Celebrating 17 Seasons “In the Life”

“It is remarkable,” executive director Michelle Kristel noted. “We had this Valentine’s Day event, and there were former executive directors, producers, staff people there. It means so much to me to have that sense of family. … It speaks to the organization that we have so many long-term people who have stayed with the organization, so much affection in the community for the work we’re doing.”

And though many things have changed since 1992 (“I’m enormously proud of the history of hair that I’ve given them!” Clinton said), the importance and relevance of the show have not. Chin said: “In the big cities, people get the false sense that we’re done with gay rights, done with women’s rights, we’re done with black rights, we’re done with Asian rights. Everything’s over. People are so easy about everything, everyone’s equal.

“But in those places where big media markets don’t consider the lives of people who are under the duress of homophobia, In the Life understands and continues to make this show, because it knows there’s nothing in Madison, Wisconsin, for the kid who doesn’t get cable or who works somewhere where she cannot say, ‘I date women.’ … In the Life holds the identities and consciousness of people who don’t live in the metropolises, and that number is remarkably large.”

“Their forte is making large issues clear to people by using personal stories,” Clinton said of In the Life. “I always loved the things that Katherine Linton has done — wonderful things about sex, about immigration and problems that mixed couples have. Very early stories on trans issues. Great stuff on religion. They’ve also done great things with youth, covering the youth movement and the change in how kids identify themselves.”

Coordinating producer Jacqueline Gares added: “We don’t like clichés. We like to present a broad spectrum of ideas. We like to talk to the communities and talk to their hearts and minds.” The LGBT communities clearly appreciate this approach. Today 50 percent of the funding for In the Life comes from individual donations. (In the Life now has 501(c)(3) status, and the rest of its funding is obtained through foundations and grants.)

Communications Officer Scott Miller (left) and
Coordinating Producer Jacqueline Gares

Miller spoke with us about the current reach of the program: “In the top 25 markets, major urban areas, we air on 88 percent of the PBS stations. We also air on 56 percent of the stations who are not part of the top 25 markets.”

He added: “The San Francisco Bay Area viewers are watching the show because it’s interesting or informative. They may have a different mindset entering into the program. In Middle America, In the Life is a lifeline; it reminds LGBT folks there they’re not alone, that there’s a vibrant community out there to support them. … The reason we need to be on the air is slightly different in different places.”

What has also changed is the amount of LGBT programming available now, especially with cable television. Kristel spoke about the existence of LGBT networks such as here! and Logo: “It’s been a huge relief, to be quite honest with you, since for so long there was a great sense that we had to be all things, since we were for so long the only LGBT show on TV. … And to know that we’re no longer the only game in town, we can focus on what we do best.

“There’s no longer the sense that we have try to fill this great void, since we have other people who are working to bring images of LGBT people to media. We can get back to what makes In the Life so special — bringing the people and issues shaping the gay experiences to audiences across the U.S. and the globe.”

Chin fondly remembers hosting a show with a segment on Jewish lesbian rabbis. “They rocked my world,” she said. Gares especially enjoyed working on a show from the current season about Ann Bannon and the play based on her Beebo Brinker Chronicles book series.

The story of a girl named Emily touched Kristel: “We talked to her when she was 17, struggling to reconcile her sexuality with her faith. She’s an evangelical girl, and was working to get a [gay-straight alliance] in her school when she was exiled from her church. … I got a letter from a straight woman who was flipping through the channels and came across this story. This particular story really opened her eyes, because it never occurred to her that it was possible for her to share her faith with a lesbian. This speaks to the power of In the Life and public television. We have the power to change hearts and minds. This is what gets me up in the morning.”

Chin, who is currently “gearing up to get pregnant,” said, “As I move forward with the idea of bringing another person into the world, be it girl or boy, I feel it’s absolutely necessary to have shows like In the Life, which present a wider cross-section of LGBT identities.”

Much like the communities it represents, In the Life has not stood still. Episodes from the 11th through the current season may now be downloaded from inthelifetv.org, and older seasons will be available soon. In addition, In the Life is syndicated on Logo, AfterEllen.com’s parent company, and discussions are underway for an extension of the partnership between the cable station and the show’s producers.

“I think it’s terrific,” Kristel said. “Logo has introduced In the Life to a whole new audience. We’re reaching people who didn’t know we were out there.”

Looking forward, Freedberg is excited about a segment on LGBT lives in Nepal airing this June. And Kristel is pleased with a story currently in development for the fall season about the 30th anniversary of the 1978 National Women’s Conference: “Rosie O’Donnell spoke at the anniversary gathering. We’re looking at the women’s movement then and now, the role that lesbians played in the women’s movement, revisit some of the people who were there and talk with them about changes that have, and have not, happened.”

And speaking of women, they are now — as they have been since the beginning — an integral part of In the Life. Gares said: “There are a lot of strong women working here — it’s one of the things I love about this organization. It’s been a tradition; it’s very balanced. The people who work here are very passionate and dedicated, and it’s part of what makes the experience of working here so rich.”

In the case of In the Life, passionate and happy people are part of the formula for a show we can be passionate and happy about for another decade or three.

For more on In the Life and to watch episodes, visit inthelifetv.org.