It’s About ’Time’: How Gay Coverage in the Popular Newsmagazine Has Evolved

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday June 21, 2010


As social attitudes toward GLBTs have shifted, so have political notions--and along with them, the way that gays are viewed in the popular press. Metafilter, a "community Weblog," has posted an article on how Time Magazine's views of gays have changed.

The article looked at samples of Time's coverage regarding gays in the years 1956, 1966, 1969, 1975, and 1979. The article noted that Time's views had "evolved from pathologizing and stereotyping... to awkward attempts to view gays humanely while continuing to refer to their sexual orientation as a disease... to a gradual acceptance of gays as upstanding members of society who are struggling for equal rights.

The 1956 snippet claimed that a "popular misperception" about gays being born innately attracted to members of their own gender had been "swiftly demolish[ed]" in a then-recently published book that characterized gays as emotionally damaged and "generally unreliable, in an essentially psychopathic way." Ten years later, the tone adopted by the magazine was one of condescension mixed with distaste: "Beset by inner conflicts, the homosexual is unsure of his position in society, ambivalent about his attitudes and identity-but he gains a certain amount of security through the fact that society is equally ambivalent about him," reads a sentence from an article called "The Homosexual in America." The article ended on a familiar note of pathologization, however: "[Homosexuality] is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste-and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness."

Three years later, an article about a government report on homosexuality acknowledged that gays were far from the threat to civilization that they were painted to be, but the tone remained unconsciously superior, if not downright arch: "Still, the research makes clear that Americans can now recognize the diversity of homosexual life and understand that an undesirable handicap does not necessarily make everyone afflicted with it undesirable."

Later that same year, another article bluntly asked, "Are Homosexuals Sick?" The item solicited the views of a number of academics, including Charles Socarides, who was at the time on the staff of Albert Einstein College of Medicine ("Everybody is now saying that the homosexual needs compassion and understanding, the way the neurotic does or anybody else suffering from any illness. That is true. I agree with that....") and Rutgers University anthropologist Robin Fox, who said, "So far as the two "married" individuals are concerned, they are engaged in what to them is a meaningful and satisfying relationship.

"What I would define as a sick person in sexual terms would be someone who could not go through the full sequence of sexual activity, from seeing and admiring to following, speaking, touching, and genital contact," Fox went on. "A rapist, a person who makes obscene telephone calls-these seem to me sick people, and I don't think it matters a damn whether the other person is of the same sex or not."

In 1975, Time covered "Gays on the March," giving a rundown of the burgeoning GLBT equality movement. "Many fear the demands that seem to flow logically from the assertion that 'gay is good,' " the article read. "For instance: the legal right to marry; homosexual instruction in school sex courses; affirmative action or quotas in hiring; and gay love stories to go with heterosexual puppy-love stories in libraries and schools. The Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association has already begun such a campaign." The article then went on to betray the lack of credible information circulating about gays at the time: "Another concern is that homosexuality will spread, especially among the young, if social sanctions are removed... And if some homosexuality, at least, comes from faulty child rearing, many think it makes less sense to celebrate the results than to try to strengthen the family."

By 1979, however, the shift in tone was dramatic and the narrative perspective from which the article seemed to have been written had opened up: "Homosexual men and women are coming out of the closet as never before to live openly," read text from an article titled "How Gay is Gay?" "They are colonizing areas of big cities as their own turf, operating bars and even founding churches in conservative small towns, and setting up a nationwide network of organizations to offer counseling and companionship to those gays--still the vast majority--who continue to conceal their sexual orientation... gay people still encounter suspicion and hostility, and occasionally violence," the article went on, "and their campaign to live openly and freely is still far from won. But they are gaining a degree of acceptance and even sympathy from heterosexuals, many of whom are still unsure how to deal with them, that neither straights nor gays would have thought possible just the day before yesterday."

The arc in attitude as demonstrated by the snippets assembled at MetaFilter are striking. What may be equally striking is how applicable that very same block of text from 1979 is to the GLBT situation today, after 31 years

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.