Margaret Mead looks deadpan into the camera.
The renowned sociologist is describing a world full of homosexuals—tribes in Siberia, isolated cultures in the South Seas, and even American Indian populations stateside.
Her point: Homosexuality “is found in people at every level of culture” and “it’s society that says that this is either good or bad behavior.”
While this may be common knowledge today, it was a bold statement to announce to a nationwide audience in 1961 when Mead filmed the segment for The Rejected, the first gay-themed documentary to reach the masses.
The Rejected aired on San Francisco’s KQED network on September 11, 1961, revealing an intriguing support of the LGBT community. But the footage had never been found—until now.
Archivists Alex Cherian and Robert Chehoski, who spent some six years researching and tracking down the 60-minute footage, finally found this illuminating needle in a haystack and made it available to the public.
“After searching with nothing to show but secondhand reports about the film, I was ready to give up,” Cherian, an archivist for the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University, told The Daily Beast. “When we finally managed to release The Rejected online in 2015, it made all the frustration worthwhile.”
“It was very exciting,” Chehoski, an archivist for KQED, told The Daily Beast. “I kind of couldn’t believe it. It’s a huge part of our history and just shows what kind of incredible work KQED was doing back then.”
The Rejected portrays gays as being just like everyone else, an idea that would be a no-brainer today but was far from the norm in 1961.
These accomplishments were all but unfathomable when The Rejected was made in 1961.
“The main take-away is that society needs to change rather than the homosexual, which I think was a very bold message for that period—and a very accurate one,” Bob Connelly, a professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast. That attitude makes the film “incredibly progressive for its time.”
The Rejected relies on psychiatrists, lawyers, religious officials, and advocates to dispel the shame surrounding homosexuality.
The documentary features psychiatrist Karl Bowman, who discusses the Kinsey scale of human sexuality to educate Americans about the pervasiveness of homosexuality.
The scale ranges from zero to six: zero being exclusively heterosexual and six being exclusively homosexual, with the general population falling somewhere in between.
Bowman cites Kinsey’s research that one in six males are more homosexual than heterosexual along with other figures from the era. “Four percent of all adult males being completely homosexual and having only homosexual activity,” Bowman says in The Rejected.
For what it’s worth, a recent study from Gallup also indicates 4 percent of Americans identify as LGBT.
Bowman further expounds on the nuances of homosexuality. “Eighteen percent are more homosexual than heterosexual in their experiences after adolescence, and 37 percent have had at least one homosexual leading to orgasm after adolescence,” he says.
Even more shocking for its time was Bowman’s assessment that anyone trying to spot a homosexual based on appearance alone would fail greatly. And they’re not always “treatable,” he says in The Rejected.
Bowman is not the only voice of psychiatry in the film.
A letter written by famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud to a mother seeking treatment for her gay son is read in The Rejected. In it, Freud debunks the stigma surrounding being gay: “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of. No vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexual.”
Legal issues associated with homosexuality were also discussed in The Rejected by San Francisco’s district attorney. Religious leaders, such as the Episcopal bishop of San Francisco and a local rabbi, addressed homosexuality—both stating that sodomy laws should be repealed and that homosexuals should be treated with love, not hate.
Most important, the film included the voices of openly gay men: Hal Call, Donald Lucas, and Les Fisher, three officials from the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay-rights organizations.
“There isn’t a lot of visual footage of homosexuals from the early 1960s and earlier, especially footage that is as positive as this is,” said Connelly, who used the transcript of the film for his gay and lesbian documentary course since 2001. “Being able to view this film really humanized homosexuals to a mass audience, most of whom probably felt they had never met a gay person in their life.”
Instead of being a sensationalized, salacious depiction of gay lifestyles, like many discussions during this time, The Rejected takes a “very measured, candid, scientific, and unemotional” approach, according to Connelly.
Surprisingly enough, the public’s reaction was mostly positive.
“The widespread reaction was that it was so significant in discussing this topic openly and candidly to a wide audience for the first time,” Connelly said. “I’m sure there was some negative reaction, but what I came across was a lot of positive responses.”
According to The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV, Variety praised the film for its “matter-of-fact down-the-middle manner,” covering it quite thoroughly and, for the most part, interestingly. The San Francisco Chronicle also applauded the television station for taking on “the most taboo of all subjects—homosexuality, the permanent underground.”
Most notably, 97 percent of letters received to the station were in favor of The Rejected, according to The Prime Time Closet.
“It’s not just the script or direction that opens our eyes to a bygone era, [but] the implicit cultural assumptions on-screen make us realize that times have changed dramatically and we have cause to expect a better tomorrow,” said Cherian.
The Rejected can be viewed in its entirety on the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive