“CBS REPORTS: THE HOMOSEXUALS”— Indeed We Have Come a Long Way

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“CBS Reports: The Homosexuals”

Indeed We Have Come a Long Way

Amos Lassen

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In 1967 Mike Wallace hosted a controversial CBS TV documentary titled “The Homosexuals” as part of “CBS Reports”, a precursor to “60 Minutes”. The program marked the very first time the topic of homosexuality had been broached on a national television news show (there was an earlier local San Francisco PBS program called The Rejected from 1961, which featured anthropologist Margaret Mead). “The Homosexuals” went through two producers and several iterations over the course of three years before it finally aired on March 7. I understand that it is being released on home DVD so you should keep your eyes open for it.

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At the time the show was made, it was stated that nine of every ten Americans saw homosexuality as an illness or a disease and as a social problem worse than prostitution, abortion and adultery. A majority of the country believed homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults should be illegal and punishable by law.

As we can expect, there are several really cringe-worthy elements in the film, although the intentions on the part of the original producer seemed to be good or at the least educational. The inclusion of Dr. Charles Socarides, the psychoanalyst who is widely regarded as the father of “conversion therapy” is one of the first red flags of “balance,” but Socarides was a man taken very seriously at the time. (I should say that his openly gay son went on to be a top adviser to Bill Clinton.) Dr. Irving Bieber, another prominent “expert” of the day viewed homosexuality as a pathology brought on by over-protective mothers (and absent or competitive fathers) and he gets his share of screen time. Looking at them today, Socarides and Bieber both come off very poorly in hindsight, they sound like “experts” who don’t know what they’re talking about and we can be assured that history will not look at them favorably.

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One of the men interviewed was a 27-year-old gay man whose face was obscured by a plant and is described as someone facing life in prison if he is arrested again for attempting sexual gratification. He seems himself to believe that he is sick.

Mike Wallace’s disapproving commentary is indicative of what attitudes towards homosexuality were like at the time and these are they: “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of one–chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits. And even on the streets of the city — the pick-up, the one night stand, these are characteristics of the homosexual relationship”.

The legendary CBS newsman Fred Friendly (the man who worked with Edward R. Murrow to cut Joseph McCarthy down to size) was the executive in charge of the special and asked the producer William Peters to add in something explaining to the viewers what it was that homosexuals actually did. When the mechanics of gay sex was explained to Friendly, the veteran journalist changed his mind very quickly.

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Jack Nichols, one of the prominent early gay rights activists and co-founder of the Washington DC-based branch of the Mattachine Society appeared on the program under the pseudonym “Warren Adkins” due to the fact that his father was an FBI agent and would have lost his security clearance. When he’s asked about his sense of self, he answers in eloquent words that still ring true today: “I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

Before the film was to air, Friendly left CBS News over an argument about the Vietnam War. It seemed like we would never see the program. However, there were news reports about it that had leaked since 1964.. Friendly’s successor, Richard Salant, thought that the doc was too pro-homosexual and hired another producer, Harry Morgan, to redo it, practically from scratch. All but ten minutes of the original edit were dropped. Interviews where the subjects were previously portrayed as happy about themselves were re-edited to mislead the audience into coming to the exact opposite conclusion.

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Some of the participants were furious when the show was aired. Jack Nichols was fired from his job the very next day. He later had this to say about his encounter with Mike Wallace:

[“After we finished and the camera was turned off, Mike Wallace sat down with me and talked for about half an hour. He said, “You know, you answered all of my questions capably, but I have a feeling that you don’t really believe that homosexuality is as acceptable as you make it sound.” I asked him why he would say that. “Because,” he said, “in your heart I think you know it’s wrong.” It was infuriating. I told him I thought being gay was just fine, but that in his heart he thought it was wrong”].

As late as 1995, Wallace said and in public that he thought people could chose not to be gay. What we do have to agree on is that the film has a certain fascination. It includes a sting in a bathroom and other undercover cinéma vérité camerawork. The wonderfully open-minded Reverend Robert Bruce Pierce says that he knows that it is wrong when he feels uncomfortable around gays and tries to change himself. Biographer Albert Goldman and Gore Vidal debate the notion of a “gay mafia” in the arts. Goldman sees homosexuality as one of several factors that would bring about “the final erosion, of our cultural values.” Vidal, on the other hand, says “The United States is living out some mad Protestant nineteenth-century dream of human behavior….I think the so-called breaking of the moral fiber of this country is one of the healthiest things that’s begun to happen.”

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It is interesting to note that there are no lesbians represented in the program. It was thought that including ladies who love ladies would confuse Americans (whatever that means).

Every member of the LGBT community should watch this, especially the youngsters. It is not old news—this was done just a few years ago. Some of the views that we hear on the program are still held and promoted in too many countries and communities throughout the world. This is how we were viewed, how we were treated, how we suffered. “Experts” tried to change us and we now know that most of what we see on this program is fiction, horrible and disgusting fiction.

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Mike Wallace was a highly respected newsman and he was a homophobe. He knew that documentary was rabidly biased and homophobic, even for its day. Knowing that it was loaded with lies and propaganda, he did not make a documentary based on truth—he chose rumor and suspicion. He could have set the record straight and expose all the indignities, misinformation and outright irrational homophobic fear and hate before he died but he chose to die as a lived, a bigot. On the program he appeared smug, apathetic and condescending but I also understand that he lived that way.

At that time, most Americans believe that homosexuality (the word “gay” is never used) was a harmful serious problem–worse than adultery, abortion and prostitution. Being caught in a homosexual activity mean being arrested and the names printed in the press. There was no such thing as consenting adults. We get the message that homosexuals must be cured after being punished for their “crimes against nature”, a catch all term that means nothing. The only objectivity in the film is in its presentation; otherwise it is frightening to think that people believed what they saw.

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The entire documentary is here: