Through some now-untraceable chain of internet surfing, I discovered this CBS documentary from 1967, entitled “The Homosexual.” Next time you have 45 minutes to spare, watch it for a fascinating and disturbing lesson in recent history. Here are just a few thoughts that occurred to me in viewing the grainy show:
Although Mike Wallace (the reporter) makes barely any pretense of neutrality, and gives disproportionate air time to opponents of gay rights ranging from soon-to-be-discredited Charles Socarides to some guy from West Virginia who was appalled at the gay rights march he stumbled into, the very fact of the documentary’s existence is a victory. It brought to light the previously unspeakable, and aired some views that now are taken as commonplace. For instance, a judge from North Carolina incisively questions the draconian criminal penalties attached to even consensual homosexual sex, unfavorably comparing the sentences to those levied for what we’d all consider to be serious crimes. One could then spend two to three times as many years in prison for homosexuality as for second-degree murder, to cite one especially pointed example. It must be said that this discussion, in the U.S. in 1967, isn’t too different from the questions being raised in Uganda today.
Then there are the deliciously provocative comments by Gore Vidal, who finds the remnants of Victorian social morality tiresome. To hear him is to be reminded that the nascent gay rights movement was but one part of a healthy, overdue re-examination of the subordinating family structures that were then starting to crumble.
But what I found most arresting is that no one seemed to have the slightest clue that the behaviors that gay men were being condemned for were socially and legally coerced. A guy is caught soliciting sex (from an undercover cop) in a public restroom, and is lectured on choosing such a place. But what other options were there? The poor man, only 19, mumbles about how this arrest will ruin him (of course it could have), and doesn’t even seem to understand why he sought sex with a man in the first place. Toward the end, another man — a married professor with two children, in whom I saw something of myself — confesses in answer to a pointed question that his relationships with men were episodic dalliances, based not on love but on lust. Well, OK, but why? Because, he says, gay men are too narcissistic and self-absorbed to be in love. Talk about drinking the cultural Kool-Aid. The guy was about to leave his wife (whom he professed to love), but didn’t think he could “love” another man — even though he was only fully alive when with men, not women. (In this, I see yet another sad story in support of full marriage equality; grow up without healthy, normatively encouraged models of your deepest capacity for connection to another human being, and you’ll grow up incomplete.)
Oh, lesbians? Aside from a few women seen (but not heard) in the tiny circle of courageous protesting pioneers (including Barbara Gittings, pictured above), they’re invisible in this documentary. Ditto any gay men of color.
Watching “The Homosexual,” I was seized by profound gratitude toward those courageous men and women, gay and straight, who forged the path that’s led us this far. And I was heartened that the struggles we’re facing will one day soon join those that confronted our predecessors in the oubliettes of history.