On March 7, 1967, 40 million Americans tuned in to watch CBS Reports: The Homosexuals, network television’s first documentary on homosexuality. Near the top of the program, host and interviewer Mike Wallace calls homosexuals “the most despised minority in the United States.” The hour that follows is filled with salacious location footage, sermonizing therapists, and shadowed interviews with distraught homosexuals.
But The Homosexuals is not without virtue. Wallace interviews Warren Adkins, an untroubled 28-year-old homosexual who capably breaks the 1960s gay stereotype with an attitude of positive self-reflection. Adkins talks about his “warm and understanding family” and addresses Wallace’s implicit nature-versus-nurture question by saying, “I never would imagine that if I had blond hair that I would worry what genes or chromosomes caused my blond hair… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category.”
Unbeknownst to Mike Wallace and the producers of The Homosexuals, Warren Adkins’s real name was Jack Nichols, and he would continue his fight for LGBT equality for the rest of his life. In 2003, a couple of years before he died, I interviewed Jack from his home in Florida about his appearance on The Homosexuals, his co-founding of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization, and his friendships with Randy Wicker, another prominent gay activist, and Frank Kameny, who petitioned the Supreme Court in 1961 after he was fired from his government job for being a homosexual.
Above: Jack Nichols
Tell me a bit about your family.
I was brought up on Oliver Street in Chevy Chase, Md., in a nice atmosphere. My mother has been a great friend to me all my life. She has never once said anything negative about my being gay to me. She said, “The important thing to me is, I want you to be happy.” My grandmother was a sweetheart, too. My first lover…we’d park and neck in front of the house, and she’d go and flick the front light off and on from the house, and then she’d tell us when we’d come through the door later, “Now, listen, boys, that’s your signal to come in. And if you don’t come in I’m going to call the FBI!”
How did you come to know Frank Kameny?
I’ve known him since 1960, when we met at a party… I heard him talk about Donald Webster Cory [author of The Homosexual in America, 1951], about our rights. I pointed out to him that I thought ideas were great, but not so hot if you didn’t do something about them. And he said, “I feel the same way. I’m doing something about mine. I’ve got a case going before the Supreme Court.”
I visited him on Columbia Road, right below 18th Street, when he was still living in great poverty, eating hot dogs and a potato each day. He had a bathtub, it was in the living room…it was not a nice place, frankly. We became close friends then, and the very first thing that we ever did [before co-founding the Mattachine Society] was to go to all the various newsstands in downtown Washington, D.C., to see if they carried the only two [gay] publications in the country at that time, One Magazine and The Mattachine Review. They carried it down at 14th Street and Pennsylvania [at] a big newsstand there, right next to a Peoples Drug store. Later when we published with the Mattachine Society of Washington, when we published our The Homosexual Citizen, which was a little mimeographed publication, we were able to put it there, too.
Above: Protesters at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1966
And it was the following year when you and Frank established the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.
Yeah, at the end of ’61. There’s a couple of things I’m proud of in my history. I was the first person in the movement to insist that we take a public stand [in 1963] against the psychiatric establishment’s sickness theory. And I did initiate the first picket in front of the White House [in 1965]… The other one that Randy did in the year before was really done by a straight organization, mainly, called the Sexual Freedom League. But nobody was there to see it.
You were a spokesperson for the well-adjusted homosexual in CBS Reports: The Homosexuals. How did that come about?
I don’t remember anybody else that had my verbal facilities who would have been willing to [go on camera]… except for Frank, of course. Prior to going on, I remember Frank coaching me on, for example, “What caused your homosexuality?” And I replied, “I would never imagine that I would ask what genes or what chromosomes caused my blond hair or my dark eyes.” That was a Kameny-esque reply that I was repeating.
After the interview was over, [Mike Wallace] turned on me. He said, “You seem to be able to answer all my questions very nicely, but I don’t believe that in your heart you actually believe what you’ve been saying.” And then when I related that to one of the historians, they went to him about it, and he admitted to having been prejudiced in those days, as everybody else was, and said, “Yes, I may very well have said that.” Well, he did say it!
I was working at the International Inn at Thomas Circle. It was a big new hotel in those days, and I was sales manager, and they fired me the next morning.
Above: A group of gay men who “lead quiet, unexceptionable lives.”
In the program you’re introduced as “Warren Adkins.” Where does that name come from?
Warren Adkins is the hillbilly fantasy boy that I met on a Florida beach while I was on vacation in 1961. I would have used my own name, but my father was a special agent for the FBI, and I was a junior. He begged me — because of fear of losing his job, not mine — to use a pseudonym until he retired, and I figured, well, that’s a reasonable request.
Wasn’t he supportive of you, like your mother?
He threatened my life with a gun right after the picket lines. And that was the last time I ever saw him. I was not brought up by my father.
After the documentary aired and you were fired from your job, what did you do?
It was 1967, the summer of love, and I went up to New York and I got a job with Randy Wicker, who was the button king of America, slogan buttons: “More Deviation, Less Population,” “Let’s Get Naked and Smoke”… I sold buttons up and down the east coast of America.
And when did you move to Florida?
Permanently, on Christmas Day, 1981. I live right on the ocean. And I love it here. The reward for me is feeling satisfied at this point. If I died tomorrow, I’d die satisfied and happy. Isn’t that a great feeling? ◆
Jack Nichols died from complications of cancer on May 2, 2005. Bob Connelly teaches “Gay and Lesbian Documentary” at American University.