On March 7, 1967, history was made when CBS News presented a one-hour documentary called “The Homosexuals.” Prior to this broadcast, the subject of homosexuality was virtually taboo on American television. Aside from some crypto-homo wisecracks by Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares” and prissy fussbudget supporting characters in sitcoms, television offered no clue that a gay subculture existed.
The good news was “The Homosexuals” broke new ground. The bad news, however, was that this program dug up all of the horrible stereotypes and pseudo-science babblings about homosexuality without offering any genuine counterbalance to knock down the slander. This could be somewhat forgiven when the documentary is viewed in the context of its time (the production was reported heavily re-edited when the first version was construed as being too sympathetic to its subject
Hosted and narrated by Mike Wallace, “The Homosexuals” opens with this astonishing comment: “Most Americans are repelled by the mere notion of homosexuality. The CBS News survey shows that two out of three Americans look upon homosexuals with disgust, discomfort or fear.” Wallace matter-of-factly goes on to note that homosexuals (primarily gay men here, as lesbians are barely acknowledged) routinely face job termination and housing eviction based solely on their orientation. Yet unlike Wallace’s later “60 Minutes” exposes, there is no sense of righteous indignation regarding this harassment.
“The Homosexuals” offers quack psychiatrist Charles Socarides, who slanders gay people by insisting they cannot possibly lead happy and productive lives. (In a dishy irony, Socarides’ son Richard was later an openly gay member of the Clinton White House!). A so-called “reparative therapist” with the incredibly moniker of Dr. Irving Beaver blames homosexuality on “overbearing mothers”! Several members of the clergy and law enforcement chime in with equally offensive commentary (including the 1955 witch-hunt in Boise, Idaho, which ruined the lives of several men).
Law enforcement also plays a role in the most tragic segment of “The Homosexuals.” The CBS cameras follow a police action that collars a young sailor who was arrested in a park men’s room on the charge of soliciting an undercover cop for some quickie action. Whether this was a genuine arrest for public indecency or whether this was a bogus sting is never discussed (the camera does not record the actual incident leading to the arrest). Throughout the segment, the camera avoids filming anyone’s face (we only see the players from the chest down) and through it all the sailor is openly fearful of the problems it will bring both to his naval unit and to his girlfriend (who was still back in the park, waiting for him to come back from the men’s room). We never find out how this case unfolds (most likely not in the sailor’s favor, although most a discharge on these charged probably saved him from being slaughtered in Vietnam).
Only briefly does “The Homosexuals” deign to consider that homosexuals have basic civil rights. Bits of newsreel footage of gay rights picketers outside of the White House and other Washington agencies are shown. James Braxton Craven, a federal district court judge from North Carolina, is given a minute or two to comment that legal sanctions against homosexual behavior are immoral and illegal. More time is given to novelist Gore Vidal, who freakishly proclaims that America is “the laughing stock of the world” for its attitude towards gays. Vidal then offers catty commentary designed to “out” playwrights Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams (although Vidal himself never comments on his orientation). A few gay men speak with Wallace about their experiences, although most of them have their faces and voices obscured (one literally hides behind a large plant).
One gay man who speaks on camera with an articulate and mature bearing is identified as Warren Adkins. In truth, he was Jack Nichols, a pioneering gay rights activist who took the pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his father, an FBI agent (although his employer, a Washington hotel, caught him on CBS and promptly fired him the day after “The Homosexuals” aired).
“The Homosexuals” was only shown once and never broadcast again, although CBS News would later sell 16mm prints to libraries and schools. Today is it is available only for non-theatrical screenings via the company Films for the Humanities and Sciences, which sells “The Homosexuals” on VHS (for $89.95) and DVD (for $99.95) as part of its “Series Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality”).
To date, “The Homosexuals” has never been sold on commercial home video or DVD. Bootleg videos of this title are widely available and can be traced to CBS’ 16mm prints. Although the title has been featured in several festivals and was even excerpted on a Bravo special tracing the history of gays on American television, CBS has not released it for the home market.
Years after the broadcast, Mike Wallace would admit regret that “The Homosexuals” was not more balanced and sympathetic in its focus. In 1995, Wallace made a surprise appearance at New York’s Lighthouse Cinema, which was showing “The Homosexuals” as part of a Gay Pride line-up. The audience treated Wallace with deep respect and the veteran newsman hosted an impromptu Q&A session after the film was screened.
“The Homosexuals” is difficult to watch, given the way it often demeans and sneers at its subject. Though in fairness, it was the first attempt for a national television network to address the issue. And as everyone knows, most first baby-steps are graceless and often end in a tumble. Mercifully, both the television industry and the nation grew up since “The Homosexuals” aired. In 1967, no advertiser would allow its commercials to be shown during the broadcast of this documentary. Today, the creator and stars of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” are prominently featured in commercials for American Express. As an old-time cigarette slogan aptly put it: You’ve come a long way, baby!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on June 18, 2004 in Features by Phil Hall
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