Gays and the Media

The news media by and large reflected prevailing social norms in its attitude toward homosexuality. In 1930, for example, the Motion Picture Production Code—or Hays Code—stipulated that “sex perversion” (meaning homosexuality) “or any inference to it is forbidden” on screen. [1] For the next 40 years, the media took a similar approach: It did its best to ignore homosexuality or, if forced to mention it, portrayed it as deviant.

Post-WWII, the stereotypical portrait of gays was harsh. The press described them as security risks who could be easily blackmailed or turned by the enemy. A 1947 Newsweek story, “Homosexuals in Uniform,” reported that because they were nervous, unstable, and often hysterical, gays were “undesirable soldier material.” Gays were also portrayed as psychologically troubled outliers. A 1950 feature on homosexuals in Time magazine, for example, was titled “The Abnormal.” In describing gays, the early Cold War press included such language as “dirty pansy,” “sex deviant” or “neuropsychiatric case.” [2]

In the 1960s, society and the media shifted to treating homosexuality as a psychological, rather than security, problem. This began to change when, in 1973, the American Psychiatrists Association revoked its 1952 ruling that homosexuality was a “mental disorder.” It was one of the first coups of the nascent gay rights movement and, as the movement continued to challenge anti-gay discrimination, derogatory language describing gays and lesbians in the press declined dramatically. Though words like “queer,” “fag,” and “fairy” continued to crop up in media coverage, the press also became a forum and organizational tool for gay activists.

The culture wars. However, with success came steady media setbacks for the growing gay rights movement. It wasn’t until 1969 that a major magazine ran a cover story about homosexuality. In 1975, Time put a photograph , rather than an illustration, of a homosexual on its cover, a first for the industry. Tellingly, the image was of a gay military officer, Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, who had won a Purple Heart in Vietnam. The piece, titled “I Am a Homosexual,” raised the concern that, as gays became successful in their quest for civil rights, “ many other Americans have become alarmed, especially parents… They are especially concerned by the new contention that homosexuality is in every way as desirable as heterosexuality.” [3]

Press coverage reflected the fierce social struggle over gay rights and morality. But many gay activists objected that, in striving for balance, news organizations neglected their responsibility to print not just the two sides of the debate, but what they felt was the truth. When quoting politicians who claimed that homosexuality was “not normal,” activists felt that journalists had to say more forcefully that those views were inaccurate. [4] Similar comments, they contended, would never be permissible in print if they pertained to African-Americans or Jews. [5]

[1] The code also prohibited “attractive” portrayals of adultery as well as miscegenation. Accessed November 23, 2008.

[2] In a seminal study on the subject for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Press and Politics, writer Lisa Bennett tracked 50 years worth of 20 th century coverage in America’s two most prominent news weeklies, Time and Newsweek . Lisa Bennett, The Perpetuation of Stereotypes in Reporting on Gays and Lesbians: Time and Newsweek: The First Fifty Years , Shorenstein Center for Press and Politics: Boston, 1998.

[3] Lisa Bennett, “The Perpetuation of Prejudice,” p.6.

[4] “Your life-style is not normal,” South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond told an audience at a military base in 1993. “It's not normal for a man to want to be with a man or a woman with a woman.” Jill Smolowe and Bruce Van Voorst, “Hearts and Minefields,” Time Magazine , May 24, 1993.

[5] Jack Beatty, “The Last Refuge of the American Bigot,” The Atlantic Monthly , October 21, 1998.