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).