Five Insights From A 1961 Documentary On Gay Men That Still Resonate Today

The Kinsey Scale, as portrayed in “The Rejected.” CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/WNET
The Kinsey Scale, as portrayed in “The Rejected.” CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/WNET

June is LGBT Pride Month, and this year, the city of Philadelphia is celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the picketing for equality that took place at Independence Hall four years prior to the Stonewall Riots. As the LGBT community reflects on the history of resistance and protest that spurred the liberation that became “Pride,” it’s important to note that in many ways, the same battles are still being fought.

The 1961 documentary The Rejected, which can still be watched today, provides a helpful juxtaposition. Produced for KQED in San Francisco, it is understood to be the first documentary about (male) homosexuality ever broadcast on American television. Though public understanding about the gay community has changed dramatically over the past 54 years, many of the kinds of conversations still being had about gay rights today can be easily traced back to the points made half a century ago. Here are a few examples:

Homosexuality is a problem that must be controlled.

Conservative arguments against homosexuality have evolved to a certain extent, in that they now focus on condemning behavior while trying to show respect for the dignity of people (i.e. “love the sinner, hate the sin”). This, however, is not really so different from the kinds of arguments made in The Rejected. Producer John Reavis explained that his intention was to portray homosexuality as a social “problem” akin to alcoholism or prostitution. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who threw his hat into the presidential race this week, compared homosexuality to alcoholism in a speech just last year.

The way Perry suggested that people have the ability to decide not to “follow a particular lifestyle” echoes the documentary’s opening letter from California’s then-Attorney General Stanley Mosk: “With all the revulsion that some people feel toward homosexuality, it cannot be dismissed by simply ignoring its presence. It is a subject that deserves discussion. We might just as well refuse to discuss alcoholism or narcotics addiction as to refuse to discuss this subject. It cannot be swept under the rug. It will not just go away.”

Is “gaydar” real?

Before men had apps like Grindr on their smartphones, finding other gay men was more challenging, and a bit of an art. The idea of “gaydar,” the supposed ability to discern an individual’s sexual orientation from superficial characteristics, has become less important because of technology, but it’s not a concept that has disappeared from culture either.

Back in 1961, Psychiatrist Karl Bowman of the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, after explaining the Kinsey Scale, amusingly considered the idea that some form of detection was capable among those who knew gay men well. “Is it possible to diagnose the homosexual simply by seeing them and talking with them for a few minutes?” he asked. “Many homosexuals claim that they can do this, and psychiatrists who have worked a great deal with homosexuals can undoubtedly spot a majority of them. On the other hand, the average individual would fall down very badly in attempting to do this.”

Should gay stereotypes be embraced?

Slate’s Bryan Lowder recently explored the history of “what was gay,” referring not to homosexuality, but the culture of the gay male community. He bemoaned the idea that gay culture might be disappearing as gay men have conformed to heterosexist norms in pursuit of equality and acceptance.

Members of The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups, demonstrate the movement’s early attempts at this kind of conformity. President Hal Call, executive secretary Donald Lucas, and treasurer Les Fisher appear in the documentary, distancing themselves from effeminate stereotypes. “We think the swish, or the queen,” Call explained, “represents actually a small minority within the whole homosexual grouping. But to the public, this is a serious act, view, or picture by which all homosexuals are judged, it seems. These people, actually, in most cases are not actually liked by the rest of their homosexual brethren, because they have perhaps rejected themselves and they feel that society has rejected them.”

Ex-Gay therapy doesn’t work.

The efficacy of ex-gay therapy is on trial this week in New Jersey, as former patients sue the Jewish ex-gay organization JONAH over how they were mistreated. But even in 1961, 12 years before homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder and the contemporary ex-gay movement was born — psychiatrists doubted whether such treatment actually worked.

“In general,” Bowman explained, “treatment is difficult and particularly slow in the group of so-called ‘complete homosexuals.’ Much will depend upon the individual’s attitude, and his wishes to be changed.” This prophetic observation reflects all of the research that would eventually show that ex-gay therapy does not work. A 2011 study, for example, found that those truly committed to rejecting their same-sex orientation could act the part of heterosexuality, but their actual orientation never changed. There are very few — if any — public proponents of the ex-gay movement who do not themselves profit from providing the harmful treatment to others.

Bowman also pointed out that “Freud himself was not too optimistic about curing homosexuality,” and proceeded to read the entirety of a letter the father of psychoanalysis once wrote to the concerned mother of a gay man. “By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place,” he responded to the woman. “The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it.”

Can gay behaviors be distinguished from gay identities?

Much of The Rejected focuses on sodomy laws and whether private consensual sexual acts between the same sex should remain criminalized. Lawyer J. Albert Hutchinson defended these laws by explaining that they do not actually punish people for being gay:

These laws do not work against any group of people or any kind of person. They are against acts by whomever committed. These acts are unnatural and can have no proper purpose except the self-gratification of the individual. To prohibit them would be desirable both for the individual and for the society. History has shown, I believe, without question, that a society which recognizes and tolerates activities of this kind freely necessarily corrodes in other respects. Therefore, if we do not declare these acts to be wrong — unlawful, which is the only way we can do it in our country — there is no standard for private conduct and for the youth who are growing up and getting their point of view for their future conduct.

This monologue features several familiar anecdotes still heard in contemporary debates, such as the idea that LGBT protections harm children and that history somehow suggests that societies crumble when they embrace homosexuality. At the heart of Hutchinson’s remarks, however, is the notion that laws that infringe on behaviors do not specifically target the gay community, even if it’s obvious that gay community would be exclusively impacted by them.

In present-day arguments about religious liberty, conservatives attempt to make this same distinction. They claim that the florists, bakers, and wedding venues who refuse to serve same-sex couples are not discriminating based on customers’ sexual orientation, but are simply refusing to “participate” in a wedding that would violate their religious beliefs. In case after case in which these vendors have lost, judges have rejected this supposed distinction.

In much the same way, Hutchinson’s debate opponent, attorney Morris Lowenthal, ignores his attempt to separate behaviors from identity and counters the myths he relied upon. Studies had already shown by 1961, Lowenthal explains, that “homosexual conduct is generally harmless to society, that homosexuals are no menace to society, that they do nothing to destroy the social structure or to disrupt the family.” Moreover, “homosexuality did not cause a demoralization or decay of civilization. They exist (homosexuals) in every occupation in every city. It’s not a disease, as some people have indicated.”

As LGBT people take to the streets this month for another Pride celebration, joined by their families and allies, they will once again realize the truth of Lowenthal’s conclusion.