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Today In History: 1958 Broadcast On “The Homosexual In Society”

Jim Burroway

November 24th, 2008

Fifty years ago today, on November 24, 1958, several people gathered in the studios of KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, to participate in a two-hour broadcast on the problems that gay people faced in society. This is not only believed to be the first radio broadcast to deal favorably with gay people, it is also believed to be the first to include an actual gay person to speak directly of his experience. The first hour also featured the mother of a gay son.

(Update: I received the following info in an email from James Sears, author of Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation. He wrote that first TV broadcast with an acknowledged homosexual was in Los Angeles by the vice-president of the Mattachine Society on the Paul Coates Show in 1956. His face was disguised. The first to feature an acknowledged homosexual on the east coast was March 10, 1956 with Tony Segura on the show (but he was in a mask). Also, WRCA of NYC produced a series of 3 panel discussions on its Open Minds on Aug 24, Sept 29 1956 and a third on Jan. 12, 1957.)

Del Martin wrote the following account of the 1958 broadcast for the January 1959 edition of The Ladder, which was the official publication of the Daughters of Bilitis. Just last summer, Del became a June bride when she married Phyllis Lyon, her partner of 56 years. Del passed away last August.
 

Del’s article chronicling that broadcast is reproduced below.


2-Hour Broadcast on Homophile Problem
“The Homosexual in Society”, a two-hour broadcast presented by KPFA-FM, a non-profit listener-subscription radio station in Berkeley, California, during November brought such popular acclaim that the program was repeated a month later and will be issued in pamphlet form as well.

The program consisted of two separate panel discussion sound tapes, the first covering “The Role of the Homosexual as an Individual and as a Member of Society” and the second “The Role Society Should Play” in solving the homophile problem.

THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL
Hal Call, publications director of the Mattachine Society and editor of the MATTACHINE REVIEW, opened the discussion by outlining the educational program of the organization to lead “to a better understanding of the homosexual and other forms of variance where there is no great harm to the social order.”

According to Dr. Blanche Baker, San Francisco psychiatrist, there is much controversy on the subject, “even in the medical profession.” There are those who feel it is a neurotic problem and others who call it glandular, or even a hereditary problem.

“For myself, from many years of work, I consider the homosexual first of all a human being,” she stated. “I believe in individual adjustment of each particular case. Factors leading to homosexuality lie deep in the individual nature. It is a psychological problem in which early childhood has its effect. All people have a certain amount of maleness and femaleness in their constitution, and child experiences tend to throw us to one side of the scale or the other.”

FIRST REACTION OF SHOCK
When questioned by Elsa Knight Thompson, moderator, Mrs. Leah Gailey, housewife and mother, replied, “My first reaction was a universal one — shock. There was ostracism to face for me and my son. It was clearly — shock. But basically I loved my son, so I decided I would try to understand. Fear is based on the unknown, and much fear disappears as one learns to understand.

“There is much literature on the layman level for anyone to read,” she pointed out. “It is just a matter of understanding and accepting.”

Mr. Call declared that the problem of homosexuality is very often closer to all of us than many realize — a member of the family, a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend.

“Approximately every tenth adult may be predominantly homosexual in orientation,” he stated. “This covers the entire strata of society, every intellectual and economic Ieve1.”

Mr. Call said that there had not necessarily been an increase in homosexuality in recent years, as some have supposed, but rather a greater awareness of the subject.

HOSTILITY — CAUSE OR EFFECT?
Moderator Thompson posed the problem of “hostility” in the homosexual. Does it stem from the individual because of his fear of being “different”? Or is it a result of society’s attitude?

Mr. Call said that the homosexual adopts attitudes as result of the society in which he lives. He may effect certain mannerisms of hostility toward society because of its attitudes and also because of his inability to accept himself.

According to Mrs. Gailey, the homosexual’s hostility is based on fear from society and guilt from self. The homosexual has both problems to face, she said.

Dr. Baker pointed out that in her field she works on self acceptance so that the individual can relax and be more comfortable in the world he lives in.

When asked if her clients wished to rid themselves of their homosexuality or if they sought acceptance, Dr. Baker said, “Most of those who come to me want to get rid of this approach to life. If the heterosexual component potential is large enough to function with, fine. But many cases just don’t have the potential.”

ARE HOMOSEXUALS GIFTED PEOPLE?
Dr. Baker said she had no statistics on the subject, that she herself worked with small numbers of people, “But the ones who come to me are artists — versatile, gifted people, not just bread, meat and potatoes people.”

Mr. Call did not consider this a just evaluation. He said that homosexuals are no more gifted or talented than any other group, but that perhaps the homosexual has more opportunity to develop creative and artistic talents since he doesn’t have the economic pressure of providing for a wife and family.

Elsa Knight Thompson suggested that, as in the  case of any other minority group, there is more concentration to excel in order to counteract criticism.

“This is true job-wise,” Mrs. Gailey declared. “Because of his fear of detection, the homosexual puts forth an utmost effort to do his best.”

HOMOSEXUAL COUPLES
On consideration of the short duration of most homosexual relationships, Dr. Baker asserted, “The friction between homosexual couples is due to the hate in themselves and an unhappy adjustment to life. The over-emphasis on a sexual level would keep them from adjusting on other levels.”

Mr. Call pointed out that there were many lasting homosexual relationships that are not known or recognized, and Dr. Baker admitted, “We are all too conscious of those who do not get along together and don’t know about those who do.”

Mr. Call concluded the first panel discussion with a resume of legal attitudes in Europe and the United States. In England last September the Wolfenden Report recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults no longer be considered a crime provided they are conducted in private, do not involve minors, no force or violence or fraud is used and do not offend public decency. In April, 1955, in our own country the American Law Institute in its draft of a Model Penal Code recommended essentially the same things.

In Denmark a change in the law was made in 1933, he said, but while not illegal, the stigma attached to homosexuality still remains. Persecution is particularly severe in Germany and Austria today despite previous progress and is reported to be the result of our own American occupation. In this country we have 48 different states with 48 different sets of laws concerning certain homosexual acts ranging from misdemeanor penalties of 30 days to maximum penalties of life imprisonment.

BASIS OF AMERICAN SEX LAWS
Dr. Karl Bowman, psychiatrist who until recently was director of the Langley Porter Clinic of the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, opened the second discussion with some historical background on our present laws, which he said are “largely traced back to ancient Hebrew laws.” The Christian religion took over the Jewish code which was extremely restrictive pertaining to sexual behavior. And the English law, on which United States law is based, stemmed from the Christian code.

“If this is so, it is my contention,” Dr. Bowman added, “it is time to re-examine our laws in the light of present knowledge and recommend modifications.”

WHAT IS A HOMOSEXUAL?
Dr. Frank Beach Jr., anthropologist and professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, deplored the fact that nowhere in the previous discussion had there been a definition of the term “homosexual”. He recounted the varying degrees of homosexual behavior: the latent individual who has tendencies but who manifests no overt behavior, the individual who has one or two experiences in his life time, those who find satisfaction in both homosexual and heterosexual behavior, and those with exclusive
homosexual experience.

Dr. Bowman pointed out that in the armed forces mere diagnosis of latent homosexuality makes an individual unsuitable and subject to an undesirable discharge which interferes seriously with the individual’s ability to secure a position. Some one who has never violated any law and who has never had a homosexual experience thus becomes a victim, he said.

Relative to the problem of who is a homosexual, Morris Lowenthal, San Francisco attorney, spoke of the 1955 law passed by the California state legislature that any bar or restaurant becoming a “resort for sexual perverts” may have its license revoked. The problem of the proprietor is two-fold, he said, since the 1951 California Supreme Court decision in the Stoumen vs. Reilly case upheld the civil right of the homosexual to meet and eat or drink in any public bar or restaurant, while the new law in direct conflict prohibits the use of these premises as a gathering place for homosexuals. Mr. Lowenthal also posed the issue as to how the bartender or owner can determine the homosexual tendencies of his patrons.

CAUSES OF HOMOSEXUALITY
Dr. Beach said that hereditary factors may be involved, since in some genetic studies the incidence of homosexuality was higher in identical twins. There is also evolutionary evidence based on observation of other mammals. Exclusive, overt homosexuality does not occur in any other species but man, he pointed out, however. In cases of error in identification of sex at birth, Dr. Beach added that it was extremely difficult to reverse the sex if it was established in the mind of the individual.

Dr. Bowman agreed that there were multiple causes, that heredity, physical condition and psychological conditioning all played an important role.

“The crux of the matter,” asserted Dr. David Wilson, attorney and psychiatrist of the University of California School of Criminology at Berkeley, “is the law making something a crime. Society passes a law because it feels threatened, but it doesn’t work and in no way affects the amount of homosexuality. If the law doesn’t work, it should be reappraised and handled in a realistic manner.

“The propensity is there or it could not develop. We can not change basic individual factors. Unless we know why, we can’t pass laws to curb the incidence of homosexuality.”

Mr. Lowenthal advanced the theory that homosexuals have been discouraged in cultures when an increase in population was needed for survival and encouraged when it was necessary to curb the population.

“Naive assumption!” Dr. Wilson interjected. “Homosexuals are not going to be the productive members of society in any case.”

Dr. Beach also rejected the idea, “Human beings don’t behave this rationally.” Prohibitions appear in many societies, he added.

Dr. Bowman considered the population theory a rationalization. “Cultures that allow homosexuality freely have in many cases had a higher increase in population than those who have not.”

“Rejection of the homosexual is purely on an emotional basis and tied up with our general repressive attitude toward all sex behavior,” he added.

VAGUE AND AMBIGUOUS LAWS
In our criminal laws, many of which are not enforced, it was pointed out by Attorney Lowenthal that no reference is made to homosexuals specifically. Vague and ambiguous laws are used and abused against the homosexual resulting in his subjection to blackmail.

Dr. Bowman pointed out that the California law reads, “Anyone guilty of the infamous crime against nature…” The use of such wording has led to long controversies, he stated.

Dr. Beach took exception to the “crime against nature.” The capacity for homosexual activity is inherent in nature — in man’s biological constitution — and there is therefore nothing “unnatural” in homosexual activity, he said.

“It would appear then that the law is vague, open to loose interpretation and capable of injustice to the individual where invoked against him, bearing no fruit from the social standpoint,” Elsa Knight Thompson, the moderator, put in.

“Laws to prevent crimes of Violence and violation of children would satisfy my requirements of a fair law,” Dr. Wilson asserted. “Homosexuality is a medical and social problem, not a legal one.”

Mr. Lowenthal declared that a strange situation existed where it has been granted by the California Appellate Court that the homosexual is no menace to society and has no particular propensity toward crime, yet at the level of police and certain legislators he is declared a menace and attempts are made to whittle away the civil rights of the individual.

“The mere existence of a law can be a threat to an individual even though it may not be enforced or can be overturned at a higher court level,” Dr. Wilson said. However, he did not hold out much hope for immediate action. The legislators won’t change the law until they understand more. It will take a great deal of time and education, of which this program is a step.

Pointing out some of the abuses of the law such as police harassment, registration as sex offender and entrapment, Mr. Lowenthal said he believed that if these injustices were brought to the attention of the public, it might offend the decency of most people.

Dr. Wilson pointed out that a change in the law would not eliminate altogether the problem of blackmail because of the moral issue, though the degree would certainly be much less.

Moderator Thompson summed up the discussion, “Homosexuality is not a question of crime. If society is to solve the problem it must be done with enlightenment, understanding and a scientific approach at the individual level.”

OVERWHELMING RESPONSE TO BROADCAST
According to officials of KPFA, almost all of the heavy mail received after the first broadcast congratulated them on their courage and observed that they would undoubtedly be attacked for the program. However, they did not have a single attack for presenting the program — technical criticism, yes, but no indictment.

Because of the overwhelming response to the program, “The Homosexual in Society” is being made available in pamphlet form and can be obtained from Station KPFA, 2207 Shattuck, Ave., Berkeley 4, California, for $1.00.

– Del Martin

Comments

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David C.
November 24th, 2008 | LINK

So, one can draw several conclusions from the summary of the program broadcast in 1958:

At the time, homosexuality was still considered a “problem” by many people;

Much of the perception of homosexuality as a “problem” derived from Judeo-Christian traditions;

The laws against or intended to suppress homosexuality derived from Judeo-Christian traditions.

As of 2008, much of the existing resistance to the advancement of homosexual rights derives from Judeo-Christian traditions.

Troy3
December 14th, 2008 | LINK

what shocks me is that the CA supreme court case was needed to “[uphold] the civil right of the homosexual to meet and eat or drink in any public bar or restaurant”.

thank you for the history bit.
we need this.

Mark Walmsley
September 12th, 2014 | LINK

This is a great piece, but I had one clarification. The Paul Coates Show mentioned in the update to this text actually took place in April 1954. A review of the show was written up in Billboard (Velarde, Ed, ‘Confidential File (TV)’, The Billboard, 15 May 1954, p. 10) and Edward Alwood has covered it in detail: (Alwood, Edward, ‘A Gift of Gab: How Independent Broadcasters Gave Gay Pioneers A Chance to Be Heard’, in Media Q: Media/Queered, ed. by Kevin G Barnhurst (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 27–44) which can be seen on a google books preview – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GSKsujbaGG4C&pg=PA29&dq=paul+coates+1954+homosexual&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wPARVNimDuGaygPBs4KQBg&ved=0CCAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=paul%20coates%201954%20homosexual&f=false

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