Tom Brokaw royally pissed off Frank Kameny. In
Brokaw's book Boom! Voices of the
Sixties, an epic exploration of the political,
cultural, and socioeconomic events of 1963 to 1974, the
former anchor of the NBC Nightly News made nary
a mention of the gay rights movement. Naturally, the
man who coined "Gay Is Good" in 1968
would find that unacceptable. In a letter to Brokaw and his
publishers at Random House, Kameny wrote, "I
write with no little indignation at the total absence
of any slightest allusion to the gay movement for civil
equality in your book.... Mr. Brokaw, you have
'de-gayed' the entire decade."
right. There's no mention of the Stonewall riots in
1969 or the removal of homosexuality from the American
Psychiatric Association's list of mental
disorders in 1973. There's no mention of Elaine
Noble, Harvey Milk, or, for that matter, Frank Kameny.
There are, however, reasons, as we found out when we
called up Brokaw. Read on.
Let's cut to the chase. Why is the gay rights
movement missing from Boom?
Obviously I feel
bad. It was not that it wasn't on my mind, but it was
not the defining history of the '60s. I was trying to
do the five big pillars, which in my judgment were
race, war, politics, women, and culture. There were a
number of important movements that also grew out of
the '60s and certainly gay liberation was important
among them. I struggled with the absence of any real
reference to Hispanic political power. In California,
for example, there was, what we used to call in those
days, the Chicano movement, which organized a big anti-war
demonstration and that was kind of the foundation of what
became a considerable Hispanic political situation.
Having said all that, I think it was a mistake not to
make reference to Stonewall. And we're going to
do that in subsequent editions.
I went back
through Charlie Kaiser's book on 1968, and he makes
one reference--one--about the consequences
of 1968. He makes one line referring to gay liberation
and the gays who began to live more openly and honestly
after the Stonewall rights of 1969. That's it.
I'm not using that as a defense, but in
reference to that particular period, I think it came
along a little later.
My own strong
feeling was that the gay liberation movement really got
national attraction in the truest sense of the word later in
the '70s, in the '80s, and especially in
the '90s. Roy Aarons was a very good friend of
mine in California, and when I left there in 1973, Roy was
not yet out. A couple of years later he was in touch
with me about the National Lesbian & Gay
Journalists Association, which he didn't start until
1990. It was not an attempt to slight what became a very
important movement, but I just had to make some tough
choices. I feel bad that people feel that I
deliberately slighted them--that was not my intention.
Okay, but nothing about gay rights?
entirely fair, it was glancing. Linda Greenhouse has quite a
poignant description of not knowing anybody gay in 1968 in
her class at Harvard. They had their 25th anniversary
and suddenly the phone lines light up from gay members
of her class she didn't realize were gay,
because Colin Powell was going be the speaker. In my passage
on Dick Cheney in which he says he'd kind of
like to go back to the old ways, I point out that his
daughter Mary would not have been treated well at all
under the old ways.
In the '60s did the gay movement seem more an
issue of sexual liberation rather than civil rights?
On civil rights,
I thought very strongly about primarily African American
rights. I mean, we had institutionalized, legalized
discrimination against the fundamental rights of
citizenship. Gays have never been denied the right to
vote. They're not told to go to a separate drinking
fountain. They were not told they couldn't stay in a
motel if they crossed the state line. The terror the
blacks lived in, north and south, that really sparked
the Civil Rights Movement was a different order than
what happened with gay liberation. As far as the sexual
liberation, it was not, it seemed to me, as inclusive
as the women's movement, which was the first to
come along in terms of sexual liberation.
Do you think success is harder to come by in the
women's movement, with all its implications to
sex, than the civil rights movement?
thought about it in quite that fashion, but when it comes to
women, we began to do the right thing in the '60s and
the '70s and we've made enormous gains.
I'm the father of three daughters and they're
all highly trained professionals, two of them are
mothers, and the other one wants to be at some point.
The daunting task of being a mother, a wife, and an
independent career or professional person is really taxing.
I'm witness to that all the time with them.
These are tough times and these are very tough issues
that in my judgment are not getting enough attention.
You were working for NBC out of Los Angeles in 1967,
coincidentally when The Advocate was
founded. Did you have any experience with gay activism?
I remember The
Advocate coming online. I've known Larry Kramer for a
long time. Later in the '70s, maybe the early
'80s, he stopped me on the street in New York
one night and talked to me about this god-awful
disease that was running through the gay community. And NBC
was the first network to do an AIDS documentary, I
think. I've always credited Larry with bringing
that to my attention.
It seems your five pillars are movements that gained
widespread visibility in the 60s. With that
thinking, perhaps the 1980s and the AIDS crisis
was our boom.
thought that the AIDS gave the gay movement a certain
different, dramatic, and tragic element, but there were lots
of other things going on as well.
In the book, you write, "The eve of 2008 is not
exactly the Sixties all over again." We
have an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and a
Civil Rights Movement on our hands. What's different?
'60s, there wasn't a day that went by that you
didn't have somebody at the barricades. Or
somebody marching into the south; and redneck cops
with cattle prods and dogs and horses and nightsticks; and
kids disappearing in Mississippi, who had gone down there to
do the work of that time. So it's both
quantitatively and qualitatively different, I think.
The work that is now done is much more in the legal area
and, with the exception of gay marriage, not nearly as
public or as widespread as it was at that time.
I think the
'60s were really seismic and they opened up a lot of
fissures in the kind of national, social,
consciousness, and also rearranged landscape in some
cases in a not very appealing fashion. And in other
cases it liberated this country. We're a much more
tolerant society today as a result of going through
the '60s. All the nerve endings were exposed in
the '60s and they're not now. It
doesn't mean [today's movement] is
insignificant. I don't think that there is a
community, corporation, or academy in America that
does not now have a real sensitivity to gay rights.
So how does change happen?
been saying as I go around the country, you effect change in
this country from the ground up. You really have to step
into the arena and you have to force the people who
come before us asking for our votes to face the tough
issues and to deal with them. And to begin to deal with
them you have to have constructive, thoughtful dialogues
about these issues. And my own impression is that one
of the reasons that we have a sharply rising
population of independent voters is they are fed up with
We have real
painful issues that people are dealing with, and some of
them are personal, and some of them are political, and some
of them are cultural, and some of them are economic,
but this is a extraordinarily resourceful country with
lots of laws that should be able to protect our
ability to discuss these in ways that we can all be
comfortable doing it.
What I was
attempting to do here, however imperfect or inadequately, is
to have a dialogue about where we go from here and what
we've learned. And that's part of the
long curve, as I would describe it, of this country
trying to come to grips with some of these lingering issues
that still exist out there.
How else have you started that dialogue?
I guess it was in
the election of 2004, I had gotten so tired of the
horse race that I went off and covered issues. I went to
Atlanta and found a young woman who was out, she was a
lesbian, and she was a product of a biracial marriage.
Her dad was a white civil rights worker who went
south, married a black woman, and had to deal with
miscegenation issues. She moved to Atlanta, and
discovered at some point in her life that her sexual
orientation is gay. We talked about the difficulty of
working in Atlanta and also dealt with one of the
prominent black ministers of a mega church, who thinks
that homosexuality is a sin. By putting that on the
air, we tried to kick start an enlightened discussion about
Is real revolution possible?
When I talk to
young audiences now, I say, you cannot lead only a virtual
life. You're not going to find the solution to
bigotry in the delete button. You're not going
to reverse global climate change by hitting back
space. Get out there and get your boots on the ground. And
that's what's missing I think. Why
don't we have people in the streets over the war in
Iraq? It's simple; it's the draft. If there
were a draft they'd be out there, because there
But you know what
else happened in the '60s, which is interesting.
There was economic freedom that we don't have
now. Young people that are coming out of college are
terrified about finding a job. Then if they find a
job, they wonder, how in the hell am I going to afford a
house for $800,000? The inflationary cycle is brutal.
In the '60s you had that wave of prosperity
after World War II. Parents were inclined to indulge their
children. Kids go off to school and decide to, in some
instances, indulge in stuff, and they could still get
a check every week from their parents. Now if you go
off to college, you're going to emerge with $40,000