As a result of HBO's Cinema Verite, I'm a little obsessed with An American Family -- or at least, the idea of it. The whole thing -- all 12 hours of the first modern reality show that aired on PBS in 1973 -- is too slow-moving to hold the interest of a modern attention span. That's a sort of retrospective irony for its subjects, the Loud family, who griped about their portrayals after being excessively edited*. If anything, they could have used some more.
Lance, the oldest son and arguable star of the show, does a little bit of that kind of complaining in the clip above, but mostly he's just his fantastic, flamboyant self. He's often credited as being the first out gay man on television, and it is impossible to underestimate his importance. A disciple of Warhol from an early age, he got to live out the artist-thinker's philosophy better than just about anyone of his time, experiencing 15 minutes as we'd come to know it. I watch him in action, being his big, floppy, gay self and I'm amazed at his courage. My views on gay representation have changed considerably over the years -- I used to think that we needed as many traditionally masculine gay guys in the spotlight to show society that we aren't all freaks...and then I thought about it, and came to the conclusion of: fuck that. Obviously, everyone should be who they are, but there's not a greater need for one type of gay over others. Why bend to expectations? At times, nothing is more confrontational than a faggot. In a way, exhibiting that without reservation requires so much courage, it's butch.
Lance carried the heavy burden that pioneers do. He went on to front a band called the Mumps that did the C.B.G.B/Max's Kansas City thing but faded out, partially as a result of him being unable to shake his association with An American Family. He then became a pop culture journalist. In a heartbreaking Family follow-up Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family, Lance's former editor at Details, David Keeps, discusses how Lance dealt with being just about the only openly gay guy in pop culture for so long: "He wore fame, and he wore being a role model, and he wore being a gay man, and he wore being a brave soul like it was a piece of chiffon, when in fact it was really a very heavy piece of armor for him. And it weighed a lot. And it was very, I think, difficult. He never really showed it, but I think it was difficult for him to be that person and to trudge through life. Because it had been so easy for him at the beginning. He was a full-blown entity. He was a force of nature to be reckoned with. By the age of 20, he had done his masterpiece. He'd created it by merely existing and letting someone capture it on film." I'd be willing to bet that no one read Lance better.
That movie, by the way, chronicles the days leading up to Lance's death in 2001, as he suffered from HIV and hepatitis C. He requested that the crew come to film him one last time. "I can't leave the planet without some form of closure form the series..." he explained. Though he had very pronounced moments of modesty (in a different documentary that followed up with the Louds 10 years after An American Family, he described himself as "just a normal guy that was made brief and to the point by editing"), he clearly was bit by the attention bug. He was a show-off, a public goofball that, regardless of what conflicts he tangled with inside, clearly thought highly of himself. These days, we'd call someone like Lance Loud a narcissist, but he came up at a time when no amount of self-love was enough for a gay man. He was a visionary, and 38 years after An American Family introduced him to the world, it's still catching up.
*Note: I even assembled a mess of quotes that have continued this complaining tradition, almost 40 years later.