Op-ed: A Television Coming Out Story from 1961

BY Advocate Contributors

September 21 2011 6:50 PM ET

THE REJECTED DOCUMENTARY 390x TALL (COURTESY) ADVOCATE.COM

In the context of early
1960s attitudes, The Rejected offers
surprisingly broadminded opinions on its topic. Bowman’s assessment defied the
prevailing view of homosexuality as a mental illness, which many of his
colleagues in the psychiatric community maintained.  (It would be another twelve years before the American
Psychiatric Association would remove “homosexuality” from its list of disorders.)  Even the religious view of Bishop James
Pike is progressive for his time: by asserting that it is not a choice, he does
not define homosexuality as a sin. 

Prior to its broadcast, The
Rejected
was announced in both national and
local publications. Variety’s 10-paragraph review offered that the documentary
handles the issue of homosexuality “in a matter-of-fact down-the-middle manner,
covering it quite thoroughly and, for the most part, interestingly.”  More sensational was the San Francisco
Chronicle’s announcement that described the documentary’s participants as
engaging in “frank discussion of the problems of sexual deviates in society.” 

The decision
to broadcast The Rejected was not
without detractors. A newspaper letter writer vehemently opposed television
coverage on homosexuality, considering the topic “highly inflammable” and
“improper.”  One member of KQED’s
board of directors threatened to resign if the station went ahead with the
documentary’s planned broadcast. 
Though by and large the board supported his decision to air The
Rejected
, Day acknowledged that he was
placing his job on the line to do so. 
“You go ahead and do it,” he recalled being told by the board, “but if
it causes a furor and so forth, the only way we can answer to the public is to
fire you.”

Response to The Rejected’s controversial theme was swift and, for the most
part, positive.  Within a week of
its broadcast, the station received several hundred letters, with all but 3%
supporting KQED’s decision to broadcast it, and many seeking more information
on the subject.  Orders for
transcripts poured into the station.  

The regional press gave high marks
to KQED, not only for its comprehensive and sober handling of the documentary’s
subject matter, but for having the courage to broadcast it.  “I congratulated Jon Rice for
considering so bold an undertaking,” said the Palo Alto Times TV critic. “This
subject needn’t be as offensive or explosive as many seem to believe.”  The San Francisco Chronicle opined, “In The
Rejected
, KQED was courageous to tackle
what is perhaps the most taboo subject of all – homosexuality, the permanent
underground.”

In 1961, 55 educational channels
existed in the U.S; within a few years, The Rejected had aired on three-quarters of them.  Unfortunately, only a transcript of the
film, and not a copy is known to exist.           

At a time when the
popular attitude toward homosexuality was one of contempt and disgust, The
Rejected
was a bold undertaking. The
balance of statistics and opinions repeatedly emphasized that homosexuals
comprise a significant demographic of society; yet the program’s most
noteworthy contribution is the experts’ assertion that improving the social
circumstances of homosexuals must begin with a change in social attitudes.  Over the past half-century, television
has played a giant role in accelerating that progress.

 

Bob Connelly has been teaching “Gay and Lesbian
Documentary” and “History of the LGBT Movement” at American University since
2001.  He can be contacted at [email protected].

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