In 1967, CBS Television aired their controversial documentary The Homosexuals hosted by Mike Wallace. It was an installment of CBS Reports (this was before 60 Minutes), and it was the very first time that the topic of homosexuality had been featured on a national television news show. It went through two producers and several versions starting in 1964 when the project began.
During the era when the program was made, nine of every ten Americans saw being gay as an illness and as a social problem more horrible than prostitution, abortion and adultery. A majority of the country thought that sex acts between two consenting adults of the same-sex should be illegal and punishable by law.
The Homosexuals was filled with cringe-worthy elements, although it was originally conceived as being educational, not sensational. It featured interviews with gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and NYC, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation.
Charles Socarides, a noted psychoanalyst and the founder of modern “conversion therapy” participated. In a crazy footnote, his openly gay son, Richard Socarides, was a top adviser to President Bill Clinton. Also included was Irving Bieber, another prominent “expert” from the era, who viewed homosexuality as a pathology brought on by over-protective mothers and absent fathers. Socarides and Bieber will not be remembered kindly by history.
A 27-year-old gay guy is interviewed, his face obscured by a plant, where he talks about how he could spend life in prison if he was arrested a second time for trying to hook up with another man. He says that he believes that he is sick.
Wallace was a highly respected newsman and he was also a rabid homophobe. He knew that documentary was biased, even for its day. He understood that the program was filled with lies and propaganda. On the show, he seemed smug and condescending. Wallace’s disapproving commentary was indicative of the attitudes towards gay men at the time:
“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 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 newsperson Fred Friendly was the CBS executive in charge of the special. He requested that producer William Peters find a way to explain to viewers what homosexuals actually did together. When the mechanics of gay sex was explained, Friendly quickly decided against that idea.
Early Gay Rights activist Jack Nichols, one of the founders of the Washington DC chapter of the Mattachine Society, appeared in the program under the pseudonym “Warren Adkins” because his father was an FBI agent and would have lost his security clearance. In the film Nichols bravely states:
“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.”
Friendly quit CBS News because he disagreed with the network’s coverage the Vietnam War. After his departure, it seemed like the project might not air, except that publicity had already been generated and there was a lot of interest. Friendly’s replacement, Richard Salant, thought The Homosexuals wasn’t nearly anti-gay enough and he hired another producer, Harry Morgan, to fix it. Morgan ended up scrapping most of the original footage. Interviewees who had previously been portrayed as well-adjusted were re-edited to seem miserable.
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 interview with 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. He said: ‘because, 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.”
There was a segment about religious attitudes toward homosexuality and a gay scandal where there was a sweeping investigation of a supposed “homosexual underground” in Boise, Idaho.
Today, The Homosexuals seems like a parody. There is a section with a public bathroom sting, that is shot like a 1940s film noir. There is an astonishing segment featuring Lenny Bruce biographer Albert Goldman and gay writer Gore Vidal debating the rumor of a “gay mafia” in the arts. Goldman claims that openly gay people would “bring the final erosion, of our cultural values.” Vidal counters with:
“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.”
Wrapping up the hour, Wallace concluded with:
“The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he’s a criminal; shunned by employers; rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter with a man. At the center of his life he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider.”
After The Homosexuals aired, The NY Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Daily News praised CBS for tackling the subject. The Chicago Tribune titled its review: “TV No Spot To Unload Garbage” and attacked CBS for presenting such material to young and impressionable viewers.
The Homosexuals completely ignores the subject of lesbians, and portrays gay men as inherently promiscuous and incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. Even in 1995, Wallace was still publicly saying that people chose to be gay. And here we are 50 later, with some segments of society still pushing against Marriage Equality and touting Religious Liberty legislation. Our own era’s Gay Rights opponents sound like a voice from the past. LGBTQ activist Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, claims that the show was:
“… the single most destructive hour of anti-gay propaganda in our nation’s history. The Homosexuals not only had a devastating effect on public opinion but also was a nuclear bomb dropped on the psyches of gay and lesbian Americans, who, prior to this show, had never been represented as a group on national television.”