This morning when I unfolded my Los Angeles Times, I was greeted by a twelve-page advertising supplement designed to usher in the annual L.A. Pride weekend. The cover asks the question, “What is Gay L.A.?” Inside, a service feature suggests “7 Ways to Celebrate Pride,” including a special after-hours party at Universal Studios. Ads tout a hair restoration clinic, a big-ticket theatrical production, and Dodger baseball (“Pride. Available in Blue”). A fashion article quotes Joan Rivers’ right-hand man on the joys of luxury sneakers, and a book review introduces a coffee-table pictorial called My Buddy: World War II Laid Bare. (This Amazon advance best-seller offers glimpses, I learn, “of soldiers and sailors cavorting and hamming it up – often in the buff – during a time when homosexuality was criminalized in the United States.”) And the Times itself is announcing a new web presence, to debut June 20, keyed to its coverage of what it calls LGBT-LA.
How times (as well as the L.A. Times) have changed! Today, especially among young people, “gay” is often synonymous with “hip.” The 2014 movie heroine, a direct descendant of Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, could never survive romantic trauma without her gay BFF by her side. On television the success of Modern Family proves that audiences are happy to embrace a gay couple—and even a gay wedding complete with kissing—as just one of the many permutations of contemporary life.
I now take you back to March 7, 1967, and the airing of a special episode of CBS Reports, hosted by Mike Wallace. Its title: “The Homosexuals.” It is a somber piece of black-&-white footage, featuring Wallace’s interviews with a series of well-dressed men who admit to being part of what Wallace calls “the most despised minority group in the United States.” A few boldly look into the camera and identify themselves, but most have their faces obscured. One twenty-seven-year-old who’s shown hidden behind a potted plant claims he can’t hold down a job because of his orientation; homosexual acts have sent him to jail three times. He regards himself as sick, fights off his urge for “animal sexual gratification,” and longs for the home and family he’s sure he’ll never have.
As host, Wallace provides some statistics. According to a CBS News survey, a majority of Americans “are repelled by the mere notion of homosexuality.” And that’s hardly surprising, given the view that the average homosexual is promiscuous, “not interested in nor capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.” The general consensus -- even in what Wallace calls “this era of bold sexual mores”-- is that homosexuality is a mental illness. Some psychiatrists interviewed on camera blame this epidemic on an overclose relationship between mother and son. We’re told that that if a father is warm and caring, it’s impossible to produce a homosexual child.
The year 1967 was marked by important advances in racial equality. It was the year not only of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but also of the Supreme Court decision that voided all restrictions on marriage between people of different races. Still, homosexual acts performed in private between consenting adults were still illegal in every state but Illinois. A judge from North Carolina admits that in his state there are heavier legal penalties for homosexuality than for second-degree murder. Wallace fades out with the story of a closeted homosexual who’s a husband and father, but finds himself profoundly unhappy: “At the center of his life he remains anonymous, a displaced person, an outsider.” Hardly a gay man, sad to say.