LGBT Media: 80’s After School Specials

ABC debuted the After School Special in 1972. A typical special would feature a story about teenagers dealing with a PROBLEM that could be examined within an hour. Other networks soon picked up the formula. In my search for obscure QUILTBAG media I’ve come across three specials, made with in a three year period, that deal with the challenges faced by homosexual and bisexual teenagers.

Want to learn more? Then read my spoiler filled recaps.

HBO Family Playhouse:
The Truth About Alex (1986)

2. Truth About Alex Ad
A still from the Scott Baio fan blog.

I’ll start with the oldest, and least interesting, of the trilogy. Scott Baio plays a high school football star who freaks out when he learns his best friend Alex is gay. Only portions of the film are currently online, but the plot goes a little something like this:

Act One: Straight Man’s Journey
SCOTT BAIO (a high school football player): Alex, what’s wrong?
ALEX (a high school football player and musician): I’m gay.
SCOTT BAIO: But you’re my best friend!
MEAN DAD: Not anymore! I forbid you to speak to that gay boy. He’ll jeopardize your football scholarship.

Act Two: Gay Man’s Suffering
ALEX: I’ll try going to gay bars.
EVIL CLOSETED GAY: Sleep with me or I’ll beat you up.
FOOTBALL BULLY: You suck Alex! I’ll beat you up too!
SCOTT BAIO: Leave him alone! (Alex and Scott fight with the football bully)
COACH: Save it for the other team!

Act Three: Friendship Goals


(The big football game. Scott throws the ball. Alex catches the ball. The game is won!)
COACH: Let’s all congratulate Scott and only Scott.
SCOTT BAIO: Nice game Alex!
MEAN DAD: I told you to not to speak to Alex!
SCOTT BAIO: Screw you old man! I’m going to Alex’s piano recital!
MEAN DAD: DON’T WALK AWAY WHILE I’M SHOUTING AT YOU! Ohhhhh, what a world, what a world. Who would have thought that my son could destroy my toxic masculine wickedness. OHHHHHHH!!!
ALEX: Wow. This story isn’t really about me. But at least I play a mean piano.



CBS Schoolbreak Special:
What If I’m Gay? (1987)

Todd fights to protect his secret.

What If I’m Gay? pulls a clever bait and switch. We meet two couples and their snarky single friend. The single friend is coded to be the protagonist. But he’s not. The gay character is an all-star jock who is accidentally outed. After the initial trauma he’ll find himself some friends and a support system. The subversion of expectations off sets the preachy dialogue. The special won an Emmy for Outstanding Direction in Children’s Programming. Here’s a recap:

Act One: Closeted Life
TODD (A high school soccer captain): Allen, you need a girlfriend.
KIRK (An angry jock): Yeah Allen! Stop listening to jazz music and trying to be different.
ALLEN (A snarky rebel): I’m holding out for Marilyn Monroe. Hey Todd? Why are there naked muscle magazines in your room?
TODD: They’re for workout tips. I work out!
ALLEN: (To the audience) And you thought I was the gay one!

Act Two: Melting Down
THANKLESS GIRLFRIEND ROLE: Why are you picking fights and acting macho?
TODD: I just want to beat up queers and make out with my girlfriend! Nothing wrong with that!
KIRK: You can’t fool me Todd! I remember what happened at camp. Stay away from me you queer!
ALLEN: It’s okay Todd. I’ve an uncle who’s gay. School was hard but he’s happy now.
TODD: Go away Allen. People think you’re my boyfriend.

Act Three: Finding Support


SCHOOL COUNCILOR: You’re not sick. There’s no reason your bizarre lifestyle can’t be dignified and fulfilling. But you can’t expect people to respect you unless you respect yourself.
TODD: Hey Kirk? It’s true. I’m gay. But just because we fooled around at summer camp doesn’t mean you’re gay. If we can’t be friends again we don’t need to be enemies.
KIRK: (About to cry) Who needs enemies? (Runs away to furiously masturbate.)
ALLEN: Hey Todd! Come hang out with me and my new girlfriend!
TODD: We get it. You’re straight.



BBC Scene:
Two Of Us (1988)

Two of Us higher res
Bisexual rights.

My favorite of the three. Bisexual males are underrepresented and demonized in media. The bisexual protagonist of Two of Us indulges in a few stereotypes but remains a three-dimensional character. We start with a typical teen romance. Things move into thornier territory when the lovers run away. Homelessness remains a chronic problem among QUILTBAG youth which Two of Us doesn’t fully explore. Still the special pushed the envelope and frightened the censors at the BBC network. Fancy a recap?

Act One: Falling in Love
PHIL (a high school swimmer): Stop picking on my friend Matthew.
SHARON (Phil’s rude girlfriend): Why are you even spending time with that queer?
PHIL: It’s quite simple Sharon. I fancy you and I fancy him. I’m bisexual.
SHARON: YOU’RE SICK! Wow this script has really stacked the deck against me.
THANKLESS GIRLFRIENDS FROM THE OTHER TWO SPECIALS: At least you get more agency than we did.

Act Two: Running Away
MATTHEW (a sensitive gay teen): Phil, are you sure we should date? People are throwing rocks at me.
PHIL: Then let’s hitchhike to the coast! We’ll have a seaside honeymoon.
HOMELESS WOMAN: You homeless? Let’s travel together. I’ll teach you survival skills. And we can have threesomes.
MATTHEW: No thanks. I’m a gold star gay. And you’re c*ck blocking us.
PHIL: I love you Matthew. Let’s have sex in a tent. The censors can cut it from the broadcast.

Act Three: Making a Choice


SHARON: Nice tent. Come back to me Phil. It’ll still be bisexual representation.
MATTHEW: Don’t listen to her Phil. Choose me.
WRITERS: And here’s where the BBC made us film two endings. Matthew for the late night broadcast. Sharon for the daytime broadcast.
PHIL: Well which one is canon?
WRITERS: You think we’d have filmed two endings if Sharon was canon?
PHIL: Fair point. I choose Matthew! (They dance on the beach.)
MATTHEW: Yay! Do we still have to be homeless?



And Knowing is Half the Battle

5. ToU blackboard.
A homophobic teacher in Two of Us.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it… No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.” ~ Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

We’ve come a long way from Boys Beware, the 1961 educational short, where homosexuals lumber after teenagers like they were built in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. They may seem corny now but the After School Special formula lasted nearly 25 years. They addressed issues that other youth programming wouldn’t touch. Alex, Todd, Matthew and Phil were there before Beautiful Thing, Skam and Love, Simon. Looking back I have to wonder how I would have handled seeing one of these specials when they aired.

Did you watch after school specials? Which ones stuck in your memory? For more reviews of QUILTBAG media click here.

Up Next: It’s a sad gay Christmas with Rue McLanahan in 1971’s Some of My Best Friends Are…