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The cold, hard truth.

PBS's Frontline hopes to enlighten the clueless with its episode "Assault on Gay America"

It was Michael Sullivan's emotional response to the savage murders of Matthew Shepard and Billy Jack Gaither that prompted him to critique homophobia.

"Like a lot of people, I was amazed and appalled at the killings, but I felt I didn't understand exactly why they happened," says Sullivan, executive producer of PBS's award-winning Frontline. "What was the source of that kind of hatred? Its intensity mystifies me. What's the offense, ultimately? Although we talk about it a lot, it never gets explored intellectually in the popular culture."

The result, after almost a year of research and interviews with experts from across the country, is the Frontline episode "Assault on Gay America,' anchored by Forrest Sawyer and scheduled to air February 15.

Sullivan, 53, a 12-year Frontline veteran and heterosexual father of four, deliberately assigned a straight producer and crew to the project. "I do this a lot," he says. "I try to send black reporters to cover white stories and vice versa. I think it's possible they see things that others wouldn't necessarily see."

New York City-based producer Claudia Pryor Malis, 46, an African-American and 23-year TV documentarian, also saw things in herself. "You can't do something on homophobia and not ask yourself if you're homophobic,' she says. "I discovered that I am in ways I had never thought about. This was a journey for me intellectually and emotionally." "

Thanks to a higher-than-average Frontline travel budget, Malis and her crew crossed the country, interviewing more than 80 people. The list includes 21-year-old Charles Butler, one of Gaither's convicted killers; relatives of Shepard and Gaither, sociologists, anthropologists, and academicians; ministers and ex-ministers; and several high-profile homophobes. Malis's mandate "was to talk to as many people as possible who have studied homophobia," she says. "To really understand the horror of it, we needed to put the emotion within an analytical context."

So what did the experts conclude about homophobia--a term, we're told, that was coined 35 years ago by heterosexual New York psychotherapist George Weinberg? "The experts tell us that homophobia grows out of very fertile soil," Malis says. "That soil would best be described as our concept of masculinity and our concept of God and what God wants. The pillars that hold up homophobia in this society are a literal interpretation of biblical scripture--the image of the supermacho man--and how invested we are in that man as a society."

Another topic that was explored: why violence is almost always committed by straight (or so they believe) young men against gay men rather than against lesbians.

"Clearly the culture is much more upset about gay men than gay women," Sullivan says. "One senses that [homophobic] straight men see gay men as a complete threat to their identity. They fear being `feminized' in the sexual act."

Interestingly, Sullivan says "Assault on Gay America" is designed for a straight audience. "I assume gay people already think about homophobia a lot. I find them more curious and informed about it."

Malis concurs: "We have a lot more to learn than gays do."

Shister is the television columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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Title Annotation:TV documentary "Assault on Gay America"
Author:Shister, Gail
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 15, 2000
Words:530
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