How The Times Gave ‘Gay’ Its Own Voice (Again)
No, I could not have written those words because our Manual of Style and Usage prohibited it:
gay. Do not use as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in the formal, capitalized name of an organization or in quoted matter.
Liberation arrived on June 15, 1987, in a note to the staff from Allan M. Siegal, who was then an assistant managing editor. “Starting immediately,” he stated, “we will accept the word gay as an adjective meaning homosexual.”
By saying “gay” in its own voice, the newspaper that set the standard for press coverage throughout the country was acknowledging the existence of a community and a movement far broader and richer than “homosexual” — clinical, confining and imposed by others — could possibly convey.
In conventional histories, therefore, 1987 is a milestone.
But there is a longer and more complicated story about the acceptance, banishment and subsequent reappearance of the word “gay” in these pages.
More than a half-century ago, The Times reviewed John Rechy’s novel “City of Night,” a graphic account of a gay hustler’s transgressive travels through America. “The excitement of this ‘gay’ world, as Rechy paints it, consists so much in its illegality, in its furtive, on-the-lam quality,” the reviewer, Peter Buitenhuis, wrote in 1963.
In 1969, an essay in the Arts & Leisure section made plain that outlaw sex was only one facet of gay life. The piece appeared four months before the violent and history-making demonstration by gays at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. In the article, a gay man, who was writing pseudonymously, expressed his yearning to be depicted in popular culture as something other than a tragic, doomed sociopath. “Unless art has no effect on those it portrays, the American Gay Boy and Lesbian must certainly view themselves, at least subconsciously, as second-class citizens,” he wrote.
“Gay” was even making its way into headlines — “5 Gay Candidates Are in State Contests,” “Christopher Street: From Farm to Gay Center,” “Religious Order Founded Here By One-Year-Old Gay Church,” “Finally — Two Films Dealing With the Issues of Gay Lib,” “The Gay Life: Cartoon vs. Reality,”“The ‘Gay’ People Demand Their Rights,” “A Catholic on ‘Gay’ Life” and “Is Gay a ‘Security Risk’?”
Just as the word “gay” was entering into mainstream conversation in the late 1960s and early ’70s, so its use seemed to be increasing organically at The Times — not necessarily encouraged, but not entirely resisted.
That slow progress came to a full stop on April 6, 1975, when The Times published a freewheeling, knowing and uninhibited account by Clifford Jahr of a luxury cruise through the Gulf of Mexico for lesbians and gay men, many of whom were closeted. “The All-Gay Cruise: Prejudice and Pride” was the lead article of the Sunday Travel section.
On his way to an unexceptionable conclusion (“the week passed in a warm spirit of moderation and mutual respect”), Mr. Jahr paused to record a few events on board like a “sadomasochistic fashion show of leather get-ups, including harnesses and G-strings.”
Whether it was that detail or the account of two chickens made to inhale a sexual stimulant, leading one into a “lust-crazed tussle with a Gucci carryall,” the article did not amuse Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, then 82 years old, who was the behind-the-scenes force at The Times for much of the 20th century.
In fact, Mrs. Sulzberger was outraged, according to “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times,” by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones.
She expressed her displeasure to her son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known as Punch, who was — as the publisher — in a position to do something. He ordered The Times to avoid the subject of gay life for a long time, Max Frankel, a former executive editor, wrote in his memoir, “The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times.” And he banned the word “gay,” Ms. Tifft and Mr. Jones wrote.
Mr. Frankel, who was then the Sunday editor, objected to the order but complied. The managing editor, A. M. Rosenthal, was already apoplectic about the travel piece, Ms. Tifft and Mr. Jones wrote, and may not have needed much persuasion to impose a ban.
“Gruson did agree to more coverage,” Mr. Humm recalled. “But he balked at using ‘gay,’ despite David’s insistence that it was a much better, shorter headline word.”
It was not until after Mr. Frankel succeeded Mr. Rosenthal as executive editor in 1986 that Mr. Siegal — who was The Times’s arbiter of standards and usage — broached lifting the ban on “gay.”
“Hoping not to be countermanded,” Mr. Frankel wrote, “I simply informed Punch that we would begin to use gay and lesbian as adjectives in social, cultural and political contexts.” No countermand resulted.
Looking back recently on the 1975 Travel article, Ann Northrop — the co-host with Mr. Humm of the television program “Gay USA” — said she was struck by its “depth, nuance, sophistication and good humor.”
“If The Times had continued and developed the quality of coverage demonstrated in the ‘gay cruise’ piece,” she said, “the L.G.B.T. revolution would have been vastly accelerated.”
Robert W. Stock was the travel editor who published the account.
“I was well aware that the paper had never carried a gay lifestyle piece, so I let Max know that I was planning to use it, pegged to the booming gay travel market,” he told me recently.
There were calls for Mr. Stock’s dismissal by other Times executives after the section appeared, but Mr. Frankel resisted them. “Max backed me all the way despite the serious topside pressure,” Mr. Stock said.
And, he added, “I’ve always been proud that I was able to move the needle a little.”
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