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The Bad Old Days


As usual, the gays are everywhere on TV right now.

Ted Haggard keeps popping up. Just when you think you've shaken him off your trail, this time he's helping his wife promote her new memoir about why she didn't just go ahead and divorce him after his drugs-and-gay-sex scandal broke in the media. He grins too much these days and is really eager to share oblique details of how much he bangs Mrs. Haggard, even when talking to Oprah again, and you know how much she hates it when people talk about sex. Anyway, it's weird and yet still compelling to me for some reason.

RuPaul's Drag Race is back for a second round; The Millionaire Matchmaker is going to try to fix up a millionaire bear in the next few weeks and; Carnie Wilson: Unstapled features her best gay friends, a hairdressing couple of blond guys who are ... what's the word ... that's right, twins.

For my money, the best gays on TV right now are still the fictional ones on The Sarah Silverman Program, which just started its third season on Comedy Central thanks to an infusion of budget dollars by Logo. "Brian" and "Steve," as played by comedians Brian Posehn and Steve Agee, are twin-like in their own way -- both are unusually tall, lumpy, disheveled, bearded, and red-haired.

But more important, they're the only gay couple I've seen recently on a scripted TV series who seem to actually enjoy each other's company. And last week they battled the ghost of a guy they accidentally murdered with a TV remote. So they're courageous too. The actors are even starring as their characters in ad spots for video games now, meaning that gaming companies now have your number, fat gay nerds.

Watching these guys is a nice break from all the gays-in-the-news stuff going on. You don't need a program to know what's up: "Don't ask, don't tell" is giving right-wingers a chance to talk about how we won't stop touching other guys' butts in the barracks; the Prop. 8 trial keeps uncomfortably reminding people who'd rather think of us as drug-addled partyers that some of us have kids who actually suffer because their parents can't get married; and the ongoing saga of the Ugandan proposal to imprison and kill all the homosexuals there, even the ones who fled the country, is enough to make you want to pick up a gun in self-defense. In fact, any one of these things could bring you down and leave you feeling hopeless if you're the type of homosexual who's prone to wallowing in comfortable victimhood.

Which brings me to CBS Reports: The Homosexuals. It's a show about actual victims. And no, it's not new. It's old. Like 1967 old.

I came across it this weekend while digging through a box of VHS tapes that I still have. So I decided to watch it again. And after reading this column you should set aside 45 minutes, get a snack, and watch it too. I've linked to a gay blog called Dym Sum with the entire special on streaming video, made digital from grainy black-and-white.

The Homosexuals first aired on Tuesday, March 7, 1967, at 10 p.m. I was 2 years old then, so I didn't catch it. In fact, it would be another 10 years or so before I ever even knew there was such a thing as a homosexual. My dad talked about "fruits" from time to time, but it never made much sense; I assumed that it had something to do with ladylike men who wanted to kiss my father against his will. Then they ate pineapple. Something like that. It was the most exotic fruit I could think of in first grade.

I watched it for the first time about five years ago, the second time this past weekend, just before Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl. My first time, I remember being shocked that network television -- at a time when there were only three major networks -- could have aired something so creepy and gross all the way back in 1967. Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes (who I'm sure thinks it's all pretty embarrassing now) hosted the special, all about the "problem" of homosexuality, and over 45 minutes he detailed how it was growing and spreading like a cancer across the country.

This weekend, for my second visit to The Homosexuals, I took notes. And when I was done my pad of paper was a laundry list of every horrible thing you've ever heard about the gays: smothering mothers, mental illness, animalistic sexual gratification, society's repulsion, promiscuity, recruitment, etc.

Some quotes, some from Wallace, some from clergy and other "experts" on the subject:
"They frequent their own bars ... where they can act out..."
"The average homosexual isn't capable of love."
"Homosexuality is, in fact, a mental illness."
"The church has a great deal of sympathy for those who are handicapped in this way."
"[Being a homosexual] automatically rules out that [the man in question] will remain happy."

The men (no mention of lesbians is ever made) who aren't on camera as representatives of fledgling gay rights groups at the time, like the Mattachine Society, are interviewed in shadow or behind plants, and say things like, "I know I'm sick inside ... immature." And then comes the segment on a 1955 homosexual witch hunt in Boise, Idaho, one that apparently turned the whole town upside down with fear and paranoia, with a close-up of an op-ed piece in the Boise newspaper titled "Crush the Monster."

The special also accuses pop art of distorting society with camp and the fashion industry of defeminizing women.

And then comes Gore Vidal.

Suddenly the entire special turns into a little mouse about to be devoured by a king cobra that barely has time to regard its prey. Vidal is interviewed by Wallace for only a few moments on camera, but Vidal's confident, intelligent, calm approach douses the entire freaked-out fire with cool logic and a sense of rightness that almost validates the 30-plus minutes of cruelty it follows.

Because at that moment reason was given a national platform, in an era when there were only three televised venues for any sort of platform (and one of them, NBC's Tuesday Night at the Movies, was airing Marlon Brando's 1963 film The Ugly American opposite). And when Vidal assertively declares homosexuality to be as normal as heterosexuality, and Wallace says, "Who says so?"

Vidal volleys back with an unmistakably superior tone, "I say so."

It's a piece of historic television that deserves to be seen, especially if you're too young to remember how quickly the world has changed in 43 short years, changed to the point where Brian Posehn and Steve Agee's costar Sarah Silverman can go on The View, like she did last week, and respond to questions about her recent breakup and thoughts on marriage with this comment:

"If you're for equal rights, why would you get married right now? It's like joining a country club that doesn't allow blacks or Jews. There's no difference."

Smattering of applause from the audience.

Now here's that link. Go watch!

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Dave White