Sin or Sickness: Antigay Ideology in the 1960s

by Laura Holton for Prof Henebry's Rhetoric class

The topic of homosexuality in 1960s America faced an incredible amount of opposition. Homophobia was extremely prevalent in society and there were many discriminatory laws against homosexuals. When discussing the homosexual rights movement, scholars like Fred Fejes, author of Gay Rights and Moral Panic, focus on the struggle of homosexuals gaining equal rights against an adversary heterosexual society.1 Fejes presents the heterosexual society as a united group of people, a general enemy to the homosexual rights movement. The heterosexual society was an enemy to the movement, but, they were not a united group; they were more complicated than that. There were two distinct factions within the unaccepting heterosexual culture. The culture was divided between the group of pseudo-scientists that wanted to talk about homosexuality for the purpose of curing homosexuals and the group of religious traditionalists who did not want to talk about homosexuality for fear that merely talking about it would produce more homosexuals. The pseudo-scientists presented themselves as a courageous group willing to broach the taboo subject of homosexuality in 6 published newspaper and magazine articles from 1960 to 1969 and a 1967 CBS program, whereas the traditionalists presented themselves as protectors of society through their claims in Life Magazine’s “Letters to the Editors” in response to the journalists’ reports.

Before the 1960s, homosexuality was viewed as a mental disease as well as a threat to society. There was an immense amount of police harassment and overall injustice to homosexuals. Homosexuals formed homophile groups with the goal to help homosexuals blend into the unaccepting heterosexual society.2 Then, in the 1960s, homosexuals began to really fight for their equality and freedom. Across the nation, the gay community and supporters of the gay rights movement were determined to stand up for homosexual rights. Because of this, there were many protests and riots, which made homosexuals more prevalent in the media. Their acknowledgement in the media led to many heterosexuals forming their own opinions on homosexuality. There were heterosexuals that were supporters of homosexuals and believed in their fight for rights and there were heterosexuals that believed that homosexuality was wrong. The opposing heterosexuals consisted of two groups, the group of pseudo-scientists and the group of traditionalists.

The pseudo-scientists believed that reporting on the subject of homosexuality would help society better understand the opposition that they faced through the metaphor of a disease. The June 26, 1964 issue of Life tried to address the “causes” of homosexual behavior in their article Homosexuality in America. One of the first theories they gave was, “human beings are born with an innate capacity to respond to almost any kind of sexual stimulus.”3 Meaning that a person could become homosexual by engaging with a homosexual person. Another theory that the Life Magazine issue gave on the cause of homosexuality was the mother’s relationship with her son. The article stated, “Typically, the homosexual’s mother regarded him as her favorite, her pride and joy, who must be protected at all costs from the hazards of growing up.”4 This placed the blame on the relationships within a family and Life believed that informing the public of this cause was their responsibility. Lastly, Life speculated about the mental state of homosexuals. The article suggests that most homosexuals were “social cripples,” that they resorted to homosexuality when they were insecure or had an awkward and uncomfortable experience with a girl.5 They made homosexuals seem like men who couldn’t attract a woman and thus resorted to homosexuality as a desperate attempt to have any kind of sexual relationship. This claim would suggest that any man who was turned down by a woman would be at risk for becoming homosexual. All these “causes” were presented without credible scientific evidence to back them up. Even thought they were not fully informed on their subject, pseudo-scientists believed that they were providing a public service.

As a result of the disease metaphor, homosexuals were ostracized as well as feared. There was a fear that before and into the 1960s, homosexuality could be spread if a person was left alone with an identified homosexual. An advice column from the Chicago Tribune on November 16, 1969 expresses this fear. A woman had a homosexual neighbor and asked, “But is there a danger to the young boys in the community? I believe I have read that if sons have a good relationship with their father, they will not be susceptible to influences such as these.”6 People were desperate to have an answer to the cause and how to protect their children from “catching” homosexuality, which is why the pseudo-scientists felt it was important to report on such questions. Society began to identify homosexuals as predators that could influence their children’s behavior. These accusations forced many homosexuals to continue to stay in the closet and hide from society.

In contrast, the traditionalists believed that informing society about homosexuality was inappropriate. In Life’s July 17, 1964 Letters to the Editors, many readers commented on the article Homosexuals in America. A reader named Arthur E. Demeritt from Brooklyn, New York said, “Having traveled around the world and met all kinds of people I cannot consider myself a prude, but your article on homosexuals nauseated me. Life should have access to enough good stories not to have to write about topics which other folks never discuss in polite society.”7 He believed that in “polite society,” homosexuality was not discussed and should not be discussed, even in the Life article that did not present homosexuals in a positive light. To him, even discussing homosexuality was disrespectful. Another reader, Mrs. Donald J. Rice from Baldwin, New York said, “Your report on the problem of homosexuality in this country was not, in my opinion, appropriate for a family magazine.”8 She believed that the subject of homosexuality was not suitable for children. This was a common thought in the 1960s, that learning about homosexuality could warp children’s minds, causing them to embody these ideas later in life. Traditionalists believed that reporting on homosexuality was detrimental to the health of society and it was in its best interest to not discuss it.

Due to this opposition from traditionalists, pseudo-scientists often presented themselves as courageous for reporting on homosexuality. The March 7, 1967 CBS Report titled The Homosexuals was typical of this tendency. It was an hour-long episode that interviewed gay men on their sexuality and discussed other topics related to homosexuality. Also featured in the program were several psychiatrists that were shown as authority figures on the subject. They classified homosexuality as a “mental illness” that develops as a result of earlier childhood fears. The episode was speculation posed as true facts to the public.9 Scholars today are blistering in their criticism of the show. For example, Kylo-Patrick R. Hart points to The Homosexuals as a contributing factor in shifting gay men from an era of non-recognition to a new era of ridicule in America.10 But from the perspective of 1960s pseudo-science, the program was to be commended. A Boston Globe editorial from March 8, 1967 gave it the highest praise: “This must go down as one of the most courageous efforts of CBS Reports. It might even be called a parting salute, for the proud documentary showcase.”11 This shows that the pseudo-scientists thought that they deserved praise for “overcoming” the opposition to report on homosexuality. The article explains the “determination to get The Homosexuals on the air,” to inform the public. This backwards kind of thinking is what stimulated the continued coverage on a subject that they didn’t know the true facts about. Another article praising The Homosexuals was from the Washington Post on March 7, 1967. They were in favor of the broadcast because they thought there were many problems in society and, “that only by bringing them out into the open can they be solved.”12 They commended the CBS Reports for discussing one of the “problems” of the American society. Instead of recognizing the struggle of homosexuals in a heterosexual society, the heterosexuals were being recognized for their “struggle” to have an open conversation about homosexuality.

Traditionalists also disliked the topic of homosexuality because it was against their religion. In America in the 1960s, these traditionalists were mostly Christians who believed homosexuality was against the word of God. A Dec 8, 1969 Los Angeles Times article called A Church for Homosexuals, talked about the emergence of a church that accepted homosexuals because of other churches unfair rejection of them. Pastor Troy Perry started the Metropolitan Community Church after he was excommunicated from his church. He stated his reasoning for starting his own church, “Most churches in America don’t openly invite homosexuals as homosexuals to come and worship God. They feel, if anything, they have to change the person and convert him from his homosexuality to make him a fit member for their church—and that’s just impossible.”13 Pastor Troy Perry explains the discrimination within the religious community toward homosexuals. He was forced to form his own church because of the extreme dislike towards who he was and their attempts to change him. In the Letters to the Editors of Life, June L. Wucher from Austin, Texas commented on the article Homosexuals in America. She stated, “Sodom and Gomorrah were both destroyed for these very sins which are an abomination unto the Lord. I hope harsh restrictive measures will be continued, so that if such practices persist at least they’ll be in private where our youth won’t be exposed.”14 This type of religious thinking caused many people to believe that homosexuals were condemned sinners and that only through repenting, they could be saved. Religious traditionalists in the 1960s were extremely closed minded when discussing homosexuality.

In Life’s July 17, 1964 Letters to the Editor, 10 out of the 20 letters were in response to the article Homosexuals in America; the remaining 10 were distributed over 7 other articles.15 This data shows the extreme interest in the topic of homosexuality. Of the 10 letters, 2 letters were from “practicing homosexuals,” 3 letters were praising the article for its information on homosexuals, 3 deemed the article inappropriate, and 2 were vouching for homosexuals’ rights to their privacy. These letters illustrate society’s many differing opinions on homosexuality.

The most interesting letters were from homosexuals themselves. A man from Los Angeles, California using the alias, H. Patterson said, “As a practicing homosexual it was not easy looking at Bill Eppridge’s photograph and admitting that I was a part of this life. Though accurate, it was not a pretty picture. I only hope that every reader goes beyond the pictures to read Ernest Havemann’s brilliant article ‘Why?’ For obvious reasons I cannot sign my real name.”16 What’s especially notable in this letter is the writer’s personal shame: he agrees with the article’s account of homosexuality. He speaks as if homosexuality isn’t a part of who he is, but is a disease or addiction. This suggests just how powerful those metaphors were. They caused homosexuals to believe in their own “disease” and to desire a cure. Indeed, the phrase, “practicing homosexual,” implies that at some point homosexuals can stop practicing, and thus stop being homosexual. This is what H. Patterson truly believed as he asked readers to focus on the section of the article that stated the causes of homosexuality. The pseudo-scientists’ ideas proved harmful to healthy homosexuals in the 1960s.

The second response from a homosexual used similar language and withheld the writer’s name, but offered a more optimistic view. Writing Pacific Grove, California, he looked forward to a future where he could live openly:

The homosexual contributes to society and would make an even greater contribution if he could live without fear. When you must stand on guard all of your life, much of your energy must go toward this instead of spending this energy on life itself. I am a practicing homosexual, and artist who lives as near to normal a life as possible under society’s yoke. I would love the day I could write a letter like this openly, using my name without fear. My community respects me and has accepted me. But if they knew of my inner life all this could be shattered. Your article was an important contribution toward understanding.17

Deciding to withhold his name shows the shame he felt; even as an artist whose job is expression, he couldn’t express who he truly was. He didn’t believe in the article’s negativity because he wanted society to accept him, and yet he welcomed the article because, to him, any dialogue about homosexuality was better than no dialogue at all. He would rather believe the false science of homosexuality than have homosexuality be a taboo subject.

These two letters illustrated the dangers of the pseudo-scientists’ reports. Both of the homosexuals’ letters welcomed the article. This fact proved to the pseudo-scientists that homosexuals were benefitting from their reports and reconfirmed to themselves the “good” work they were doing for society. Also, the homosexuals both identified themselves as “practicing homosexuals,” which was consistent with the vocabulary within Life’s Homosexuals in America article and showed the infiltration of the pseudo-scientists reports of homosexuality to actual homosexuals. These letters gave pseudo-scientists false confidence in their reports on homosexuality and urged them to continue to discuss it.

The pseudo-scientists’ heterosexual culture made the homosexual rights movement about themselves. Through magazine and newspaper articles, they voiced how the movement affected them rather than inquire about how homosexuals were being affected. The pseudo-scientists used the homosexual rights movement to present themselves as “revolutionary” in reporting on homosexuals. Because of this, the causes and cures of their disease metaphor became the mainstream and they were regarded as courageous for their work.

In contrast, even though the pseudo-scientists and traditionalists were on the same side, the traditionalists did not agree with what the pseudo-scientists were doing. Rather than talk about homosexuality and try to find a cure, the traditionalists deemed the subject of homosexuality inappropriate and used their religion as justification to publicly hate homosexuals. The traditionalists presented themselves as protectors of society in response to pseudo-scientists’ reports.

These two groups were the same in their detestation of the homosexual rights movement, but differed in their approaches and concerns. The pseudo-scientists’ goal was to cure homosexuality, while the traditionalists’ goal was to completely ignore it. Through Life’s Letters to the Editor, it is clear that the pseudo-scientists’ reports had the greatest impact on homosexuals and their false science led homosexuals in the 1960s to actually believe that they had a disease. Both the pseudo-scientists and the traditionalists were hurtful to the progress of homosexual rights, but the pseudo-scientists’ disease metaphor proved more dangerous for the personal beliefs of homosexuals themselves.


1. Fred Fejes, Gay Rights and Moral Panic (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
2. Vicki L. Eaklor, Queer America (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008), 118.
3. Paul Welch, “Homosexuals in America,” Life, June 26, 1964, 76.
4. Paul Welch, “Homosexuals,” Life, 78.
5. Paul Welch, “Homosexuals,” Life, 77.
6. Joan Beck, “Joan Beck’s Mail,” Chicago Tribune, Nov 16, 1969, F9.
7. “Letters to the Editors,” Life, Jul 17, 1964, 28.
8. “Letters to the Editors,” Life, 28.
9. “The Homosexuals: Mike Wallace’s Controversial 1967 CBS Report,” Youtube video, 43:47, posted by Kim Smythe, September 13, 2014.
10. Kylo-Patrick R. Hart, “Representing Gay Men on American Television,” Journal of Men’s Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 63.
11. Percy Shain, “Homosexual Report Courageous Effort,” Boston Globe, Mar 8, 1967, 55.
12. “Display Ad 179” The Washington Post, Mar 7, 1967, C11.
13. John Dart, “A Church for Homosexuals,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 8, 1969, C1.
14. “Letters to the Editors,” Life, 28.
15. “Letters to the Editors,” Life, 28.
16. “Letters to the Editors,” Life, 28.
17. “Letters to the Editors,” Life, 28.

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave A Reply