50 Years of Gays in the Media & in the Streets: The 1960’s

June 5, 2013 in inQueery

Gay Media and Movements: Portrayals of Queer Life and the Movements that Accompanied It (The 60’s)

After the premiere of the polarizing yet popular show GLEE, many critics were split on how a primary character’s sexuality was handled and portrayed. Some critics like WetPaint writer Mariella Mosthof felt it was appropriate to ask “is Kurt too gay?” (at the time of writing this article, the percentage stood at 34.57% agreeing that Kurt needed more masculine qualities). While this line of questioning may have seemed offensive to some, it also sparked a debate between members of the LGBTQ community and straight allies about what appropriate representation looked like in regards to the community and what social responsibilities, if any, the media has in the [seems of how] way LGBTQ characters are portrayed.
With a wave of new television shows portraying LGBTQ characters and personalities, it’s sometimes easy to forget that not long ago the very thought of placing an individual whose orientation or lifestyle didn’t fit the commonly prescribed heternormative values on television was seen as shocking or unacceptable. In order to understand the gravity of the statement above, we’ll need to go back to a time where LGBTQ characters were just starting to be introduced to the general public in the form of consumable media and contrast the movements that were happening around the decade they premiered in. The events and media shown are by no means a complete collection of LGBT media and events, but are carefully selected to provide an accurate portrayal of how LGBT people were viewed in the world and treated in the media.

The 60’s

Leading from the 50’s into the 60’s, the homophile movement at the time worked from fresh gains that added a great deal of visibility to LGBT men and women. The work of Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) was often cited in regards to his research on the sexual behaviors of men and women and the prevalence of homosexuality. Kinsey released Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953 to the shock and surprise of many as it offered insight into concrete statistics that same-sex attractions were more natural than previously thought (Brown & Fee, 2003). Thanks to Kinsey’s research, the homophile movement was galvanized and subsequently, the first gay secret society was formed. The Mattachine society (founded by Henry Hay) held their first meeting November 11th 1950. The secret society organized to protect gay men, their rights, and give them a safe space to meet. This countered Jospeh McCarthy’s movement that created the ‘Lavender Scare’ which relegated LGBT people to a status that was worse than a communist (Out.com, 2013). While LGBT people lost their jobs in great numbers due to the lavender scare, Henry Hay decided to resign from the group in 1952 due to his perception that he was more dangerous inside of the group than out of it (Katz, 1978). Regardless of Hay’s decision to leave the group, the American public was largely uninformed about LGBT issues, and as a result, sought to place LGBT people in the same category as others who were both dangerous and exhibited abnormal sexual behaviors as evidenced by “Boys Beware” (1961).

Boys Beware (1961)

This documentary was released in the early 60’s and was produced by the ‘Sid Davis Productions’ company. In this film only gay men were portrayed and their portrayal was astoundingly negative. Gay men were likened to rapists, murderers and pedophiles as they would try to lure away unwitting high school-aged boys away from their after school activities and parents. In one scene a teenager named Mike is lured away from his basketball session by a gay man who goes on to murder him. This is told through the narrator who ominously states that “Mike Merritt traded his life for a newspaper headline” (Davis, 1961). Because gay men had been likened to murderers and pedophiles in both this video and in the sphere of the general public, it became necessary for the homophile movement to address those perceptions and work to change minds.
Protests and riots broke out in support of gay rights by homophile groups across the nation which inspired more LGBT people to come out. This wave sparked a backlash against the community by law enforcement officials who would raid bars that would knowingly serve homosexual patrons. To protest the discrimination faced, Dick Leitsch, also a member of the Mattachine society sought to challenge New York’s policy on outlawing the serving of liquor to gay patrons. In 1966, he organized a ‘sip-in’ in which he would attempt to order drinks from bars after making an open proclamation disclosing his sexual orientation. He was able to successfully order a few drinks, then hit a roadblock at a gay bar by the name of ‘Julius’. When he was denied liquor, he sued the state of New York which agreed with his case and stated that the open discrimination of LGBT people must end. (Simon, 2008). Still, even with this proclamation, New York’s attitude towards homosexuality seemed to be more progressive than the media treated it as evidenced by a documentary released by CBS the following year.

The Homosexuals (1967)

In 1967 CBS released a documentary on the condition of homosexuality and the social ramifications of it. It was a prominent documentary at the time because of its clinical take on homosexuality and the tone it took towards the LGBTQ community. In the documentary homosexuality is seen as a mental illness that is not only dangerous, but also looked down upon by the community and punishable by long incarcerations. The overall feeling of the documentary can be summed up by the sentiments of one unnamed individual who commented at LINK 30:08 in response to a civil rights march:

Well I’m a I’m a [sic] country boy I guess because I couldn’t believe this. I mean I didn’t know this was a problem over here, or at least I didn’t think anybody had a sign out about it. But I just don’t understand, how weird. I mean you people are getting a much more cosmopolitan than I thought you were over here because this is really filthy. Let’s face it, homosexuality is a problem and uh, these people are really advocating that we don’t solve the problem, they’re advocating that we tolerate the problem. And I think these people are a fit subject for a mental health program.

Still, among the individuals who commented on the state of LGBTQ mentality, there were a few dissenters (though small in number) who did defend homosexuality as a completely natural phenomenon that should be accepted by society as a whole. One such person added that the view that homosexuals were trying to destroy the institution of the family was “nonsense” (Wallace, Peters & Morgan, 1967). Following the documentary, protests erupted over a new threat to the homophile movement that further stigmatized LGBT men and women.
This stigmatization was due to a classification made by the DSM II that was published in 1968 that claimed homosexuality was a mental disorder. Many arrived to protest the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, but their voices often went unheard. Those who discriminated against LGBT people were vindicated as the new categorization allowed psychiatrists to attempt to ‘treat’ members of the LGBT community while the general public was given more of an excuse to simply shun them (Teo, 2011). As discrimination against LGBT people increased, so did visibility and unrest with the status quo. It was only a matter of time before the LGBT community stood up for itself as it did in the following year.
Following a year of great social injustice, LGBT people claimed a victory on the night of June 27th, 1969 in the Greenwich Village of New York. Police arrived at the Stonewall Inn to make their usual arrests of LGBT patrons when a select few decided to resist arrest. What ensued was a full-blown riot where patrons fought back against the officers, released their fellow patrons from the squad cars, and pelted the officers with rocks, bottles, and any other blunt objects to be found. The riot was so intense that Tactical Patrol Force was called in to control them, yet failed. The rioting lasted for five days and the chants from the participants of the riot that mocked the TPF hung in the air as they shouted: “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don’t wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs” (Wright, 1999). Following the riot at the Stonewall Inn, the LGBT community was energized to further their visibility in the world and demand equal treatment under the law. The following portrayals of LGBT people in the media weren’t as damning as what had come before it, and handful of films even sought to humanize the community and undo the damage that had been wreaked by the negative depictions of LGBT people in the press. One such film followed a little over the one-month anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots.

The Gay Deceivers (1969) – Please view this on YouTube for age verification.

The Gay Deceivers was a film released in 1969 about a heterosexual pair of friends who pretend to be same-sex lovers in order to avoid military service. This film was unique for its time as it attempted to portray same-sex relationships in a more positive light. Michael Greer (an actor in the film) sought to decrease the negative stigmas attached to such pairings. In the promotional clip above, the depiction of gay couples is still stereotypical as it pairs together two men who occupy traditional opposite-sex gender roles, but the film marked a milestone in both cinema and consumable media as it aimed to steer clear of the fear-based tactics used to portray homosexuality. While the depiction may have been stereotypical at best, it represented a departure from the portrayal of LGBT people as dangerous and corrupt (Polsky, Lasky & Wish, 1969).
While the 60’s were a volatile time for members of the LGBT community, the social progress that was made could easily be reflected in the media. The 60’s as a decade transitioned from a fearful and dangerous portrayal of homosexuality to a largely stereotypical and comical one. Behind the lens of the cameras lie another story where members of the community would meet in secret for fear of persecution, fight against the system that attempted to push them further in the closet, and riot against those who threatened to their very livelihood. As a result, the 1960’s were cemented in history as the decade where the gay-rights movement rapidly began to pick up traction and furthered the ambition of those who took the battle further into the 1970’s.

J.J. Medina is a guest contributor at InQueery.
You can follow J.J.’s personal and business ramblings on Google+


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