Thursday, April 12, 2012

Where We've Come From

This documentary, "The Homosexuals," by Mike Wallace, is a kind of time capsule. I can't help but marvel how different the world was in 1967. (I was four years old!) There are still reverberations in our culture of the debates over homosexuality that were taking place then, forty five years ago.

1967 was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. African American activists were transforming the way Americans thought about human rights. Ordinary people like Rosa Parks and "the Little Rock Nine" and the sanitation workers in Memphis inspired people from all walks of life to stand up and try to make a difference. Still, at that moment in history, it took incredible intestinal fortitude and faith for gay men and lesbians to dare to suggest that maybe they, too, should be treated with dignity.

The psychological theories featured so prominently in the documentary, supposedly explaining homosexuality, are now almost universally rejected. Charles Socarides is featured announcing to a classroom that homosexuality is "a disease that has reached almost epidemic proportions." Then there was the cultural commentator bemoaning how the "homosexual mafia" had a stranglehold on American arts and fashion (!!!), insisting that gays were insinuating their "deep hostility toward women" into American culture. Then there was Gore Vidal, pronouncing the institution of marriage "absurd" and "obsolete." The spokesmen (no women in this documentary) from the Mattachine Society seemed well adjusted and reasonable, if a bit anxious to prove themselves "normal."

What also intrigued me were the Protestant and Catholic religious leaders who acknowledged that culturally based revulsion against homosexuals was contrary to the Christian faith. They seemed oblivious to the possibility that that culture of revulsion colored their own theological views of the subject.

Then there were the self-loathing homosexuals. It seems so obvious now, so self-evident, that so much of what, in 1967, was perceived as "disease" or "mental illness," was actually the result of extreme social isolation, self-loathing and terror. It took incredible strength and courage even to begin to challenge that. And we are so much better off today. I'm so glad we don't live in that world any more.

It didn't just "get better" on its own. It got better because people were willing to stand up, even in the face of extreme ridicule and hatred. The documentary includes clips of gay rights protesters, dressed in suits and ties, carrying signs, and picketing quietly and with dignity, while passers by ridicule them as fit for the loony bin. It's impossible to come away from this documentary without a profound sense of just how extreme and how pervasive the hatred of homosexuals once was in our culture. We owe that generation a LOT.

(Mike Wallace deserves props too for taking on this topic at a time when to do so might have aroused a lot of hostility!)

Worth a watch, if only to remind ourselves how far we've come (and how far we have yet to go).


jeff-mn said...

Was John loved too much by his mother resulting in his homosexuality?

J G-W said...

That's why I've always laughed at these theories.

Maybe there are gay boys out there who have smothering moms and distant dads... I wasn't one of them!

Bieber was one of the more liberal, more gay-friendly psychologists at the time!

Anonymous said...

Is John too narcissistic to develop a loving, caring relationship with another man?

J G-W said...

Apparently so. And yet... We're still together after 19 years. Amazing how effective narcissism is for building a long-term relationship. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hey, that's longer than most heterosexual marriages last.

Neal said...

WoW! Very interesting/revealing. I think what freaks me out the most is how recently some of the laws/attitudes you see in this film have changed. And even though its been over 40 years since this was made, there are still plenty of people out there who view us just as portrayed in this film.

J G-W said...

Neal - Yeah. But if you consider the fact that it is possible now for same-sex couples to live more or less openly -- at least in some enclaves in America -- and be able to be out to family, at work, etc., and not suffer seriously adverse consequences is dramatic. The world we see in "The Homosexuals" is like some kind of crazy homo-hating dystopia by comparison. Lawrence v. Texas (2003) was definitely a milestone in the journey from there to here.

Of course, there are definitely vast swaths of America that are still like that...