These days, we take for granted the news worthiness of LGBT topics. Gender identity gets left out of the latest draft of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and the ensuing battle for transgender inclusion becomes a mainstream news story. Same-sex marriage, 'don't ask, don't tell,' the use of the 'F' word as a slur by a television star: These all get splashed across the pages of print media or become fodder for nighttime television commentary.
It wasn't always so. In 1951, when Donald Webster Cory ( a pseudonym ) published The Homosexual in America, he identified what he called a 'conspiracy of silence' that blanketed the nation's press. Gay and lesbian life wasn't considered a fit subject matter for the 'family newspaper' that millions of Americans picked up on their way to work in the morning or had delivered to their homes each day.
Of course, editors selectively enforced this silence, honoring it only in the breech. The Chicago Tribune had no compunction writing about the dangers posed by 'men of perverted sex tendencies.' The Chicago Defender felt free to claim that lesbians controlled the city's prostitution trade. But articles that simply described life as it was experienced by gay men and lesbians? That allowed them to speak in their own words and set the terms of the coverage? Not on your life.
When did this journalistic state of affairs begin to change? Historians love the concreteness of dates, and in this case we have a precise one —Dec. 17, 1963. On that day, the New York Times, whose motto is 'all the news that's fit to print,' carried this headline: 'Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.' The accompanying article described a flourishing male homosexual underground as the city's 'most sensitive open secret.'
Perhaps because the Times presents itself as the 'newspaper of record' in the United States, this article provided journalistic permission for other papers to follow suit. Over the next couple of years, copycat articles appeared in city newspapers around the country. Atlanta, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Seattle were just some of the cities where reporters decided to expose the gay world to their readership. Chicago's turn came on June 20, 1966, when the now-defunct Daily News began a four-part series.
To our contemporary sensibilities, the content of the series would be enough to make thousands of angry queers spontaneously storm the headquarters of the publisher and then sit in until apologies were issued and the evil deed rectified by providing space for rebuttal. In the series, a judge described homosexuals as 'sick people.' James O'Grady, the police lieutenant in charge of the anti-prostitution detail ( who was to become police chief briefly in 1978 ) , talked about 'fag bars' and 'queers.' The doctor who directed the municipal court's psychiatric unit referred to homosexuality as 'socially distasteful.' The reporter described gay men as 'disturbed' and as 'deviates.'
The headlines and section headers that the Daily News employed were just as bad: 'Twilight World That's Tormented'; 'Cops Keep Watch on Deviate Hangouts'; 'Homosexuality a Sickness? 'No' Say the Deviates'; 'His Bizarre Double Life.'
But our contemporary eyes are not the best ones for judging how these articles were viewed at the time. In the context of 1966, they represented progress, a journalistic opening wedge of sorts. Why? Because tormented and deviate and disturbed and affliction were not the only points of view expressed in the series. I wouldn't go as far as to say the articles displayed balance—if by balance we mean equal weight to anti-gay and pro-gay sentiments. But it is definitely true that the reporter, Lois Wille ( who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1963 series on refusal to provide contraceptive services to poor women ) , allowed dissenting opinions to be heard. She found ways to insinuate that there was more than one viewpoint about homosexuality. She thus gave legitimacy to a debate about homosexuality where, before, there was nothing but a negative consensus.
She did this in different ways. Sometimes she posed questions, like these in the opening article: 'Can and should deviates be 'contained' to keep them from spreading further? ... Or are these disturbed, misunderstood men needing help, understanding and the freedom to live in their way?' Or, she suggested that the gay world was made up of all kinds of people. Yes, there were 'the dregs of the invert world,' but there were also those who led 'happy lives' and who made 'good neighbors.'
Wille held public policy up for criticism, too. A major topic in the series was police behavior. She wrote at length about the crackdown against gay bars, the raids and the closings, and the mass arrests. But Lieutenant O'Grady's defense of police activity did not go unchallenged. Wille interviewed Pearl Hart, whom she described as a lawyer with 52 years of practice in civil liberties law. Hart called police conduct unethical and said the raids and arrests were a waste of time and taxpayers' money. 'It just doesn't make sense to go after homosexuals,' she told Wille.
The series also let it be known that some homosexuals were challenging the way things were. Sometimes this took the form of organizations, like Mattachine Midwest, whose president Wille approvingly described as 'a tall rugged-looking businessman'—no stereotype, he! But sometimes more spontaneous forms of resistance showed up. She described a wonderful scene in court where a well-dressed defendant began shouting at the judge. 'I'm happy. Are you happy? Well I am ... Don't tell me I'm sick.' According to Wille, this kind of response was becoming typical as gay men no longer listened meekly to what prosecutors and judges had to say.
The Daily News articles were as revealing for what they left out as for what they contained. There was not a single mention of lesbians. This was a series about male homosexuals, and lesbians never entered the discussion. There was no mention of their bars, no mention of their social circles, and no mention of any difficulties they faced. The articles also had no racial descriptors. This effectively coded the discussion as one about white men, implying that gays are all white. By and large, the locations Wille identified for gay bars and cruising areas were North Side locations; the South Side was absent, reinforcing the sense that this was a white social phenomenon.
These silences were not surprising, but they were especially unfortunate. At a time when silence in the press was more the rule than not, a series like this one was something of a road map. For the very closeted, these articles offered information. It named bars. It named locations. In other words, it provided hope to the very isolated that they might find others. But that hope, alas, didn't extend to everyone.
Copyright 2008 John D'Emilio