunteers created hundreds of episodes of television by and for LGBTQ audiences.

“Lou was a visionary. … [He]was covering AIDS on the show when no one else was,” said longtime Gay USA co-host Andy Humm, who joined the GCN team as a volunteer in 1985. GCN’s coverage of the unfolding AIDS crisis is particularly significant. After watching the health of a close friend rapidly deteriorate following an AIDS diagnosis (the disease was known as gay-related immune deficiency at the time), Maletta decided to expand Men & Films to include weekly LGBTQ news and health segments. The show became one of the first TV programs to air images of lesions caused by Kaposi sarcoma, a skin cancer common among people with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

Over the years, GCN shows featured discussions about safer sex and condom demonstrations on screen; footage from dozens of ACT UP demonstrations; news about treatment, testing, and research; and memorials for the deaths of dozens of AIDS activists. It was “an essential resource for people,” Humm recalled. Because mainstream media outlets were so hesitant to cover the development of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, GCN’s weekly episodes provided vital information to a community deeply affected by the epidemic.

GCN footage also includes other aspects of LGBTQ life: demonstrations at the 1987 and 1993 Marches on Washington; community events like Wigstock, the Gay Games, and Mr. Leather competitions; annual weeklong Pride celebrations; as well as interviews with legendary activists and artists such as Larry Kramer, Sylvia Rivera, Michael Callen, Kate Bornstein, and Marlon Riggs. Because Maletta donated his archive to New York University’s Fales Library in 2009, much of this footage is available to watch today. Activists, scholars, media producers, and archivists often bemoan the scarcity of LGBTQ archival materials in libraries and museums, which contributes to gaps in our knowledge of LGBTQ history; the GCN tapes are one collection beginning to fill these gaps. They are “an invaluable record of the community’s history,” Humm said.

Maletta eventually distributed GCN series via videotape to 20 cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco. “He had to physically create a network. … He had to send out videotapes around the country,” Humm explained. Maletta hoped to one day create a profitable cable channel devoted to LGBTQ programming, a dream he never fulfilled (but that came to fruition in 2005 with the creation of Logo TV). Although it was not a traditional commercial network, GCN, by working with interested volunteers and mailing tapes to them, did help connect independent queer media producers and viewers. “It was a training ground” for LGBTQ people and allies interested in media production, Humm said. Maletta and his team offered opportunities to those interested in creating and accessing LGBTQ news and entertainment, long before the creation of digital and social media technology and platforms to do so in the 2000s.

As Maletta grew older, he eventually ran out of the money and energy necessary to keep GCN running. Financials were a constant concern: Maletta solicited advertisements from local LGBTQ businesses, including gay bars and sex hotline services (and even organized his own sex parties in his personal dungeon), to offset the cost of his programming. Despite hustling to pay for extensive equipment, programming slots, and travel, the costs of programming grew too high, and GCN closed its doors in 2001.

Diptych of Andy Humm and Ann Northrop hosting Gay USA next to the Gay USA title card
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by GCN via NYU Fales Library.

But the spirit of Maletta’s GCN lives on in Gay USA, which activist-journalist duo Humm and Ann Northrop decided to keep producing without him.

Gay USA soon found a home at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, where Northrop and Humm still film the show weekly on Wednesday afternoons. (They shot in a studio at MNN until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, when they began to host the show online.) Manhattan viewers can watch the show on local public access programming. Episodes are also distributed nationally via satellite/cable systems that carry Free Speech TV, an independent news network that amplifies underrepresented voices. Non–cable subscribers and international viewers can watch episodes on YouTube, and there’s a podcast version of the show on iTunes. Airing consistently since 1990, Gay USA is now the longest-running LGBTQ television series, and one of the very few programs dedicated to airing LGBTQ news on a weekly basis. In a contemporary media market in which many LGBTQ publications are closing and/or laying off staff, Gay USA provides an example of financially sustainable, independent, and progressive LGBTQ programming.

What keeps Gay USA on the air in such an unstable media market? The show is propelled by Humm and Northrop’s dedication to the news, as well as by the “dynamic tension,” as Humm calls it, between himself and Northrop. After more than 20 years co-hosting the show together—Humm began in 1985, and Northrop joined him in 1996—the two act like a long-married couple both on screen and off, interrupting each other, finishing each other’s sentences, often disagreeing with each other in one moment and praising each other in the next.

“The chemistry between Ann and Andy is just very, very good,” GCN associate producer Bill Bahlman shared with me. “They complement each other quite nicely.” Bahlman, a seasoned AIDS activist who has volunteered with Gay USAsince 2004, created and manages the show’s website and posts the weekly episodes to YouTube and iTunes. Working with Humm and Northrop is part of what makes the experience of volunteering meaningful to Bahlman: “Ann and Andy are not just capable of reporting the news. They can provide very, very useful insights into understanding the stories they report on.”

Humm and Northrop’s decadeslong friendship, as well as their decadeslong roots in LGBTQ movement activism, gives the pair a unique historical perspective to discuss the news with each other and their audience. The co-hosts maintain that the show still fills a gap in the contemporary media market. Gay USA is not just about reporting the news: As Northrop put it, “the show is about inspiring the audience to action.”

Gay USA is financially supported by viewer donations and small grants. Costs are minimal because MNN provides the film equipment, studio, and human resources in the form of Gay USA director Rich Speziale, a successful producer and broadcaster on staff at MNN.

As Humm and Northrop get older, they both are considering the future of Gay USA. “It’s a little tiring at an advanced age to keep doing it. … I’ve finally reached the point where I’m ready to walk away because it’s just been a long time,” Northrop said during our conversation. “You want to take over the show?” she asked me, only half-kidding. Preparing for the show—that is, following global LGBTQ news and culture on a daily basis—takes considerable time and energy, and Humm and Northrop are both thinking of passing the baton to younger folks with similar interests in progressive LGBTQ journalism.

Whatever the future of the show, Gay USA’s long history offers us some important lessons. The show provides a model that’s different from the one offered by glossier LGBTQ magazines, commercial TV programming, and digital platforms funded by advertisers and investments from larger companies. The success of Gay USA and the longevity of GCN suggest that LGBTQ media might be most sustainable when it uses and is funded by local resources and produced by people deeply engaged with the communities they represent on screen. While the rest of Maletta’s GCN shows have faded from cultural memory, these programs changed LGBTQ history, in part by recording it for future generations. As we look forward to creating the next 40 years of queer content, we’d be wise to remember that bypassing the mainstream and making our own alternative networks has been incredibly effective before—and it could be again.

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