Martin Duberman

The Gay Rights Movement and the ‘Moral Majority’

VTR Date: December 27, 1981

Guest: Duberman, Martin


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Professor Martin Duberman
Title: The Gay Rights Movement and the ‘Moral Majority’
Air: 12/27/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Recently I was looking through a collection of old clippings about this now very old program, and I came across some rather amusing items. Variety, for instance, in April 1956 heralded the announcement of my up-coming series with the notation “OPEN MIND on race, (???), and homos”. Then, when in August of that year, I actually had the termerity to do three programs on homosexuality, Variety reviewed the first one, commenting “Probably for the first time in the annals of commercial television, the topic of homosexuality was explored for the benefit of the home viewer”. And The New York Times headlined Jack Gould’s review of our first program as “Breaking Trail”, and Gould, himself, noted that “The program, probably one of the first of its kind demonstrates how far broadcasting has come in dealing with difficult social issues”.

How far, indeed, we have come since then, in print, on the air, in our everyday lives. To many it is the Gay Community now, not “homos” as in the Variety headline or any of the other disparaging terms, at least not in public. The homosexual community has political power now, a place in the community. To a quite considerable extent, homosexual individuals have come out of the “closet”. One doesn’t talk on television just about homosexuals, but with them. Yet, not so fast, or so far. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, for instance, with an impressive and devoted television following continues quite frequently to use the me3dia to press his own strong convictions that “homosexuality is Satan’s diabolic attack upon the family, God’s order in creation”, and as he writes “We would not be having the present moral crisis regarding the homosexual movement if men and women accepted their proper roles as designated by God”. There are many who follow Reverend Falwell with high regards when he expresses these thoughts on the air, and so, on THE OPEN MIND today I thought we might, just as counterpoint, talk with one who disagrees, who identifies himself quite forthrightly with the thinking of the Gay community, and whose credentials as a distinguished American historian and academic scholar make him so much more than an angry partisan.

Martin Duberman, historian and playwright, is Distinguished Professor of History at Lehman College in the City University of New York. Thanks so much for joining me today, Professor Duberman.

Duberman: Pleasure.

Heffner: you know, as an historian … you … I wanted to ask why you think, at this particular point in our history the Moral Majority’s point of view about homosexuality is being pushed quite so strongly.

Duberman: Well, I think, as someone who teaches a course on radical movements in general, I think whenever there’s a thrust forward for social change, there’s always, inevitably, a counter-reaction. This was no less true of the anti-slavery movement, tan it is of the Feminist Movement, or the Gay Movement.

Heffner: Do you think that the anti-Gay community movement will suffer the same fate that the other movements have suffered in our past?

Duberman: You mean whether or not, in a relatively brief amount of time, the Gay Community will be accepted, or Gay people will be accepted?

Heffner: That’s a fair question. Yes.

Duberman: I think we’ve gone far enough at this point so that our existence, at least, can no longer be denied. A great many people have come out of the closet. What that existence will consist of, the texture of it, the quality of it, does depend on future developments which no one can foresee.

Heffner: What kinds of developments? (Garbled), economic developments, social development? What is it that you mean? Others have said at this table if we experience a recession again, a strong recession, a depression, there will be a movement backward on all levels, and perhaps the progress, if one wants to call it that, that the Gay Community has made, will be unmade. Is that the sort of movement you mean?

Duberman: I think it’s quite possible. That’s why I wouldn’t want to get into predicting. We know about the First Reconstruction and the Second Reconstruction. We know that today Black people in many ways, at least the majority…are less well off than they were, say, twenty years ago. The same could easily happen to Gay people. What will determine that, what worries me about the Far Right, as represented by Falwell, is that he’s combined a number of issues, and minority groups. I mean a study, for example, has been done by Professor Kant-Cheryl (???) at Hunter, and Cheryl (???) has shown that followers of Falwell, which I guess is best put as Fundamentalists Christians, really score as deeply bigoted on a wide range of issues. It isn’t simply that they’re anti-Gay, they’re also anti-abortion, anti-ERA, anti-busing, they would not really like us to stand still, but they would like us to go back. Now I don’t think the extent of that appeal is easy to guage at this point. There are signs of a counter-Falwell movement…

Heffner: To what …

Duberman: …so I remain, at least to some degree, optimistic.

Heffner: To what extent do you think this support for the Moral Majority, for Falwell, comes from those who particularly are concerned with his attack and agree with this attack upon homosexuals?

Duberman: It’s very difficult to know. I know that within the churches generally there’s a great deal of ferment now. Some churches have moved as far as the Episcopalian Church, Bishop Moore (??) in New York has actually ordained two lesbian women into the church, and in their recent convocation, which I think was about two months ago, at least as the Times wrote it up, there was thunderous applause when one Minister, they’ve been studying this matter for three or four years … one Minister said “Jesus Christ never said a word about homose3xuality, for or against, and yet he spoke in detail about marriage and divorce”. It depends a great deal, that’s simply one example, one denomination, the Episcopalians. It depends a great deal on which church group you’re talking about.

Heffner: When we’ve talked in the past … I gather … you’ve indicated that there is a body of scholarship that takes serious issue with Falwell’s use of scripture to condemn homosexuality.

Duberman: Very much, yes.

Heffner: Is it a widespread movement in the church that interprets scripture other than the way he does?

Duberman: Well, I would say … I mean if you look at biblical scholars, which are, themselves, a very special group within the church, biblical scholarship, itself, has been heading in one very clear direction of recent years, and that is they are re-translating some of the original texts, whether in Aramaic, or Hebrew, or Syrian, I mean I’ve discovered that a lot of the key passages that the Reverend Falwell cites, for example, Leviticus, Romans, Corinthians, these passages have through time and the accretion of centuries been weighted down with ever-more accumulating misinterpretations. To give you just one example of the recent scholarship, John Boswell’s book which has caused a great stir, and been received with great acclaim, he has gone back to the original text, and he has discovered that in no case in the Bible is there any reference … of course there wouldn’t be a reference to homosexual or homosexuality, but there is not even an equivalent word, in the Bible. He’s even discovered that until the thirteenth century, the Christian Church itself was remarkably tolerant; tolerant may be too benign a word. They were, in some cases, openly celebratory of Gay life. There were Gay Saints, there were Gay marriages openly performed, there was a Gay sub-culture with its own argot, its own literature, most of this … most of the literature was the work of clerics in the high Middle Ages, which means Gay love itself was a well-known … well, perhaps I should put it this way, which is the way Boswell puts it: homosexuality was no more frowned upon within the church until the thirteenth century, than was adultery, pre-marital sex, or fornication. The church does have a strong sex-negative tradition in general, but one cannot go back and read the history of the church properly, as biblical scholars are now telling us, and pretend that it’s a monolithic history, which has always been anti-Gay. The most one can say is that it’s been consistently sex-negative, but Gay people until the thirteenth century were not apparently singled out for any special condemnation.

Heffner: If one were to move away from scriptural interpretation as a defense against his charges, perhaps that’s not the best way to put, but rather to get on the offensive, how would you analyze his attacks upon homosexuality, and how would you refute them? The impact upon American life, for instance. He seems to feel that the … what he considers the weakness, the contemporary weakness of American life is attributed to, in large part, to the rise (???) of homosexuality, and our acceptance of it.

Duberman: Well, I’d start with refute.

Heffner: Okay.

Duberman: Unfortunately, I think there is no good way to refute Falwell, or most fundamentalists for the simple reason that they simply will not listen to, or incorporate the latest biblical scholarship. They ignore it. They continue to repeat their litany. I’m sure Jerry Falwell has not read not only John Boswell, but Father McNeil (???) the distinguished Catholic theologian. I’m sure he has not read the study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Seminary, I believe it was, in which six distinguished Catholics came to conclusions much like the ones I’ve described in John Boswell’s book. The trouble with dealing … with trying to rebut a fundamentalist is they simply don’t hear you. If I could give an analogous example, not immediately related to our topic, but one of the current stereotypes about Gay men, and of course, Anita Bryant’s slogan throughout her campaign, “Save Our Children”, the assumption is that to be Gay, at least a Gay man, is to be automatically involved in child molestation. Now, in fact, there have been innumerable studies, all of which agree in their conclusions, namely that approximately 98% of the child molestation crimes are committed by heterosexual men, and 93%, don’t hold me to the exact figure, are committed on young girls. (garbled) child molestation far from being a phenomenon connected with “gayness” is strictly a heterosexual problem. But Anita Bryant and her cohorts, she herself has had some change of mind I gather, this information has been the public domain for a long time, and it’s be reiterated many times by Gay spokespeople, but the information simply does not penetrate. Now the reason it does not penetrate is, I think we’re dealing with a particular kind of personality or mental set, if you will. A fundamentalist … I can remember myself vaguely quotes from Falwell along the lines of “People need something to believe in”. It isn’t only Falwell, it’s supposedly sophisticated columnists like Wills in Newsweek. I remember he wrote a column on homosexuality, and he said “in these perilous times people need a rock, a belief, a set of values to which they can commit themselves and believe in”.

Heffner: You take exception to that notion?

Duberman: I don’t take exception to the need, I share the need. We would all like a set of values which we could believe were immutable through time, and which could satisfy various skeptical questions about those so-called immutable truths that pop into most people’s heads.

Heffner: Well, when we in the past have identified subjective necessities, such as that one, the need for a truth, we haven’t necessarily turned around and said, “Because we need it, let’s dispose of it, we don’t need to need things”, and in this instance, is there no sympathy on your part for Falwell and others who do say “we need this hard rock of belief and part of that belief is in the family unit, of male and female”?

Duberman: Of course there’s sympathy, because Falwell and his followers represent a very common situation for almost all Americans, that is an absence of belief, an absence of commitment. Yes, I can sympathize to that extent, but it’s very difficult to sympathize with a man who, in order to maintain his belief, will turn around and do really serious, desperate harm to a large number of other human beings. No, I can’t respect that. I mean we all have our needs and we all try to meet them, but hopefully not at the expense of causing harm to others.

Heffner: What impact … again in your role as an historian, what impact do you think, if one were to identify, if you were to identify what you considered the basic elements of the American heritage, what impact would you see the rise (???) and the acceptance of homosexuality would have upon that heritage? Directly, indirectly, any way you want. The macho-ism of the past, our militarism in the past, or attitudes toward rich and poor, and others beyond our national borders, how do you feel that the rise (???) of what you call the Gay Community would impact upon that heritage?

Duberman: Herbert (???) twenty years ago, the great sixties guru said that the so-called sexual perversions will be the next cutting edge for social change. I think that is, indeed, the case, and I mean the Feminist Movement as well as the Gay Movement. And the reason I think it’s the case is that perhaps for the very first time in history these two Movements are asking questions which have never seemed questions. They seemed rather, axioms, givens. For examples, what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? And I’m talking both in bed and out of bed. I’m talking about not only sexual behavior, but I’m talking about sex roles. There’s an enormous revolution astir within this whole area of human sexuality and the social concomitants that follow from a particular kind of sexual orientation.

Heffner: But doesn’t that indicate then the validity of Falwell’s charges that the cutting edge does cut away at the sub-structure of American life, of American society, and one has t want to change it basically, one has to want to reject it to a very considerable extent, to embrace that cutting edge of the Feminist Movement, as you say, of the Homosexual Movement. Isn’t it a matter of rejection, and doesn’t that put Falwell into position in which he can say “Look, an historian, Duberman, says that change will come on the wings of these Movements, and we don’t want change? We like what we have in this country. We like our tradition”.

Duberman: Yes.

Heffner: Now doesn’t that indicate that there is more to what he says, in his social criticism, I’m not talking about his scriptural scholarship, than many people have been willing to admit?

Duberman: There are, undoubtedly, some people in America, Falwell’s followers, among others, who do like things the way they are. My feeling is there are a great many other people who are dissatisfied with things as they are. Now, nobody has a blue-print for how to change things to make them better, how to achieve optimal happiness for the maximum number, there is no such blue-print. To coin another cliché, it’s only in the progress of struggle for change that one begins to get some glimpse of what a better world would look like, and I think this is what those of us who are involved in fighting for social change feel. I mean we can’t tell you now to what extent, for example, the nuclear family configuration, as we know it, might be changed in the future. We do know that the nuclear family is making a large number of Americans unhappy. Divorce rates are soaring. It’s true re-marriage takes place. Just this month in New York, child abuse, there were five children murdered. Mainstream Gay people and Feminists are not out primarily to attack the family, but in the process of asserting their own special experience, and their own insights into personal relationships, they will necessarily be bringing to the surface certain options hitherto not widely available, and I think many Americans are going to find those options attractive. For example, a kinship family. For example a whole role of friendship, and how we live our lives. Masters and Johnson in their most recent study used four … I don’t want to go off too far on this, but … they used four population studies … Gay men, straight men, Gay women, straight women … what they discovered was that the two Gay populations studies were more sensitive of their partners needs, both in bed and out of bed, again, then were their heterosexual counterparts. Now, I’m not trying to pedal a chauvinistic line here and say that, you know, “Gay people are currently living a preferred lifestyle”. All that I’m saying is that as a result of our experience, some of which has been very bitter, we have learned certain insights, we’ve achieved certain precepts, we’ve forged new kinds of relationships, which I do think speak to a far larger public than simply those with the same gender orientation.

Heffner: Of course the more unseemly aspects of our current life, child abuse, you name it, and you have named many of them, to many of the followers of the Moral Majority, it is that there is a cause and effect relationship between the breakdown of the nuclear family and the rise of homosexuality and an acceptance for, of and tolerance for homosexuality that they say has contributed to these statistics. You cite the statistics as an indication of the need for the kinds of change that you urge, and I think for most of the rest of us we are left wondering. What is cause? And what is effect? But clearly you plunk yourself down on the side of change, and Falwell is basically saying “that’s just the trouble”…

Duberman: Yes.

Heffner: …”no change, we don’t want change, change is movement away from the older America that we revered”. And you’re saying it just wasn’t that good.

Duberman: Well, to give another historical analogy. If we look to the p eriod before the Civil War, Falwell certainly had his counterparts in terms of freeing the Black slaves. There were many Americans, the vast majority of White Americans, until as late as the 1850s who were saying, well even the sympathetic ones would say something like “We recognize that our institutions are not perfect, however, until you can come up with a blue-print that will demonstrate decisively that in freeing the slaves, we will have a better society, there’s no way we will cooperate with this”, and so under the guise of not having a satisfactory plan in hand that would spell out every step of the new changes that would occur, the multitude of Americans were able to conceal their more basic opposition to … well, their more basic racism.

Heffner: But, do you think that that’s so fundamentally true, because you’d talked about even those who were sympathetic Now if they were sympathetic, what lead them to reject t some considerable extent the anti-slavery movement, the Abolitionist Movement was their concern about stability and their concern about the absence of that (garbled) …

Duberman: Very much. Yes. That’s why the analogy.

Heffner: But why say that it was a basic underlying hostility toward the cause of anti-slavery any more than that today it is a basic underlying hostility toward the cause that is represented by the Gay community?

Duberman: Well, we know enough about what was then called Negro-phobia. To be very certain that in the pre-Civil War period the vast majority of White Americans, North and South, were deeply racist, anti-Black.

Heffner: And today?

Duberman: And today I think there’s been significant change in the last ten years to shift from racism to sexual orientation, but I think there is still a very deep homophobia in this country.

Heffner: Caused by what? Not by Falwell and company? He uses it. Caused by what?

Duberman: Well, I wish I had better answers for some of these questions.

Heffner: Well, in the one minute that we have remaining, what’s your … what are your guesses, your historical guesses?

Duberman: My historical guess is that in period of profound dislocation, such as now, where so many people feel rootless, uncertain about their lives, their values, it’s terribly threatening to hear an independent woman, for example, leaving aside same gender orientation, but just simply an independent, heterosexual woman demanding that she be allowed equal opportunity with man. What always happens in a period of tumultuous change, such as we’re going through, is that those who get most frightened, retreat most readily to the older values, and they block out completely anything new that might perhaps be an improvement.

Heffner: But then you have to believe … and we have about ten seconds left … that there has been a place in our history, a point in our history where we felt good enough about ourselves to embrace the idea of homosexuality … and I’m getting the sign that … not that I should cut my throat, but that I have to cut the program at this time. So you’ve got to come back and answer that question.

Duberman: Be glad to.

Heffner: Thanks very much for joining me today, Professor Duberman. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again, too, here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.