The Role of Public Relations in the Gay Rights Movement, 1950-1969

By Alwood, Edward | Journalism History, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Role of Public Relations in the Gay Rights Movement, 1950-1969


Alwood, Edward, Journalism History


Publicity is the lifeblood of social movements in the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s, activists depended solely upon print and broadcast media to make themselves known, to attract like-minded followers, and to lay their concerns before the broader community. Few movements have been more dependent upon media representation than the gay rights movement. Given the stigma surrounding homosexuality, it was especially challenging for pioneering gay and lesbian activists to gain representative exposure to dramatize their plight as oppressed members of society. Mainstream editors couched any mention of homosexuality within the context of a menace that needed to be contained. A 1949 Newsweek article, "Queer People," for example, referred to gays as "perverts" and described them as exhibitionists and sexual sadists.1 The negative stereotypes generated shame and a corrosive self-image that kept the gay world invisible and misunderstood.

This study examines strategies used by gay and lesbian activists during the 1950s and 1960s to counter negative stereotypes and build a truly representative public image. Some scholars have implied that the movement began in 1969 by emphasizing the Stonewall riots in New York City. This research contributes to a body of literature that shows that the gay rights movement was well-organized by 1969 and its leaders had adopted fundamental public relations strategies to make their concerns known to American society.

The prejudice faced by gay men and lesbians in America has been well documented.2 Though it was never illegal to be a homosexual, it was against the law in most places to behave like one. Authorities in New York City and Los Angeles, for example, routinely revoked liquor licenses from bars and nightclubs that catered to homosexuals. Frightened bar owners posted signs saying, "If you're gay, stay away."3 Scholars have shown how news media were complicit with the police, the military, religious leaders, and antigay psychiatrists in perpetuating negative images that produced a hostile atmosphere. Shaming became a method of controlling homosexual behavior and newspapers colluded in this endeavor by publishing the names, addresses, and occupations of men who were arrested in police raids, costing many of them their jobs and even their families. As the press depicted frightening images of gays, editors avoided showing gays in a positive light for fear they would offend readers.4

Though public relations has played an important role in the history of social movements, both in terms of educating the public and in attracting followers, scholars seldom recognize it as an integral element of social change.5 Literature on individual movements, however, shows public relations as instrumental in a variety of social causes ranging from health advocacy to civil rights and opposition to war.6 Scott M. Cutlip showed the realization among social welfare agencies of the need for public relations in the early 1900s.7 Timothy Walters and Lynne Masel Walters demonstrated how antisyphilis crusaders during the same period relied on books, pamphlets, leaflets, and lectures to raise public consciousness of an epidemic.8 Studies by Hazel C. Benjamin and Dolores Flamiano showed how birth control advocates faced social biases that prevented media exposure, leading that movement to turn to pamphlets, lectures, and public meetings to publicize their crusade for contraception in 1915.9 One of the most compelling examples came with the civil rights movement dating to 1944 when visiting Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal told movement leaders that publicity was "of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people."10 Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff showed how civil rights activists during the 1950s and 1960s used sit-in demonstrations, marches, bus boycotts, and other forms of civil disobedience to attract media attention and penetrate racial prejudice."

Scholarship on the gay movement has paid only passing attention to public relations activities of pioneering gay and lesbian activists. …

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