Andrew Lester

The Rejected, a one-hour television documentary, was a groundbreaking representation of gays in the American media when it first aired in the fall of 1961 on KQED, San Francisco’s local affiliate of National Educational Television (NET), a predecessor to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Until recently, the film footage was thought to be lost forever, and the only available record of the program was its transcript. Now available online, The Rejected’s recovery is particularly notable because it departed from the few previous American television programs featuring gay activists before the 1970s. Earlier programs saw these men and women using aliases, disguising their appearances, or both. In The Rejected, openly gay men appeared in a different kind of mask, what historian Martin Meeker calls “a mask of respectability.” Alongside experts in law, anthropology, psychiatry, and religion, homophile activists challenged postwar American stereotypes that maligned homosexuals as predatory “sex perverts” and national security risks.

The documentary epitomized both the possibilities and the limitations of the homophile movement’s politics of respectability. Two different segments in the program featured the leaders of the Mattachine Society, a San Francisco homophile (pre-1969 homosexual activist) organization. These sections presented homophile perspectives as having authority equal to medical experts. This authority, however, depended upon Mattachine Society leaders presenting themselves in a gender normative manner. Even as The Rejected presented homophile activists’ perspectives as an essential element of its balanced representation of homosexuality, the activists destigmatized homosexuality by disavowing gender variance. The documentary’s syndication ultimately served as effective publicity for the Mattachine Society and expanded the organization’s reach while reinforcing the stigma associated with gender deviance in the postwar era.

The Rejected exemplifies the normative ideas about gender shared by the straight documentarians and gay homophile activists and the efforts of both to distance homosexuality from highly visible and gender non-conforming gay men. In historian Craig Loftin’s words, men in “the homophile movement held attitudes about gender that were consistent with the rest of the American public, and they replicated many of the same patterns of hostility towards swishes that heterosexuals leveled at homosexuals.” The opening segment spotlights an exchange between the narrator and Mattachine President Hal Call, secretary Donald Lucas, and treasurer Les Fisher as to what “other homosexuals think about the so-called ‘queens’” and what the “queens’” feelings were about “themselves and their place in society.” Call responded that “the ‘swish,’ or the ‘queen,’” represented only a “small minority” of homosexuals despite powerful cultural stereotypes to the contrary. Call continued, “These people, actually, in most cases, are not even liked by the rest of their homosexual brethren, because they have perhaps rejected themselves and they feel that society has rejected them.” Call’s disparaging statement was in the mainstream of homophile thought; Washington-based activist Frank Kameny insisted that gay picketers outside federal buildings wear conservative suits or full-length skirts according to their gender. These actions sought to legitimate sexual nonconformity by disavowing gender nonconformity.

The Mattachine Society enlisted the assistance of medical experts, some of whom appear in The Rejected, to destigmatize same-sex desire. The presence of these experts garnered a positive response after the program first aired on September 11, 1961 and was syndicated across the country thereafter. The majority of viewers’ letters received by KQED praised the documentary and the station fielded hundreds of requests for program transcripts. Call himself later published and distributed copies of its transcript in response to this demand. The Mattachine Society also received dozens of letters, visits, and phone calls from supporters and potential members who learned of the organization through the program. The responses to The Rejected published in homophile publications whose readership was largely white, middle-class, and male were especially effusive in their praise. In September, 1961, an anonymous reviewer in the Daughters of Bilitis’s lesbian publication, The Ladder, described the documentary as a “‘famous first’ TV program” that provided “a rare opportunity to see a…breakthrough in public education and awareness of the homosexual.” In his December 1961 review of The Rejected for ONE Magazine, an independent homophile publication, Thomas M. Merritt praised the program’s “good taste,” its “dignified and distinguished professional” panelists, and its “calm and reasonable” discussions of homosexuality, insisting that the program’s embodiment of respectability was the key to its success.

The increase in inquiries and letters received by the Mattachine Society in San Francisco after The Rejected indicates that the program had significant reach and created further opportunities for homophiles to transmit further affirming messages to men and women seeking their assistance. The rediscovery of The Rejected’s film footage thus restores a critical piece of gay history. Not only does the footage literally add gay activists’ voices and faces to the historical record, but it also provides a rare glimpse of early gay movement-building strategies in action. By both forging alliances with renowned experts and by themselves embodying white male expertise, Mattachine Society leaders in The Rejected projected a respectable image of homosexuality to audiences across the country. However, like all images, the one projected should be viewed as a strategic representation. As Martin Meeker notes, this strategy was meant “to deflect the antagonisms of its many detractors…[The] practice of dissimulation disarmed some of the antigay sentiment in American society while it also enabled the homophiles to defend and nurture the gay world.” In many cases, The Rejected marked the beginning of a much longer and queerer conversation between homophiles and their audiences in the 1960s. Click here to watch The Rejected.

Andy Lester pictureAndrew Lester is a doctoral student in Rutgers University-Newark’s American Studies program. He received his Master’s degree in American Studies from University of Massachusetts-Boston in 2013. His research focuses on the histories of the Gay Liberation and Black Power movements in California’s Bay Area in the 1960s.

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