The Gay Rights Movement And How It Was Affected By The American Press’ Reporting

An essay written by Eric-Ross McLaren, a recent graduate of the Friends' Central School. 
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Gays lived during a time of societal oppression for much of America’s history. People judged them under false pretense, and this was no thanks to the mainstream American press. But, the Stonewall Uprising was a turning point for the gay community. Located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City, the Stonewall Inn was a central meeting place for gay men, and the New York Police Department knew this. The bar experienced regular police raids. On June 28th, 1969, the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn again, but this time there was a massive uproar. Local gays were fighting back, throwing bottles, sneaking and attacking from alleyways, and resisting the police’s attempts to oppress them. Many gay-activism initiatives followed the uprising, specifically the Gay Liberation Movement, which was one of the very first gay-founded organizations. Now, the Stonewall Inn is a historic spot that attracts tourists from around the world. It is the home for and birthplace of gay-activism and continues to shed light on the power and meaning behind the gay-rights movement. 

A 1991 book called The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A Guide to Nondiscriminatory Language, by Rosalie Maggio was written for those that are looking to use less bias-driven language. One definition in her article reads,

fag/faggot (man) these terms follow the “insider/outsider” rule: they are extremely derogatory when used by non-gays, but usually acceptable when used positively among gay men. By reclaiming the words for themselves, gay men defuse the hostility of these words and the power such words had over them.

Maggio emphasizes on the negative-power behind the usage of the term “faggot.” A dictionary such as this lacked in 1969 mainstream American press, leading to many articles being written using a negative-bias towards “homosexuals.” The way the mainstream press writes about a specific group of people can either make or break them. Unfortunately for the gay community, many articles negatively impacted their situation. But, some articles were positive, resulting in more publicity and more societal awareness of gay people’s ongoing yearning for equality. This paper will argue that the tone of articles about gay people in the mainstream press changed after the Stonewall Uprising. The essence of the change is that articles before Stonewall mostly were neutral or ignorant towards gay people, and after Stonewall, they appear to have a positive to neutral perspective, which likely had a favorable impact on how Americans viewed gay people. Gays gained respect from the general public from the uprising up to now, but the American mainstream press, specifically the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, had a huge role in the positive-evolvement of gay rights.

The structure of this paper is cut-up into two parts. First, it will analyze both an article written with a negative-bias as well as an article with a positive-bias pre-Stonewall Uprising. These examples will reveal both the pro and anti-gay incentives that led to either nicely written articles, or harsh articles that worsened the case of mistreatment against the gay community. Second, the paper will show how the Los Angeles Times appears to be in favor of the gay community rather than the New York Times, whose writers appear to have a mixed opinion about “homosexuals.” Each chosen article does not necessarily contain blatant bias-driven content but rather tone, word usage, and plot structure, which reveal whether or not the article was bias-driven or not. 

Before the Stonewall Uprising, the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African-American owned newspaper, did a feature on a teenage boy who sought romantic advice. This specific article veers away from the focus on the Los Angeles Times but contains sharp evidence of how progressive West Coast papers were. Backtracking, the boy was confused because he was attracted to both men and women. He was not sure whether he should follow his heart, or go with what is easiest.

Dear Walt: I’m a boy 16 years old, and my problem is that I am attracted to men. I have tried to overcome this, but it seems impossible. Everytime it seems I may have licked the problem, I always revert back. I know it is wrong, and I desperately want to stop. I am fairly good looking, and this may be one of the reasons why I cannot avoid it. I seem to attract other good looking men, and it is terribly hard to resist them… I still like girls very much, and I have gone around with a few already… Some people have told me that this is what I am destined to be, and that I should accept it. Is this true?

The article appears to have a positive bias, as it’s not only bringing attention to a common question among gay Americans, but there is a thoughtful response that follows. “My advice to a young teenager who’s flirting with the homosexual world would be: Decide what you really want!’ Look at this way of life realistically…” In the article, Walt proceeds to tell the boy to brace himself if he decides to be with a man, and mentions a few of the many hardships the gay community had to face: violence, disease, and blackmail. He talks of the weight being gay bears but does not talk the boy away from following his heart and desires. This article is one of the few that publicized the issues faced by the gay community, a topic rarely seen in fair discussion. The writer/interviewer does this by cleverly incorporating this topic into a long-running question and answer column. By doing this, it not only barred them from potential attacks but created a space to answer common questions for the general public, further educate those who are less-knowledgeable, and at-ease those who face the problems being discussed. 

Furthermore, the New York Times published an article in 1967 written by Charles Grutzner, that associates the Mafia with the Stonewall Inn, creating a negative connotation around the gay community. Grutzner talked about how the Mafia was selling off secret investments that cater to homosexuals, not only to reinvest the money into other private clubs, but clubs that are immune to routined police raids. The article reads,

The mafia is selling off some of its concealed investments in bars catering to homosexuals and reinvesting the money in private clubs that are immune from routine police inspection and State Liquor Authority control, according to law enforcement officers.

Grutzner proceeded to talk about how liquor licenses were controlled by “organized crime.” Even though the Mafia had control of the majority of gay bars, they had a longrunning reputation of blackmail, further hurting gay visitors that were trying to mingle and find peace while having a drink. The Mafia groups later sold off their gay bars to legitimate owners, seeing gays as a bad and risky business opportunity. “Underworld owners of several ‘gay’ bars and restaurants have recently sold their interests to legitimate operators who had previously shunned that field as too risky or socially repugnant.” Gruztner emphasizes this, hurting the gay community, and deeming them as a bad business venture, further weakening their case for equality. These types of statements and articles barred the gay community from many safe havens, resulting in bars getting shut down, ones that catered to them, where they could be safe from blackmail and violence.  

Almost two years later, the Stonewall Uprising occurred, and gay-activism became more prominent. A year after the Stonewall Uprising, New York Times writer, Lacey Fosburgh, attended a gay protest rally and wrote an article about the experience. Fosburgh wrote from first-hand experience what it was like attending a gay rally. She emphasized specific details, such as what the Gays were proclaiming, how many people were getting involved, and publicizing the inequalities that “homosexuals” had to face. The article reads,

Thousands of young men and women homosexuals from all over the Northeast marched from Greenwich Village to the Sheep Meadow in Centrtal Park yesterday, proclaiming “the new strength and pride of the gay people.” From Washington, Boston and Cleveland, from Ivy League colleges, from Harlem, the East Side and the suburbs, they gathered to protest laws that make homosexual acts between consenting adults illegal and social conditions that often make it impossible for them to display afection in public.

Fosburgh quotes participants at the rally, giving a deeper look into the once ongoing situation. “We’re probably the most harassed, persecuted minority group in history, but we’ll never have the freedom and civil rights we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets and in shelter of anonymity.” The article continued to describe the people, apparel, and chantings from the protest, mentioning how gays are sick of being called “freaks” and how they are “proud” of who they are. Fosburgh addressed how, while the protesters made their way to Central Park, many other organizations joined their rally as members of the Gay Activist Alliance. People who marched with them represented the Mattachine Society, women’s liberation groups, the Queens, and 14 other “homosexual” organizations. Fosburgh talks about the estimated participation rate of the rally, listing an estimate between 3,000 to 5,000 to 20,000. She quotes another participant, “‘We’ve never had a demonstration like this,’ said Martin Robinson, 27, a carpenter who is in charge of political affairs for the Gay Activists Alliance.'” Revealing the number of participants at the rally not only shows the gay community’s growing number of supporters but the urgency for resolution of this ongoing societal issue. Fosburgh’s appearance and openness first-hand breaks the edifice of heterosexual ignorance, allowing her to represent them by writing an article for the New York Times, being a larger symbol for other and future journalists.  

Hours after the Stonewall uprising, the New York Times also published an article, written by an anonymous writer with a negative bias, which centrally talks about how violent and outraged the Gays were. “Hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3 A.M. after a force of plainclothes men raided a bar that the police said was well-known for its homosexual clientele.” The article uses language such as “rampage,” “illegally,” and “injured,” making the Gays appear as criminals. The writer focuses on the violence inflicted on the policemen, mentioning how “thirteen persons (gays)” were arrested, and “four policemen injured,” which creates a negative picture for the gays, portraying them as a ruthless group of people that express themselves negatively. The article reads,

The young men threw bricks, bottles, garbage, pennies and a parking meter at the policemen, who had a search warrant authorizing them to investigate reports that liquor was sold illegally at the bar, the Stonewall Inn, 53 Christopher Street, just off Sheridan Square. Deputy Inspector Symour Pine said that a large crowd formed in the square after being evicted from the bar. Police reinforcements were sent to the area to hold off the crowd.

The writer creates fear amongst its readers, constraining every detail behind the violence that came with the uproar, including the New York Police Department having to  send “reinforcements.” Both writers for the New York Times, Fosburgh, and “anonymous” hold opposite opinions on the gay community, and it shows in their writing. It reveals a slice of the separation amongst writers in East Coast papers. However, West Coast papers show the complete opposite.

A large number of articles that discussed “homosexual” matters appear to appeal to gays, specifically on the West Coast. The Los Angeles Times shared an article in 1970 called “Homosexual Plan,” written by James Dublirer. He opens the article up with “I have been highly amused by the public’s reaction,” making it clear he finds the public majority entertaining. He proceeds to talk about how the general public wants “minorities” to work with the system, and when a “minority” starts to work with the system, the public goes against them. The article reads,

The public and press are vocal and self-righteous in their criticism of minority groups and dissidents who have agitated outside of the system. American participatory democracy is cited as the alternative to violence and illegality. But now look at our attitude when a minority group does decide to work within the system! The feeling in Alpine County was expressed by one local who said, “We’ll do anything necessary to stop this!” Is a minority group to lose its fair share of participatory democracy?

Dublirer is blatantly on the side of the gay community, later saying “Sorry, but we homosexuals are not interested in your children. Ninety-five percent of all children molested in America are molested by you, not us.” He reveals himself as a homosexual, and the Los Angeles Times decided to publish this. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times posted an article a few months before “Homosexual Plan,” called, “Valley Homosexuals Encounter Fewer Problems Than Most,” written by Kenneth Hansen. He mentions “gay bars or other places where homosexuals gather don’t pose any problems, there are trouble spots. These are mostly public parks where straight persons are bothered.” He quotes this from a local Vice police officer. The article then proceeds to talk about the “suburbanite” which is a homosexual who has become accustomed to nuclear-family living. The article reads,

The suburbanite often has settled down into a homosexual “marriage” and owns a a home with his or her partner. “He keeps his lawn mowed and his house painted, and not necessarily pink,” Slater says. “I would call him more of a garden-vegetable type of homosexual.”

Slater, someone Hansen interviewed, is talking about a “homosexual” that wants to fit in. If a gay man or woman were to fit into regular society, they would potentially face fewer problems. Hansen’s article is primarily discussing this, and how Valley gays, excluding park-walk disturbances from heterosexuals, fit very well into modern-society. The article has a positive bias in the sense that it is talking about gays and how they are critiquing themselves to fit in with regular society. In connection to Los Angeles Times writers Hansen and Dublirer, an anonymous writer from Los Angeles Times writes about a “School for Homosexuals Ready to Open,” published in 1974, five years after the Stonewall Uprising. The school offers many courses, and the only admissions requirement to attend the school is a student must be a self-identified “homosexual.” Lavender University has no campus, and no degrees, and connects students and faculty through each specific specialty a student has. The article reads, 

The only admission requirement for most of the courses at Lavender “university” is that the applicant be a homosexual. The new school is scheduled to open in January and its organizers say prospective students have grabbed up 3,000 course catalogs and flooded their switchboard with inquiries. “There are very few places where gays can go to meet other gays except bars,” said Jill Gribin, 27, one of the organizers. “This fills a different kind of need. It’s a way to meet people around a specific interest you have in common.” Thus Lavender U. offers no degrees and has no campus. Instead, it will offer courses proposed by persons with a speciality they want to share, Miss Gribin said.

By sharing this, the Los Angeles Times positions itself on the side of the gay community. Most of the writers of the paper appear to have a positive-bias towards “homosexuals,” who directly quote those getting involved with gay-activist initiatives or bystanders that are directly involved, such as the Los Angeles police officials, who have said, “homosexual bars do not pose any problems.” 

As mentioned before, the East Coast has more tension with the gay community, specifically the New York Times, which featured articles from a variety of writers, both who held a negative and positive bias toward gays. West Coast papers are the complete opposite. The Los Angeles Times appears to have maintained a positive-neutral tone towards the gay community. Many of their articles have been in the gay community’s favor, such as William J. Drummond, who wrote, “The Male Colony — What They Think.” He specifically talks about how the “homosexuals” feel safe in the Los Angeles area, but they still fear exposure, which sheds light on one of the ongoing conflicts gays had to face. Drummond supports this claim by quoting a homosexual firsthand, “‘I can be myself out here,’ said Chuck Thompson, the tour leader, an Annapolis graduate and successful businessman. (Thompson is not his real name.) ‘Back in my hometown (in the Middle West) I had to lead a monastic life, but out here I can be myself.’” Directly quoting “homosexuals” during the rise of the gay-rights movement was essential, especially when it came to writing about and publicizing the constant turmoil the gay community had to face from the general public. On the other end, New York Times writer, David Bird, for example, wrote, “Trees in a Queen’s Park Cut Down as Vigilantes Harass Homosexuals,” published July 1st, 1969, talks about harassment brought upon the gay community by heterosexuals, but primarily focuses on the trees and women and children rather than the gay community itself. While the shift in tone towards the gay community from the mainstream American press was positive, after the Stonewall Uprising, it appears prominent that the West Coast already had an opinion on gays. Again, there was a conflict amongst East Coast Papers, the New York Times, hence the many articles written with different biases, as well as it being the regional birthplace of the gay rights movement. The mainstream American press and the way they reported on the gay community did shift after the Stonewall Uprising, but the East Coast, New York Times, went through a more rigorous change rather than the West Coast, Los Angeles Times

In conclusion, the tone of the mainstream American press did and did not change after the Stonewall Uprising. We can see that the tone of articles about gay people in the mainstream press changed after the Uprising in a significantly positive manner. If something were to erupt present-day, there would be a massive backlash towards the paper, resulting in a cancellation of subscriptions and loss in viewer base. The mainstream American press has come a long way, who now attempt to have neither a positive or negative bias towards a group of people or topics. There are still times when bias-driven articles are published, but it comes to say that people will take a stand, as society grows into a more equal and accepting place.

 

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