In 2000, now Advocate editor in chief Jon Barrett wrote the magazine's cover story on Dr. Laura. Ten years later, the antigay conservative radio host is ending her show. See what we had to say about Dr. Laura back then.
How do you go from mother and radio talk-show host to public enemy number 1 in the eyes of gay activists? If you are Dr. Laura Schlessinger, you would say you do it by following your heart and speaking your mind.
“If you are gay or lesbian, it’s a biological error that inhibits you from relating normally to the opposite sex,” Schlessinger has said. “The fact that you are intelligent, creative, and valuable is all true. The error is in your inability to relate sexually, intimately, in a loving way to a member of the opposite sex.”
It’s a belief bound to create controversy and one Schlessinger swears is heartfelt. She has gained popularity by discouraging unwed couples from “shacking up” and encouraging parents to spend quality time with their children, so when she calls gay men and lesbians “deviants” and “mistakes” in her inimitably take-no-prisoners style, she says she’s just telling it as it is. And in an exclusive written interview with The Advocate, she says that no matter what the activists say, she’s not about to change her tune.
This “doctor knows best” attitude is what has made The Dr. Laura Program the most-listened-to radio program in the country, with more than 20 million listeners on nearly 500 stations in the United States and Canada. In addition Schlessinger writes a syndicated column that is carried in more than 100 newspapers in the United States and has a TV program planned for the fall. The problem, activists say, is that is she is now riding a wave of antigay sentiment.
Whereas Schlessinger said in 1996, “I cannot in good conscience tell someone that they cannot have a lifelong companion of love and affection,” she now tells listeners that when God created Adam “he didn’t get Adam another guy. He didn’t get Adam three guys. He got Adam a woman.”
That change in attitude has made Schlessinger the leader in the broadcast charge against gay rights. In her most recent campaign, she has taken to the ramparts against December’s Vermont supreme court decision recognizing the rights of gay partnerships, urging her listeners and visitors to her Web site to bombard Vermont legislators with messages of outrage. Anything that legitimizes gay marriage is simply contrary to God’s plan, she argues.
In the past year Schlessinger has told her listeners and readers about the moral perils she sees in gay marriage, gay parenting, and hate-crimes legislation and has become one of the biggest proponents of reparative therapy, the so-called cure for homosexuality. She has derided groups such as the American Psychological Association and the National Education Association while promulgating dubious reports from notoriously antigay religious-right groups Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. And she has done it all from a media empire that will grow even larger in the fall, when she kicks off an hourlong weekday TV talk show. All the while her popularity continues to grow.
Schlessinger didn’t begin her career on the same note. “My first experience hearing her on the radio—and at that point it was pretty early on—she was defending gays,” says Vickie L. Bane, author of 1999’s Dr. Laura: The Unauthorized Biography. “I thought, Well, that’s a pretty positive point of view, [especially] from someone who at that point already was starting to convert to [Orthodox] Judaism. I would have never dreamed two years ago…that she would have gone this far.”
The 53-year-old Schlessinger, who lives with her husband, Lew Bishop, and their 14-year-old son, Deryk, in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, agrees that there has been a shift in her thinking regarding gay men and lesbians. A self-proclaimed moralist—her Ph.D. is in physiology, not psychology—Schlessinger points to religion as the main impetus behind this shift.
“I have grown in faith in Judaism, which forbids acting out sexually with a member of the same gender, or different gender outside of marriage, and believes that marriage is a covenant with God and a man and a woman,” she wrote to The Advocate, insisting that her rants against gay rights are actually compassionate. “It has not altered my personal, oft-stated position that homosexual people, like all other people, are entitled to respect and kindness as fellow human beings.”
Indeed, Schlessinger says, she enjoys close relationships with several gay men and lesbians. A former chief engineer of her radio show (who recently retired after ten years) and her closest male friend are both gay. A top-level executive on her upcoming TV show is a lesbian, she says. “They actually agree with me that legalizing homosexual marriage and adoption is wrong.”
However it might sound to the average listener, Schlessinger maintains that her radio preaching is not meant to condemn gay people since that kind of judgment is reserved for God alone; instead, she says, she wants to bring society back to its Judeo-Christian roots. But according to Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Schlessinger’s stock in trade is fire and brimstone.
“Dr. Laura is able to take advantage of legitimate fears on the part of parents,” Jennings says. “They know that if they have a child who is gay or lesbian, that child’s life is going to be more difficult. What Dr. Laura holds out to them is a false hope that they can protect their child by fixing their child.”
Late last year GLSEN helped distribute a pamphlet, “Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth,” to high school superintendents across the country. Developed and endorsed by ten education, health, religious, and mental health organizations, the pamphlet—which advises against reparative therapy and outlines its “potential to do harm”—upset Schlessinger, who attacked it in December through her newspaper column.
“I have never suggested that [reparative therapy] is something all homosexuals should do,” she tells The Advocate. “What angers me is that the professional organizations for psychologists and psychiatrists have said that working with homosexuals who wish to change their sexual orientation is unethical! Imagine if you were a homosexual who was tormented by your sexuality and wished to explore the possibility of changing it [but] were turned away because the doctor or therapist feared being sanctioned by their peers. I think that’s unbelievably cruel.”
Schlessinger is very careful to present her advice to gay men and lesbians as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” She argues that she criticizes gay people for acting out sexually, not for being gay. But critics say this compassionate conservatism philosophy often proves false.
“This is a distinction that rarely seems to be manifest in reality as opposed to blather,” says Larry Gross, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “After all, it’s the sinner, not the sin, who gets bashed or denied employment.”
Gross argues that critics of homosexuality such as Schlessinger who use scripture often follow other biblical condemnations haphazardly. “The religious claim is laughable on all the usual grounds: Why single out this prohibition from Leviticus while ignoring all the others listed in the same chapter?” he says.
Schlessinger understandably resents suggestions that her radio show fosters the environment of bigotry and ignorance that led to the murders of Matthew Shepard, Pfc. Barry Winchell, and countless other gay men and lesbians.
“I am a member of a group that has been persecuted for millennia,” she responds. “To suggest that because I do not support hate-crimes legislation for any group, I am indifferent to the suffering of others is reprehensible. And to circulate the pernicious notion that because I believe homosexual sex deviates from the norm, I am a hatemonger and homophobe is deceitful.”
In fact, Schlessinger maintains that she is the victim in the debate. “Interestingly enough, I am accused by the activists of inciting hate, which is totally absurd, and yet it is they who incite hate toward me,” she adds. “I don’t know of any gay person who has gotten a death threat attributed to anything I said on the air. But I have gotten them based on the misrepresentation of my views by activists.”
Despite her obvious disdain for gay activists, it seemed Schlessinger had found one she could reason with in the summer of 1999 when she received “the most articulate letter I’ve ever gotten from a critic”—from Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (In its role as a media watchdog, GLAAD has spearheaded the activists’ campaign against Schlessinger’s rhetoric.) After meeting a couple of times, the women sat down for a heart-to-heart debate on homosexuality, which was published in Schlessinger’s Perspective magazine.
“Talking in [Perspective] presents us with an opportunity to reach her listeners on terms that make sense to them, emphasizing family and equality,” Garry said in July. “It was about recognizing that her words have real impact on people’s lives.”
Garry’s optimism soon withered. GLAAD called the debate with Schlessinger unsuccessful after it was published in August. “Dr. Laura is impervious to reason, unbendable,” Garry said after the debate, which, according to Perspective, had both women in tears. “She has managed to place herself above the medical community she claims to be part of.” Garry and Schlessinger haven’t been in touch since.
GLAAD then shifted its focus to an education campaign, encouraging gay men and lesbians to send Schlessinger positive letters about being gay. But that was discontinued when it too was deemed unsuccessful.
“Obviously the woman is in show business.… Her schtick is her point of view,” says GLAAD communications director Steve Spurgeon. “All we’re asking is that it not be disrespectful, that it not be exclusionary of obvious and scientific information that is available to anyone.”
In addition to maintaining contact with the executive producer of Schlessinger’s radio program, Spurgeon says GLAAD has shifted focus to Paramount Domestic Television, which will produce and distribute Schlessinger’s daily TV talk show. Paramount officials, who are scheduled to meet with GLAAD regarding the show for a second time this month, have had little to say about Schlessinger’s show.
“We know it’s an hour long, we know it’s a daytime show, and we know she’s the host,” says a Paramount spokeswoman. “It’s really, really in the heat of development right now. We haven’t pinned down the format. And that’s typical for a syndication show right now.”
Nevertheless, activists who have had little success in their attempts to temper Schlessinger’s radio rhetoric are holding on to the hope that television may be her Waterloo. At least one industry observer acknowledges that Schlessinger’s brand of tough love may be too tough for a medium in which reconciliation and hugs sell. In expanding, Schlessinger could find the limits of her appeal.
“Whereas in radio you have to pump up the emotion so as not to be boring, on television any kind of pumped-up emotion—hateful speech, nastiness, vindictiveness, judgmentalism—comes across as very harsh,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, a trade publication for the radio industry. “If Laura Schlessinger is going to start gay bashing on TV, she will look nasty. And that is one of her biggest vulnerabilities.”
But will she ever turn down the volume? Jennings says she may have to or risk losing listeners. “Using terms like ‘biological error,’ when most people in this country have a gay or lesbian family member, forces people who are currently on the fence [regarding gay issues] to take a stand,” he says. “They’ll either have to stand with Dr. Laura and say that their loved one is a biological error, or they’ll stand by their son—or daughter or brother or sister or mom or dad—and change the dial.”
(Excerpts from The Dr. Laura Program)
The Vermont same-sex partners rights decision: “If two men can be sanctified in this country as marriage, then what is your logical or justifiable reason to exclude adult incest? A man and a woman—consensual, 25 years old, who are brother and sister—should not be discriminated against because they have a genetic relationship.”
President Clinton’s gay pride proclamation: “He wants us to celebrate that it is a sad state of affairs, in my opinion—that there are some people who cannot or will not commune with members of the opposite sex in an intimate way and be married and make children in families. That men have to have sex with men is not something to celebrate. It’s a sadness.”
Gay parenting: “You’re not going to fight to make sure that homosexuals and lesbians can’t adopt children from birth who can go to heterosexual families, so [the children] will be intentionally robbed of a father or a mother on purpose in spite of all the psychological and sociological literature? You’re going to stand by and let this happen, just go to work and put gas in your car today? Don’t you care about children?”
The proposal to ban antigay discrimination in California’s public schools: “The concern of a lot of these bills is that they take sexual, deviant behavior into schools from kindergarten up and say it’s normal and equivalent to heterosexual [behavior], which sort of undermines the basic foundation of civilization.”
Equal rights for gays: “Rights? For sexual deviants, sexual behavior, there are now rights? That’s what I’m worried about with the pedophilia and the bestiality and the sadomasochism and the cross-dressing. Is this all going to be rights too? Why does deviant sexual behavior get rights?”
AIDS funding: “I’m making an announcement: Not one penny will I give to AIDS anything as long as [public sex is allowed in gay bathhouses]. Not cent one. It’s a preventable disease. If you don’t want to prevent it, I don’t want to pay for it.”