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 Op-ed: A Television Coming Out Story from 1961

 Op-ed: A Television Coming Out Story from 1961


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."

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

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