More than 30 years ago a new national gay newspaper called The Advocate headlined an editorial: 'Publicity Explosion.' Our exposure then was minor compared to today's queer subject matter in everything from film, cable, prime time TV shows, even opera. The explosion referred to print media and followed within months the Stonewall Riots in New York City, viewed historically as the turning point in the push for gay rights.
In one month, Time ran a cover feature: 'The Homosexual in America: Newly Visible, Newly Understood.' In the 10-page article items such as 'Are Homosexuals Sick?' and 'Changing Sexual Roles' were discussed by theologians, psychiatrists and sex researchers. A feature in Newsweek cited the conflicting attitudes of the general public on the 'new mood' among homosexual Americans who no longer demand 'simple privacy, but full legal, economic and social integration.' The Washington Post ran its own feature and other newspapers picked up on a similar release from the Associated Press.
In October 1969 the now-famous 'Hooker Report' on homosexuality was issued from a National Institute of Mental Health study commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson. UCLA psychologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker, who had been researching and testing gays since 1953, chaired the 14-member blue-ribbon Task Force that concluded homosexuality was not a psychological disorder and urged the decriminalization of private sex acts between consenting adults. 'The extreme opprobrium that our society has attached to homosexual behavior has done more social harm than good.' The Hooker Report became a springboard for the discussion of homosexuality in venues like Modern Medicine that polled 27,700 doctors, the overwhelming majority of whom were in favor of legalizing private homosexual behavior.
The Chicago Connection
In the late 1960s Mattachine Midwest was the most active gay rights game in town (or 'homophile' rights as we called them then). Local newspaper mention of homosexuals then was anathema, usually only running the names and addresses of alleged gays in context of arrests or bar raids. The Mattachine Midwest Newsletter began a column headlined: 'Media Montage' to highlight the increased national and alternative news coverage. One montage observed that mainstream magazine Harper's examined the role of lesbians in the Women's Liberation Movement, Science News urged more research on homosexuals as a tool to replace stereotypes, and the Los Angeles Free Press had reported that UC Berkley was offering classes in Gay Militancy.
But Chicago's 'Media Explosion' followed the local performance of Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band. Mattachine bought a block of 300 opening-night tickets. The Chicago Daily News wrote: 'The homosexual liberty lobby is raising funds to fight the blue meanies (police harassment).' Columnists Jon and Abra noted: 'The Studebaker was jammed with the limp set, lads in fur ... plus several would-be ladies who walked funny.' The doyenne of Chicago theatre critics Glenna Syse complained in the Sun-Times that the audience almost turned opening night into a circus as it 'hooted, hollered and applauded its way through the evening.' She said to properly evaluate the performances she would 'have to go back on a quiet night—say when the performance is a benefit for Field and Stream or Family Circle.' Chicago Today drama writer Roger Dettmer reviewed the play as one-upping Virginia Woolf's Get-the-Guest and seemed not to notice the audience. Respected Daily News columnist Sidney J. Harris, also ignoring the audience, and making a point that he was writing for a 'family newspaper,' none-the-less wrote that '... in this bleak season the theater has come alive with a play that involves and deepens our insight as much as it entertains.'
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Issue-Oriented Coverage Expands
Over the next few months, until mid-1970, local papers began to explore the Chicago gay community. Jerome Landfield in the Daily News asked: 'Does 'The Boys' tell it straight? There's a certain generation gap in drama of homosexuals.' On opening night he had noticed laughter at an 'in house gag or nuance' that escaped him and decided to consult the experts. He devoted a full-page interview to Mattachine members 'educated and articulate, including women as well as men'; reporting some saw the play as 'anti-homosexual because the characters are so negative.' But the article also gave straight Chicagoans their first look inside the organization, airing some of its frustration with the heterosexual status quo, noting its increasing political acumen, lack of stereotypes, and differing agendas of lesbians and gay men.
The Sun-Times ran 'Three Speak Out' which engendered an angry letter to the editor from MM member and lesbian novelist, Valerie Taylor. Paul Sampson in a two-page Chicago Today Magazine article wrote on 'The 'gay' life in Chicago: Homosexuals today refuse to remain submerged and oppressed by the 'straight' world.' This time the article spring-boarded from the play into Mattachine's activism, especially against police harassment. He also cited Mattachine's pioneering role in polling political candidates on privacy and rights issues. He quoted Mattachine referral attorney Renee Hanover on the inroads local law enforcement was making against the model penal code passed in Illinois which had among other things, in effect, legalized the sexual activity of consenting adults in private.
By the spring of 1970 the Daily News was making note of our new militancy. In an article headed 'Homosexual 'revolt'' Susan Root called attention to the proliferation of gay liberation groups on college campuses in the state, many chapters involved in progressive causes, especially the anti-Viet Nam war movement. In April the trial of the 'Conspiracy Seven' from the 1968 Democratic Convention riots (Black Panther Bobby Seale had been separated from the white defendants) was underway in Chicago and federal attorney Thomas Foran made his infamous statement labeling the riots a 'freaking fag revolution.' On May 4, 1970 the establishment called up the National Guard to protect property and preserve order on the campus of Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration. At day's end four students were dead and 10 more wounded by guardsman gunfire. The 'murders' triggered massive anti-war, anti-establishment demonstrations across the country. In Chicago, thousands marched—one contingent under gay lib banners, a first for the city. The Chicago Tribune covered a Mattachine member's speech at the subsequent rally in Grant Park.
The (Printed) Word is Out
Press coverage of gays in and out of liberation movements would continue to grow from that point on. So much has poured out of the pressroom closet door, it won't easily be forced closed again. Now in addition to features and reviews of queer culture and arts, some papers like The New York Times list commitment ceremonies, note queer weddings in Canada, and cover gay social events in the Hamptons and Fire Island. We haven't got much of that in our local establishment papers yet, but fortunately Chicago has a 30-year (plus) history of being a town with a strong, independent, alternative press.
Copyright 2003 by Marie J. Kuda. e-mail: email@example.com