07/02/2010 11:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

With Increased Visibility, Cultural Attitudes Toward Gays and Lesbians Shift

Visibility has been a cornerstone objective of the LGBT movement for equality since its beginnings. Of the slogans chanted from the front lines of the gay liberation movement in the 60s and 70s, the call to "come out!" was perhaps the loudest. And in the four decades since the Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of modern LGBT activism, the self-affirming phrase "Gay Pride" has evolved into a synonym for the movement itself.

A recent poll conducted by CBS News concludes that as LGBT visibility has improved, so has cultural acceptance of homosexuality. 77% of Americans now say they have friends, relatives and co-workers who are gay. That's an increase of 35 percentage points since 1992 -- the year that In The Life became the first broadcast series to bring real gay and lesbian faces to television.

At a time when LGBT people were virtually invisible in the media, public television's In The Life brought images reflecting the cultural and geographic diversity of the gay and lesbian communities into living rooms across the country.

Much progress has been made. According to the poll, "As more Americans have direct contact with gays and lesbians, fewer see it as a morally wrong choice." But being out and visible remains controversial and even dangerous in many facets of culture, and is a rare act of incredible courage in many regions outside our borders.

This month, In The Life looks at how positive gay images and LGBT visibility work to counter homophobia. In its lead segment, In The Life joins SWEET, a lesbian travel company that organizes eco-friendly vacations coupling tourism and community service. On this volunteer cruise, lesbian tourists spread positive visibility in the Caribbean, a region with a long history of intense homophobia.

In Belize, SWEET volunteers paint bright cartoon characters on the walls of a children's hospital ward, read stories to kids and donate books to the school's library. They also meet Denise Frank, a lesbian PeaceCorps volunteer who says that in her four years in the country she had yet to meet a lesbian woman who dared to come out. "When I came to Belize I came out to my Peace Corps staff. I asked them, is it okay and safe to come out as a lesbian in Belize? And they basically told me no," Frank says. "In fact, I was informed that it might be in my best interest to tell people that I was married and that my husband died."

SWEET co-founder Shannon Wentworth says lesbian volunteers defy the stereotypes many locals have about lesbians. "For a day every city we went to was totally a buzz with these lesbians doing this really good thing. You know, wow, she has short hair and tattoos and she looks like a sweet old grandma. I mean we had such amazing diversity on this trip. It was just really, really beautiful to see people going, I thought I knew what a lesbian was but I don't."

"Defying Stereotypes" begins airing July 1st. To find out when it airs in your local area, to stream or download it, go to the In The Life website: