Barbara Walters was an icon, a legend and a trailblazer. As a journalist she literally shattered the glass ceiling for women in the field. She never flinched when interviewing the most powerful people in the world, and she made news with her interviews. I’m humbled to say that she and I made news and LGBT history together back in 1973.
Up until that year, the word Gay was never used on network TV. The word that was used was homosexual. We were not allowed self identify; we had to accept the terms given to us. The very few times LGBT people were discussed on TV it wasn’t us, but psychiatrists, police, or religious leaders talking about us. If we were asked to be present it was only to defend what they said, not to speak for ourselves. On situation comedies we were mocked and stereotyped. We activists decided to fight back.
The number one morning show in 1973 (there were no cable TV networks) was The Today Show, and its news co-anchor was Barbara Walters. It was October 26th, 1973 I went to their studio. Here’s how I put it in my memoirs “And Then I Danced: Traveling the road to LGBT Equality”:
“Next up was the Today Show in 1973. To familiarize ourselves with the studio we took several tours offered by NBC of their studios. They were quite educational. We gained entrance to 30 Rockefeller Center in the early morning hours and just waited in a closet.
“While the news was being read live I appeared on set and, on camera, walked across the studio. I believe that the director thought this was somehow part of the show. The news anchor actually gets up out of his chair, and as some people describe it, looks like he’s trying to climb the walls. My first thought is to comfort the guy, but then I’m here for a reason and must stay on that path.
“In mid sentence I’m tackled and wrapped in camera cables, then taken out to the hall with a security guard. As we’re walking away, I expected to head off to jail once again, but this time I had Morty Manford of the New York GAA ready to bail us out. But before anything could happen, a woman yelled at the guard and told him to stop. Barbara Walters with pen and pad in hand, walked over and asked me why we were protesting the show. My explanation was it wasn’t just The Today Show, but all of network TV that censors us on the news, stereotypes us on its entertainment shows, and keeps us invisible by not having LGBT people on their programs.
“In the middle of this a producer came out and told her to get back in the studio she was about to be on. She firmly stated that this was a story and she wasn’t going back in until she had it.”
The rest of the story was published in another book to commemorate the 60th anniversary of The Today Show, this time commissioned by NBC itself. They state the above and included a bit more detail: “He stormed onto the set… Gay people are sick and tired of the bigotry of NBC.” “She listened to Segal explain his cause and later told viewers what happened….. she said “he was protesting against an NBC program “Sanford and Son”, he said the program was unfair to homosexuals or as he put it unfair to gay people. She said in a sympathetic tone.”
In one simple line she changed network policy and gave us self identify and a voice. It would be 40 years until I was invited back to 30 Rock, then as a member of NBC’s parent company Comcast’s Joint Diversity Council. I was there to instruct their news producers and staff on how to report on the LGBT Community. My opening line was …
“The last time I was in this building you had me taken out in handcuffs.”
All laughed. We had both come a long way.
As with all my disruptions, called zaps at the time, I’d always write the person I disrupted to explain that it wasn’t personal but aimed at ending the invisibility of the LGBT Community on Network TV. When I wrote Barbara, I soon received a pleasant understanding reply. That letter is now a part of the LGBT collection at the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington. Thank you Barbara, for creating change.