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Fifty Years of Prejudice in the Media.

This article is adapted and excerpted from a research paper (R-21, September 1998) published by the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.

WHEN journalists first came to the story of homosexuality at the end of World War II, the stigma surrounding the subject was far greater than anything that exists today. All the major religions condemned it as a sin against God and nature. Psychiatrists treated it as a serious mental disorder. Almost every state in the nation had a law against it, with many calling for a prison term for convicted homosexuals. And Americans generally didn't talk about it, at least in public.

During the fifty years since then, social attitudes toward and "expert" judgments about gays and lesbians have changed dramatically--and news coverage about gays and lesbians has to some extent mirrored these changing attitudes and judgments. But the degree of fairness and accuracy in reporting has also been characterized--and compromised--by the persistence of prejudice against us.

In The Anatomy of Prejudices, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl distinguishes between the expression of prejudice toward gays and lesbians and the expression of prejudice toward other groups, arguing that, in the former case, the identification of a person's homosexuality is not used merely as a cue to some faulty generalization about him or her, as it is in other cases (African Americans are criminals; Jews are greedy; women are irrational). Rather, the identification of a person's homosexuality is the very basis for the condemnation. When it comes to gays and lesbians, Young-Bruehl writes, "the category itself--and whatever it means to the individual using it--is the main accusation." In gossip, this form of prejudice occurs in the simple statement, "He's gay" or "She's a lesbian." In the media, it appears in stories that treat rumors alleging a politician is gay or lesbian as tantamount to a defamation of character.

Prejudice in reporting also has appeared in the more universal sense of unsubstantiated generalizations about gays and lesbians as a whole. This is the form of prejudice, referred to by Gordon Allport in The Nature of Prejudice as "being down on something you're not up on." Yet this is more than a simple negative overgeneralization. As Allport wrote: "A prejudice, unlike a simple misconception, is actively resistant to all evidence that would unseat it." Prejudice, in other words, is "an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization."

This is a study of the ways in which prejudice, defined in both these ways, has undermined reporting about gays and lesbians ever since coverage began. The research is based on a qualitative analysis of the 356 stories about gays and lesbians that appeared in the nation's major newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek, from 1947 to 1997. These publications were selected not because they are thought to be substantially better or worse in reporting on this issue than other publications, but because they address a general nationwide audience and have the potential to influence popular prejudices, just as they may be influenced by them.

While Kinsey had opened up the discussion of sexual matters to some extent as early as 1948, the nation's two largest newsweeklies (then as now), Time and Newsweek, approached the subject slowly, at first. Between them, they published just two articles about homosexuals in the 1940's, 21 in the 1950's, and 25 in the 1960's. Nearly all these articles were resoundingly critical of homosexuals both in language and content. They also relied almost entirely on second-hand sources, such as military, law enforcement, government officials, and psychiatrists. Homosexuals themselves were rarely quoted--in large part because they were afraid to identify themselves.

By the 1970's, however, the nationwide gay and lesbian movement had arisen--followed by fundamentalist Christian opposition to it--and reporting about gays and lesbians has steadily increased ever since. Time and Newsweek ran 62 articles on the subject in the 1970's, 95 in the 1980's and 151 in the 1990's (through 1997). Most of these articles focused on controversies over the increased visibility of gays and lesbians and their quest for civil rights, including freedom from discrimination in housing and employment, the right to serve openly in the U.S. military, and more recently the right to marry.
Articles about Gays and Lesbians
in Time and Newsweek, 1947 to 1997
Decade Time Newsweek Total
1940's 0 2 2
1950's 13 8 21
1960's 12 13 25
1970's 35 27 62
1980's 32 63 95
1990's 41 110 151
Note: the 1940's includes only 1947-49;
the 1990's includes 1990-97.
Source: Readers' Guide to Periodical
Literature (and Lexis-Nexis for
1997 only)

The findings reveal that the trend has been going in the right direction, as the presence of prejudicial--or unsupported and unbalanced--allegations have steadily declined during the past fifty years. Yet it also finds that prejudicial allegations have continued to appear well into the 1990's--distorting coverage of

gays and lesbians in the military, anti-discrimination measures, and the more recent issue of gay and lesbian marriage. Among the most significant and consistent findings in this regard have been the implicit assumptions that homosexuality is inherently negative; that gays are sexually predatory; and that gays and lesbians are a threat to children--or, more specifically, that they "recruit," "seduce" and "molest" children. These assumptions and allegations have appeared time and again, without the evidence to support them, and frequently without balance from the gays and lesbians who are subject to them.
The 1940's and 50's:
Birth of a "Social Problem"
Words Used in the 1940'sand 50's
aberrant infamous crime against nature
abnormal invert
abominable, abomination misdeed
corrupt neuropsychiatric case
criminal pervert
degenerate psychopath
degraded queer
depraved sex criminal
deviant, sex deviant sex offender
dirty pansy sodomite
disgusting undesirable
evil unmentionable subject
extreme medical disorder unnatural
fairy unspeakable crime
filthy vice
horrible victim
immoral vile
indecent wicked

As these usages will attest, underlying the early postwar reporting about homosexuality was the seemingly unquestionable premise that homosexuals were a problem. About 60 percent of the articles published described homosexuals as a direct threat to the strength of the U.S. military, the security of the U.S. government, and/or the safety of ordinary Americans.

For example, the first article, published in Newsweek on June 9, 1947 and headlined "Homosexuals in Uniform," reported that homosexuals were "undesirable soldier material" because they were effeminate, nervous, unstable, and often hysterical. Army recruiters were instructed to screen them out by looking for "feminine mannerisms" and "repeating certain words from the homosexual vocabulary and watching for signs of recognition." The second article (Newsweek, Oct. 10, 1949), headlined "Queer People," reported that homosexuals committed "the most dastardly and horrifying of crimes" and "should be placed in an institution." And a third, published by Time (Dec. 25, 1950), reported that homosexuals who worked in the government were security risks because they could be blackmailed. The sources cited for each story were (usually unnamed) officials who represented the institution to which homosexuals were presumably a threat: Army medical officers in reports that homosexuals were a threat to the military; law enforcem ent officials in reports that they were a threat to public safety; and senators in reports that they were a security risk.

"The Abnormal," a Time headline from 1950, introduced the second major theme of the period: What causes homosexuality, and what should be done about it? Homosexuality, this and other articles reported, was a mental disorder. Some reported that the disorder was a result of homosexuals being "overwhelmed by the ordinary shocks of life," such as birth. Another stated: "Certain damaging childhood experiences cause anxieties that do not allow the person to express his feelings toward a member of the opposite sex" (Newsweek, June 15, 1959). And parents were to blame, as some articles make clear: mothers who had been too strong an influence, fathers too weak, resulting in an effeminate son. (More than 90 percent of the articles from the 1940's through the 80's focused on men, with lesbians an afterthought, if a thought at all.) As a solution to the alleged problem, six out of seven articles opined that psychotherapy was the answer. The main sources for all these articles were psychiatrists.
The 60's: To Punish or toPity?
Words Used in the 1960's
aberrant invert
abomination le vice anglais
butch lesbian
crime against nature moral malady
crime of deviation pederast
dandified sissy pervert
detestable psychic masochist
deviant psychopath
deviate queen
effeminate queer
emotionally immature sodomite
fag swish
gay third sex
hair fairies transvestite
homme-femme tweedy lesbian
homophile unnatural

In the 1960's Time and Newsweek published another 25 stories on the subject of homosexuality. Homosexuality was still treated as a social problem, but now there was a growing debate among government officials and psychiatrists over whether laws that called for a prison term for convicted homosexuals might constitute cruel and unusual punishment, since homosexuals were, after all, classified as mentally ill. Summing up the debate, a 1960 Newsweek headline (July 11) asked: "Homosexuals: To Punish or to Pity?"

Time took a somewhat more direct approach to answering this question in its first lengthy article on the subject (Jan. 21, 1966), which reported that homosexuals were "catty," "megalomaniacal," "supercilious," "wimpy," "psychic masochists," "irrationally jealous," "beset by inner depression and guilt," "sub servient around strangers," "merciless around those weaker than them," "antagonistic toward heterosexuals," "mocking of heterosexuals," "inferior to heterosexuals" and simply "not like everybody else." "Homosexuality," the article concluded, "is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality."

In a cover story dated Oct. 31, 1969--the first published by either newsweekly--Time reported that homosexuals came in six types: the blatant homosexual ("eunuch-like caricature of femininity"), the secret homosexual ("extremely skilled at camouflage"), the desperate homosexual ("likely to haunt public toilets"), the adjusted ("lead relatively conventional lives"), the bisexual (married and faking it), and the situational-experimental. An understanding of these types, the article stated, should correct past oversimplifications. As the publication of a first cover story suggests, there was a growing visibility of homosexuality at the end of the 1960's. In Time's words: "Though they seem fairly bizarre to most Americans, homosexuals have never been so visible, vocal or closely scrutinized by research." Some articles even included photographs that portrayed living, breathing homosexuals, as opposed to comic Hollywood portrayals or bawdy-house images. Of nine photos that were published in Time and Newsweek durin g the decade, six showed only the subjects' backs.
The 70's: Reaction to the Gay and Lesbian Movement
Words Used in the 1970's
aberrant fairy
abomination flaming fag
admitted homosexual fruit
avowed homosexual homophile
committed homosexual human garbage
confessed homosexual human rot
deviant mental aberration
drag queen militant homosexual
fag queer

Coverage of homosexuals--or gays and lesbians, as they now wanted to be called--more than doubled during the 1970's, with 62 articles in both magazines. Both newsweeklies put homosexuality on their covers during the 1970's: Newsweek did it once, Time twice. This jump in coverage was sparked by two major events: the rise of the gay and lesbian movement, and the ensuing backlash against it, particularly among fundamentalist Christians.

A third event was the American Psychiatric Association's decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, an outcome of intense lobbying by early homosexual organizations starting in the late 1960's. So, after more than twenty years of reporting that homosexuals were mentally ill, one might imagine that Time and Newsweek would have found the APA's decision big news. Not so, however, as neither one reported the event. Indeed, some seven months before the December 1973 decision, Newsweek (May 21, 1973) ran an article about the growing debate over the issue. It was headlined: "Are Homosexuals Sick?" But the news of the APA's vote was not reported in Newsweek until nearly three years later, as part of an article about the campaign for gay and lesbian civil rights. Time reported the declassification some five months after the APA decision, albeit superficially, and was still saying six years later (January 8, 1979) that it was a "highly political compromise. ... [A] bit like dermatologists voting to ord ain that acne is indeed a skin blemish, but only if the acne sufferer thinks it is."

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the intense political activism that followed in their wake led to fundamental changes in the newsweeklies' reporting on gay and lesbian issues. The use of derogatory terms like "pervert" and "degenerate" quickly declined by fifty percent, with a commensurate increase in the use of the words "gay" and "lesbian." The 70's also saw a rise in the number of visual images of real gay men and lesbians, and the start of routine quoting of gays and lesbians--albeit modified by words like "admitted," "avowed," "committed," or "confessed"--in articles about their lives.

On September 8, 1975, Time ran its first cover photograph of a real gay man or lesbian (as opposed to an illustration). Pictured was Air Force sergeant Leonard Matlovich, who had won a Purple Heart medal for service in Vietnam, with the headline: "I Am a Homosexual." Its news summary reported:

Since homosexuals began to organize for political action six years ago, they have achieved a substantial number of victories. But even as homosexuals congratulate themselves on [their] gains, many other Americans have become alarmed, especially parents. Some are viscerally hostile. Others, more tolerant, want to be fair and avoid injustice and yet cannot approve behavior that they believe harmful to the very fabric of society. They are especially concerned by the new contention that homosexuality is in every way as desirable as heterosexuality.

The growing visibility of gays and lesbians--described as "shocking," "startling," or "jolting"--provided the largest source (approximately halt) of the articles about gays and lesbians in the 1970's. Of these, over half focus on opposition to the movement, primarily from fundamentalist Christians, with the largest share of these articles (7 of 17) focused on Anita Bryant's campaign to overturn a gay and lesbian. rights statute in Dade County, Florida. Bryant's opposition inspired Newsweek to run its first cover story on homosexuality in June 16, 1977, featuring Bryant in the foreground, with her brow furrowed, against a background of gays and lesbians marching in a parade, canying a poster that read, "Gay is Proud." Across a top corner, the cover declared: "Battle Over Gay Rights." Across the bottom: "Anita Bryant vs. The Homosexuals."

"Anita Bryant's Crusade" against homosexuals, as another Newsweek headline put it, poised on one side a celebrity--a Miss America runner-up, a singer, the voice of Tropicana orange juice commercials--and, on the other, a new, little understood and widely-despised minority group. The central issue, as described in all seven articles, was Bryant's charge that gays and lesbians were a danger to children (as, indeed, the name of her organization, "Save Our Children, Inc.," implied). Her organization, for example, was quoted as saying that gays and lesbians recruited, seduced, and molested children. Some articles went even further, as Bryant campaign supporters declared that gays and lesbians threatened everyone's safety. "So-called gay folks [would] just as soon kill you as look at you," Newsweek quoted Jerry Falwell as saying (June 6, 1977). Bryant herself was quoted as saying (Newsweek, June 20, 1977): "The more we let violence and homosexuality become the norm, the more we'll become such a sick nation that th e Communists won't have to take us over--we'll just give up." Newsweek also quoted Bryant and her organization as saying that gays and lesbians were "human garbage," while a Time article cited a bumper sticker that urged, "Kill a queer for Christ."

Neither Time nor Newsweek reported that Bryant or anyone else had offered any evidence for these charges. Moreover, only one of the four articles published in both magazines presented another side of the story. Time, for example, reported that gay activists said there had been no incidents in which gay and lesbian teachers harmed students in the 38 cities and counties that had passed anti-discrimination laws. Newsweek noted: "Most experts believe that child molesting and direct recruiting by homosexual teachers are extremely rare. Statistics, though skimpy, show that the majority of sexual attacks on children are heterosexual, not homosexual."
The 80's: Allegations and Revelations
Words Used in the 1980's
avowed gay fruit
consensual grossness homophile
deviant militant gay, homosexual
deviate oddwad
dyke pervert
faggot prissy sissy
faggot bitch professed homosexual
fairy queer

AIDS was the biggest gay story of the 1980's, with 22 articles on the subject specifically in its relation to gays and lesbians, but it wasn't the only big story. In this decade the newsweeklies ran 19 articles concerning allegations or revelations that some prominent individual--a tennis star, a general, a Senate leader--was gay or lesbian. More than half these stories were unfounded. Here's how the newsweeklies reported three of the stories.

In 1981, Billie Jean King's former secretary and lover filed a suit, alleging that the tennis star owed her palimony. In response to questions from reporters, King called a press conference and stated that she had indeed had a relationship with the woman filing the suit. Time reported that King "admitted" a lesbian relationship, Newsweek reported that King "confessed" a lesbian relationship and headlined the story, "Billie Jean's Odd Match." Time reported that the lawsuit sent off "shock waves of publicity" and added: "The biggest shock of all was that King ... admitted having a lesbian affair."

In 1984, Time and Newsweek over the course of five articles reported, first, that a West German general and NATO deputy commander had been dismissed because he was "a homosexual and a security risk"; next, that the general's homosexuality was subject to doubt; and, finally, that his homosexuality had been disproved and he was restored to his post. In reporting that the general was not a homosexual or a security risk, as previously thought, Time referred to him as a "victim of mistaken identity." Newsweek called him the "most mud-spattered officer."

Finally, in 1989, the newsweeklies reported that Republicans had "smeared" the new democratic Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, by strongly implying that he was a homosexual. Both articles--Time's ran a full page, Newsweek's two pages--observed that Foley was not, in fact, a homosexual. Indeed, they framed the stories around outrage that Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater would accuse a respected politician of such a thing. Newsweek (June 19, 1989) described the allegation as "dirtball," "squalid," "scurrilous," and "a wretched excess," and further noted that the "victim" was "one of the most decent men in American politics." Time (June 19, 1989) characterized it as "vicious," "designed to humiliate," "an outrageous charge that would be devastating if true" and a case where "sorry was not enough," and further noted that Foley had "the bearing and rectitude of a parish priest."

What explains the emotion-laden language used to report all three stories? On the surface, it may seem to be due to the novelty of the stories; but novelty alone does not explain shock. Rather, two other factors seem also to have been at play: First, the focus in these articles was not on seemingly "fringe" characters, as gays and lesbians often had appeared to be in coverage during the 1970's, but rather on influential figures: in sports, in the military, and in politics. The more powerful the figure, the more extreme the shock. Second, the newssweeklies routinely presumed that homosexuality was inherently negative, so that declaring oneself gay or lesbian would automatically be seen as a "confession," while being falsely accused would render one a "victim" of a truly libelous accusation.

When the AIDS story surfaced in the 1980's, the notion of the "promiscuous homosexual lifestyle" then began to appear in both Time and Newsweek. On September 6, 1982, Time opened its second AIDS article with: "It began suddenly in the autumn of 1979. Young homosexual men with a history of promiscuity started showing up at the medical clinics of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco with a bizarre array of ailments." No sources were cited until the next paragraph, when the following was attributed to the CDC: "75 percent [of the 547 people then identified as having AIDS] are homosexual men. Most are Caucasians in their 30's and 40's ... [with] a sex life that has included many partners, more than 500 in several cases."

In 1983, Time introduced the word "life-style" in the context of the search for the cause of AIDS. The newsweekly first used the word when quoting Dr. James Curran of the CDC, saying: "When AIDS was confined to the gay community ... our efforts were concentrated on trying to dissect out life-style differences. ... The life-style theory does not, however, explain the emergence of AIDS in non-gay populations." And so it was that the term "life-style" when applied to gay men started to connote sexual promiscuity. This equation came into sharper focus in 1983 (on July 4), when Time ran the headline, "The Real Epidemic: Fear and Despair: AIDS ... is changing the gay lifestyle." The article went on to report that, "AIDS has clearly changed the rules of the sexual game for homosexuals. Anonymous and casual sex can be fatal." And, it concluded: "Unquestionably, AIDS is reshaping homosexual communities and pushing many toward mainstream mores."

This approach changed slightly as Time began to report on gay men's fears about contracting AIDS in this way (August 12, 1985): "For most of them, even that large conservative percentage that never enjoyed fast-track, promiscuous sex, [fear of AIDS] is the overriding issue of their lives." Nonetheless, the rest of the article went on to focus on the promiscuous minority, reporting: "the AIDS crisis has caused a drastic change in the life-styles of those homosexuals who were accustomed to multiple partners."
The 1990's: Gays and Lesbians in the Military
Words Used in the 1990's
abnormal go-go boys
acknowledged homosexual lipstick lesbian
avowed gay, homosexual pervert
biker dyke poofter
butch professed homosexual
butt pirate queer
degenerate queer dyke bitch
diesel dyke sexual nonconformist
dyke sinner
fag sodomite
faggot unnatural
fascist pervert from hell vanilla lesbian
femme wicked
a willful choice of godless evil
the love that dare not speak its name

In the 1990's, coverage about the growing visibility of gays and lesbians and their campaign for equal rights often dominated the news. And yet, while a number of the issues--such as gay and lesbian marriage and parenting--were new, the allegations against gays and lesbians were not. Gays and lesbians again were described as a threat to (that is, as likely to "recruit," molest or otherwise negatively "sway") children in stories about the rise of gay and lesbian parenting, the battle over gay and lesbian marriage, efforts to include mention of gays and lesbians in schools.

[In the original version, the author goes on to analyze reporting about the decade's biggest story: gays and lesbians in the military. She concludes with a discussion about ways to improve the fairness and accuracy of reporting on gays and lesbians:]

The problems that have plagued reporting about gays and lesbians have fallen into three categories: first, the implicit assumption that homosexuality is inherently negative -- or, gays and lesbians inherently inferior to heterosexuals; second, the use of unsupported and unbalanced allegations; and, third, the profound imbalance in the power and prestige of the sources quoted. On the basis of this history, it is recommended that a "fair practices" policy be adopted that would require reporters to do what, in fact, we all rely on them to do: question assertions and ask for evidence rather than merely accepting allegations at face value, especially when they are made by powerful sources, such as religious leaders, celebrities, officials, or a whole army of them. The history of reporting about gays and lesbians tells us, after all, that such sources have been wrong before.

Lisa Bennett, who was a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center in the spring of 1998, is deputy director of HRCFamilyNet, the Human Rights Campaign upcoming website about gay and lesbian families.
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Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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