The epochal four-part series “The Question of Equality” is a television breakthrough on gay and lesbian issues, as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes.
The maturity, artfulness and historicism of this Independent Television Service production for PBS is such that that four-letter word-- AIDS --is never underlined or highlighted. The unspoken premise is that the AIDS crisis is merely one of many chapters in the history of gay and lesbian America, and one that has unfairly overshadowed other, equally compelling chapters.
The first, “Out Rage 69" (airing tonight), goes to the heart of the series’ thesis. The closeted, forcibly hidden lives of homosexual men and women before the 1960s is briefly but powerfully documented by Arthur Dong, whose work here expands on his revelatory historical work in “Coming Out Under Fire,” about gays and lesbians in World War II.
Hounded by anti-sodomy and other laws that forced them underground and into Mafia-controlled bars, these people lived under a kind of police state unknown to the rest of society.
Dong shows how the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City radicalized gays and lesbians, but he also brilliantly exposes the self-consuming process that has eroded seemingly every American leftist grass-roots movement. Factions of white, middle-class men faced off against other factions of anarchists, minorities and women who felt shut out. Group-think corroded collective interests, and film of a bitter gay pride rally in 1973 shows an ugly low point in recent gay and lesbian history.
This is gutsy, honest history, while the second chapter, “Culture Wars,” by Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane C. Wagner, is laden with a dread of forces militantly at odds with homosexuality. The enemy here is first gay-bashing thugs, then the Christian right.
Expect the same Christian right to denounce “The Question of Equality” for including generous footage of its least favorite film, Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied,” which triggered congressional efforts to de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts. Seen in retrospect, Riggs’ poetic TV work clearly influenced this new series’ powerfully impressionist visual design and filmmaking confidence.
Robyn Hutt’s “Hollow Liberty” highlights the little-known 1980 scandal in which dozens of Navy women were brought up on unsubstantiated charges of lesbian sex acts on board the Long Beach-based U.S.S. Norton Sound. The scent of a witch-hunt suggested by the Norton Sound trial dramatizes the meaning of the 1992 gays-in-the-military debate, which Hutt neatly summarizes.
Robert Byrd’s “Generation Q” somberly concludes the series with mostly teen-age gays and lesbians banding together in special schools (like L.A.'s EAGLES Center), safe havens from the grinding hatred and harassment they’ve endured in public school.
The new generation leaves open a deeper question than that of equality: whether the gay and lesbian movement will focus on a culture of difference, or one of assimilation.
* The first two installments of “The Question of Equality” air at 10 and 11 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28; “Hollow Liberty” will air at 11 p.m. Oct. 13, and “Generation Q” at 11 p.m. on Oct. 20.