A History of Gay Rights Going Mainstream, as Told by Newsweekly Covers

You can measure how quickly public opinion on gay rights has changed by looking at poll numbers, or you can see it on the covers of the national newsweeklies. 

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You can measure how quickly public opinion on gay rights has changed by looking at poll numbers, or you can see it on the covers of national general interest magazines. As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over California's gay marriage-banning Prop 8, we wondered whether the justices, whose average age is 67, would vote in a way that reflects current public opinion. They should be especially aware of how quickly our views of gay people have changed in their lifetimes. In the 1960s — when Anton Scalia was a young lawyer in Cleveland and John Roberts was a grade-schooler in Indiana — gay people were primarily portrayed as weird and alien. In the 1970s and 1980s they were sad people to be pitied until — it seems odd to say it — Ellen DeGeneres's coming out in 1997. Suddenly the magazines started to fill up with images of gay people as happy people who want the same things from life as everyone else. Here's a visual tour:

Life, June 26, 1964. This photo essay didn't make the cover, but the tone of the article is much like the rest of the decade's coverage of "a secret world" that "grows open and bolder."

Look, January 10, 1967. In "an entire issue about... the American Man," we learn of "the sad 'gay' life of the homosexual." Irony!

The article says this is the fault of women (specifically overbearing mothers), of course.

Time, October 31, 1969. This is your brain on homosexuality.

Time, September 8, 1974. Predating Ellen by 23 years, the face of "The Gay Drive For Acceptance" is a sad, unaccepted airman.

Newsweek, June 6, 1977. "Anita Bryant vs. The Homosexuals." Bryant was a lesser Phyllis Schlafly-type figure. She led a campaign to fire public school teachers who were gay and against equal housing rights, and pushed the idea that gay people were out to "recruit" children. Notably, by 1980, she'd evolved to "live and let live."

Time, April 23, 1979. "How Gay is Gay?"

Newsweek, August 8, 1983. The onset of the AIDS epidemic gave magazines a new reason to show sad gay people...

Newsweek, January 6, 1986. ... Not that they really needed one since just growing up was a "dilemma" and "crisis."

The New Republic, August 28, 1989. With Andrew Sullivan's landmark essay, we see the beginning of the much-abused wedding topper motif. Newsweek used the same headline and image again in 2010.

Newsweek, March 12, 1990. The magazine seems to call for moderation, whatever that might be -- the cover lines warn of scary "Militants versus the Mainstream." Gays are "Testing the Limits of Tolerance," a recurring theme.

New York Daily News Magazine, June 24, 1990. We enter the somber anonymous gay cover phase. Gay has gone mainstream, but also cannot show its face.

New York Times Magazine, October 11, 1992. This politician is so mainstream, he needed to be cropped out of the cover.

Newsweek, June 21, 1993. Notice that the main cover line just says, "LESBIANS." It's hard to imagine a "LESBIANS" headline now -- the LESBIANS should at least be doing something interesting in some kind of trend piece, instead of just existing. There's that phrase "limits of tolerance" again lingering as a warning.

Time, April 14, 1997. Ellen DeGeneres comes out. Her "all-pants wardrobe" had stoked speculation. After Ellen, gay people start to look a lot happier to be on the covers of general interest magazines.

Newsweek, August 17, 1998. No one seems to be interested in this idea, neither Newsweek editors or their cover subject. The claim that homosexuality can be "cured" has been debunked.

Newsweek, March 20, 2000. The modern era: gays are friendly people with normal jobs, just like you.

Newsweek, July 7, 2003. 

Newsweek, December 2008. The magazines begin toying with the idea that gay marriage is not pushing the "limits of tolerance," but is actually a conservative idea after all. This is a not-so-subtle tweak of Sullivan's New Republic cover essay 19 years previous.

Newsweek, January 18, 2010. Two years later, the magazine completes the homage with an image and headline nearly identical to Sullivan's. Ted Olson, who got the cover byline, is the lawyer who argued against Prop 8 at the Supreme Court today.

Newsweek, May 21, 2012. Obama with a rainbow halo.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.