Mike Wallace will rightly be remembered as one of the preeminent journalists in television news, but over the course of any long career there are bound to be a few misfires. And, for Wallace, who died on April 7 at age 93, one of these was a documentary titled “The Homosexuals” produced for the series “CBS Reports,” in 1967.
While the report presented a dark assessment of gay life, to Wallace’s credit, there was little, if any, mainstream support for gay rights in the United States in 1967 — the Stonewall riots, which coalesced the gay rights movement, were still two years off. So even as it is unfair to fault the editorial bias of “The Homosexuals” for reflecting mainstream sentiment of its day, Wallace himself came to regret much of what was broadcasted by CBS that night, including, presumably, statements like this:
MIKE WALLACE: They are attracted mostly to the anonymity of the big city — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco. The permissiveness and the variety of the cities draw them. The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor 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 characteristic of the homosexual relationship. And the homosexual prostitute has become a fixture on the downtown streets at night, on street corners and subway exits, where these young men signal their availability for pay.
There was an effort to provide balance, and the documentary does have a few bright spots, not the least of which comes near the end when Wallace interviews Gore Vidal, even though the segment is made oddly disjointed by having been chopped to pieces and then intercut with a separate interview with Columbia University Professor Albert Goldman, representing the anti-gay majority, in what was passed off as a “debate.”
Here are excerpts from Vidal’s interview with Wallace, which starts at about minute 32 in the video above, prefaced with this bit of narration by Wallace:
MIKE WALLACE (voiceover): Homosexuals are discriminated against in almost all fields of employment in all parts of the country. But in the world of the creative arts they receive equal treatment. Indeed, some would say better treatment. There is even talk of a homosexual mafia in the arts, dominating various fields — theatre, music, dance, fashion. In painting, there is the commonly expressed notion that the homosexual’s influence has been corrupting. That pop art, for example, is the trivial vulgarization that goes hand in hand with camp — half hoax, half hostile, a means by which the homosexual, forced to live between two worlds, strikes back at an antagonistic society. In the fashion industry, many observers see an effort to blend the sexes, to de-feminize woman — to replace curve and contour with sexless geometric sterility.
After Goldman and Vidal are introduced, the first segment of the interview with Vidal begins.
GORE VIDAL: I don’t think there is any greater incidence of homosexual novelists, homosexual painters, homosexual musicians than there ever were. I wouldn’t begin to be able to generalize and say whether there was such a thing as a homosexual in the arts — what does it mean? It is as natural to be a homosexual as it is to be heterosexual. And the difference between a homosexual and a heterosexual is about the difference between somebody who has brown eyes and somebody who has blue eyes.
MIKE WALLACE: Who says so?
GORE VIDAL: I say so. It is a completely natural act from the beginning of time.
After a splice of the interview with Goldman, Vidal continues:
GORE VIDAL: There’s a theory that one reads all the time about how a certain successful playwright in a very successful play describes married people — heterosexuals — as being wicked and vicious and clawing at each other. And this is supposed to be really a story about two homosexual couples. Homosexuals are — there are wicked homosexuals and wicked heterosexuals, and this is a playwright who deals in savage and extreme situations. And I don’t see any of it as being translatable, particularly, as a … homosexual situation posing as heterosexual. And furthermore, if it were, then why is it popular? Obviously, it’s popular because what he has to say about married couples speaks to everybody.
As a matter of fact, there’s a certain homosexual playwright who’s written the only really good women characters in American theatre … written by him. So to say this person is trying to absolutely destroy the family structure in the United States — nonsense.
The play about a married couple that was written by a gay playwright, as just about everyone watching the show knew, was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which was written by Edward Albee. Just a year or so before the interview, the play had been turned into a hit movie that was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, for which Taylor won her second Oscar.
The playwright known for writing women’s roles was, of course, Vidal’s friend Tennessee Williams.
After another cut to Goldman, the interview with Vidal resumes:
MIKE WALLACE: There are those who suggest that there is a kind of homosexual mafia in which the homosexual in the arts, in a mutually protective way, helps his fellows.
GORE VIDAL: Well, it’s like most legends, I suppose there may be some basis for it. I don’t know how it would begin because the artist is the artist first, and he’s a homosexual or heterosexual second. But I have never seen any sign in any of the arts of there being a “homintern,” as alarmed editorialists like to write.
In the final sequence, Vidal offered what was then an alternative view of reality — a vision of the world as it was, or was about to become, that most middle class viewers probably could not fathom in 1967:
GORE VIDAL: We have a sexual ethic which is the joke of the world. We are laughed at in every country of the world for our attitudes towards sex. The United States is living out some mad, Protestant 19th century dream of human behavior. Instead of saying, “Aren’t we wicked because we have a high divorce rate?” or “Aren’t we wicked because men like to go to bed with men and women like to go to bed with women?” why not begin by saying our basic values are all wrong?
The idea of marriage is obsolete in our society. Everybody knows it. There are natural monogamists. There are people who indeed enjoy one another’s company. But can you imagine the man or the woman who’s told that for 60 years they’re going to have to live together and have sex only with one another. This is nonsense. Why not begin by accepting the fact what human beings really are — men and women — which is we are open. We have something that Andre Gide referred to as “floating sexuality.” We can be aroused by this by that. Not necessarily by men, not necessarily by women. So let us begin with the reality of human relations and not start talking about moral fiber, because we’re not living out this mad 19th century dream that everybody — we must go into Noah’s ark in twos, one male, one female, and for 60 years in one another’s company. This is what’s at fault. This is breaking down, and I think the so-called breaking of the moral fiber of the country these commentators speak of is one of the healthiest things that has begun to happen.
Now, 45 years after the broadcast of this interview, we know that Vidal was largely correct — his assertion about the obsolescence of marriage notwithstanding. And there is comfort to be taken in how far our society has come, especially as regards women’s rights and the mainstream acceptance of gays.
On the other hand, the gay-haters are still among us, and they still hold a powerful sway over the American psyche in certain quarters. In fact, just last week, in reaction to Mitt Romney’s appointment of Richard Grenell, an openly gay Republican who served eight years at the UN in the Bush administration, to serve as a campaign spokesman on international affairs, Bryan Fisher from the American Family Association, issued a series of slurs against Grenell that sound eerily similar to the retrograde rhetoric from 1967:
“Homosexuals are about short-lived relationships and frequent anonymous sexual encounters,” [Fisher] said on his radio program. “This is very common in the homosexual community. Now whether Grenell indulges in that, I don’t know.”
Fischer said that although Grenell had been in a long-term relationship, he suspected that the relationship was not monogamous.
“There are some homosexuals who will admit — this is not coming from the right-wing, this is homosexuals themselves in surveys — that they have had 500 to as many as 1000 sexual partners over the course of a lifetime,” he continued.
“This is endemic the homosexual community, these random, frequent, and anonymous sexual encounters and that becomes a significant issue when we’re talking about appointing somebody to a post as sensitive as a spokesman for national security and foreign policy.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
By the way, a less muddy — though unembedable — version of the documentary is available here.
- Apr. 30, 2012