The groundbreaking television series “In the Life” received an impressive gift for its 20th anniversary celebration — a $1 million donation from board co-chair and New York philanthropist Henry van Ameringen. This timely award gives the organization a chance to celebrate its milestone while planning for the next 20 years.
The media-shy Ameringen writes movingly about the importance of “In the Life” in a blog entry for the Huffington Post. The 82-year-old activist remembers growing up in a time when “the absence of images reflecting real gay life made it easy for people to assume we were everything bad that was said about us.” This was exacerbated when the AIDS epidemic struck the gay community in the 1980s and Ameringen, like many other LGBT activists, became politicized.
“Staying on the sidelines was impossible,” he writes. “The government was doing absolutely nothing to halt the spread of this disease nor help those who were suffering. AIDS was seen as a ‘gay disease,’ and with so few positive portrayals of gays in the media, and far fewer gay people being out at the time, most Americans believed all the stereotypes they had heard about us.”
However, the premiere of “In the Life” in 1992 contributed to the change in the media and political landscape. Ameringen notes, “The simple fact that there was a television program, airing on public television stations around the country, that represented LGBT people in such a genuine and accurate manner was stunning.” Veteran media expert and activist Cathy Renna says, “‘In the Life’ has become the ‘60 Minutes’ of LGBT journalism” and credits the show for creating a large and diverse audience for LGBT stories.
Michelle Kristel, executive director of In the Life Media, says that quality and content have been the key to the program’s longevity.
“In the early days,” she says, “we led from a place of novelty and uniqueness. When we were first broadcast in 1992, you just didn’t have out, proud gay and lesbian people on television. We were pioneers. But what has sustained us is the quality of our content and the fact that we are telling stories about real people and the critical issues facing our community.”
The celebration of the show’s anniversary is already underway. The 20th season kicked off with a red carpet gala and an October 2011 episode that looked back at the history of the show. Kristel explains that “In the Life” began as a variety show hosted by lesbian comedian Kate Clinton, but that over time it evolved into a behind-the-desk news show with in-the-field reporting before assuming the short-form documentary format it has today. Over time, the award-winning show has also developed a robust online presence with web exclusives that supplement its television programming.
Kristel says the staff had a blast putting together the retrospective show. “It’s always fun for us to look at the old tapes. We had a lot of fun putting it together and taking in the depth and breadth of all that we’ve done over the years.” The anniversary celebration will culminate in the annual June Pride Brunch where supporters can “eat, drink and be merry” while watching New York’s Pride Parade from the windows of “In the Life’s” studios on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
When asked about the importance of the show, Kristel points out that the impact of the series goes beyond its television and online audiences. For example, this month’s episode, “Becoming Me,” which chronicles the lives of families dealing with transgender and non-gender-conforming children, is already becoming a resource for educators, parenting groups like PFLAG and social service agencies. Kristel says, “The show is a beautiful articulation of what we do really well, which is to take an issue and tell personal stories that relate to the issue and that make it tangible for our audiences. We worked on this piece for nine months and we were able to go in-depth with the eight families we interviewed and really understand their journeys.”
Kristel also cites the impact of the show on legislators and policy-makers. The two-part episode on HIV criminalization educated viewers about a little-known fact. “Very few people,” Kristel points out, “realize that in many places you can go to prison for attempted murder for having consensual sex if you are HIV-positive.” The first part of the episode, “Legalizing Stigma,” which aired in December 2010, was shown at the first-ever congressional hearing on HIV stigmatization and led to the introduction of legislation to rescind those laws. The second part, “Perpetuating Stigma,” which aired in February 2011, was shown at this year’s United Nations AIDS conference in Oslo and was referenced as a resource in the Oslo Declaration.
In addition, the celebrated web exclusive “Injustice at Every Turn” brought to life a report on transgender discrimination that was produced by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “The report was devastating,” Kristel said. “I read the report and I thought ‘people need to know about the profound levels of discrimination that transgender people are facing.’ But the fact of the matter is that very few people are going to read a report like that, so we produced a video that put a human face on these issues. That video was presented at the U.S. Department of Labor as a way of informing the department about discrimination in the workplace. This is one of the things we do well, to take an issue and put a human face on it and use it to move people to have a better understanding of the lives that people are living and the ways that people are impacted by social injustice and discrimination.”
Kristel is quick to point out that “In the Life” also produces some fun stories as well. A recent episode profiled the late Sam Steward, a sexual renegade, writer and pornographer. With a hearty chuckle, Kristel relates that “he started life as an English professor, but found that the life of an academic didn’t suit him particularly well. He left that to become a writer of erotica and a tattoo artist. Along the way, he documented, in some detail, his sexual escapades. He had a wooden card catalog that he called “The Stud File” with little cards and descriptions of everybody that he ever had sex with and with pertinent details about their physiques and their skills.”
Ameringen’s gift comes at a critical time for In the Life Media, allowing the organization to continue to deliver stories that document the lives of LGBT people and to explore the issues that affect them. About $100,000 of the donation will be used to match new and increased contributions. The balance will offer the organization a valuable opportunity to invest in its future.
Kristel says, “The media landscape has changed radically since we were first broadcast, not only in the way media is produced, but also the way that people consume media. What has remained constant is the power of media to shape the national dialogue. So we will be using this gift to make an assessment of the organization. We will be investing in digital initiatives that will allow us to not only improve our tools for engagement with our viewers but to give our viewers the tools to help us advance equality for LGBT people.”
“In the Life” airs locally on WETA and WMPB and programs can be seen at itlmedia.org/.