Studs Terkel and Gay Americans by Timothy Stewart-Winter
Among the eminent broadcast journalists of his generation, Studs Terkel may well stand alone in his consistent compassion for lesbian and gay people and curiosity about their lives. During the forty-six years that his program ran on WFMT radio, there was no Ellen Degeneres, no Anderson Cooper, and no Laverne Cox. Yet Terkel interviewed numerous gay activists, artists, and writers—and the arc of those these broadcasts, between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, offers a powerfully compelling portrait in sound of the emergence of gay visibility in America.
Terkel first broached the theme of homosexuality on the radio elliptically, in conversations about literature. In 1962, he interviewed James Baldwin about his just-published novel Another Country, which centers on the social and sexual world of a New York City jazz drummer, and whose graphic portrayal of interracial and same-sex intimacy shocked some critics. Baldwin observed, “People seem to think of it as a very harsh and bitter book,” but said, “It’s meant to be bitter, when it’s bitter, the way medicine is bitter.” In an observation that clearly resonated deeply with Terkel, the writer explained, “It’s really a book about the nature of the Americans’ loneliness, and how dangerous that is: how hard it is here for people to establish any real communion with each other, and the chances they have to take in order to do it.”
Terkel, whose admiration for Baldwin was evident, seemed to latch onto Baldwin’s concept of “the Americans’ loneliness.” He asked Baldwin if he really thought things were better elsewhere. Yes, said Baldwin, who said he observed among the French “a certain largeness and a certain freedom” and among West Africans “joy among the people,” qualities he saw as absent from American culture.
In those years before gay liberation, Baldwin’s critique of America as puritanical and hidebound can be understood as a kind of oblique, coded reference to sexual dissidence. Gore Vidal, interviewed six years later in 1968, similarly gestured at sexual dissidence not by explicit reference to acts or identities, but by castigating what he said was a characteristically American morality. “We are laughed at from one end of the world to the other about our sexual code,” Vidal said, as a result of “that awful moralizing that Americans do just quite spontaneously to cover up a great moral vacuum.” (Though Vidal’s new novel Myra Breckenridge dealt with was then called “sex change,” the interview focused on its handling of other controversial themes, including adultery.)
When Terkel began in 1970 to interview people who explicitly identified themselves as gay, he discovered that the grass may always be greener on the other side of the Atlantic. In an unusual interview with the British writer Quentin Crisp in the latter’s London flat, Crisp casually described the U.S. as a promised land for gay people. “You mean to tell me,” said Terkel incredulously, “the homosexual is freer in America than in England?” Indeed, said Crisp, whereas American gay men and lesbians were joining gay organizations, by contrast, “You could not get a homosexual society here.”
Back in Chicago, in a landmark interview of Jim Bradford, Henry Wiemhoff, and Valerie Taylor as representatives of the Chicago gay organization Mattachine Midwest, Terkel again invoked the leitmotiv of loneliness. “I remember,” he said, “James Baldwin was saying something about a feeling of—he wasn't talking about homosexuality or about being black, just about being alone, feeling he was alone.” Baldwin, he recalled, had said that through the act of reading, “the realization comes that there are many who feel as you do and you feel less alienated then.” Again in 1975, speaking to Sergeant Leonard Matlovich about the years in the closet that preceded his high-profile struggle against being fired from the Air Force, Terkel again refers to “The loneliness and the alienation, that you could not show feeling” and the sense that “you could not be with somebody else.” Terkel also disclosed that he himself had once, in his youth, had spent a year living with a gay roommate.
The group interview with members of Mattachine Midwest marked a new phase in which Terkel interviewed a wide array of openly gay people and took interest in the flourishing of gay culture. He understood the significance of people now coming out of the closet. “In the case of Henry and in the case of Jim, there’s no need for pseudonym,” he said—not realizing that Jim Bradford was, in fact, the pseudonym of a man whose real name Jim Osgood. (Osgood did not correct him.)
Terkel showed an interest in lesbian feminism that was perhaps unique among male broadcasters with a mainstream audience. In 1973 he interviewed the lesbian separatist writer Jill Johnston, whose writing he called “Proustian.” Johnston said she’s never been called Proustian before, adding that she had been compared “to Stein and Joyce mostly—a bit to Woolf, but she was more conventional.” Proust, Terkel explained was “known for the never-ending paragraph.” Johnston responded that she indeed had “a very intense dislike” of paragraphs and indentation, explaining that “paragraphs are part of the male authority technique” and that “a more nonlinear structure to leave things more up to the receptor.”
In a fabulous 1981 interview with the lesbian songwriter Meg Christian, Terkel asked her about the emerging field of “women’s music” and its relationship to lesbian culture. He called Christian an indication of the persistence of the values of the 1960s despite the conservative turn that the election of Ronald Reagan symbolized. And she played songs, including a memorable one about her ambivalence toward her native Virginia: she grew up, she said, “Feeling confederate closets of pain/Losing the accents we’d learned to disdain.”
Perhaps most extraordinary interview of all is his Terkel’s 1982 group interview with four parents of gay children—two men and two women—from metropolitan Chicago. The broadcast opened with one Marshall Rasof, a pharmacist from the inner-ring northern suburb of Skokie, “coming out” as the parent of a gay man. “I did it, really, for my son,” Rasof said. “I know he’s going to listen to this program, and I felt that if I continued to hide the fact that he is gay, that I’m just hiding the acceptance that I am giving him.” Rasof made clear he was not naïve. “There might be some repercussions, being in business, and being a member of the community,” he said. “I expect to hear some talk about it. But I am taking my stand at this point, and I don’t regret it.”
Rasof and his three fellow interviewees were members of the Chicago chapter of the national network Parents and Friends of Gays (now known as PFLAG). Founded in 1977 as Parents of Gays, the group met monthly at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, in the North Side neighborhood of Lakeview. The three other interviewees responded as if to model for listeners how to handle disclosures like Rasof’s. “Marshall has struggled for quite a while with coming out,” said Bessie Low, an African American social worker and the mother of a lesbian daughter. “And for him to announce at this time that he was coming out—it was just heartfelt. it was just overwhelming.” Later in the broadcast, Terkel said, “There may be a good number of listeners who have children who are gay.” He read the group’s mailing address on the air and explained how listeners could attend a meeting.
Listening thirty-five years later, it is striking that the four interviewees consistently used the language of “coming out,” not only about their gay children but about their own identities as their parents. One of them, Herb, whom Terkel described as an engineer living in an unspecified upper middle-class Chicago suburb, acknowledged that despite his willingness to appear on the radio, he was not willing to divulge his last name. (That one could be on the radio and yet remain anonymous, of course, seems impossible in this era of social media). “In my case, I am not coming out,” he said. “However, after the time that I have spent with this parents group, if anybody asks me if my son is gay, I’m gonna tell them yes. And two years ago, I would not have.” With an air of self-acceptance, he explained, “That’s where I’m at in this stage of the game.”
Throughout his interviews with openly gay people, Terkel treated them as the “experts” on what being gay is like. “In my mind – correct me if I’m wrong– the homosexual in the past has been regarded as rather conservative in nature,” he said to Jim Bradford in 1970. Bradford responded that while the need to hide pushed some toward conservatism, “it has gone the opposite way with me.” In a remarkable exchange in the 1982 interview with gay parents, he said to Bessie Low, “I have to ask you a question. I have the impression that in the black community there is more understanding. Or am I wrong?” Low replied, “I don't know if it’s more understanding but I believe that in the black community, struggles to survive is more prevalent…I think most parents would initially be concerned, but you know, there’s other concerns that take precedence over that,” In her case, for example, “I have other children to be concerned about, I’m the head of my house and I can’t afford the energy and time to just worry about her. And she’s assured me that she’s okay, and shown me that she’s okay. She’s doing fine.”
Taken together, Terkel’s interviews reveal a journalist whose representations of lesbian and gay people was consistently cutting-edge. Contemporary listeners will find some of his language dated, including his tendency to associate gay people with “loneliness,” but he was partly taking his cue from Baldwin and other gay people whom he admired, for whom such coded language was useful. What comes through most clearly for me is Terkel’s enthusiasm for gay visibility. In a 1977 interview, the historian Jonathan Ned Katz, author of the breakthrough document collection Gay American History, complained that his New York publisher had not been able to secure a single television interview about the book. Without missing a beat, Terkel exclaimed, “Why can’t there be a gay ‘Roots’ on television?”
Indeed, beginning with his 1970 first interview with Bradford, Wiemhoff, and Taylor, Terkel modeled for listeners what straight allyship might look like, as he made clear his sympathy for their cause and his desire to be public about it. He said to them at one point, “Give me one of those buttons."