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Discuss this topic in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Politics & Prose:

  • The Dissipation of Decency -- August 1998
    The real political scandal these days is the abandonment of those without health insurance.

  • America, Inc. -- July 1998
    A review of Gain, the new novel by Richard Powers in which the corporation is the shaping force of American history.

  • Do the Right Thing -- June 1998
    Thinking globally -- and acting ethically -- in the new world economic order.

  • The Graveyard of the American Dream -- May 1998
    What's behind California's decline, and what's at stake for the rest of the country.

  • Games of Monopoly -- April 1998
    A look at the tactics of John D. Rockefeller shows that capitalism, like history, repeats itself.

  • The Price of Longevity -- March 1998
    Medicare and what we have to look forward to.

  • The King of Drudge -- February 1998
    A review of a new biography of the man behind the assembly line -- whose ideas need to be acknowledged and abandoned.

  • Color Us Green -- January 1998
    A heretical new approach to economics puts ecology first -- and may change the way we think about growth.

  • The Deep Slumber of Decided Opinion -- December 1997
    Those who hail the virtues of trade without limits are this era's reactionaries.

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

  • The Last Refuge of the American Bigot
    As the media searches for the roots of anti-gay violence, it should scrutinize its own coverage

    by Jack Beatty

    October 21, 1998

    In the aftermath of the shocking murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, Beatrice Dohrn, the executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, put hate crimes against gays in disquieting perspective. "Matthew Shepard's horrible suffering and death," she said, "cannot be dismissed simply as the fault of deranged, isolated individuals. His attackers are among millions of Americans who constantly hear the message that gay people are not worthy of the most basic equal treatment." One of the ways Americans have heard this message is through the media.

    The media's role in perpetuating prejudice against gays and lesbians is the subject of a timely research paper published this past month by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The author, Lisa Bennett, a freelance writer and a teacher at New York University, focuses on 356 stories about gay men and women published by Time and Newsweek during the past fifty years. Time and Newsweek were chosen not because of a unique bias (Bennett could have compiled similar examples of bias from many other publications) but because of their national influence -- especially in the media environment of earlier decades, when there was nothing like today's multiplicity of news sources.

    Bennett finds three "major, ongoing problems" in this fifty-year body of work:

  • The reporting of "unsupported negative allegations" that gays and lesbians are "more likely to molest children or to be sexually predatory than heterosexuals"

  • The quoting of contemptuous labels like "queer dyke bitch" and "fascist pervert from hell"

  • The assumption that "gays and lesbians are . . . in themselves, 'bad'''

    In the 1940s and 1950s, Time and Newsweek described homosexuals with words like "abominations," "corrupt," "degenerates," "dirty pansies," "vile," and "wicked." Sometimes these epithets and descriptions came from quoted sources, but often they were the words of the reporters themselves, who thereby not only reflected prevailing prejudice but also ratified and perpetuated it. Anti-homosexual prejudice is insidious, because it refers not to some putative trait or belief or behavior deemed undesirable, but to the person's very nature. "The category itself -- and whatever it means to the individual using it," Bennett writes, quoting from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's The Anatomy of Prejudices, "is the main accusation."

    As one might expect in a nation gripped by the Cold War, most of the early stories -- Time had thirteen in the 1950s, Newsweek had eight -- depicted homosexuals in the military or government as security risks, because of the ease with which these "deviants" could be blackmailed. When they were not portrayed as threats to national security, homosexuals were stigmatized as "The Abnormal," to cite a Time headline from 1950. Damaged by strong mothers and weak fathers, male homosexuals were unfit to meet what Time called "the ordinary shocks of life," and needed psychotherapy to achieve the beatific state of normality.

    The main source for articles depicting homosexuality as a "mental disorder" were psychiatrists. The American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a sickness in 1952, in its first diagnostic manual, and did not change that classification until 1973, under pressure from gay-rights organizations. At that time the APA ruled that "for a mental condition to be considered a psychiatric disorder it should either regularly cause emotional distress or regularly be associated with generalized impairment of social functioning; homosexuality does not meet those criteria." Late in coming, this clean bill of health has yet to repair the damage done to gay men and women by years of "scientific" slander.

    Neither newsmagazine found the APA's declassification of homosexuality as an illness newsworthy. Newsweek, which ran an article called "Are Homosexuals Sick?" about the debate within the APA, took nearly three years to inform its readers that homosexuality was officially no longer an illness. Time mentioned the new classification eighteen months after it was changed, calling it "an awkward compromise by a confused and defensive profession."

    In the 1960s both magazines updated the vocabulary of prejudice by quoting usages like "dandified sissy," "tweedy lesbian," "invert," "swish," and "queer." The rise of the gay-rights movement in the 1970s, however, brought "a fifty percent decline" in outright slurs in Time and Newsweek. The magazines started running photographs of real gay people, something they had never done before -- partly because after decades of vilification few gays dared to reveal themselves, especially in magazines accustomed to depicting gays as lurking menaces to society. In 1975 Time made history by showing a gay man, Leonard Matlovich, an Air Force sergeant, on its cover with the headline "I Am a Homosexual." Later on, both magazines began using "gay" instead of the medically tainted "homosexual," but the word was invariably accompanied by poisoned adjectives like "admitted," "avowed," "committed," even "confessed."

    Newsweek's first cover story on homosexuality came in 1977. The occasion was the campaign by Anita Bryant, the singer and former beauty queen, to overturn a Dade County, Florida, ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from housing discrimination. Newsweek repeated Bryant's claims that gays were recruiting children for unspeakable practices, a calumny central to today's right-wing demonology of homosexuality. In the article Bryant referred to gays as "human garbage," and the same issue included this incendiarism from Jerry Falwell: "So-called gay folks [would] just as soon kill you as look at you." Vileness like this incubated the hatred that killed Matthew Shepard.

    The AIDS scare of the 1980s renewed the dominant paradigm at Time and Newsweek that, as Bennett puts it, "Homosexuality is a problem." The magazines suggested that something called the "gay and lesbian lifestyle" had brought on the AIDS epidemic. "Aside from the blurring of sex roles," Time editorialized, "perhaps the most obvious aspect of the male gay culture is its promiscuity." This glib surety owed little to careful statistical analysis, as Bennett shows.

    An episode revealing the tenacity and obliviousness of prejudice at both magazines came in 1989, when Newsweek denounced as "squalid" and "scurrilous" and Time as "vicious" and "an outrageous charge that would be devastating if true" a Republican-inspired rumor that the new Democratic House Speaker, Tom Foley, was gay. The assumption behind those adjectives was insulting to millions of gay Americans, their loved ones, and friends.

    Bennett concludes with the coverage given the "gays in the military" issue in 1993, when President Clinton lent it prominence by -- impolitically, as it turned out -- calling for an end to the military's ban on gays. Neither magazine, in Bennett's convincingly documented judgment, handled the story with professional levels of fairness, accuracy, and balance. She argues, for example, that when Time quoted Senator Strom Thurmond's claim that homosexuality was a form of mental illness, the magazine had "a responsibility to clarify that it was not." That is what Bennett means by "balance" -- and she urges all news organizations to strive for it. When Trent Lott calls homosexuality a "sin," the reporters quoting him should get a balancing statement from a religious authority who disagrees. Indeed, journalists should treat such expressions of anti-gay prejudice as they would "derogatory comments about Jews or African-Americans." Above all, Bennett argues, journalists should "recognize that talking about gays and lesbians is not tantamount to talking about a set of sexual practices, but rather about a diverse group of people" who can no more be defined by what they do in bed than can Mr. and Mrs. Normal.

    With public expression of religious and racial prejudice constrained by social pressure, homophobic rhetoric and innuendo is the last refuge of the American bigot, and it can lead to a death like Matthew Shepard's. Journalists are not the only ones who need to awake to the social consequences of their words. When we next hear someone tell a stigmatizing joke about gays, we should remember Matthew Shepard and call the joke-teller on it. In a nation where, according to a study quoted in The New York Times, 32 percent of male respondents reported "they had verbally threatened homosexuals and 18 percent said they had physically threatened or assaulted them," prejudice is no laughing matter.


    Discuss this topic in the Politics & Society conference of
    Post & Riposte.

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

    Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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