LIFE magazine, in one of its 1964 issues, carried a 14-page report on Homosexuality in America. A friend of mine saw it by chance in a used book store, and grabbed it. Indeed, it makes fascinating reading today, giving us a glimpse of what people thought or knew (in America) a generation ago.
In case, dear reader, you’re too young to know, LIFE magazine was one of the leading magazines in the 1950s to 70s. It was printed in a large format, and did in-depth reports on various current affairs, social and what we now call “lifestyle” issues, almost always generously accompanied by photographs. The magazine had a huge readership in its heyday.
The feature story of LIFE’s July 27, 1964 issue came in two parts: the main story by Paul Welch, which will be discussed here, and a secondary story “Why?” by Ernest Havemann, which is the subject for Part 2.
Apparent from the story was that the gay world was becoming visible in the U.S. around that time. There was still a lot of ignorance about the subject, and certainly, laws and policing had not quite begun to change. But one could see from the magazine’s report that thinking people were beginning to address the issues in their minds. The story as a whole was quite balanced, though occasionally it used language, e.g. ‘deviation’, ‘social disorder’, which we may take issue with, but were probably so commonplace then that no one thought anything about it.
I shall quote large sections of the report. I’d prefer the LIFE story to speak for itself, rather than comment too much on my part. It began with an editorial note:
HOMOSEXUALITY IN AMERICA
A secret world grows open and bolder. Society is forced to look at it — and try to understand it
These brawny young men in their leather caps, shirts, jackets and pants are practicing homosexuals, men who turn to other men for affection and satisfaction. They are part of what they call the “gay world,” which is actually a sad and often sordid world. On these pages, LIFE reports on homosexuality in America, on its locale and habits and sums up what science knows and seeks to know about it.
Homosexuality shears across the spectrum of American life — the professions, the arts, business and labor. It always has. But today, especially in big cities, homosexuals are discarding their furtive ways and openly admitting, even flaunting, their deviation. Homosexuals have their own drinking places, their special assignation streets, even their own organizations. And for every obvious homosexual, there are probably nine nearly impossible to detect. This social disorder, which society tries to suppress, has forced itself into the public eye because it does present a problem — and parents especially are concerned. The myth and misconception with which homosexuality has so long been clothed must be cleared away, not to condone it but to cope with it.
Then Paul Welch, opening his article, paints the “scene” in various cities across the United States:
In New York City, swarms of young, college-age homosexuals wearing tight pants, baggy sweaters and sneakers cluster in a ragged phalanx along Greenwich Avenue in the Village. By their numbers and by their casual attitude they are saying that the street — and the hour — is theirs. Farther uptown, in the block west of Times Square on 42nd Street, their tough-looking counterparts, dressed in dirty jackets and denims, loiter in front of the cheap movie theaters and sleazy bookstores. Few of the passers-by recognize them as male hustlers.
By Chicago’s Bughouse Square, a small park near the city’s fashionable Gold Coast on the North Side, a suburban husband drives his car slowly down the street, searching for a “contact” with one of the homosexuals who drift around the square. A sergeant on Chicago’s vice squad explains: “These guys tell their wives they’re just going to the corner for the evening paper. Why, they even come down here in their slippers!”
In Hollywood, after the bars close for the night, Selma Avenue, which parallels Hollywood Boulevard, becomes a dark promenade for homosexuals. Two men approach one another tentatively, stop for a brief exchange of words, then walk away together. In the shadows that reach out beyond the streetlights, the vignette is repeated again and again until the last homosexual gives up for the night and goes home.
Homosexuality — and the problem it poses — exists all over the U.S. but is most evident in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and Miami. These large cities offer established homosexuals societies to join, plenty of opportunities to meet other homosexuals on the streets, in bars or at parties in private homes, and, for those who seek it, complete anonymity. Here, tolerance, even acceptance by the “straight” world, is more prevalent than in smaller communities. Where the “gay” world flourishes and presents so many social compensations, even the persistent pressure of antihomosexual police operations can be endured. Also, in the big cities, those professions favored by homosexuals — interior decorating, fashion design, hairstyling, the dance and theater — provide the most job opportunities.
Homosexuals can find some or all of these advantages in many parts of the U.S. but, because of its reputation for easy hospitality, California has a special appeal for them. In the city of San Francisco, which rates as the “gay capital,” there are more than 30 bars which cater exclusively to a homosexual clientele. The number of these bars changes from week to week as periodic police drives close them down (their average life expectancy is about 18 months). Some bars, like the Jumpin’ Frog, are “cruising” (pickup) bars, filled with coatless young men in tight khaki pants. They spend the evening standing around (there are few seats in “cruising” bars), drinking inexpensive beer and waiting. As each new customer walks into the dimly lit room he will lock eyes with a half dozen young men before reaching his place at the bar. Throughout the evening there is a constant turnover of customers as contacts are made and two men slip out together, or individuals move on to other bars in search of better luck.
Some other kinds of bars are described too, more queeny, more “executive” or more downmarket than the Jumpin’ Frog, but an S&M bar gets more paragraphs:
On another far-out fringe of the “gay” world are the so-called S&M bars (“S” for sadism and “M” for masochism). One of the most dramatic examples is in the warehouse district of San Francisco. Outside the entrance stand a few brightly polished motorcycles, including an occasional lavender model. Inside the bar, the accent is on leather and sadistic symbolism. The walls are covered with murals of masculine-looking men in black leather jackets. A metal collage of motorcycle parts hangs on one wall. A cluster of tennis shoes — favorite footwear for many homosexuals with feminine traits — dangles from the ceiling, Behind it a derisive sign reads: “Down with sneakers!”
“This is the antifeminine side of homosexuality,” says Bill Ruquy, part owner of the bar. “We throw out anybody who is too swishy. If one is going to be homosexual, why have anything to do with women of either sex? We don’t go for the giddy kids.”
Metal is much in evidence in the room: chains on the wall, the collage and bunches of keys hanging from the customers’ leather belts. “That’s part of the sadistic business,” Ruquy explains. “We used to wear chains on our shoulders. Now the keys are in.”
The effort of these homosexuals to appear manly is obsessive — in the rakish angle of the caps, in the thumbs boldly hooked in belts. Ruquy says, “This is a place for men, a place without all those screaming faggots, fuzzy sweaters and sneakers. Those guys — the ones you see in the other bars — are afraid of us. They’re afraid to come here because everything looks tough. But we’re probably the most genteel bar in town.”
The story goes on to profile some individuals. A junior advertising executive spills out his rancor:
“I have to make believe all day long. If we’re out for lunch, I go through the same complimenting and flirting routine with girls that you “straight” fellows do. I have to constantly on my guard not to say or do something that will make them suspect I’m ‘gay.’ …. ”
But many homosexuals …
… have apparently strong heterosexual relationships, get married and have children. They go to church, engage in civic activity, see their psychiatrists. They are there in unmeasured numbers, involved to some degree in homosexuality. The only difference between them and the “straight” world is the fear of exposure and their troubled consciences.
There are also the “respectable” homosexuals who pair off and establish a “marriage”, often transitory but sometimes lasting for years. Unburdened by children and with two incomes, they frequently enjoy a standard of living they otherwise would not be able to attain.
By 1964, there were already a number of gay organisations in America.
A recent phenomenon in American society, the homophile groups actively conduct programs to increase public understanding of homosexuality in the hope of getting more sympathetic treatment, particularly from law enforcement agencies.
One of the earliest and most active homophile clubs, the Mattachine Society, was started in 1950 as a secret organization by a group of Los Angeles lawyers, ministers and doctors, not all of whom were homosexuals. By 1954, it had become incorporated as a nonprofit, educational group and branches had spread to other cities. Mattachine branches are now located in Low Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. and are independent of each other; their common aim is to promote the acceptance of homosexuality by society.
In San Francisco, for example, the Mattachine Society operates much as a social agency: it helps homosexuals find jobs in the city, gives them legal advice when they get in trouble with the law and serves as a liaison with police and health departments. The Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society, however, functions much as a lobbying group. It has challenged what it considers to be discriminatory practices against homosexuals in Civil Service jobs and in the armed forces. It has enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union in specific cases involving homosexuals and government agencies, including the first such case to reach the Supreme Court.
Police harassment was a big issue then (and in many places is still a big issue today):
Homosexuals everywhere fear arrest — and the public exposure that may go with it. In Los Angeles, where homosexuals are particularly apparent on city streets, police drives are regular and relentless. The running battle between police and homosexuals has produced bitter feeling on both sides. Leaders of homophile societies in Los Angeles and San Francisco have accused the police of “harassment, entrapment and brutality” toward homosexuals.
Actually, there is no law in California — or in any other state — against being a homosexual. The laws which police enforce are directed at specific sexual acts. For the most part, these laws make it a crime to engage in any sex activity which could not result in procreation.
It is also unlawful in California to solicit anyone in a public place to engage in a lewd act. Under these laws, the police are able to make arrests. In many cases, a conviction results in a homosexual being registered as a “sex offender” (along with rapists) in the state of California.
Inspector James Fisk says that the 3,069 arrests for homosexual offenses made in Los Angeles last year represent merely a “token number” of those that should have been made. “We’re barely touching the surface of the problem,” Fisk says. “The pervert is no longer as secretive as he was. He’s aggressive and his aggressiveness is getting worse because of more homosexual activity.
After all these years, it’s still chilling to read such homophobic remarks. After all these years, the mindless police tactics employed are still sickeningly familiar:
In their unrelenting crackdown on homosexuals, the Los Angeles police use two approaches: one is an effort to deter homosexual activity in public, and the other is an arrest effort. The first includes patrolling, in uniform, rest rooms and other known loitering places, such as Selma Avenue. Then the police go the rounds of the “gay” bars to make their presence felt. To arrest homosexuals, the police have an undercover operation in which officers dressed to look like homosexuals — tight pants, sneakers, sweaters or jackets — prowl the streets and bars.
And this was typical.
Although the homosexual stand taken by the Los Angeles police is unswervingly tough, it reflects the attitude of most U.S. law-enforcement agencies on the subject. Yet within the past decade this position has been criticized by legal and religious groups — here and abroad — which have asked for more social and official tolerance of homosexuals. They frequently quote “the Wolfenden Report,” the famous statement on homosexuality made in 1957 by a British governmental committee headed by Sir John Wolfenden. The committee recommended that Britain change its sex laws so that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offense.” In its argument, the committee held the view that “there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business.”
The position of the Wolfenden Committee has since been supported by spokesmen from various religions. A group of Quakers in Britain challenged the view that homosexuality is immoral. In a pamphlet titled “Towards a Quaker View of Sex,” published in 1963, it was suggested that society “should no more deplore homosexuality than lefthandedness…. Homosexual affection can be as selfless as heterosexual affection and therefore we cannot see that it is in some way morally worse.”
Legal changes were already in the air. But what is interesting is how we may have forgotten than the changes to come in America were really inspired by Britain.
Many of the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee were adopted by the American Law Institute when it wrote a model penal code. In 1961 Illinois based a redraft of its penal code on the American Law Institute’s paper, which, in effect, says that a person’s private sex life is none of the law’s business. An explanatory note in the draft of the Illinois code states that it “is not intended to proscribe any sexual conduct between consenting adults unless such conduct adversely affects one of the key interests sought to be protected.” The “key interests” specifically in mind were preventing the use of force and child exploitation and protecting public sensibilities and the family institution.
Two steps forward, one step back. “Public sensibilities” and “family institution” are such broad phrases, they can be taken to mean anything. The liberal intent of such a piece of legislation is undercut by sweeping exceptions like these.
The story goes on to investigate discrimination in government and armed forces jobs. It quotes from a few senior officials, and they offer the same excuses for discrimination that we still hear today!
… they are far more subject to blackmail than heterosexuals; they are emotionally unstable and, therefore, less reliable keepers of secrets.
But the article points out that,
There is no psychological evidence to support DOD’s [Department of Defense] contention that “the weakness of their moral fiber” makes homosexuals as a group more susceptible to the blandishments of foreign agents.
Part II of this article reviews LIFE magazine’s report about psychologists’ views
On the whole, this report seemed like a well-written and fair survey of the situation as existed in America in 1964. It was five years before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City brought wide publicity to the gay issue.
Reading it as a Singaporean, I couldn’t help but ask myself, at every point, if the situation here today is any better than in the America of 36 years ago, and it’s rather disappointing to think that in many cases, it isn’t. We still have anti-gay laws, which the police still enforce. Right up to a few years ago, the police were sending decoys into the homosexual community to entrap, though reports lately have been rare.
Gay groups still cannot be set up in Singapore in year 2000, when they were already more than a decade old by 1964, in the States.
Some things are a little better. Our gay bars here aren’t as seedy as those described above, and thankfully we don’t have overtly homophobic homosexuals like the leather guys mentioned above (without implying that the leather guys in America today are anything like those insecure ones of 1964).
Some things never change — the street cruising scene. And some of us may say, hurray to that!
Proceed to Life in 1964, part 2 – about psychologists’ views