"Give Her a Baseball Mitt"
Defining Lesbianism: Popular Advice
to Parents of the Baby Boom Generation
Copyright 1998. Annis H. Hopkins, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
In 1993, during a conversation about my childhood, my 70 year-old mother held her hands out to me in obvious distress and cried, "I don't think we ever realized the full extent of what homosexuality meant at that time. I mean, I didn't, I know. . . . I never heard that much about it, then, at least not in our church. It was pretty well new to me at the time you began letting us know about how your feelings were, because I had not--now, maybe Dad did, but I didn't. I wasn't that aware of people being like that. Different, you know."
I am a member of the Baby Boom generation, from which have come the lesbian women currently at the forefront of the Lesbian and Gay Rights movement. I grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, part of the vast rural heartland of America. Most of us who have become activists by any definition have come to terms with our lesbian or gay identity and are living relatively productive lives, both as activists and as human beings. But how did we get here from Post-War America? Where did we get our ideas about what it means to be lesbian? How did any of us ever survive as children those years of McCarthyite witchhunts and psychiatric doomsaying? The answers to questions about our survival will always and only come from within each of us, that core of resistance, self-esteem, intuition--call it what you will--that brought us through to healthy adulthood. But examining some of the extremely negative advice and virulently ugly public opinion that faced our parents during our formative years may help us to better understand our own struggles, and those of the parents who raised us in love and in fear.
Some of the few sources many of our parents could have turned to were the rural American's window on the world, the popular, family-oriented magazines that came into their homes. This essay examines the advice about lesbianism offered to parents by five such magazines of the Baby Boom period: Coronet, Parents' Magazine, Readers' Digest, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping.
While the areas of emphasis differ, each of the authors of the articles reviewed offers his/her own definition of lesbianism and/or homosexuality, reveals the author's attitude toward homosexuality, and states the author's opinion as to causation.
Purpose of the Study: The purpose of this study is to undertake a media analysis of a selection of popular family-oriented magazines that were in the homes of middle-American Baby Boomers during our formative years, in order to find out what kind of instructions, images, and judgments about lesbianism those magazines were providing to the people who shaped our lives.
Research Questions: Four research questions drive the study:
1. Was the subject of lesbianism addressed in popular family-oriented magazines from 1930 to 1970?
2. If so, how were lesbians represented?
3. What "causes" of lesbianism were presented?
4. Would the popular magazines' information likely have led our parents toward acceptance or away from us? That is, do the articles in popular family-oriented magazines from 1930 to 1970 reveal anti-lesbian bias?
Hypotheses: I expected to find that the subject of lesbianism would be addressed only rarely in family magazines of the Baby Boom period. Further, I hypothesized that a negative image would appear. In terms of "causes" of lesbianism, I anticipated reading oversimplified presentations of "scientific" theorizing. In sum, I predicted that a heavy anti-lesbian bias would be the overall finding.
Methodology: Although I realize that Boomers come from all walks of life and all areas of the country, I chose to focus for this study on a small selection of well-known, popular monthly family-oriented magazines likely to have been in the homes of working class or middle class families in the heartland of America, in the rural and small-town Midwest. I chose magazines with a particular family focus that I remember reading either in my own home, or in my aunt's beauty shop, which was frequented by farm and town ladies and their daughters who shared similar views to my parents'.
Initially, seven magazines were chosen for examination: Parents' Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, Woman's Home Companion, Readers' Digest, Coronet, Better Homes and Gardens, and Good Housekeeping. I consulted the Reader's Guide to locate articles. Except for the 1937-39 volume--which listed both lesbianism and homosexuality with the notation, "See sex perversion"--until 1947, neither term was listed as a topic. In the 1947-1949 volume, homosexuality reappears, again followed by the phrase, "See sex perversion." In these volumes, I found relevant articles primarily under the topic headings sex and sexual (with expanded phrases, such as sex perversion). Beginning in the 1955-'57 volume, all articles listed under homosexuality for these magazines were collected and examined; in addition, articles about sex crimes, sex education, and sexual development were examined, with some discretion, for passing references to homosexuality. In each volume, I also looked for inversion and lesbianism. The term Lesbianism reappears as a regular topic heading beginning with the 1959-'70 compilation volumes.
I examined each article for the following attributes:
1. Writer's name and sex
2. Writer's credentials
3. Terms used for "lesbianism" and "homosexuality"
4. Descriptive terms used for "lesbianism" and "homosexuality" (sin, mental illness, problem, condition)
5. Sex on which the article focuses (Is the focus on lesbians, gay men, or both?)
6. General tone (angry, fearful, conciliatory, accepting, condemnatory)
7. Primary focus--scientific or religious?
8. Experts cited
9. Type of article (advice to parents, call to battle, advice to counselors, information to general public)
10. Main focus of article (Is it mostly about homosexuality or is that incidental?)
11. Causation suggested
12. Treatments suggested, with prognosis.
Summary of Results: Each of the hypotheses was affirmed. First, only four of the magazines addressed the subject of lesbianism even once during the period studied. Ladies' Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, and Woman's Home Companion contained no articles relating to lesbianism during the period selected, although each regularly addressed topics of sex education and maturation of young women. For example, Better Homes and Gardens entered the sex education debate with nine articles between 1944 and 1953, but no mention then or later is made of lesbianism, nor of homosexuality generally.
Secondly, in those magazines that did address the topic, all but one article I examined focused primarily on male homosexuality. Even those that mentioned lesbianism suggested its lesser importance as a societal concern. For example, Parents' Magazine assured its readers in 1968 that "female homosexuality . . . has never been, and isn't now, a widespread or serious social problem" (56). The lack of attention to lesbianism is not particularly surprising, given the sexism of the times; only with the impetus of the Second Wave of Feminism, beginning around 1965, have the status, roles, and problems of women become a focus of much popular media attention. However, these articles do not adequately reflect academic and psychiatric interest in lesbianism at the time. Not only such questionable studies as Kinsey's, but also more reputable psychiatric and medical research results were available. One can only speculate about why these writers so emphatically downplayed lesbianism.
Third, the image presented of lesbians is uniformly negative, as predicted. Homosexuals of both sexes are invariably presented as unhappy, dysfunctional, dangerous individuals who must be treated, cured, or restrained if treatment fails. In every case, the stated goal of treatment is to change the person from homosexual to heterosexual, with the clearly stated assertion that such change is both possible and desirable.
Fourth, there is general agreement as to the causes of lesbianism, although far more attention is given to causes of male homosexuality, since these writers view it as the primary social problem at issue. A summary of these will be provided later in this paper.
An unexpected finding concerned the definitions, or "constructions," of lesbianism. The now-familiar concept of "sexual orientation" (simply stated, that aspect of personality that determines the sex of a person's sexual object choice) was apparently not a part of these writers' thinking. Virtually all suggest that homosexuality, and lesbianism in particular, is a matter of inadequate identification with one's own sex. This analysis reflects two public conceptualizations of lesbianism: inversion theory and mannishness. The older concept of "inversion" was accepted by many medical and psychiatric researchers from the late 19th Century on. According to Carole-Anne Tyler, "the sexual inversion model of homosexuality . . . seems to confuse . . . the two major axes of sexual difference: gender identity and object choice" (34). Inversion theory posits that "homosexuals" are really members of the opposite sex, trapped in the wrong sexed body. Under this theory, a lesbian is a woman who either really is male, or thinks that she is. Radclyffe Hall's celebrated The Well of Loneliness (1928) helped to popularize this image, and to this day, continues to be labeled the "classic lesbian novel." "Sexual inversion theory explains what looks like homosexual object choice as in effect a heterosexual object choice by labeling the homosexual an 'invert' and, therefore, psychically . . . the opposite sex" (Tyler 34). Yet at the time of these magazines' writing, this phenomenon was already being labeled "transsexualism" and being separated from "homosexuality" in the research and in the public mind. Tyler adds that "clearly, in recent years in the gay movement it has been seen as important to maintain a distinction between gender identity and sexual object choice . . ." (36).
These articles also reflect the cultural assumption that "mannishness" and lesbianism coincide. As Susan Cahn points out, in her 1993 article, "From the 'Muscle Moll' to the 'Butch' Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women's Sport," ". . . in the wider culture it was the 'masculine' style that stood out as the sign for lesbianism'" (362). That is, women who engage in masculine activities, such as sports, or who project a masculine appearance in terms of clothing and behavior, are lesbian. Each of the writers who comment on causation in these magazines indicates that lesbianism results from a girl's failure to identify properly with her own sex, and over-identification with her father's.
In sum, whereas the writers of the articles examined for this study seemed to view homosexuality as inappropriate gender-role identification with the opposite sex, a very different contemporaneous approach, which continues into the present, viewed homosexuality as a sexual orientation, or even as a political choice. Significantly, presenting lesbianism as a gender-role malfunction allowed these writers to lay the "blame" for such a perversion firmly on the parents, making these particular magazines especially problematic for Baby Boomers.
An Information Wasteland
I came out to my parents in 1983, at the age of 35. There was never a time when I did not know I was a lesbian, but for years I had no words for it. Like my mother, trapped in her own closet of naivete and ignorance, I grew up engulfed by silence about who and what I was. Southern Illinois, Bible Belt USA, was not a place suffused with information about sex itself, let alone about "sexual perversion." I knew, but for years, I didn't know what it was that I knew.
According to Sherrie Inness, "by the early 1920s . . . information about homosexuality was more readily available to the general public. . . . Watered-down versions of [Freud's] works appeared in countless, mass-market periodicals, in pseudoscientific publications, and in self-help literature" (306-7). But were these sources of information available in the late '30s through '50s in the Post-Depression heartland of America? Would the small-town library have had on its shelves, to be perused by farmers and their wives and daughters, Phyllis Blanchard's The Adolescent Girl, Maurice Chideckel's Female Sex Perversion, or Olga Knopf's Women on their Own? What about Freud, Havelock Ellis, von Ulrichs, and Krafft-Ebing? Could my father have joined Radclyffe Hall's Sir Phillip, thirty years earlier in The Well of Loneliness, shut in his study, poring over pages that made his blood run cold as he saw his beloved daughter described there? My father reports,
"Well, I've read a lot, trying to understand, you know, and it's just one of those things, the way it is. And I had exposure on the farm. There's animals that are the same way. We're all an animal, as far as that's concerned. And people get notions in their mind, set up a norm. They don't look at the way life really is. And it's awful hard to be taught things, and you still realize that that can't be it, what you've been taught. And you just have to battle it back and forth. So it's kind of hard to blame people, but they shouldn't shut their eyes to the facts, the way facts are, the way life is."
Unfortunately, my father's reading began long after I was grown and gone, as he struggled to understand my trips to a psychiatrist and his long-term confusion over what was "wrong" with me. When I was a child, he was as much in the dark as I.
Perhaps the most logical place for mothers to turn would have been to the prescriptive women's and family magazines that had for so long been advisors to the isolated rural wife/mother. They told her how to fix her hair, cook the soup, plant her garden, feed the chickens, wash the laundry, and raise her children. In the '60s, even the Farm Journal entered the sex education arena, advising farmers and their wives to "start rearing [their] children for a happy and responsible life--including sex life--. . . literally, when baby is in the bassinet" (72). How many of these mothers, confused and frightened by behaviors they could not understand, might have turned hopefully to mass-circulated magazines geared to middle-class housewives?
These magazines reflected the "increasingly conservative attitude toward lesbianism" of postwar America described by Kate Adams in her article entitled "Making the World Safe for the Missionary Position: Images of the Lesbian in Post-World War II America":
In the early 1950s . . . the psychoanalytic establishment institutionalized a "sickness theory" model of homosexual behavior which would affect the medical and cultural treatment, as well as the self-perception, of the lesbian for years to come. (256)
Adams points out that many of the cultural messages of the day "encouraged women to think of the lesbian as a neurotic, immoral threat to 'normal' womanhood" (256). Her focus is on fiction and nonfiction book-length texts, some of which formed the sources for the materials that appeared in the popular magazines.
Coronet was a favorite in the Midwestern farmer's household; like the Readers' Digest, it was small and manageable for children as well as adults. Unlike the Digest, however, Coronet leapt into the fray surrounding homosexuality early on, and became the most outspoken of the family magazines I examined, long before any of the others tackled the subject. Besides being a participant in the postwar sex education debate, with 10 articles between 1949 and 1955, Coronet published four articles about homosexuality: "New Moral Menace to Our Youth: Homosexuality" (1950); "New Facts About Sex Crimes" (1954); "What Have the Sex Experts Done to Children?" (1955); and "Third Sex, Guilt or Sickness?" (1955). Each article clearly exemplifies the attitudes of the preceding few years, with little hint of the ambivalence and debate to come.
In the introduction to the first article, the editors proudly state their position:
In printing this article, Coronet seeks to demolish a long-standing taboo against a frank and factual discussion of homosexuality. Qualified editors and researchers spent six months collecting material, interviewing authorities, and evaluating information. The result is a significant survey of the entire subject as it endangers the youth of America--the most comprehensive such survey ever to be published in a national magazine. (101)
Calling homosexuality a "sinister threat," and a "serious problem," writer Ralph H. Major proposes to analyze such persons as the homosexuals fired from the State Department after the McCarthy hearings. He cites the "danger" of "an alarming increase in the incidence of homosexuality" (102), and calls for awareness of the growing threat of "sex perverts" (102). He warns that
all too often, we lose sight of the fact that the homosexual is an inveterate seducer of the young of both sexes, and that he presents a social problem because he is not content with being degenerate himself; he must have degenerate companions, and is ever seeking younger victims. (102)
He offers examples of "pathetic cases" of how "long-time perverts" seduce innocent, unsuspecting, young men to their debased way of life (103). He claims, "Once a man assumes the role of homosexual, he often throws off all moral restraints" (104). "They descend through perversions to other forms of depravity, such as drug addiction, burglary, sadism, and even murder" (104).
Major then goes on to a discussion of the causes of homosexuality:
Every psychiatrist, sociologist and educator queried in Coronet's survey stressed one point: 'More than anyone else, parents are responsible for erasing the threat of homosexuality.' Since parental attitudes and home environment are fundamental to healthy adolescent development, mothers and fathers should combat homosexuality through vigilance, kindness, and sympathetic understanding. 'I have met very few perverts who come from happy homes,' a famous doctor told Coronet. (107)
Major presents four main reasons for homosexuality:
1) Parental cultivation of infantilism in adolescents; 2) Distortion of values produced by high-tension city life; 3) Increasingly complicated economic conditions, causing reversion to homosexuality as an escape; and 4) Glandular disbalance. (106)
While acknowledging the lack of agreement about the issue--"homosexuality may be a disease, a condition, a criminal offense, or a moral sin"--Major has no doubt about the appropriate response: ". . . steps must be taken now to protect American youth from an evergrowing peril" (107).
Finally, Major offers parents a plan of attack:
1. Sex education begins at home. Instruct boys and girls as early as possible in the knowledge of normal sex practices.
2. Encourage your children to bring their sex problems and questions to you.
3. Know your children's friends; have them invited to your home where you can observe their conduct and personalities.
4. Urge children to exercise caution in speaking to strangers; especially instruct them never to accompany strangers anywhere without your permission.
5. Investigate your children's schools, camps, social clubs, and athletic organizations. Do not be afraid to ask frank questions of the adult leaders in charge. Bring to their attention any reports you may have heard of homosexuality within such groups. (107-8)
Since many Baby Boomers with our own children have embraced almost all of this advice in our own parenting--with obvious exceptions--it is especially chilling to note that this good advice was offered against us, to the parents who wanted to protect us from ourselves.
The two 1955 articles continue on the path beaten by Major in 1950. "What Have 'Sex Experts' Done to Children?" is billed as the "bewildered outcry from a teen-age girl" (111) who is worried about a female friend who has stayed too long in the "girl-friend crush stage" and is now in danger of being "on the way to becoming homosexual" (113). She ponders her friend's "unnatural interest" in her, and wonders how she might be helped (114). This is the only article in any of the magazines I examined which focuses exclusively on lesbianism, and it is also the least informative. Rather than presenting a serious discussion of lesbianism, the article criticizes public school sex education while appealing to parents to "Please . . . put down that book on 'What Every Young Girl Should Know' and just . . . listen . . ." (115).
"The Third Sex--Guilt or Sickness" asks the question, "Is the homosexual 'an adult with child-like emotions, the victim of a physical imbalance--or a dangerous non-conformist?'" (129). Author Ted Berkman warns that homosexuality is a horrendous condition, which, in some forms, involves "the seduction of, or a forcible attack on, a helpless minor" (129). He adds that "many acts of adult violence--assaults, beatings, suicides--have stemmed from homosexual conflicts. The shadow of blackmail is always present" (129). He points out that although laws apply to both male and female homosexuals, "female offenders are substantially fewer and treated more leniently by the courts" (130). Berkman's purpose seems to be to argue that homosexuality is a physical and mental illness, rather than a moral issue: "Is it subject to treatment and cure? Biologists answer with a conservative, 'Very likely.' Psychiatrists and social scientists say positively, 'No doubt about it'" (130).
Berkman appeals to biology for a theory of glandular causation, quoting Dr. Herman Rubin: "A hormonic imbalance is likely to nudge a boy toward homosexuality, or at least make him less able to withstand emotional and social pressures pushing him in that direction" (131). From the psychiatrists, Berkman brings the view that "the homosexual suffers from stunted emotional growth; he has a child-like emotional equipment in the body of a grown man" (131). In his brief references to lesbianism, Berkman asserts that
Female homosexuality, too, appears to be largely traceable to unhealthy childhood environment: marital discord, rejection by one or both parents, overdependence, and rigid discipline coupled with complete lack of sex education. (132)
Perhaps most telling of all is his assessment of the non-family factors that lead to homosexuality:
Also to be considered are pressures of environment: high-tension city living, replacement of human contact by impersonal mechanization, and the haunting insecurities of the atomic era. Some sociologists point to the growing aggressiveness of career-minded American women as an additional element tending to de-masculinize our men. (132)
This obvious backlash against the independence women experienced during World War II continues even today. Berkman's conclusion is that
. . . whatever the elements making up any single pattern, it seems abundantly clear that the homosexual is a sick person in the usual sense of the term: that he has distinct symptoms which can be traced to their origins; that he can be treated and cured. (132)
Major's and Berkman's articles serve as excellent springboards for the materials that turn up later in other family magazines of the Baby Boom. Their lists of "authorities" appear again and again, and their conclusions remain the standard throughout the sixties.
Parents' Magazine offered new articles almost yearly about sex education, advice to parents about developing sexually healthy children, teaching them about reproduction and preparing them for marriage--at least 45 articles during the two decades from 1935 to 1957. Yet when mothers turned to these, they found virtually complete silence on the subject of homosexuality. In a 1937 article entitled "Prepare Them for Marriage," R.E. Dickerson calls same-sex adolescent crushes a "phase" along the route to "normal" adulthood, and a 1942 article, "What a Mother Can Tell Her Daughter," warns that a daughter may ask about "perversions." Neither goes on to offer any advice or information. Two later articles--reactions to Kinsey's male (1948) and female (1953) behavior studies--mention the word homosexuality; each of these drops the word into one lonely sentence with other "perversions" (masturbation, for example) and immediately passes on to less unsavory topics. While the national news media of the day focussed plenty of attention on Kinsey's comments about same-sex activity, Parents' Magazine acted as though they had never been spoken.
In 1961, "What to Say About Sex" sets the stage for blaming parents when Fraiberg concludes this way:
Everything we do as parents shows our children how we value their maleness or femaleness, and through our valuations they acquire their satisfactions (or dissatisfactions) in being girls or boys. . . . The aim of all sex education . . . is to prepare a child for his adult sexual role. (123)
It was not until 1966, however, followed in 1968 by a second article, that Parents' Magazine directly addressed the topic of homosexuality. The 1966 article, by Dr. Irving Bieber--published the month I graduated from High School--would have been devastating to parents looking for information about a gay son or daughter. "What You Should Know About Homosexuality" accused and condemned parents without trial, much as Ralph Major had in Coronet sixteen years earlier. In the article, there is no hint of the loving acceptance Baby Boomers naively hoped for when we came out to our parents as adults. The emphasis is clear: "it is the parents who are in the best possible position to prevent their youngsters from developing homosexual tendencies" (62). Dr. Irving Bieber, coauthor of the 1965 text Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals, writing in Parents' Magazine, insisted that
the indications were that . . . homosexuals had been perfectly normal in infancy, and that as a consequence of certain neurotic parental attitudes . . . [they] failed to develop fully their innate potential to be heterosexual. . . . We now know with a high degree of certainty that secure, confident youngsters who are taught to be proud of their sex as males or females do not develop into homosexuals and cannot be tempted into a homosexual way of life. (62)
Here Bieber reflects the emphasis on "sex identification" ("properly" identifying with one's own biological sex) as the pivotal factor in homosexuality, rather than on the newer concept of sexual orientation.
Both mother and father receive blame for the creation of gay males:
The mother is usually too intimate, possessive, and protective toward her son, and she discourages him from developing masculine behavior. . . . The nature of a boy's relationship with his father basically determines the child's sexual direction. . . . A relationship which encourages homosexuality is one in which the father not only spends little time with his son but when with him is detached and demasculinizing in one way or another. (104)
Lesbianism is also attributed to parental failures:
More often than not the mother of such a girl is very bossy and overly critical. . . . The father appears to be the less decisive figure in these situations. His role may range from possessiveness and seductiveness to rejection. . . . In the vast majority of homosexual cases both parents interfere with the child's natural identification with his own sex and with an interest in the opposite sex. (105)
After his ruthless assault on parents, Bieber ends by assuring them that
with modern techniques of psychotherapy, homosexuality is now a treatable condition. The younger the patient, the more favorable the outlook for cure. Where a parent has good reason to believe his child has homosexual tendencies, the family physician should be consulted. He will make a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or to an agency specializing in family problems. A forthright and courageous facing up to such problems in the young can go far in preventing homosexuality from developing, thus saving countless men and women from a lifetime of despair and suffering. (105)
Only two years later, Dr. Lawrence Hatterer and Nancy Mayer took to the pages of Parents' Magazine to partially recant Bieber's assertions:
In supposing that the causes of homosexuality were to be found in the family style--typically, where there is an overprotective, dominating, or seductive mother and a passive, or hostile, or rejecting father--we have surely in the past been unfair to many parents. (56)
As cited above, this second article makes it clear that homosexuality in boys is far more serious than lesbianism:
Much less attention has been given to female homosexuality because this has never been, and isn't now, a widespread or serious social problem. . . . Male homosexuality is a very troublesome condition both to society and usually to the homosexuals themselves. (56)
After this introductory comment, no further attention is given to lesbianism. But Hatterer and Mayer essentially repeat the information given in the 1966 article, while adding material about "influences outside the family which may lead . . . into homosexual behavior" (56). These influences, virtually unchanged since Berkman's formulation, include "an ever-more complex, deceitful 'success-oriented' society" whose "goals are power, prestige, money, and sexual success" (56) and a "lack of clear images of masculinity and femininity" (57). The writers end, like Bieber, with a confident statement that even if boys "show homosexual inclinations,"
a sensitive and forthright facing up to such problems . . . can go far in preventing homosexuality from developing and in helping young boys to overcome their fears and insecurities and to grow up to be self-confident men, with the help of a psychiatrist or psychologist, if necessary. (72)
This, despite the fact that in 1966, about the same time as the publishing of Bieber's first Parents' Magazine article, Bieber and his colleagues "publicly dissociated themselves from the claims [of cures] made on their behalf."
My parents say they don't remember reading any of these articles--"we never had Parents' Magazine"--but my father had certainly internalized this content somehow, from the things he had read and heard during my childhood. When I came out to my parents, almost 20 years later, my father asked, "Do you blame me?" He knew that "it" was someone's fault, most likely his, and he needed to know if he was to be blamed.
Like Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies' Home Journal, and Woman's Home Companion, Good Housekeeping took a stance in the sex education debate, with seven articles from 1937 to 1957. However, it was not until the sixties that Good Housekeeping brought up the subject of homosexuality in two articles, and then, only male homosexuality. "Our Son Was Different," in 1966, "deals with the deeply troubling problem of the youthful male homosexual in our society" (51). Reflected in the language is the culture's fear and loathing around this subject:
The disclosure--which almost always comes suddenly--that a son or daughter [the article's only mention of female homosexuality] has become a sexual deviate is a family calamity that can hardly be measured. It brings to most households the same desolate feeling of loss as a child's death. (113) [my emphasis]
Lester David speaks of the "catastrophic human effects" of "the problem," and promises to take a "clear look" at "the extent of the problem, its consequences, causes, prevention and possible cure" (113). He asserts that "male homosexuality is one of the most serious problems confronting our society at the present time and a direct menace to impressionable and emotionally unsure young boys" (113). Not only that, but "only a minority of homosexuals lead constructive lives and contribute to society" (113).
David's language reveals that his thinking is mired in the 1940s and earlier. In addition to references to the "menace" of homosexuality, he speaks of "a life of inversion" and "the practice" of homosexuality, despite the fact that these conceptualizations were already outdated at his writing.
Further, he claims that "homosexuality is an illness that can be successfully treated. If caught in its early stages, it can be prevented entirely" (113). This despite the fact that many researchers were already beginning to insist on the opposite. In fact, the debate was only six years away from the 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to take homosexuality off its list of mental illnesses.
Perhaps most devastating for Baby Boomers and their parents, David asserted that "faulty parent-child relationships in the very early, very crucial years of a boy's life are the main causes of homosexuality" (115). He cites the same factors as appeared in the Parents' Magazine articles, referring to Irving Bieber as his main source. He blames the mother in the story most, explaining that she "feminized her son . . . and bound him so closely to her that he was unable to become emotionally interested in other females" (120). While less culpable, for David, the father also must bear responsibility: "he was not father enough to prevent this sad twisting of his son. Weak and passive in his home, dominated by his wife, he set no strong masculine example for the boy to follow" (120). David's account ends positively, with the hapless young man cured by psychiatry, and the parents in counseling to learn how to mend their ways as parents.
Unfortunately, these attitudes form part of the personal life experience of too many lesbian and gay Baby Boomers. How many of us, even twenty and thirty years later, have faced parents whose first response to our coming out was to dismiss us from their lives? One Jewish lesbian acquaintance tells how her parents performed their religious rituals for the dead in her memory after she came out to them in the early 1980s, and no longer acknowledge her existence. Knowing where some of our parents got their "training" on homosexuality, from these everyday, household magazines, may help some of us to understand their responses, but the knowledge may also make us even more angry at the culture which drove our parents out of our lives.
Readers' Digest was another family stand-by during my childhood years; I continue to value it for its readable presentation of the viewpoint of an important segment of U.S. culture. However, despite more than 20 articles on topics relating to sex between 1930 and 1970, only one contains a specific mention of homosexuality. Published in 1946, "Sex in the Classroom" reports on a popular sex education class at the University of California at Berkeley. The reference to homosexuality is used as an attention-grabber at the beginning of the article:
"I am asked," the professor said casually, "whether homosexuality is curable. I have to answer 'yes' and 'no.' There is a type of invert whose sexual nature is so misdirected from childhood that medicine and psychology can't help much. There are other perfectly normal individuals who through force of circumstances fall into homosexual practices. They can be cured, if there's a will." (15)
The writer uses this opener to show how shocking the class was, and to demonstrate what kind of material was being presented; no further attention is given to homosexuality in the article.
Readers' Digest finally revisits the subject in 1971--just outside our time frame--with an article called "What Makes a Homosexual?" I include this article here primarily to show how little had changed, even though by 1971, the concept of sexual orientation was being widely debated, and the 1969 Stonewall Riots had changed the face of society forever for lesbians and gay men. The subtitle of the article states, "New attitudes and understanding are shedding a helpful light on an age-old problem of human sexuality" (71). While the writer, Lawrence J. Hatterer, M.D.--the same writer who attacked parents in his 1968 Parents' Magazine polemic--proclaims his readiness to dispel myths about homosexuality, his message reiterates two of the most insidious:
Disappearing . . . is the idea that an individual who has engaged in homosexual practices cannot lead a normal, heterosexual life. He can--if he wants to. (71)
The first myth here is that "homosexual practices" determine or are homosexuality; that is, this view ignores the concept of sexual orientation in favor of a behavior-based definition. The second is that "if he wants to," a homosexual can become heterosexual. While Hatterer acknowledges the difficulty of effecting a cure, he blames the lack of motivation of the subject. Hatterer remains firmly on the illness model side of the debate.
Perhaps most damaging, at this late date, is Hatterer's return to the accusations of parenting as the key factor in producing lesbians and gay men. Hatterer claims that the roots of homosexuality lie in "the many classic family patterns that tend to confuse a child about his sexual identity: the overprotective mother, and the ineffectual, hostile and critical father . . ." (72). Like most of his fellows, Hatterer's main focus is on male homosexuality, but he does mention in passing the causes of lesbianism: " . . . the girl who is given a catcher's mitt instead of a doll" (72). While he says that he doesn't "want to give the impression that parents alone are responsible for homosexuality in a child" (73), he spends relatively little time discussing other influences, coming back repeatedly to the parents' responsibility to control the child's life so that "dangerous" influences may be avoided. He concludes by stating, "I have never known a family yet where love, acceptance and open communication prevailed that turned out a totally committed homosexual" (74).
One might think that these ideas have long since been dismissed within the culture. But when I came out to my parents in the mid 1980s, and my father's asked, "Do you blame me?", I responded, "Blame you? Why would I blame you?" He replied, with tears in his eyes, "Well, you know. I made you do all those boy things--made you play softball--all that. Do you think I caused it?" Obviously, even Baby Boom parents who had not read Bieber and Hatterer in the '60s had heard and internalized their beliefs, and have carried with them a horrendous burden of guilt. Did they not love enough? Did their way of loving irreparably damage their children? Do we hold them responsible? Do we hate them? No wonder we Baby Boomers have had a very hard time communicating with our parents about our sexual orientations.
Even so brief an analysis as this reveals how perilously negative was the influence of the family-oriented magazines the parents of Baby Boomers trusted. If reading casually, parents would not likely have even noticed that their daughters were "at risk" of homosexuality. If consciously seeking information about daughters who were "different," they would surely have been disappointed with what they gleaned from these few sources.
Fortunately, these family-oriented magazines were not the only source of information to most Baby Boom Generation parents. Many had regular access to popular news magazines, radio, and later, television news, which offered much more frequent and somewhat more balanced information about the subject. For example, during the period from 1930 to 1970, Time presented at least 28 articles on homosexuality, and Newsweek offered about 30, and a plethora of others on sex education. However, very little in these articles is specifically about lesbians; an uninformed reader might well have received the false impression that "deviant" sexual orientation was almost an exclusively male phenomenon, at least until the early '60s. Fewer than ten of these articles address lesbianism, mostly in passing. From 1930-1970, in Time, only two articles address lesbianism (with incidental mention in five more), and in Newsweek, only three (with mention in three more). Of those where lesbians are the primary focus, two are reviews of the Kinsey report on female sexual behavior, one is a commentary on "The Children's Hour," and only one, "These Tragic Women," (Newsweek 1959) reports on lesbianism directly.
Ranging further, a Baby Boom parent would have found a little about lesbianism in popular science journals like Science Newsletter and Science Digest, and somewhat more in politically liberal journals like The American Mercury, where the issue of homosexuality was debated with great fervor during this time period. Several religious magazines, such as Christianity Today, Christian Century, and Pastoral Psychology, also addressed homosexuality, often with a surprising amount of compassion tempering their condemnation, during these same years. Finally, a small selection of relevant, but also primarily negative, books might have been available in public libraries, even in rural areas: Irving Bieber's Homosexuality (1962), Donald Cory's The Homosexual and His Society (1963), Judd Marmor's Sexual Inversion (1965), and Edwin Schur's Crimes Without Victims (1965), for example, in addition to Freud, Ellis, and Kinsey.
Finally, my conclusion is that if these magazines had been our parents' only source of information about lesbianism, and homosexuality overall, and if they had taken the advice seriously, none of us would likely have avoided punitive, cure-oriented psychiatric care aimed at turning us into heterosexuals. Further, if our parents had taken seriously the indictments of their parenting both stated and implied in these magazine articles, many of them would likely have been both terrified and despairing about all their children's futures. It is no wonder that the family coming-out experience of too many Baby Boomers has been a horrific event, marked by hostility, accusations, blaming, ostracization, anger, and sadness.
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Copyright 1998 Annis H. Hopkins, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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