The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.

Straight from the Closet

Until the end of World War II the topic of homosexuality was almost completely invisible to the mainstream media. When the national silence was first broken in the late 1940’s, homosexuality was condemned on all fronts. All of the major religions considered it sinful and immoral, psychiatrists considered it a serious mental disorder that needed to be treated, and nearly every state had laws ciminalizing it, many calling for prison terms for “convicted” homosexuals. During the fifty or so years since the debate first entered the public arena, there have been many changes in the way in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues have been covered. Today we have openly gay celebrities and politicians, but in many ways the reporting on the issues most important to the gay and lesbian community continues to be plagued by the prejudice against homosexuality that is still prevalent in this country.

In the late 40’s, the Kinsey studies began to open up the discussion of sexuality as never before. Along with a new understanding of heterosexual relationships, homosexuality was for the first time discussed at the national level. Between 1947 and 1949 the two largest newsweeklies (Time and Newsweek) published just two articles about homosexuality. Over the next twenty years the coverage would increase slightly, with 21 articles published in the 50’s and 25 articles published in the 60’s. These articles, relying heavily upon secondary sources such as military officers and psychiatrists, were almost universally critical of homosexuality. They used words like abominable, degenerate, disgusting, evil, extreme medical disorder, immoral, sex criminal, and wicked when discussing gays and lesbians.

Even the re-emerging radical feminist movement could not escape prejudice against homosexuals during this period. In her ground breaking book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan claims that homosexuality is a psychological disorder brought on by overbearing mothers who are forced to control their sons and emotionally castrate their husbands by the societal pressure to find fulfillment through adjustment to the role of housewife and mother.

Fueled by the explosion of the gay and lesbian movement and the subsequent backlash from the fundamentalist Christian right, the 1970’s and following decades saw a marked increase in media coverage for issues pertaining to homosexuality. Time and Newsweek ran 62 articles on gays and lesbians in the 70’s, 95 in the 80’s, and 151 between 1990 and 1997. The vast majority of these articles focused on the rapidly increasing visibility of gays and lesbians in American society and their quest for personal and political freedom. These articles tended to discuss issues like the fight for protection from discrimination in housing and employment, the fight to openly serve in the military, and most recently the fight to have homosexual marriages recognized by the state and federal governments. The trend in the amount of coverage of these issues was encouraging, but a closer examination of the articles reveals that prejudice has continued to distort the reporting of these topics. One of the most important ways in which prejudice has influenced the media coverage of gays and lesbians is the way in which homosexuality has been and continues to be regarded as something inherently negative. Examining the language used in Time and Newsweek articles written in the 90’s (i.e. abnormal, butt pirate, degenerate, dyke, faggot, pervert, sodomite, and wicked) we see that not all that much has changed since the forties when it comes to the media’s general coverage of gays and lesbians.

In roughly 60 percent of the early postwar writing about homosexuality, gays and lesbians were referred to as a direct threat to the strength of the U.S. military, to the security and strength of the U.S. government, or to the safety of the general American population. For example, in the June 9, 1947 issue of Newsweek, the very first article either of these two newsweeklies published on homosexuality stated that it was undesirable to have homosexuals in the military because they were effeminate, nervous, unstable, and often hysterical. Another article published by Newsweek on October 10, 1949 claimed that homosexuals were criminal degenerates and that they should all be placed into institutions. Finally, an article published by Time on December 25, 1950 stated that homosexuals in government positions constituted a security risk since they could be blackmailed.

It was also during this time that the concept of homosexuality as a mental disease became widely published. Throughout the 1950’s many of the articles proposed theories as to what type of childhood trauma or emotional dysfunction could cause a person to become a homosexual. I perhaps should say man instead of person, since more than ninety percent of the writing done between the 40’s and the 80’s focused on gay men, with lesbians often completely ignored or at best treated like an afterthought. But no matter who the article was focused upon, more than 85 percent of them claimed that psychotherapy was required for all homosexuals.

By the 1960’s the acceptance of the idea of homosexuality as a social problem and a mental disorder was nearly complete. This viewpoint, however, opened up an unexpected attack on the criminalization of homosexuality. Psychiatrists and governmental officials began to debate whether imprisoning homosexuals constituted cruel and unusual punishment since the “offenders” were suffering from a mental illness. Headlines such as “Homosexuals: To Punish or to Pity?” began to appear during this time. It was also during this time that the first ever cover story featuring gays and lesbians was published. The 1969 story published in Time stated that “though they seem fairly bizarre to most Americans, homosexuals have never been so visible, vocal or closely scrutinized by research.” It was also during this decade that the first pictures of actual gays and lesbians were published. Of the nine images that appeared in Time and Newsweek during this decade, six showed only the person’s back.

In the 1970’s the coverage of gay and lesbian issues more than doubled from the previous decade. There were more articles published in the 70’s than in all of the previous decades combined. This dramatic increase in exposure was fueled as much by the increased opposition of the Christian right as it was by the creation of the gay and lesbian movement. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 marked the beginning of both of these movements. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village which had a predominately male clientele. It was the second time that week that the bar had been targeted by the police, and several other gay bars had been raided in the preceding weeks. As the police tried to arrest the staff and three cross dressers, the crowd outside the bar erupted into violence. In the following days there were two more confrontations between the police and local gays. At the end of July, a homosexual liberation meeting was called and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed. At the time of the riots, there were only a few dozen gay organizations in the entire Untied States, but within a few years of the formation of the GLF there were more than 400. This rapid increase in the organization and visibility of gays and lesbians lead to a tremendous backlash from the fundamentalists across the country. Nowhere was the backlash more vocal or more well covered in the media than in Dade County, Florida. In 1977, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed an ordinance that made it illegal to discriminate against any person based on their sexual orientation. In response to this ordinance, Anita Bryant, a singer, former Miss America runner up, and devout Baptist formed a group called “Save Our Children”.

Approximately half of the articles published in the 70’s focused on the religious right’s attack on the increased visibility of homosexuality. In fact, Anita Bryant’s battle to have the ordinance repealed actually prompted Newsweek to run its first cover story on homosexuality on June 16, 1977 entitled “Anita Bryant vs. The Homosexuals”. In many of the articles written at this time, Anita Bryant’s organization was quoted as saying that gays and lesbians recruited, seduced, and molested children. In some of the articles, it even went so far as to claim that “gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you.” Neither magazine published any evidence for these charges, and only one of the articles actually published any response from the gay community to these charges, further distorting the image of gays and lesbians held by the general population.

In the 1980’s the majority of the coverage focused on the emerging AIDS epidemic. Of course, right up to the early 80’s the disease was still referred to as GRIDS (gay-related imunodeficiency syndrome), clearly showing the bias in the scientific and media communities. It was in relation to this emerging crisis that the concept of the promiscuous homosexual lifestyle began to appear in both Time and Newsweek. The AIDS epidemic was, however, not the only major topic covered in the 80’s. During this time, the newsweeklies ran 19 articles which concerned allegations that some famous person was homosexual. For example, they ran an article expressing shock at Billie Jean King’s admission of a lesbian affair, they ran an article about the firing of a NATO commander when he was suspected of being a homosexual and his subsequent rehiring when the allegation was proven untrue, and they ran an article about Republicans “smearing” the Speaker of the House Tom Foley by suggesting that he was a homosexual. More than half of the 19 stories were untrue, but the clear implication in each case was that somehow being a homosexual was a disgrace and that a false accusation was tantamount to libel. These articles did, however, for the first time focus on influential and powerful figures and not on unknown or fringe figures. This change in focus was, of course, partly a ploy to sell more magazines. The more famous the person, the bigger the story is when they might be a homosexual.

In the 1990’s the growing coverage of gays and lesbians focused more and more on their campaign to win equal rights. The issues of homosexual marriage and parenting first entered the national scene. The coverage became slightly more balanced, but as we have seen, the language used differed little from that used fifty years earlier. In fact, the attacks on and betrayals of homosexuals have remained nearly unchanged over all this time. President Clinton, elected with a promise to remove the ban on gays in the military, quickly backed down to the religious right and his own homophobic generals and instead instituted the laughable “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As gays and lesbians were fighting for the right to have a marriage recognized by the state, the fundamentalists lead the counter charge expounding upon the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. This of course was all coming at a time when Fox’s “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” was receiving record ratings by marrying a man and women who just met each other an hour ago on the air. Despite the large increase in the discussion of homosexuality in this decade, the coverage all too often fell back into the same patterns of prejudice that have plagued it since 1947.

The problems that have existed in the media’s reporting of gay and lesbian issues for the last fifty years or so have typically been caused either by the reporter’s base assumption that homosexuality is intrinsically a negative state of being or by the use of unsupported and unbalanced allegations as the basis for broad reaching conclusions. If we have any hope of seeing this trend cut off in this new century we must have reporters and readers who are willing to question popular assumptions and who demand supporting evidence instead of taking any wild allegation that some bigot spouts as fact. Until then, we will be little more than slaves to the prejudice of those who hold the pens and those who have their ear.


The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.