Op-ed: A Television Coming Out Story from 1961

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 21 2011 7:50 PM ET

The visibility of LGBT
people on television has reached a magnitude many of us never imagined.  From the characters on Glee and Grey’s Anatomy to the real life personalities of Ellen and RuPaul,
TV has mainstreamed the queer community by introducing them into homes across
the country.  While commonplace
today, few are aware that 50 years ago, on September 11, 1961, the very first
televised documentary on homosexuality cracked open the closet door with a
thoughtful discussion about sexual orientation for audiences weaned on straight
domesticity.  

A year of media milestones for the
gay community arrived in 1961. The publication of Jess Stearn’s book, The
Sixth Man
startled the American public with
its pronouncement that homosexuality “affected” one in six men.  The Motion Picture Association of
America lifted the ban on the overt portrayal of homosexuality in Hollywood
films.  On network TV homosexual subtext
was still unacceptable, but John W. Reavis, Jr.’s groundbreaking documentary, The
Rejected
airing on San Francisco’s
educational television station KQED, unemotionally examined the plight and
social treatment of the male homosexual. 

Reavis, with co-producer Irving
Saraf, spent months examining existing research, conducting interviews and
courting experts from the fields of anthropology, law, medicine and religion to
provide on-camera statistics and opinions on the subject.  He also solicited the participation of
three members of the Mattachine Society to represent the gay point of view. Rebuffed
by the major New York networks, Reavis’s script eventually found support from
Jonathan Rice, one of the original founders of KQED, and James Day, the
station’s general manager.  “KQED
was famous for taking on difficult issues,” recalled Day, whose decision gave
the ultimate green light for production of the documentary.  “My philosophy was that we wouldn’t get
interesting things on the air unless I took the chance.  These things ought to be discussed, and
that’s the purpose of public television, to take on the difficult things that
network television will not take on.” 

The Rejected is constructed in the form of a panel discussion in
which each of the participants offers their professional and personal expertise
on the subject of homosexuality to an unseen interviewer.  This way, Reavis hoped that the panel’s
broad range of views on the homosexual stereotype would create overall
contradictions and challenge the audience to reassess its own opinions on the
subject.

The documentary begins with an introduction
by James Day, who often prefaced programs that that dealt with controversial
subjects.  He acknowledges the
era’s pervasive attitude of revulsion toward homosexuality, and attempts to
establish the issue as a social problem that can, and needs to be solved.  “The first step to solution,” he
announces, “is recognition … and discussion of facts.”  

Following Day’s introduction, a
narrator cites statistics similar to those presented in “The Sixth Man”; that
approximately 15 million men in the country have “prolonged homosexual
histories.”  The stage is set for
the panelists to explain possible causes, cures and reasons behind the
attitudes of both society and individuals involved. 

Remarkably, the discussions open
with famed anthropologist Margaret Mead (who did not then disclose her own
lesbian identity), describing diverse social perspectives of homosexuality
through historical and cultural examples. 
Stressing that the occurrence of homosexuality is restricted by neither
civilization nor era, she explains that it is “society that treats the
practices of homosexuality … as sacred or profane, as preferred, or as
criminal.” Mead is followed by Dr. Karl Bowman, a former president of the
American Psychiatric Association. 
In response to the narrator’s questions of prevalence, definition and
causes of homosexuality, Bowman quotes Kinseyan statistics, asserting that one
man in six is predominantly homosexual and that homosexuality cannot be
classified as an illness.  “The attitude of some people is to try to treat it in an
entirely punitive way,” he says, “with the idea that the more severe the
punishment and disgrace, the less likely that the condition will occur at least
as far as overt behavior is concerned.” 
However, he states, homosexuals “can change … only if they want it.”

Next are Mattachine
Society representatives Harold Call, Donald Lucas and Les Fisher.  The off-camera narrator’s voice asks,
“What do other homosexuals think about the so-called ‘queens?’” and Call,
president of the Mattachine, pronounces, “We think the ‘swish’ or the ‘queen’
represents actually a small minority within the whole homosexual grouping, but
to the public this is a stereotyped view … by which all homosexuals are
judged.”   Lucas and Fisher
explain that the Mattachine’s aim is to debunk stereotypes. “We know the number
of homosexuals is large … he is in our midst and in large numbers … he is
constantly fired from Federal jobs as a security risk, and unable to serve in
the armed forces if detected … We hope that, by acceptance, he may thereby be
able to assume his full and equal place as a human being in the community.”

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].