A stroll down memory lane reminds us how far we’ve come in 50 years.
In the quarter of a century since PrideFest was born, back when Ronald Reagan was president and AIDS was wiping out a generation of gay men, life for LGBT people in this country has moved forward dramatically. But if you look back yet another 25 years, you’ll get an even more striking picture of the rapid pace of cultural change.
Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy was in the White House and gay people were emerging from the shadows. Homophile organizations that started in California in the 1950s – the Mattachine Society, ONE Incorporated and the daughters of Bilitis – were articulating a “gay agenda” and inspiring individuals in cities across the country to get involved.
A book from 1962, “The Homosexual Revolution,” provides a fascinating window into this time. The book jacket features a stark color scheme of red and black (reminiscent of books that addressed the Communist threat), a bold title and an attention-getting subtitle: “A challenging exposé of the social and political directions of a minority group.”
The author, psychologist R.E.L. Masters, was among the first to make the case that homosexuals constituted a minority group. Even for many gays, the “minority group” concept was new and disconcerting.
“It has been said that there are 12 million homosexuals in the U.S.,” the book jacket states. “For that reason – and in the light of the Homophile goals – this book should be must reading for every citizen.”
“To accomplish (their) ends, the Homophile movement seeks to create a homosexual voting bloc – which would elect its own candidates on every level, and which would be able to pressure non-invert office-holders to back legislation favorable to the invert minority.”
Barack Obama was just a baby, but America’s homosexuals were getting ready for him.
As a commentator, masters is quite well informed and progressive for the times. He projects not only brisk opinions, but also a sense of humor that distinguishes him from the pack of authors addressing “the homosexual problem” during that period.
In chapter 10, “What Do the Homosexuals Want?” Masters draws on his knowledge of the homophile groups to give a detailed and insightful sketch of the nascent gay agenda. Reading this chapter 50 years after its publication illustrates dramatically the extraordinary changes that have taken place, including many that the author deemed inconceivable to the point of absurdity. What follows is a distillation of the chapter.
“Most basically,” Masters begins, “what homosexuals want is to be regarded as ordinary citizens who differ from the rest of the population only in terms of their sex object-choices (which they would wish to have regarded as, for them, natural); and they would wish to be accepted on the basis of their worth as individuals (apart from their sexual inclinations and behavior).
“Almost equally basically ... they want to be freed from the laws that brand them as criminals, even though, as is usually the case, their prohibited sex acts occur between consenting and responsible adults.”
Having stated these “most fundamental declared wants of homosexuals,” Masters devotes the rest of the chapter to detailing and commenting on nine “quite specific wants of homosexuals – wants often held to be ‘rights.’ ”
1) “The homosexual, male or female, should be permitted, like any other citizen, to serve his or her country as a member of any branch of its Armed Forces.
“Those who seriously envision a situation where – at the present time – known homosexuals could meet with official sanction as members of the Armed Forces are visionaries who have far exceeded the earthbound realm of the realities of the human psyche and emotions,” Masters concludes.
2) “Homosexuals should not be disqualified from any government job, ‘sensitive’ or otherwise, simply on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Masters predicts: “Until public attitudes change considerably more than they have to date, or at least until the laws and the official position of the government have changed, this condition, right or wrong, will continue to exist and render the homosexual unfit for important government service.”
3) “Marriages between homosexual members of the same sex should be recognized and provided for by law and should have exactly the same status and confer the same benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual marriages.”
Masters viewed this goal as absurd. “Probably most inverts recognize that the notion of legalized as well as religiously sanctioned homosexual marriage belongs to the utopian compartment of the homophile movement,” he writes. “Can even the most starry-eyed crusader for homosexual ‘rights’ really imagine an American politician arising from his chair in a legislative body to propose tax relief – what would be called a ‘subsidy for perversion’ – for sex deviates?”
4) “Homosexual married couples – ‘married’ in the sense just discussed – should be permitted to adopt children if they meet the usual standards applied to heterosexual couples.
“Here we have the invert’s notorious ‘blind spot’... at its blindest,” Masters observes. “Obviously, none of the homosexual wishes I have listed would meet with quite such violent opposition and antagonism as this one. That our society would, in any foreseeable near-future, turn over infants and children to ‘married’ homosexuals for rearing is a notion so improbable that it seems rather incredible it should be advanced at all.”
5) “Bans on realistic representations of homosexual life in films, on television and elsewhere, should be eliminated. Artistic treatment of homosexuality should be subject only to the same general criteria of good taste and aesthetic merit applied to the treatment of heterosexual relationships and behavior.
“Sexual inversion is the central fact of millions of human lives,” Masters comments. “Thus it is a proper and necessary subject for serious artistic treatment. This is not to say that proselytizing should be tolerated, that aesthetic standards should not be required and maintained, or that it should ever be permissible to treat the subject as though homosexuality were a glamorous and especially desirable way of life (which obviously, with the rarest if any exceptions, it is not). But neither should it be thought necessary, if the subject is dealt with, to behave like intellectual adolescents and insist that homosexuals must be punished in the end, meet with calamities, or otherwise be ‘made to pay’ for their transgressions.”
6) “Homosexual love and marriage should be recognized by the churches, and the invert should be religiously accepted subject only to the same criteria applied to heterosexuals.
“The invert has a very strong and seemingly quite legitimate case against the churches,” Masters says. “Either they reject his desire to worship his God, or they insist that within the church he practice hypocrisy and deceit – approaching his maker in heterosexual disguise, traveling incognito on the voyage of the spirit.
“It would seem that the churches are behaving quite properly in withholding the sacraments of marriage from those whose union is regarded by them as sinful. But how is a church to justify its refusal to accept into its ranks any man or woman sincerely hungering after the love and knowledge of God?
“While churches have labored mightily to salvage the souls of head-hunters, cannibals, murderers, derelicts, atheists, etc., they seem to have avoided ever coming to grips with the problem of the salvation of homosexuals.”
7) “Homosexuals should be permitted to wear clothing appropriate to their natures, just as heterosexuals are permitted to wear clothing appropriate to theirs.”
Masters condemns the common police practice of enforcing a sex-based dress code, stating that “within decidedly liberal limitations, individuals in a free society – as ours professes to be – should be permitted to dress as they choose.”
He also criticizes the conformist mindset that prevailed among gays and lesbians: “(Many homosexuals) wishfully suppose that if only all lesbians would look and behave femininely, and if all males would look and behave masculinely, then the social integration of homosexuals as a whole would be much facilitated if not completely accomplished.
“Yet the real moral and argumentative strength would seem to lie with the swish and the butch, who assert that ‘it is nobody’s damned business’ what the individual wears, so long as his or her true sex may be discerned, and so long as – in keeping with the near-universal taboo of civilized peoples – the genitals and a few other body parts are not exposed.”
8) “The homosexual press should enjoy a freedom fully equal to that enjoyed by the heterosexual press. For example, male pinup photos and advertisements for homosexual ‘lonely hearts’ or ‘pen-pal’ clubs should be allowed.”
“It may well be ... that tolerance of a certain amount of objectionable material is the price a society has to pay if it is to enjoy the benefits of freedom,” Masters asserts. “Certainly, the gain from eliminating what is truly objectionable cannot begin to counterbalance the losses certain to result whenever the self-appointed censors and their ignorant (and non- reading!) backers are permitted to regulate the flow of literature for the whole population.”
9) “Homosexuals should have the same freedom to make romantic or sexual advances to persons they find attractive as have heterosexuals.”
“We rather take it for granted that the unescorted female in a typical heterosexual bar is likely to have advances made to her,” Masters reminds readers. “When this occurs, we do not expect her to vomit, to fall into convulsions, or to call the police, or even – unless the approach is an extremely crude one – to assault physically the person making the advance. We expect her, if she is unreceptive, to ‘simply say no.’”
Will Fellows is a Milwaukee writer whose most recent book is “Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s.”