Robert Scheer and Larry Gross Discuss the Rise of the U.S. Gay Community
In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” podcast, Truthdig’s editor in chief speaks with author and academic Larry Gross about how formerly “invisible,” closeted gay men and women came, over the course of the middle and late 20th century, to form a community that wielded political power.
A former dean at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a professor, Larry Gross has been a pioneer of queer studies for decades. He has written two books on gay issues: “Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing,” and “Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America.”
In their conversation, Gross tells Scheer about how and when gay people emerged as a minority group after settling in urban areas after World War II. The pair also discuss how the internet has helped young gay men and women have role models and feel less isolated.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer, and you’re listening to Scheer Intelligence, my podcast with KCRW, in which I speak with American originals, people who’ve had a contact with this country that has both been educational, provocative, informative, and they provide the intelligence. Sort of my alternative to the Central Intelligence Agency. My guest today is an American original, Larry Gross, who is the director of USC’s Annenberg School of Communication; he was a former vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School. But he’s really most famous in academic circles for having pioneered the study of the media’s treatment of gays down through our history. And he did two very important books, one Up from Invisibility and the other Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing. I want to begin, and this is going to be sort of an open discussion about what has happened to gay people in America. And it’s largely a positive story; yet, of course, we know from Orlando, the massacre; we also know here in Santa Monica, where we’re broadcasting, someone was arrested with a lot of guns to presumably bring mayhem to the gay pride parade. And, but in the main, let’s stick to the optimistic. I don’t think any social protest movement has had as rapid a success–very slow to start; one thing I’ve talked to Larry about in the past is that even in the sixties, which were proclaimed as a time of great change, for gay people it was not. Stonewall, one of the legendary incidents in the rise of gay people in America, happened after the sixties.
LG: At the end of the sixties.
RS: End of the sixties, thank you, Larry. And a lot of it has to do with this word, “invisibility.” Up from Invisibility–if you want to check out Larry’s book, it’s available–but your whole theme was, basically, as long as gays were invisible they could be treated as an “other,” in a virtual ghetto; an other, you know. And the medical community declared this an illness; the legal community declared it a crime; the church declared it a sin, almost all churches. And what happened, and the reason for the rapid change, if I understand your work correctly, is that once gays came out of the closet, once they were no longer–and the AIDS crisis obviously had a great deal to do with this; you know, ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power], a lot of protest movements and so forth–once gays came out of the closet, it was discovered they were everywhere: in your family, in your church, your coworkers, and you could not demonize or marginalize people who you actually had spent your life living with but you didn’t know were gay. Is that a fair summary?
LG: Well, it’s part of it. I think, interestingly enough, there are two, to some extent, opposite trends going on here, or two opposite things that happened since the middle of the 20th century in order for the changes that you referred to to have taken place. The first is the emergence in the middle of the 20th century–I mean, quite explicitly, it can be dated to around 1950–the emergence of an identity as a minority group. Up until then, and certainly after then for many, many people, an identity as–let’s use the term “homosexual,” which is the term that would have been used–was an individual identity, as you said. The dominant identities that were available in the culture, and that people would absorb as they grew up, were either “sinner”–you know, “I’m breaking the rules, the moral rules of the church, of the religious community in which I was born and in which my parents have wanted to bring me up”; or, “I’m a criminal. I’m breaking the laws, and in fact I am vulnerable, if I am caught, to legal sanctions; I can be fired, I can be evicted, I can be refused service by any kind of public accommodation. I’m basically an outlaw.” And in the middle of the 20th century, in the period that we refer to generally as McCarthyism, the Cold War crackdown, homosexuals were one of the prime targets; you know, the “commie queer”–it was viewed as a category of potential subversion. And medically, the increasingly powerful definition was the scientific definition. This was the liberal one; that your problem was, that it wasn’t a moral issue of being a sinner, it shouldn’t be a legal issue of being a criminal; it should be a medical issue of being a patient, of being mentally ill, and therefore in need of the services of psychiatry to cure you. And the cures could be pretty drastic; they could range all the way to lobotomy, certainly a lot of electric shock and other kinds of–you know, incarceration.
So these three institutions, as you referred to, which are the dominant institutions in our society that define the parameters of the acceptable; what is acceptable versus sinful, what is acceptable versus illegal, what is acceptable versus abnormal or ill. What happens in the middle of the 20th century–and it happens in part because, curiously, because of the Kinsey Report that says, “You know, sex is not what it’s supposed to be; there’s a lot more going on than the official story we were taught in school or in church of, you know, chastity followed by monogamous marriage.” Well, it turns out there was a lot less chastity and a lot more going on outside of marriage. And the most dramatic revelation, in part, of the Kinsey Reports was there was a lot more homosexual activity going on than the official story. And a few gay people began to say–a few, you know, homosexual people, gay people, men and women began to say, “We’re a minority group.” And saying, “We should think of ourselves as an oppressed minority,” along the model of race and religion that were very sort of salient terms in this period right after the Second World War. Racial issues were coming to the forefront in the U.S., and certainly religious discrimination, as in the Holocaust, was very much present. And gay people began to say, “We need to think of ourselves as a community.” At the same time, they were, in fact, literally becoming a community.
And this is a very critical fact, because the population change in the United States right after the Second World War was unprecedented. It was in part the explosion of the suburbs, with pent-up housing demand after the Depression and the Second World War. But it was also hundreds and thousands of young men who had been taken out of their communities to the Army, or young women who had been taken out of their communities to work in defense industries; and many of them realized in these new surroundings that they could understand what they didn’t understand about themselves in the rural and small-town communities they came from, which is their sexuality. And after the war, thousands–tens of thousands, really–of these young men and women didn’t go home. And they settled in urban areas, particularly along the coasts, California prominent among them, Los Angeles and particularly San Francisco; but also on the East coast and elsewhere. And they began to literally create gay communities. Gay communities hadn’t existed before. Gay people were, as you said, scattered among the population. So part of what I was saying is there were these two different currents, one of which is the emergence of a sense of identity, but also the emergence, literally, of communities. And the term “the gay community” begins to be used. It’s a very strange term, and in some sense, it’s never been an accurate term in the loose sense that you could use for African Americans or other groups that have historically lived in concentrations and been, in a sense, communal.RS: You know, as long as we’re talking about terms, Larry, I’ve always–you’re one of the pioneers of something called queer studies. And I never have understood this, because it sounds like an inherently pejorative concept–
LG: Well, that’s a linguistic reversal that gets used often by groups. What “queer” represented–I mean, it’s now taken on a number of other meanings. But what it represented when people began using it in that way was the sense of being different.
RS: Well, we’re queer, we’re here, get used to it.
LG: Well, yes. We’re not what we’re supposed to be; we’re different. And it’s, to some extent, it’s the spirit of the sixties, although it was really the eighties when we began–
RS: But you’re a pioneer of queer studies. Your books are–
LG: Well, “queer” is partially a way of avoiding–well, one thing, “queer” began being used in the 1980s in part to avoid the alphabet soup–L,G,B,T,Q, whatever–
RS: Oh, yeah, that curses us today. [Laughs]
LG: You know, these acronyms become increasingly awkward. And “queer” was viewed by some people as a common characteristic, attribute of all of these. “Queer” also began to be used, curiously enough, really in the nineties and beyond, by people who didn’t necessarily identify as what we would say “homosexual,” but simply identified as not heteronormative. They didn’t want to follow society’s rules, and in that sense it was like an echo of the sixties, of people saying look, we don’t want to live according to the official, conformist rules; we want to reinvent ourselves.
RS: So let me just take you back to this history, because I think it’s really important. I know younger gay people–I would put my own son, one of my sons in that category–feel that things have moved so fast that they wonder why, in some ways, we’re dwelling on the past. I know you have an answer, but let me just remind people who may not know this history–yes, World War II brought about great population shifts; yes, there was the development of beginning, actual communities of gay people living together somewhat openly. But still oppressed by the police; certainly not accepted. And I just want to bring up some historical points; we’re broadcasting this, taping this in Santa Monica. But in California, the laws didn’t–it’s not just some backwater areas; California, despite having gay communities, it wasn’t until Willie Brown as a member of the Assembly, who kept pushing for change, and the definition of sodomy, and what is a crime, and so forth–that came quite late, right? What year would that be?
LG: That was sometime in the seventies. But the reason for all of this is–and it is why it is important to understand history; I mean, I say this as a professor, so part of my job is historical memory so that we don’t repeat things unnecessarily if we can help it. What was critical about the emergence of these communities was it began to produce, as it has for other minorities, ethnic and racial minorities, it began to produce political power. In the United States, minority political power has always come through urban concentrations. This was true for the Irish, it was true for the Poles, the Italians; it was true for Jews, and it was true for African Americans. They begin to get political power and begin to be able to move the system. When they concentrate–almost always in urban areas where you get that kind of concentration; what are sometimes called ghettos–but ghettos are also concentrations that are empowering. And if you have a concentration in an urban area, as the Irish did in Boston, or the Italians in New York or Chicago, or the Poles–
RS: Or Latinos in Los Angeles right now, yeah.
LG: Latinos, now, in Los Angeles; or in Florida, or in Texas. Urban concentrations translate into two things that politicians pay attention to: votes and money. And urban politicians become the–first of all, sometimes they are members of the group, although for gay people that took longer than it did for the Irish or the Italians or the Poles. It took much longer to actually–
RS: When was Harvey Milk–?
LG: Well, Harvey Milk was not the first openly gay elected official. The first one, actually, curiously enough, was in Minnesota. And there was Elaine Noble in Massachusetts. But Harvey Milk was elected in San Francisco as a member of the board of supervisors in 1977. And what it took–and this is very relevant–for Harvey Milk to be elected was San Francisco changed the system of electing the supervisors to a district-based system.
RS: We should mention Harvey Milk, the subject of a very good film by Lance Black and others, was assassinated.
LG: He was assassinated along with the mayor of San Francisco. But he was elected–he had run several times. He was successful in running when there was a district, and the district, the Castro district, was a heavily gay district. This is how political power comes about; it’s through concentration in urban areas, translates into votes and money. So Willie Brown, a member of the state legislature from San Francisco, is responding to constituent pressure. I’m sure he had nothing but the best intentions, with nothing but the most liberal instincts; but the actual political movement happens when you get the concentration that translates into votes and money. And politicians listen to votes and they listen to money. And what happened with gay people was they began to emerge in these urban areas, and they began, through the fifties but certainly into the sixties, to become more visible; to be less hidden. And one reason they were less hidden was as they created communities, they had jobs they wouldn’t be fired from; they had housing they wouldn’t be evicted from; and the police, although they would routinely raid bars in order to make sure that they were getting their kickbacks, they would also, however, be more relaxed about oppression than they might be in a small town. So gay people begin to emerge, and here, the media begin to pay attention. And one of my favorite examples of this–RS: I should just mention one pioneer in this respect in California, Sheila Kuehl, who is now a supervisor in Los Angeles, was, I believe, senator pro tem–I think she was the first or second openly gay person in the state legislature–
LG: I have great respect for Sheila Kuehl, but she was not one of the first; she was way, way later on, decades beyond.
RS: I’m saying, Professor Gross, what was interesting about Sheila Kuehl, she had been a child movie star–
LG: Yes, and she went to Harvard and became a lawyer.
RS: Yeah, she had all the credentials of every kind. But the fact is, she rose to political–I’m echoing your point about political prominence. She became a major elected official in the state, in fact was one of the highest–
LG: Sure. But interesting, it took a while. How about Joel Wachs? Was it Wachs or Wachsman? Longtime city supervisor here [in Los Angeles]–in the closet. You know, people kind of knew, but he didn’t come out for a long time. It wasn’t until fairly recently. But let me go back in history. The New York Times puts the topic of homosexuality on the front page for the first time ever in 1963. And the headline is, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.” And the lede is, “The problem of homosexuality in New York became the focus yesterday of increased attention by the state liquor authority and the police department. The liquor authority announced the revocation of the liquor licenses of two more homosexual haunts”–which is to say gay bars, like Stonewall–”that had been repeatedly raided by the police”–like Stonewall. “The city’s most sensitive open secret, the presence of what is probably the greatest homosexual population in the world, and its increasing openness has become the subject of growing concern of psychiatrists, religious leaders, and the police.” Again, these institutions. And in this period, the media begin to be concerned with this problem. And the problem is openness. The problem is that it’s beginning to be a visible community.
RS: Well, The New York Times went on a crusade about this.
LG: No, they didn’t go on a crusade, they began to cover it. Life magazine had a big cover story in June ‘64, “Homosexuality in America.” And this one is particularly interesting because, again, it focuses on the bars; it has these visual images of shadowy men in the bars. And it says here, in this coverage, “Life reports on homosexuality in America, on its locale and habits, and sums up what science knows and seeks to know about it. Today, especially in big cities, homosexuals are discarding their furtive ways and openly admitting, even flaunting, their deviation. Homosexuals have their own drinking places, their special assignation streets, even their own organizations.” And what they’re noting here is the emergence of a community–”even their own organizations.” In fact, the biggest community, the biggest organizations at that time–which is not what you would expect–were churches. They began to have the Metropolitan Community Church and other religious organizations. And when this article appeared, which is a wonderful little twist of history in 1964, it told people all over the country, young people, “Ah! All right. There are places we can go.” And let me just read you an example. A Texas man recalled, “The first time I ever heard of ONE or Mattachine”–which were gay organizations–“was in Life. It never would have dawned on me that anything like that was out there.” Another account came from a man who had been a Virginia teenager: “I read it when nobody was around. I hung on every word. I thought, ‘I want to go to a big city. I want to find out what this is all about.’” So the media, curiously enough, by this kind of slightly alarmist treatment of “these gays are emerging in big cities” was also a message to gay people all over the country in small towns, saying oh, OK, I should get out of the small town and go to the big city and then I can live a life as a gay person.
RS: So let me say, this is Larry Gross that you’re listening to. He’s–I would argue; he says I’m giving him too much credit–but I think he’s been the leading scholar, certainly in this country, on gay studies. He [was] head of the International Communications [Association], he was my boss at USC when he was the director. And I think his–one of his many books, but Up from Invisibility, I think, was absolutely critical to framing this issue. Because as long as gays were invisible, you could make any scapegoating, scurrilous charge. This is true of any group if they’re marginalized, they’re ghettoized, they become “the other” and you can say anything, and most people don’t have evidence to counter that. What happened with gays, in a way that was far more dramatic than any other marginalized, scorned group, was visibility. And it came about in shows, you know, of queer folks and others, and mass media; you could talk about that. But one thing that was very interesting, I remember after the Orlando massacre, you actually were telling me about the role of the bar in the gay community. And maybe we should mention that, because this was a safe zone, and I think one of the ways you could tell a gay bar was that there were not windows that you could look through.
LG: Yeah. If you were in a town, if you were looking for a gay bar, a good sign would be, you know, a bar where the windows were dark or there were no windows, so that nobody could see in. And that was always a good sign that this is likely to be a gay bar. There actually were guidebooks for gay people. There was a guy named Bob Damron who published a little booklet–actually by the end, the little booklet was, you know, about an inch or two thick–for travelers. And it would tell you, town by town, where the bars were, where other places were. It was a kind of secret guide for travelers to this hidden world. And interestingly enough, African Americans had similar guidebooks for traveling of places where you could go and be served, or places where you wouldn’t get badly treated. And I’m sure Jews had the equivalent for people who navigated through potentially hostile territory.
RS: Well, let me stop you there. You say you’re sure Jewish–now, it’s interesting, because of course gay people have, all people have other identities. And in your case, I just have to throw this little footnote in, your father was a major intellectual who suffered under McCarthyism, right? And you actually ended up living in Israel for, what, most of your high school years?
LG: Seven years.RS: Seven years; you’re fluent in Hebrew. And I must say, because this whole thing–you have so many, as all human beings, different hats, right? And one of them has been concern about the rights of Palestinians and so forth. But I’m just interested in–I remember I interviewed the guy who did the, Tom Waddell, he did the gay Olympics–
LG: Gay Games.
RS: Gay Games.
LG: The Olympics took him to the Supreme Court to make sure that he didn’t use that word.
RS: Yeah. And he was an Olympic athlete, triathlete. And I remember I interviewed him, and he was at Stanford; he was a medical doctor. And he got angry with me when I interviewed him–this was shortly before he died from AIDS; he was a great, great human being, researcher, medical researcher. And he got angry with me in that interview, in a friendly way; he said, “Look, Bob, you keep talking about–yes, I did the Gay Games. Yes, I am gay. Yes, I did come out of the closet. You know? But the fact is, I have other things that I care about. I happen to be a socialist, you know? [Laughs] I happen to care a great deal about human rights. I happen to be very much concerned about civil rights for all people. I’ve been in that movement.” And he just went through a whole list, you know, of his concerns and passions. And he kind of resented, even at that point, being put in the box of being gay. But you clearly–
LG: Well, that’s probably a generational thing. But I don’t consider them all distinct. And I think certainly there is a thread that runs through my concerns, but I’m not unusual in this, which is a concern, I suppose, for justice and for sort of equal treatment for all. And that certainly relates to race and religion as much as it does to sexuality in the different ways. And yes, I grew up in my teens in Israel; this was a long time ago, and Israel was different. But even then, there were many aspects of it that disturbed me and that bothered me, in a very clear sense, that the official story that was being taught in the schools that I was attending was a distorted story, and that much of it was simply not true.
RS: You mean about the creation of Israel. Well, what about the–
LG: Well, yes, the line “A land without people for a people without land” that I heard as a pupil in schools was, you know, patently not true and historically tragic.
RS: But what about another aspect of being Jewish, you were in Israel, and much of the homophobia is fueled by reference to the Old Testament.
LG: Well, the erotophobia of Judaism–which I have to say was heavily magnified by early Christianity–I mean, there were sex-negative trends in the Old Testament, but nothing to the ones that were picked up and amplified thanks to St. Paul and St. Augustine, and were imposed on Western culture ever since then. The Bible was not actually what a lot of our fellow citizens think it is, you know; as in, for example, marriage: one man and one woman–marriage in the Old Testament is polygamous. Abraham had a wife and a concubine. Jacob had four wives. Solomon, I believe, was up in the hundreds or thousands. You know, so the notion that marriage is, that God’s version of marriage is one man and one woman, doesn’t even hold up if you read the Bible, where polygamy is taken for granted as the normal form of marriage. So the levels of ignorance and hypocrisy that are woven through our culture are very deep.
RS: Let me just jump in with a few points on this, bouncing off what you just said. Because there are assumptions made about whole groups of people. For instance, it was assumed that Latinos would be socially conservative because of their relation to the Catholic church, and now the Latino vote is pretty reliably for–
LG: There’s also something called liberation theology that comes out of Latin America.
RS: Yeah, I understand. So we not only have complexity, but also people tend, as in the case of Jews, not necessarily to vote their religious view or their class interest and respond to other things. So something that has been assumed about the gay community is that somehow it’s progressive, it will support liberal democrats. Hillary Clinton, who is famous at spotting such trends [Laughter] to the point, in my view, of outrageous opportunism–after all, her husband did DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and now she’s showing up at the gay pride parades–
LG: Well, the Clintons have a history of going along with what they saw as politically expedient. Bill Clinton, one of Bill Clinton’s first big political battles after he was elected was the military anti-gay policy, which he stumbled into inadvertently; he didn’t intend it to be, but it happened. And that turned into his first big defeat at the hand of Congress and the Pentagon, who basically said they’re going to show this draft dodger how the world works, and he surrendered; he blinked, and we ended up with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which merely increased anti-gay discrimination in the military until it was finally abolished. And then a few years later, when, again, unexpectedly, the Hawaiian supreme court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the same-sex marriage issue dropped into the political system. And again, the politicians made clear that this was a good issue. And Clinton sort of turned over, rolled over and signed DOMA. He said, “I don’t like it,” but he signed it; he went along, and they just triangulated, I suppose you could say. Hillary Clinton was officially opposed to same-sex marriage until she wasn’t. Same for Barack Obama, who famously evolved. The democrats have a way of sort of being careful and going along with what they view as expedient, and when the parade gets big enough, they decide they’ll step in front, and they’ll be the grand marshal even though they were latecomers.
RS: Right, but that’s not really where I was going. I’m trying to still understand whether the gay community, any more than any other community–
LG: There is no monolithic gay community.RS: Yeah, but not only that, one of the surprises–and you referred, where the really horrible period of McCarthyism and that period, in terms of the repression of any variety in life of any kind–but one of the main culprits in that, the right-hand guy for Senator McCarthy, was Roy Kohn. You know, and here they were going after people like Baird Ruston, who famously organized the civil rights March on Washington, who was one of the first openly gay individuals who was prominent in this country, and yet was, you know, he didn’t want that to be his biggest issue; as a black man, he felt civil rights on a racial basis was critical at that point. But they went after him, the FBI went after him, they went after other gay people. But it’s interesting–and there was Roy Cohn, who was the hatchet man for McCarthy, who was gay, and later in life became quite often–but a guy named, I just want to mention one other, Bob Bauman–
LG: Roy Cohn never became open. Roy Cohn went to his death from AIDS denying that he was homosexual. Roy Cohn was the dictionary definition of what you would call a self-hating gay person, just as the term, you know, self-hating Jew or others are used. But Roy Cohn really was. He never admitted that he was gay; he was never public about it. He was, in fact, homsexual; he did die of AIDS; but he was a complete scum, sleaze, to the end. And he was, incidentally, one of Donald Trump’s mentors, as has been recently written about. But no, gay people were victimized by the left and the right. The Communist Party was very hostile to homosexuals, who were not allowed to be open or were expelled.
RS: Well, it’s a crime in Communist countries.
LG: Some of them; actually, it was abolished as a crime in the Soviet Union, but then it was put back again–
RS: In Cuba you had–Fidel Castro had his UMAP camps–
LG: Yes, Cuba had a very bad record.
RS: –even in the sixties, rounding up homosexuals in Havana.
LG: Absolutely, they had a very bad record on that. No, a lot of our, a lot of political exports turn out to be regressive on this. The worst places now, in terms of public policy and homosexuality, are many African countries, where Western evangelical religion–that is failing to get its way in terms of homosexuality in the United States–is exporting its crusade to Africa, places like Uganda, where they’re trying to make it a capital crime. But homosexuals, to answer your earlier point, are not and never have been a coherent community. They are dispersed throughout, as you said earlier, they are dispersed throughout society; they’re in every class, every ethnic group; they are, as the phrase went, everywhere. However, the notion of a community is a politically and, in terms of sort of cultural identity, powerful notion. It gets used, but it’s always been, you know, a little bit unreal in that sense, except for those urban concentrations I was talking about, which actually do translate into political clout in city councils, in local governments, in Congress, rarely in the Senate.
RS: Now, just to sort of summarize, because we are going to run out of time here, I think there’s a part of the history that people don’t know, which we’ve now gone over, which was that in terms of civil rights, gay people, the gay community was very late, not to the party in terms of activism and concern, but victories of any kind. And it’s always–I remember growing up, one of my closest friends was routinely called by other people [fag]. And the persecution was horrible, and he ended up committing suicide. And I had other friends, and there’s a horrible history. And legally, and morally, every which way, every force in this society. And yet, because once invisibility ended and people came out and said oh, yeah, it’s my cousin, it’s my minister, it’s this person, that person–we had great progress. There’s now a tendency to think it’s over as an issue, and Orlando was a very frightening reminder that it’s not over as an issue. It persists as a very important issue. There are political forces in our country that want to use it as a divisive issue; certainly the moral majority was one such thing. And so what is your feeling about where we are now? Is Orlando the kind of shock that gets us to examine our prejudices and–
LG: Briefly. Briefly. I mean, I think there has been enormous change and there’ll continue to be change, because this is the kind of change which, you know, it’s like a snowball rolling downhill; it picks up weight and speed simply because of its pervasiveness. I think the media, as we’ve said earlier, has played an enormous role because it begins to let people know that this is a possibility, that this is part of life, you know, and that they’re not unique and different. What happens through the media now that didn’t happen in the past is that young people growing up and realizing that they’re not what they were expected to be, have images, have models, have opportunities to think about themselves differently, to connect, to make connections; the media and the internet, very importantly, have broken through invisibility and isolation, which were the two oppressive conditions for growing up gay through, you know, much of history until very recently. Because even though we use this term, community, the fact is that unlike African Americans or Jews or other groups, people are not born into gay communities. People are born into heterosexual families and heterosexual communities, and then at some point, earlier and earlier these days, realize they’re not what they were told they were or expected to be, and that they’re different. But they now have ways of thinking about that difference that are not as oppressive and not as frightening and not as damaging as they were in the fifties and the sixties and in the seventies and even in the eighties. And the media have a lot to do with the fact that there are possibilities available for them now to think about themselves and to find other people with whom to connect. And community is something that you find and create; you’re not born into it.
RS: So let me, wrapping this up, I’ve been talking to Larry Gross, probably–in my view–the leading scholar in the country in terms of dealing with the history of the gay movement and how the communications industry and the media have dealt with it. And he’s written some really critical books, Up from Invisibility being one. And I still hang on that word: how do we make people visible? And they become visible; yes, the oppression can increase, but also the strength of comradeship of people. And I think people needed to be reminded, this is a very positive story in the sense–some people now think, oh, well, gays, you know, they’re affluent or they–the same thing that was said about Jews: “Oh, the Jews can advance because they have money,” but they didn’t always have money. And they didn’t always have power, and they were scorned. And I have to remind people that when we talk about the great, you know, upheaval of the sixties–and maybe this is a good point on which to end–gays were ignored as a group. Gays were ignored. Stonewall comes at the end of the sixties, not at the beginning. And I remember, just on a personal note, I was working at the LA Times when the AIDS crisis hit; it wasn’t only Ronald Reagan who was denying that AIDS existed. It was our editors at major newspapers who thought it was “the other” and they should just improve their behavior and it’ll go away; and in fact, until we pointed out that it jumps over the barrier and that it can affect straight people, and gave examples. And it was an interesting media story. So let me end by asking you, to your media expertise: yes, at the end of the day, you know, Hollywood, mass media and so forth–they arrive. You know, we learn about the Holocaust. We learn about the blacklist against people who were called communists. We have programs that actually have a breakthrough on the gay issue, showing gay people in reality television and so forth. But despite–and it hit me when I was covering this issue-until Rock Hudson died of AIDS, you know, Ronald Reagan knew plenty of gay people in the industry, but the industry did not cover the issue. The industry did not cover segregation, racial segregation. It did not cover the Holocaust. So as an expert on media–maybe this is a good point, because we’re doing here alternative media–what was the, it certainly wasn’t that there was a lack of the other in the ranks of at least working–I mean, yes, they weren’t big directors who were black or before the camera; there were plenty of Jewish, there were plenty of gay people. How doe this communications industry go through centuries of ignoring the obvious–
LG: Because they were afraid of the audience. They were afraid of the audience and they were afraid of advertisers. And they were afraid that the audience would be alienated, and that advertisers or pressure groups like the League for Decency and other groups that were trying to pressure the industry, they were–
RS: But they betrayed themselves.
LG: Yes, they did betray themselves. They were afraid of the audience. There’s a line I use in my book about outing. In Contested Closets, I talk there about Hollywood’s closeted religion; you know, all the Jews who pretended they weren’t Jewish. And at one point there’s a story I tell about an actor from New York named Julius Garfinkle who was on Broadway, and when he was brought out to Hollywood he had to change his name. And he changed his name to John Garfield. And Warner, Harry Warner, says: “Garfield, that sounds Jewish.” And you know, the actor said, “Well, there was a President Garfield.” And Warner said, “Oh, I guess that’s OK, but it still sounds Jewish.” And the actor said, “But we are–I am Jewish.” And Warner said, “So are we. But they don’t know it.” There was a fear in Hollywood that if the public saw the degree to which the industry was not normal American, midwestern WASP-y, they would be upset or offended. So pretty much every actor that became a success in Hollywood during the thirties and forties through the fifties, changed their name. Often they had to get a nose job. And actually, one of the first people who broke that pattern was Barbra Streisand, who refused to change her name and refused to get a nose job and got away with it. And this history of–
RS: Well, getting away with it–she did better than get away with it, she triumphed.
LG: –is that when people succeed, when people succeed despite that, that stiffens the backbone of the executives to think, well, maybe you can do that. Another one was Dustin Hoffman. I mean, there were examples of people who didn’t look right or sound right or have the right name, who got away with it, who still succeeded. It’s, if you like, the Jackie Robinson moment.
RS: So what about gays in Hollywood?
LG: Well, we’re beginning to have that. Gays are–well, first of all–
RS: No, but what about during that terrible, dark period of the AIDS crisis–
LG: Oh, during that time. Oh, they would all, they all had to pretend to be straight. They all had to get married, or you know, they had fake marriages and they had fake romances, and the gossip columnists would all cooperate, and they would all talk about their romances. I mean, if you remember, one of the first examples of the outing thing was Malcolm Forbes, this sort of pre-Donald Trump, proud, capitalist public figure who had a famous off-and-on romance with Elizabeth Taylor. And they used to go around together and the media would write, you know, when is Malcolm Forbes going to marry Elizabeth Taylor. You know? She was just his beard, as they said; his disguise. And when Malcolm Forbes died, and a gay paper in New York wrote about him being homosexual, there was a big scandal, and that’s in fact when the term outing was invented, to describe the act of revealing the hidden homosexuality of public figures. And this began to change the rules, and the media began to become a little more honest about covering people whom they knew were gay, but they didn’t want to talk about it, and they began to move away from the notion that talking about it was somehow disgraceful, or that it was a stigma. And people said, if it’s not a stigma, then why do you act as if it is? So that began to change, and people began to be more public about being gay in the media, in politics. Barney Frank eventually came out, and others as well. And after that, there were even examples, Tammy Baldwin being one in the Senate, who was elected to the Senate as a lesbian, not coming out afterwards. So this is beginning to change, and it takes time. And when it happens and the earth doesn’t open up and swallow them, then they’re a little more courageous next time. That’s how–the media are never courageous until these little examples happen, or these examples happen and somebody succeeds despite this risk, and then people are a little more willing to take risks the next time.
RS: Well, that’s it for Scheer Intelligence. Larry Gross, a leading academic, author of very important books including Up from Invisibility, on the role of persecution of gays in American life, and the role of the media in exploring it or apologizing for it. I want to thank you for being my guest today. The producers of Scheer Intelligence are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. I’m Robert Scheer. Thanks for listening.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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