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External Articles | Posted: June 18, 2011

TIME Essay: THE HOMOSEXUAL IN AMERICA

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TIME, January 21, 1966

IT used to be "the abominable crime not to be mentioned." Today it is not only mentioned; it is freely discussed and widely analyzed. Yet the general attitude toward homosexuality is, if anything, more uncertain than before. Beset by inner conflicts, the homosexual is unsure of his position in society, ambivalent about his attitudes and identity--but he gains a certain amount of security through the fact that society is equally ambivalent about him. A vast majority of people retain a deep loathing toward him, but there is a growing mixture of tolerance, empathy or apathy. Society is torn between condemnation and compassion, fear and curiosity, between attempts to turn the problem into a joke and the knowledge that it is anything but funny, between the deviate's plea to be treated just like everybody else and the knowledge that he simply is not like everybody else.

Homosexuality is more in evidence in the U.S. than ever before--as an almost inevitable subject matter in fiction, a considerable influence in the arts, a highly visible presence in the cities, from nighttime sidewalks to the most "in" parties. The latest Rock Hudson movie explicitly jokes about it, Doubleday Book Shops run smirking ads for The Gay Cookbook, and newsstands make room for "beefcake" magazines of male nudes. Whether the number of homosexuals has actually increased is hard to say. In 1948, Sexologist Alfred Kinsey published figures that homosexuals found cheering. He estimated that 4% of American white males are exclusively homosexual and that about two in five had "at least some" homosexual experience after puberty. Given Kinsey's naive sampling methods, the figures were almost certainly wrong. But chances are that growing permissiveness about homosexuality and a hedonistic attitude toward all sex have helped "convert" many people who might have repressed their inclinations in another time or place.

Homosexuals are present in every walk of life, on any social level, often anxiously camouflaged; the camouflage will sometimes even include a wife and children, and psychoanalysts are busy treating wives who have suddenly discovered a husband's homosexuality. But increasingly, deviates are out in the open, particularly in fashion and the arts. Women and homosexual men work together designing, marketing, retailing, and wrapping it all up in the fashion magazines. The interior decorator and the stockbroker's wife conspire over curtains. And the symbiosis is not limited to working hours. For many a woman with a busy or absent husband, the presentable homosexual is in demand as an escort --witty, pretty, catty, and no problem to keep at arm's length. Rich dowagers often have a permanent traveling court of charming international types who exert influence over what pictures and houses their patronesses buy, what decorators they use, and where they spend which season.

The Homintern

On Broadway, it would be difficult to find a production without homosexuals playing important parts, either onstage or off. And in Hollywood, says Broadway Producer David Merrick, "you have to scrape them off the ceiling." The notion that the arts are dominated by a kind of homosexual mafia--or "Homintern," as it has been called--is sometimes exaggerated, particularly by spiteful failures looking for scapegoats. But in the theater, dance and music world, deviates are so widespread that they sometimes seem to be running a kind of closed shop. Art Critic Harold Rosenberg reports a "banding together of homosexual painters and their nonpainting auxiliaries."

There is no denying the considerable talent of a great many homosexuals, and ideally, talent alone is what should count. But the great artists so often cited as evidence of the homosexual's creativity--the Leonardos and Michelangelos --are probably the exceptions of genius. For the most part, thinks Los Angeles Psychiatrist Edward Stainbrook, homosexuals are failed artists, and their special creative gift a myth. No less an authority than Somerset Maugham felt that the homosexual, "however subtly he sees life, cannot see it whole," and lacks "the deep seriousness over certain things that normal men take seriously ... He has small power of invention, but a wonderful gift for delightful embroidery. He has vitality, brilliance, but seldom strength."

Homosexual ethics and esthetics are staging a vengeful, derisive counterattack on what deviates call the "straight" world. This is evident in "pop," which insists on reducing art to the trivial, and in the "camp" movement, which pretends that the ugly and banal are fun. It is evident among writers, who used to disguise homosexual stories in heterosexual dress but now delight in explicit descriptions of male intercourse and orgiastic nightmares. It is evident in the theater, with many a play dedicated to the degradation of women and the derision of normal sex. The most sophisticated theatrical joke is now built around a homosexual situation; shock comes not from sex but from perversion. Attacks on women or society in general are neither new in U.S. writing nor necessarily homosexual, but they do offer a special opportunity for a consciously or unconsciously homosexual outlook. They represent a kind of inverted romance, since homosexual situations as such can never be made romantic for normal audiences.

The Gay Subculture

Even in ordinary conversation, most homosexuals will sooner or later attack the "things that normal men take seriously." This does not mean that homosexuals do not and cannot talk seriously; but there is often a subtle sea change in the conversation: sex (unspoken) pervades the atmosphere. Among other matters, this raises the question of whether there is such a thing as a discernible homosexual type. Some authorities, notably Research Psychologist Evelyn Hooker of U.C.L.A., deny it--against what seems to be the opinion of most psychiatrists. The late Dr. Edmund Bergler found certain traits present in all homosexuals, including inner depression and guilt, irrational jealousy and a megalomaniac conviction that homosexual trends are universal. Though Bergler conceded that homosexuals are not responsible for their inner conflicts, he found that these conflicts "sap so much of their inner energy that the shell is a mixture of superciliousness, fake aggression and whimpering. Like all psychic masochists, they are subservient when confronted by a stronger person, merciless when in power, unscrupulous about trampling on a weaker person."

Another homosexual trait noted by Bergler and others is chronic dissatisfaction, a constant tendency to prowl or "cruise" in search of new partners. This is one reason why the "gay" bars flourishing all over the U.S. attract even the more respectable deviates. Sociologists regard the gay bar as the center of a kind of minor subculture with its own social scale and class warfare.

As André Gide pointed out long ago from personal experience, there are several varieties of homosexuals that the heterosexual world lumps together but that "feel an irrepressible loathing for one another." Today in the U.S., there are "mixed" bars where all homosexuals, male and female, are persona grata; "cuff-linky" bars that cater to the college and junior-executive type; "swish" bars for the effeminates and "hair fairies" with their careful coiffures; "TV" bars, which cater not to television fans but to transvestites; "leather" bars for the tough-guy types with their fondness for chains and belts; San Francisco's new "Topless Boys" discotheques, featuring bare-chested entertainers. San Francisco and Los Angeles are rivals for the distinction of being the capital of the gay world; the nod probably goes to San Francisco.

Virtually all societies in history have known homosexuality and, with few exceptions, have strongly condemned it--and yet often tolerated it. In 18th century London, for example, Novelist Tobias Smollett sarcastically found that "homosexuality gains ground apace and in all probability will become in a short time a more fashionable device than fornication." But the only society, apart from some primitive ones, that distinctly approved homosexual love was 5th century Greece. "We must blush for Greece," said the enlightened Voltaire. Even this much publicized example has often been overinterpreted. The homosexuality that Socrates and Plato knew rose only with the development of a slave culture and the downgrading of women to the level of uneducated domestics. This resulted in a romantic cult of the beautiful young boy--but not to the exclusion of heterosexual relations --much as the restriction of women to purdah led to a high incidence of pederasty in the Middle East, which is now abating with the growing emancipation of Moslem women.

The once widespread view that homosexuality is caused by heredity, or by some derangement of hormones, has been generally discarded. The consensus is that it is caused psychically, through a disabling fear of the opposite sex. The origins of this fear lie in the homosexual's parents. The mother--either domineering and contemptuous of the father, or feeling rejected by him--makes her son a substitute for her husband, with a close-binding, overprotective relationship. Thus, she unconsciously demasculinizes him. If at the same time the father is weakly submissive to his wife or aloof and unconsciously competitive with his son, he reinforces the process. To attain normal sexual development, according to current psychoanalytic theory, a boy should be able to identify with his father's masculine role.

Fear of the opposite sex is also believed to be the cause of Lesbianism, which is far less visible but, according to many experts, no less widespread than male homosexuality--and far more readily tolerated. Both forms are essentially a case of arrested development, a failure of learning, a refusal to accept the full responsibilities of life. This is nowhere more apparent than in the pathetic pseudo marriages in which many homosexuals act out conventional roles--wearing wedding rings, calling themselves "he" and "she."

Is homosexuality curable? Freud thought not. In the main, he felt that analysis could only bring the deviant patient relief from his neurotic conflicts by giving him "harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed." Many of Freud's successors are more optimistic. Philadelphia's Dr. Samuel Hadden reported last year that he had achieved twelve conversions out of 32 male homosexuals in group therapy. Paris Psychiatrist Sacha Nacht reports that about a third of his patients turn heterosexual, a third adjust to what they are, and a third get no help at all. But he feels that only about one in ten is moved to seek help in the first place.

The Wolfenden Problem

That is the crux: most homosexuals apparently do not desire a cure. A generation ago, the view that homosexuality should be treated not as a vice but as a disease was considered progressive. Today in many quarters it is considered reactionary. Homophile opinion rejects the notion that homosexuals are sick, and argues that they simply have different tastes. Kinsey had a lot to do with this, for to him all sexual pleasure was equally valid. "The only unnatural sex act," he said, "is that which you cannot perform." His coauthor, Wardell Pomeroy, also argues that homosexuality should be accepted as a fact of human existence, and claims to have known many happy, well-adjusted homosexual couples.

Such views are enthusiastically taken up by several so-called homophile groups, a relatively new phenomenon. Best known of these deviate lobbies is the Mattachine Society, which takes its name from the court jesters of the Middle Ages, who uttered social criticism from behind masks. In recent years, the Mattachines have been increasingly discarding their masks; the Washington branch has even put picket lines outside the White House to protest exclusion of known homosexuals from the civil service and the armed forces, has lately protested exclusion from the Poverty Program. Borrowing a device from the civil rights movement, homophiles have even issued lapel buttons bearing a small equality sign ( = ) on a lavender background.

Quite apart from the homophile organizations, there is widespread agitation by various groups, including the Civil Liberties Union, for the repeal of laws that in 48 states make various homosexual acts punishable by prison terms ranging from six months to life. The model invariably cited is Britain's 1957 Wolfenden Report--not yet accepted by Parliament--which proposes that homosexual relations between consenting adults should not be illegal. In the U.S., only Illinois has so far adopted this principle. Police, however, claim that many people, including judges, already act as if the Wolfenden rule were the law across the U.S.

The Moral Issue

The most telling argument for the Wolfenden rule is that the present statutes are unenforceable anyway as long as the homosexual acts are performed in private (many of the laws also prohibit the same acts between man and wife). In effect, the arrests that are now made are for public or semipublic acts, including "soliciting," with homosexuals often trapped by plainclothesmen posing as deviates. There is also a constant opportunity for blackmail and for shakedowns by real or phony cops, a practice known as "gayola." Advocates of the Wolfenden position argue further that persecution by society only renders the neurotic homosexual more neurotic. A Church of England committee declared that the function of the law is to "protect young people from seduction or assault, and to protect society from nuisances," but not to be the guardian of private morality.

Opponents of this view point out that it is extremely difficult to determine what constitutes "seduction" or even genuine "consent" between adults. Sir Patrick Devlin, formerly a judge on Britain's highest court, argues that the distinction between private and public morality is obscure and indefensible. Many U.S. jurists agree, among them New York State Supreme Court Justice Samuel Hofstadter, who believes that "discretion and privacy" cannot make the difference "between a wrongful and a lawful act"--as, for instance, in the case of incest. He supports a compassionate attitude but feels that "to legalize homosexual conduct is an injustice to society's future and an evasion of the problem."

Beyond the pros and cons of legal reform, there is a separate moral issue. The clear-cut condemnations of the Bible or of traditional moral philosophy have come to be considerably toned down. An influential 1963 statement by British Quakers held that "homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection" and therefore is not necessarily a sin. A surprising number of Protestant churchmen accept this idea. Most will still assert that homosexuality is an offense against God and man, but usually with qualifications. Says Los Angeles Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy: "The Lord made man and woman, and this implies a sexual relationship and sexual harmony which is in the center of nature." He is echoed by Harvard Divinity School's Harvey Cox, who, from a theological viewpoint, sees "the man-woman relationship as a model of the God-man relationship."

Lack of procreation or of marriage vows is not the issue; even Roman Catholic authorities hold that an illicit hetero sexual affair has a degree of "authentication," while a homosexual relationship involves only "negation." Roman Catholic thought generally agrees that homosexuality is of and in itself wrong because, as New York's Msgr. Thomas McGovern says, it is "inordinate, having no direction toward a proper aim." Even in purely nonreligious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty and, in the words of one Catholic educator, of "human construction." It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste--and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.