It only took seven years for television to turn gay bars from sweaty, sleazy dives into posh pink palaces — and it’s Ronald Reagan’s fault.
Back in the '70s, there was a sudden surge in authentic depictions of queer life on television — and that included queer watering holes, on shows like Taxi, Maude, Starsky & Hutch, and Sanford & Son. (Well, technically, that last one only showed the exterior of a gay bar. But that’s still more than you were likely to see a few years earlier!)
Those '70s-era gay bars tended to be surprisingly faithful, if a bit more brightly lit than in real life; the one on Taxi was even populated at the last-minute by background extras recruited from a real West Hollywood bar, since professional TV extras were reluctant to be seen in that context.
Then something weird happened in 1980.
Abruptly, queer storylines dried up at the start of the decade, and were a lot harder to find than they had been a few years earlier. And gay bars on broadcast television? Forget about it, unless you count the one episode of Cheers where the gang threatens to boycott the bar if Sam lets gay guys drink there.
The difference is most noticeable when you compare two extremely fun episodes of TV that are about a decade apart: Starsky & Hutch’s “Death in a Different Place,” and Murder She Wrote’s “Birds of a Feather.” Both episodes revolve around a murder mystery at a gay bar, but their handling of the milieu could not be more different — and the Murder She Wrote treatment is so bonkers that I’ve been obsessed with it for years.
Starsky & Hutch, if you’re not familiar, is a hard-boiled '70s cop show about two detectives whose efforts to solve crime always seem to involve elaborate disguises. I was never particularly interested in watching it until recently, but now I love it — the guys have a relationship that is adorably homoerotic, or at least homosocial, in a way that gay-scare tropes of the '80s and '90s almost completely erased from the media. (But that’s an essay for another, hornier time!)
In “Death in a Different Place,” they learn that one of their colleagues, a decorated cop, was found dead in a hotel after being seen with a “trick.” Is this the first use of the word “trick” to signify a gay hookup on broadcast television? Maybe! (What an unexpected context. It reminds me of the first known use of “henny,” which occurred on the human rights violation that is Glee.)
The episode proceeds with an investigation that winds up daylighting real California gay issues of the time: The guys meet a gay candidate running for office who is clearly modeled on Harvey Milk (but with a cuter mustache. Sorry Harvey!); they find out that the police department wants to cover up the fact that an officer was gay (at the time, LAPD strongly opposed allowing gay cops to serve); and they meet real-life drag icon Charles Pierce, who treats them to some of his iconic female impersonations. (For more of Charles, check out his appearance on Merv Griffin; the audience has absolutely NO idea what to do with him.)
Crucially, Starsky & Hutch is fairly unflinching in showing us the realities of gay lives. Before he’s murdered, it’s clear that the gay cop has gay sex. We meet a queer sex worker whom the cops are a bit too quick to accuse. We spend time in a gay bar that’s realistic down to the tape holding the disco ball together. There’s a verisimilitude to this episode, and to many other shows of the time, that would start to dry up at the start of the '80s.
By way of comparison, Murder She Wrote’s 1984 episode “Birds of a Feather” is set in what is ostensibly a San Francisco drag nightclub. But any sense of authenticity goes completely out the window almost immediately: The drag performers are … well … uncompelling, shall we say. And the interior is a fever dream of conspicuous '80s opulence: Tuxedos and furs; reservations required a week in advance; a water fountain (???) in the middle of the audience (??????).
The setup of the episode veers close to that of Starsky & Hutch — there’s a murder at the club and it’s up to Jessica Fletcher to solve the mystery. (Spoiler: Her solution makes NO sense, and involves a sound of a gunshot muffled by a pillow — something that anyone who has screamed into one knows would not work.)
But unlike on Starsky & Hutch, queer people are entirely absent from what should be a milieu filled by them. It’s San Francisco! In the 1980s! Come on. But the drag performers are made aggressively heterosexual, making out with women at the most awkward of times. The senior cop, it is revealed, has a secret: But unlike on Starsky where the cop’s secret is that he has gay sex, Murder’s secret is that he is … more polite at home than at work.
This is part of a trend in the '80s — TV shows suddenly sanitized their depictions of gay characters at the start of the decade. To be sure, the unfolding HIV epidemic was a factor; television simply didn’t know how to address the cataclysmic public health crisis. (Similarly, we’ve seen relatively few scripted shows address COVID so far.)
But another factor was the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan and other Republicans in the 1980 election. After a more freewheeling '70s, a conservative electoral lurch in 1980 suggested that the mood of the country had gone far to the right on social issues. TV and advertising executives reacted accordingly. Shows with gay leads were yanked from development or shunted to cable; when gay characters did appear, they tended to be brief, shallow portrayals compared to the more complex depictions of '70s shows like Soap.
I don’t hold a particular grudge against Murder She Wrote for glossing over the realities of queer life in San Francisco, since that simply wasn’t what the show was. Murder She Wrote was, essentially, a fun fantasy show, and reflects the television trends of the time. Still, it’s a bit unsettling to see a San Francisco without queer people, since pretending that queer people don’t exist was exactly how the Reagan administration dealt with HIV.
By the time Reagan addressed HIV directly, twenty thousand people had died. The federal government under his leadership — or lack thereof — only allocated a few thousand dollars to dealing with the global epidemic. Reagan didn’t even read the report that his surgeon general prepared for him. The early 1980s was one of the most important points in history to talk about the reality of LGBTQ+ life, but just when conversation was needed most, a religious backlash sought to wipe those conversations away.
It took years for queer visibilty to claw its way back, with TV movies like An Early Frost in 1985 and sitcom episodes like Designing Women’s heart-rending 1987 episode “Killing all the Right People,” one of the first scripted shows to tackle the topic of HIV. Those programs accomplished what political leaders were too cowardly to do: They return to the authenticity that TV approached a decade earlier in the 1970s, bringing more true-to-life depictions of queer life to the screen.
That’s why I’m so heartened when I see modern-day depictions on shows like Doom Patrol — a recent episode of that show, written by gay screenwriter Tom Farrell, features queer actors and a storyline about a gay superhero. It feels like a return to where TV was in the '70s, and where it should have been through the '80s and '90s, with queer people thriving in queer bars.