The Homosexuals

Since I was putting together the accompanying article regarding Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols, I wanted to review the first national television documentary exclusively covering the homosexual male[1] community as it existed shortly pre-Stonewall (1969).  After I interviewed Nichols in 1994, he graciously sent me a bootleg copy of The Homosexuals (aired on March 7, 1967), reported by a pre-60 Minutes Mike Wallace.  After not watching it for several years, I tried to view it this time both from the perspective of an average American (gay or straight) at its initial airing, and from today’s perspective as a gay historian.

The rather stark documentary (mostly talking heads before a static camera) features nine homosexual men among a group of “experts” (also all male).  Even the three commercials are instructive, as no product advertiser dares hawk its wares to those watching the program (only public service announcements run during the brief pauses).  In those days, documentaries addressed “important” subjects, whether or not they would prove commercially lucrative.

The nine gay men include three “activists” (Nichols, Kameny, and Hal Call of San Francisco Mattachine), one attractive, well-spoken young man (“Lars Larsen”)[2], author Gore Vidal, and four mostly unhappy homosexuals.  The latter four include a 19-year-old serviceman (face not shown) arrested for homosexual contact in a public toilet; a “cured” homosexual interviewed behind a potted plant (having “graduated” from homosexuality to an unfulfilling asexuality); a homosexual on his therapist’s couch discussing his “condition” as his hand covers his face; and a married man, completely enshadowed, who expects to lose his wife and two children as he plans to pursue a life he believes cannot bring him happiness (because all gay men are too “narcissistic” to truly love one another).  On the whole, by 1967 standards, one would have to praise the documentary for its balance and objectivity.  (Today, however, GLAAD would be up in arms.)

 

 

Sadly, the latter three subjects appear brainwashed into believing that their family dynamic caused their sexual orientation.  (The serviceman has a girlfriend, and cannot articulate his actions.)  Psychiatrists Charles Socarides and Irving Bieber take turns discussing “smother mothers” and detached fathers who warp their sons’ sexuality.  (To his credit, Wallace seems somewhat skeptical of their claims, as befits a journalist.)

Despite what we would see as their caution today, one must admire the bravery of these men!  Even those who didn’t face the camera head-on (except for the arrested subject) took an incredible risk when we realize that homosexual activity was illegal in every state in the U.S. (except for Illinois, which legalized it in 1961).

In 1967, the government and law enforcement were no friends of homosexuals.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk avers that the State Department would not knowingly hire homosexuals because they can be blackmailed, and don’t meet the high moral standards required for government service.  A Los Angeles Police Inspector also indicates his disdain.

Fortunately, The Homosexuals contained glimmers of hope, if one wasn’t devastated by the negative comments.  I was pleasantly surprised that all the clergy members interviewed held surprisingly liberal views for their time – one even acknowledged his own anti-gay prejudice, and sought to challenge it.  Some brief footage airs of both a picket of the State Department in 1965, and an “Annual Reminder” (a picket line held in Philadelphia between 1965 and 1970 to air grievances primarily against the Federal government) that might have given a homosexual viewer hope that he could fight for his rights (politely, of course, and only if he was willing to wear a suit).  Other than one woman psychology student, it’s also the only time in the entire documentary women seem to exist in the cosmos – a few women appear on the picket line, including activists Lilli Vincenz and “Ernestine Eckstein” (the only African-American anywhere in the piece), and perhaps writer Kay Tobin Lahusen.  The first picketer on behalf of homosexual rights, Randy Wicker, is also briefly shown on the line.  (I did not see Jack, Frank, or Barbara Gittings, all avid picketers, in the march footage.)

Gore Vidal, one of the most visible homosexuals in America following the publication of his City and the Pillar in 1948, debates Professor Albert Goldman on the role of gays in popular culture, particularly in fashion, literature, and the arts.  It’s a rather nasty, hostile exchange.  The supercilious Goldman is upstaged by the even more supercilious Vidal.  Gore speaks obliquely of fellow writers Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams (although identifying neither by name), and discusses the stultifying nature of marriage at the time, lauding the direction toward open marriage as simply acknowledging human nature (and taking the U.S. to task as a laughing stock for its misguided Puritanism).  One can only imagine how much such a statement would have scared the horses in 1967!

Then there are the more positive views of gay men.  The Homosexuals begins with Lars Larsen (my bootleg copy did not contain the very beginning of the documentary) as the first face many Americans may have seen of a self-affirming gay man discussing his life and his sexuality.  Hal Call, then nearing 50 (and clearly a member of the “old guard”), comes off as cautious and relatively conservative (although certainly not ashamed or timid in his views).  Kameny appears briefly, reciting the “party line” of the most advanced homosexuals (those brave “activists”) at one of the pickets.  He is not unattractive, but his dogmatism and a rather “canned” quality earn him only a couple of sentences in the documentary.

The most impressive individual who appears is Jack Nichols (under his movement pseudonym, “Warren Adkins”).  Appearing in the first ten minutes of the documentary, Nichols is the most relaxed before the camera as Wallace interviews him.  (Wallace interviews only Larsen and Nichols/Adkins among the self-affirming homosexual men.)  Young and handsome, with a direct yet matter-of-fact manner, Nichols is the homosexual whom many young men would have liked to emulate (and probably bed).  His only notable falsehood comes when he tells Wallace that his family has accepted his homosexuality – while his mother did, his father (an FBI agent), threatened Jack’s life for putting his job in jeopardy.  But Nichols presents as not sick; not secret; and not “sinful.”  Nichols proclaims that he feels no guilt about his homosexuality, and states, “I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, could imagine giving that up, either.”  (His honesty resulted in at least one negative repercussion:  The day after the program aired, Nichols’s bosses fired him.)

Unfortunately, Wallace’s summation at the end of the documentary seems to remove all doubt but that he sided with the medical and law enforcement community that “happy homosexuals” could not and did not exist.

For its non-discerning heterosexual viewers, The Homosexuals probably taught them to monitor their parenting practices, lest they cause their sons to become gay.  More discerning heterosexual viewers likely witnessed a balanced approach that showed at least some homosexual men in a positive light.  A casual gay viewer (had there been such a creature in 1967) might have seen the glass as either half-empty (“why tell the world about our affairs and spoil our secret fraternity”) or half-full (“we’ve broken through the glass ceiling of silence and invisibility”).  What did the few gay activists think?  The women probably disliked their absence; the men could have been either discouraged or enthusiastic (although I would expect the latter).  Compared to so much one-sided discussion by the “experts” on homosexuality, at last gay men were being permitted to speak for themselves about their lives (if not exclusively throughout the documentary).  The solid wall of hostility against gay men was beginning to show a few cracks.  Within just a couple of years, things would never be the same again.

Paul Cain
By Paul D. Cain

©LGBT-Today




[1] I use the term advisedly.  The documentary apparently had no knowledge of lesbians, and only briefly mentions bisexuals.  “Transgender” and “queer” were not on anyone’s radar at the time, and even the word “gay” is never used.

[2] Does anyone know who this person was?  He is an attractive blond man who worked with his parents in hospital administration in (upstate?) New York.  I expect the name was a pseudonym, and I know nothing of his history other than his appearance in this documentary.

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