Life

When Psychiatry and the Media Colluded Against the Gays

In the 1960s, supposedly liberal institutions were hotbeds of homophobia.

A repeating pattern of covers of Shooting Midnight Cowboy.
Photo illustration by Slate

This article was adapted with permission from Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic by Glenn Frankel. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Glenn Frankel. All rights reserved.

In December 1963, a front-page article in the New York Times began with the newspaper’s equivalent of hitting the panic button: “The city’s most sensitive open secret—the presence of what is probably the greatest homosexual population in the world and its increasing openness—has become the subject of growing concern of psychiatrists, religious leaders, and the police.”

Advertisement

The article explored what it characterized as the two conflicting viewpoints in the contemporary discussion of homosexuality. On one side was the “organized homophile movement—a minority of militant homosexuals that is openly agitating for removal of legal, social, and cultural discriminations against sexual inverts.” They argued that gay people should be treated like any other minority group because homosexuality was “an incurable, congenital disorder” —although the Times hastened to add that “this is disputed by the bulk of scientific evidence.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

On the other side was the established psychiatric community, which argued for “an end to what it calls a head-in-sand approach to homosexuality.” This group cited “overwhelming evidence” from a nine-year study led by Irving Bieber of New York Medical College that homosexuals are not born but made—generally and inadvertently by overbearing mothers and weak-willed fathers—and that they could be cured “by sophisticated analytical and therapeutic techniques.” Fellow psychiatrist Charles W. Socarides warned that the drive by fledgling gay rights groups for social acceptance was worrisome because “the homosexual is ill, and anything that tends to hide that fact reduces his chances of seeking and obtaining treatment.”

Advertisement

“It was just the worst kind of New York Times article,” recalls historian Charles Kaiser, author of The Gay Metropolis, a landmark work. “It cited all of this so-called scientific evidence and expert opinion to support the deepest prejudices and preconceptions of its editors.”

No one in those days (or even now) expected extravagantly homophobic institutions like the Catholic Church to do anything other than consign gays and lesbians to the deepest and most creatively imagined circles of hell. But the condemnation of those in the liberal media and psychiatric community, who might have been expected to be supportive, or at the least understanding, was a bitter blow. Rather than expressing sympathy, these groups helped cement public fear and hatred of gays and lesbians and keep them stripped of civil rights.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The belief that gay people could readily seek treatment and a cure for their so-called disease led logically to the conclusion that those who chose not to were responsible for their own misfortune. Worst of all, their unshakeable loyalty to homosexuality was supposedly clear proof of their perversion. And those who wallowed mindlessly in gay promiscuity were a dire threat to vulnerable young people whom they would surely seek to entice into their ranks. They were not only sick; they were spreading their disease to healthy innocents.

The Times article was written during the postwar heyday of Freudian psychotherapy, when it seemed like virtually every Manhattanite of sufficient income was in analysis, and psychiatrists were the social and moral equivalent of the priesthood during the Middle Ages. “There was an inevitability about psychoanalysis,” wrote Times literary critic Anatole Broyard. “It was like having to take the subway to get anywhere.” After their anointment as evidence-based experts by the Times, Bieber and Socarides would go on to become publicly recognized authorities in the now-discredited field of sexual “conversion”—how to turn long-suffering homosexuals into responsibly straight husbands and fathers.

Advertisement

Martin Duberman’s coming-of-age story, sharply, poignantly, and self-critically recounted in his 1991 memoir Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey, illustrates one of the most startling features of the era of gay repression: that many gay men accepted and internalized the condemnation and opprobrium directed their way.

Advertisement

Duberman is one of the most celebrated and respected public intellectuals to have emerged from the gay liberation movement. He is known for his radical views and willingness to express them strongly in public. Yet throughout the 1950s and ’60s, even as he was developing a left-of-center critique of American society, Duberman fought against his own sexuality. He was a handsome young man attracted to other handsome young men, yet he saw gay relationships as ultimately hopeless and felt condemned to a life of empty, loveless promiscuity.  He sought out psychotherapists who promised to “cure” him of his gay affliction if only he would cooperate with their program. He kept trying and failing, and each therapist wound up accusing him of moral failure. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment came during a marathon group therapy session where the leader insisted that he go off to a private area and fondle two naked women from the group. When he failed to get an erection, the leader accused him of “pussyfooting” and hiding his true feelings.

Advertisement

When it came to endorsing homophobic views, the Times was hardly the worst offender. Perhaps the most brutal example was “Homo/Hetero,” the cover story in the September 1970 issue of Harper’s, written by Joseph Epstein (who most recently has regained notoriety for belittling first lady Jill Biden’s request to be called “Doctor Biden” because of her Ph.D. in education).  The Epstein piece begins by recalling his first exposure to homosexuality when at 16 he was propositioned by a man in his 40s. It goes on to deplore the fact that in an age of “cultural swingers and intellectual fellow travelers … homosexuals have become fashionable, in, with-it.” Epstein calls homosexuality “an anathema” and describes homosexuals as “cursed … in the medieval sense of having been struck by an unexplained injury, an extreme piece of evil luck.” He says he sympathizes with their pain, but finds himself “completely incapable of coming to terms with it.” Nothing his own four sons could ever do “would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

“If I had the power to do so,” Epstein concludes, “I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth.”

Willie Morris, the much-esteemed and very liberal editor of Harper’s, not only applauded Epstein’s piece but mocked a band of gay protesters that invaded his office. “They came to demand redress for a paragraph … which they considered unsympathetic to homosexuality,” he sneered in his memoir New York Days.

Time magazine, in a two-page essay titled “The Homosexual in America,” covered much the same ground. It concluded with a ringing condemnation of homosexuality in the magazine’s patented voice of God: “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.”

Advertisement

One area of cultural life that Time focused on was the performing arts. On Broadway, it reported, “it would be difficult to find a production without homosexuals playing important parts, either onstage or off.” As for gays in Hollywood, “you have to scrape them off the ceiling,” said Broadway producer David Merrick.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Philip Roth rang the same themes in a nasty attack in the New York Review of Books on Edward Albee’s play Tiny Alice, which Roth called “a homosexual daydream.” Roth’s piece, titled “The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” blasted Tiny Alice for “its tediousness, its pretentiousness, its galling sophistication … (and) its ghastly pansy rhetoric and repartee.” But the real problem, Roth declared, was Albee’s purported dishonesty—his unwillingness to come clean and admit he was writing about homosexuality, which is why the play is “so unconvincing, so remote, so obviously a sham.”

Advertisement

New York Times theater critic Stanley Kauffmann rang the same bell in a 1966 piece headlined “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises.” Kauffmann declared that “I, like many others, am weary of disguised homosexual influence” in the theater, and he singled out three of “the most successful American playwrights of the last twenty years” as the chief culprits. He didn’t name them but everyone on and off Broadway understood he was referring to Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Albee. Kauffmann expressed some sympathy, saying the three writers were forced to disguise their gay and lesbian characters as heterosexual because of societal norms. Nonetheless, he declared, “We have all had very much more than enough of the materials so often presented by the three writers in question: the viciousness toward women, the lurid violence that seems a sublimation of social hatreds, the transvestite sexual exhibitionism.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Mart Crowley was a 30-year-old, unemployed screenwriter kicking around Hollywood, drinking too much, and relying on the kindness of friends like actress Natalie Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, to stay afloat emotionally and financially. Every Sunday around noon he’d buy a Sunday Times and make his way to the Swiss Chalet on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where he’d down bull-shots—beef consommé with vodka—order eggs benedict, and read the newspaper. One Sunday he happened upon Kauffmann’s piece, with its plea that a gay playwright attempt “to write truthfully of what he knows, rather than to try to transform it to a life he does not know, to the detriment of others.”

Advertisement

Struggling to write something for a mainstream audience with even a speck of honesty about gay life, Crowley took Kauffmann’s column as a challenge. “A light bulb went off,” he recalled. “I thought, why not?”

Crowley proceeded to write The Boys in the Band, one of the first mainstream, openly gay plays, part-comedy, part-drama, which premiered off-Broadway in April 1968 and played for more than two years and 1,001 performances. Boys was part of an unprecedented wave of sexual expression and permissiveness in the arts—including books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, John Updike’s Couples, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, and movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), both directed by John Schlesinger, that broke through cultural barriers.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Just as Stanley Kauffmann’s piece had inspired Mart Crowley to write The Boys in the Band, Joseph Epstein’s vitriolic Harper’s cover story so outraged and saddened the novelist Merle Miller that he came out publicly with an angry, intimate declaration in the New York Times Magazine. “What It Means to Be a Homosexual” described Miller’s childhood and his awakening to the fact that he was gay. He said he agreed with Epstein that being gay in America was often painful and humiliating, but he placed the blame squarely on a society that treated gay people with contempt.

Miller recalled how one straight friend who knew he was gay had called him from New York on a Friday before getting on a train to come up to his Connecticut home for the weekend. The friend said he had changed his mind about bringing along his 16-year-old son. “I’ve always leveled with you, Merle, and I’m going to now. I’m sure you understand.”

Advertisement

Miller said no, I don’t understand. Please explain it to me.

The man replied that his son “is only an impressionable kid, and while I’ve known you and know you wouldn’t, but suppose you had some friends in, and … ?”

Advertisement

Miller told his friend not to come. Neither he nor any of his gay friends had ever molested a child. Moreover, he had heard many accounts of how people came to realize they were gay, and none of them ever claimed it was the result of seduction. “But then maybe it is contagious, floating in the air around me, like a virus,” wrote Miller.

Miller said he was confident that the laws discriminating against gay people would eventually be changed. But private acceptance would take much longer. Unlike with Black people, Miller believed, homosexuals would never benefit from any guilt feelings on the part of white liberals. “So far as I can make out, there simply aren’t any such feelings.”

Advertisement

Still, Miller’s piece, and the “Afterword” he wrote four months later, broke new ground in mainstream media by demanding that gay people be treated like human beings. Writing it, Miller said, was a big step forward in his life. Publishing it was perhaps an even bigger step for the New York Times.