How the New York Times Helped Keep People in the Closet

How the New York Times Helped Keep People in the Closet

Almost every institution and branch of government in the United States has mistreated LGBT people. The American Psychiatric Association did not remove homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders until December 1973 (the APA still refused to term it “normal”). The federal government did not repeal the universal job ban on gay men and lesbians until July 1975. Gay men and lesbians were not eligible for national security clearances until August 1995. In the United States, regulations prohibiting sodomy were not repealed until July 2003. And that’s only the beginning.

Because enlightenment came slowly and is still sluggish in some places, it’s understandable that Ed Koch kept his homosexuality hidden and publicly denied it until his death in 2013. The Sunday New York Times featured Koch’s personal life when he served in Congress and subsequently as mayor of New York City from 1969 until 1989. It presents him as a man who believed that disclosing the basic truths of his life might jeopardize his political goals in a sympathetic and thorough manner. According to the New York Times, Koch was so uncertain about his identification that he once suddenly stated at a mayoral staff meeting, “I am not a gay.” No one had inquired.

Koch’s friends, colleagues, and a surviving family member are interviewed for the Times feature on his secret existence. Staffers would lie to cover for him whenever the topic of his orientation came up. Koch’s incapacity to find a companion tormented him long after his political career ended. Koch’s buddy Charles Kaiser told the publication, “With other gay people, he seemed entirely comfortable as a gay man.”

The feature’s biggest omission — which could have been handled in a paragraph or two — is any consideration of the Times’ role in shaping the culture that oppressed gay and lesbian people. This is not a criticism of the current Times; it cannot be held responsible for how the Times of the past covered gay men and lesbians in the 1960s. It’s also not a demand for journalistic restitution. Presentism is a simple game to master. Furthermore, today’s Timespeople have already admitted their predecessors’ mistakes. If Koch had spent his entire life quivering in the closet, it’s worth reading the back pages of the newspaper to completely comprehend his terror.

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In his essential book The Gay Metropolis, published in 1997, Charles Kaiser writes, “Almost every New York City newspaper reference to lesbians and gay men in the fifties was tied to a crime.” The New York Times, as it does now, had a strong influence. “It was the bible of the eastern liberal establishment, the news organization that set the tone for every major story in America. All other significant newspapers and every network news broadcast regarded its news judgment as unimpeachable,” Kaiser adds.

This Page One piece from 1960, when Koch would have turned 36, captured the paper’s prior antipathy toward gay individuals. In his 2021 book, Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic, Glenn Frankel writes that reporter Milton Bracker went on for a feature-length piece about the deterioration of 42 Street/Times Square neighborhood, a mere block from Times headquarters, sketching “a portrait that was half police blotter and half Dante’s Inferno.”

One of Bracker’s paragraphs stated, “Homosexuality is an obvious problem on Forty-second Street.” “Homosexual males congregate in the neighborhood, with the Eighth Avenue end of the block being the most popular. The clergy, police, shopkeepers, and business associations all concur that homosexuality has been on the rise in the area for several years.”

But what really was the issue? Arrests for “homosexual offenses,” are defined as loitering in “any public place soliciting persons with the aim of committing a crime against nature or other lewdness,” according to the newspaper. However, in portraying the moral panic over the “homosexual problem,” Bracker admitted that there was no reliable method to tell who on 42nd Street was gay and who wasn’t. He described one as a “Negro with fluffed up hair and heavy black make-up on his brows and lashes.” Another “was a white kid with thick blond hair and attractive features who wore make-up on his brows” and “tapered black trousers of the ‘continentals’ style.” Bracker, on the other hand, does not substantiate his assumptions that the men are gay, instead of focusing on their dress sense.

An article in the New York Times’ arts section in 1961 lamented the plethora of gay artists in the theater and artistic sectors of New York. Howard Taubman remarked, “It is time to speak frankly and candidly about the growing prevalence and influence of homosexuality on New York’s stage—and, indeed, in the other arts as well.” However, in this 1963 piece by Robert C. Doty, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern,” the Times’ clandestine fears about homosexuality became public.

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“Psychiatrists, religious leaders, and the police are growing concerned about the city’s most sensitive open secret: the presence of what is likely the world’s largest homosexual population and its rising openness.” Koch, a New Yorker, undoubtedly read what Doty wrote.

“On one side was the ‘organized homophile movement — a minority of militant homosexuals openly pushing for the abolition of legal, social, and cultural discriminations against sexual inverts,” Frankel explains. This group maintained that gay people should be treated like any other minority group because homosexuality is “an incurable, congenital illness” — despite the fact that “the preponderance of scientific research contradicts this,” according to the Times story. The psychiatric community, on the other hand, was pushing for “an end to what it terms a head-in-the-sand attitude to homosexuality.” This organization asserted “overwhelming evidence” that gays were not born but formed — accidentally or not — by emotionally disturbed parents. Fortunately,’ sophisticated analytical and therapeutic techniques’ were available.

“There can be no place on the White House staff or in the upper echelons of government for a person of markedly deviant behavior,” the New York Times editorialized in 1964 when Johnson administration aide Walter Jenkins was busted at a downtown Washington YMCA for “disorderly conduct” with another man. However, a year later, the paper’s editorial page changed its mind, gently editorializing in favor of a New York state law that would have decriminalized gay acts committed in secret. The tide turned even harder in 1967, when the paper’s magazine published an article about gay rights, in 1969, when the paper allowed the publication of a first-person arts essay arguing (pseudonymously) against the fictional trope of homosexuals as sociopaths, and in 1971, when author Merle Miller’s groundbreaking essay, “What It Means to Be a Homosexual,” was published.

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A.M. Rosenthal, who was as much a product of his era as Koch, took over as the paper’s senior editor in 1969 and held the position until 1986. During his time at the Times, he earned a reputation for being anti-gay and filling the pages with his hatred. During the Rosenthal era, “gay employees were treated just as capriciously as LGBT subjects at the New York Times,” Kaiser writes. (See Michelangelo Signorile’s scabrous Rosenthal essay, originally published in 1992.) According to Kaiser, until 1980, the United States had only two out newsroom employees, neither of whom worked at the New York Times. In the early 1980s, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., a member of the Times’ controlling family, began exerting his influence on the paper as he traveled the stations of the cross at the paper to preparation for his installation as publisher in 1992. According to Kaiser, Sulzberger met with every Times reporter he found was gay and assured them that their sexual orientation would not derail their careers at the newspaper.

After Rosenthal’s departure in 1987, the Times finally caught up with the times. The word “gay” was ultimately permitted for usage as a “homosexual adjective.” In a 2017 Times article, Times reporter David W. Dunlap discusses that turning point.

It would be a stretch to say that the Times is solely responsible for Koch’s secret existence. It would be arrogant to argue that Koch should have come out during his lifetime, given how much good he could have done for others, without having lived inside his skin. Barney Frank, the first member of Congress to come out willingly, did so at the age of 47 in 1987. Again, it would be impolite to blame Koch’s decision only on the Times. The paper has a lot of power, but it isn’t all-powerful.

Koch, though, did not make his decision in a vacuum. The New York Times, where he was born, nurtured, and educated, produced the environment in which he lived every day. When a story includes self-reference, it usually suffers. A few sentences outlining how the Times influenced Koch’s development would have strengthened the story this time around.

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