In August of 1962, police in Mansfield, Ohio, a small industrial city in the Midwest heartland, arrested 18 men on sodomy charges following an undercover public restroom surveillance operation in a public park. The day after most of the arrests had been made, the headline, “Hidden Movie Camera Used By Police To Trap Sexual Deviates At Park Hangout,” splashed across the front page of the local newspaper. The sting would lead to not just the last sodomy prosecutions in the state before the laws were changed, but also to distribution of a narrated version of the surveillance film the police department produced as a how-to guide for other agencies. The film now enjoys cult status as queer camp, had a brief tour of major modern art museums, once was available for downloading from a website dedicated to LGBT-focused films, and now is available in an altered form on the social media site YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=FebkXNOoTa8). Some 15 years after the arrests, the local city council considered a proposal to reopen the park restrooms, which had been ordered closed after the police concluded their investigation. The local newspaper covered that story as well. A more contemporary synopsis of the restroom surveillance and subsequent arrests and prosecutions has since been written for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.
In this paper, I examine a succession of frames constructed for this story, their respective sponsors, and the frame elements whose shared meaning underlies the temporal constructions of “gay,” “homosexual,” and “queer.” Though changing political ideologies unquestionably undergird this succession, I argue that the increasing robustness of alternative frames contesting dominant ones sponsored by power elites could not have existed without the democratizing influence of new media outlets.
Framing and Political Discourse
Participation in the deliberation of social issues inevitably involves the discursive practice of framing those issues (Pan & Kosicki, 2001). While politicians and the media have prominent voices in deliberative discourse about social issues, it is not their province alone. The practice of framing involves personalities, characters, scripts, conflicts, dramas, emotions, symbols, and expressive activities consisting of both real and staged events (Pan & Kosicki, 2001) and, as such, bears a striking resemblance to the reception analysis and oppositional readings of cultural studies (Reese, 2001). As evidence of the connection, Reese (2001) notes that framing relies upon media discourse, individuals, and social and cultural practices as sources for its insights. Meaning is found, not in texts alone, but in the interaction between texts and audiences (Kosicki, 1993). As such, framing seems to address Hackett’s (1984) admonition that scholars move beyond a narrow concern with bias in media content to study the ideological character of news as structured in its content, practices, and social relations. Entman (1993) touted framing as the overarching concept that could become a general theory of how communication texts work.
In general, framing refers to the way issues and events are organized and made sense of, particularly by the media, media professionals, and their audiences (Reese, 2001). They accomplish this by determining “what available information is relevant (and thereby what is irrelevant)” (Hertog & McLeod, 1995).
Scholars offered their own distinctive, more precise definitions of the approach, beginning with Gitlin’s (1980) description of frames as “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse…” (cited in Reese, 2001, 7). Entman (1993) has noted that to frame “is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (52). According to Reese (2001), frames are “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world” (11).
How Frames Work
According to Hertog & McLeod (2001) frames structure our understanding of social phenomena by determining the relevance of content to a social concern, defining the roles individuals and institutions may play, outlining the ways in which beliefs, values, and actions are related (appropriately or in appropriately), using frame choice to influence symbolic representation (including language and sentence structure) of a topic, and privileging certain goals and ethics over others. We might find evidence of framing at work in how information is processed and made sense of, how people talk about an issue, and how they form political evaluations (Pan & Kosicki, 2001).
Years of research applying the framing approach suggest three characteristics important to the usefulness of frames. First, the frame must be shared, which is to say not imposed by an individual or group (Reese, 2001). Framing activates conventions and tacit rules concerning interpretation and text construction shared by participants. Those sharing conventions and tacit rules belong to the same discursive community, in which framing efforts may be said to reproduce themselves (Pan & Kosicki, 2001). At the same time, social groups also may be framed, so that discourse with the community tends to construct the very social structure and political alignment that supports it. Even groups with otherwise opposing ideologies may apply the same frame to a particular topic, largely because of the difficulty of communicating outside of the community without the use of a culturally privileged frame (Hertog & McLeod, 2001).
Second, the more useful frames tend to exhibit some degree of persistence though, as Reese (2001) notes, some may evolve and others are eventually replaced. Those that do evolve or lose their salience tend to do so as a result of fluctuations in tastes, preferences, and beliefs revealed in popular culture. For the most part, however, stable social institutions tend to foster stable frames, whose meaning even new information is unlikely to alter (Hertog & McLeod, 2001).
Finally, frames exist at multiple levels of abstraction. Highly abstract frames comprise a wide range of content and may be referred to as cultural frames. Subframes exist at a lower level of abstraction and are more topical (Hertog & McLeod, 2001). Gamson’s (2001) typology includes less abstract event frames and issue frames, and more abstract master frames and worldviews, in addition to what he refers to as frames within frames. To be useful, according to Hertog & McLeod (2001), frames must be independent of narrow topics.
The most readily available evidence of framing exists in media texts. The discourse of framing is replete with examples of devices used in the construction of frames, including myths, metaphors, narratives, catchphrases, exemplars, depictions, and aural and visual imagery. This is particularly significant to understanding media treatment of LGBT people in the era before the Stonewall uprising in 1969, because seldom were LGBT people used as sources about themselves and those who were used as sources, including mental health professionals and public officials, frequently based their statements on dubious scientific findings at best and myth and stereotype at worst.
According to Hertog & McLeod (2001), myths are especially powerful devices. They are powerful symbolically because of widespread identification within the culture and because of the affective reactions they engender. Because of their widespread recognition, they provide a significant amount of a society’s shared meaning. And, they have “excess meaning” in that their mere mention activates related ideas, fragments of social history, policies, and characters (141).
Frame Sponsorship and the News
Though frames are shared, not imposed, they may be heavily influenced by elites with control over important material resources, strategic alliances, and relevant knowledge and skill sets (Pan & Kosicki, 2001). Gamson (1988) has termed this translation of resources and skills “frame sponsorship” and the application of sponsorship to particular actors in discursive communities as “subsidies.” Sponsors adjust the ratio of cost to value in information to encourage its use by other actors in framing (Pan & Kosicki, 2001). Over time, members of the community absorb sponsored frames, which in turn reinforces the stability of the sponsoring individual or organization as a cultural structure (Hertog & McLeod, 2001). While many journalists claim that news is naturalistic and free from institutional and ideological influence (Reese, 2001), there appears to be general agreement among those who have studied the news media and framing that the media either are a cultural elite active in framing or at least are complicit with political and cultural elites in the process. The role of the audience, and especially its level of activity in the construction of meaning, is less certain.
In their review of past research into framing and the news media, Pan & Kosicki (2001) concluded that the news media collaborate with ruling elites in maintaining discursive order, armed with a particular professional ideology and well-established methods. Based upon his study of reader response to letters to the editor early in the 20th century, Nord (1995) argued readers are active players as well, constructing their own meanings as they read, all the while guided by cultural and political elites. While agreeing with Baylor that the transaction depends on there being culturally-available frames shared by both the media and the public, Wiggins (2001) seems to see a more detached role for the media, arguing that they merely provide the raw materials, conceptual frames, and vocabulary for the discussion, but that the public constructs the terms on which the discourse takes place.
It is known that frames accomplish certain social objectives. According to Hertog & McLeod (2001), frames help determine the relevance of content to a discussion of a social concern; define roles actors play; outline ways beliefs, values, and actions are related; influence symbolic representation of a topic, including language use, sentence structure, and “code” words and privilege certain goals and ethics over others.
"Sex Deviates" in Print and on Film (1962)
The 1960s were a period of rapid transition in the situation of lesbians and gay men in dominant culture. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the late 1950s and early 1960s enabled distribution of homophile publications, including those containing gay male erotica (Watson, 2006). CBS Reports: The Homosexuals brought a surprisingly balanced representation of white, gay men into living rooms in 1967. And the days of riots outside the Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn in the summer of 1969 are almost universally considered to have signaled the start of the modern gay liberation movement in the United States and other western societies.
But in August of 1962 when Mansfield police staged their public restroom sting operation, the cultural view of gays rooted in the 1950s prevailed. As deJong (2006) has observed, negotiated media visibility was not a privilege lesbians and gays of the period enjoyed. Heterosexuals or closeted lesbians and gays defined homosexuality. Most frequently, gays were represented by quotes from politicians and medical experts as sex perverts in the same class with rapists, sadists, and pedophiles. Journalists themselves generally avoided contact with lesbians and gays and did not use them as sources, because they did not want to be perceived as pro-gay or communist. De Jong argues the news media of the period were complicit in the negative portrayal of gays, since they never questioned politicians’ negative statements about them.
Generally speaking, then, lesbians and gays were framed as “others,” which allowed society’s dominant groups to perceive those who do not conform to cultural norms as a threat to social stability (de Jong, 2006). Dominant concepts within the frame included gays as sinners, gays as medical deviates, and gays as bad citizens, since they would betray their country rather than have their sexuality exposed.
A second distinct but overlapping frame was the gay man as child molester. The relationships among the frame’s dominant concepts, as well as the logical construction of the frame, were more tortuous but largely uncontested. De Jong (2006) found the frame to enjoy widespread popular acceptance and to have driven some of the popular fear of gay people. The frame not only conflated the concepts of pedophilia with homosexuality, but also supported the contention that gays as sexual deviates inevitably would be driven to molest young girls as well as young boys. Alwood (1996) noted that the Miami Herald, in its coverage of attacks on small children in the city in 1954, reported that police were focusing on an enclave of gay bars known as “Powder Puff Lane.” The paper did not explain why gay men would be prime suspects in the molestation of a young girl.
The Miami Herald’s story is strikingly similar to the August 22, 1962, article in the Mansfield News Journal. The story detailed the months-long investigation of homosexual activity in an underground public restroom in the city’s Central Park, which culminated in hidden-camera surveillance and the subsequent arrests of 18 men over a period of several days. Though sexual activity in the men’s room apparently was well-known to police, the spur to the investigation was a confession by a man accused of the murder of two young girls that he had attempted to sexually molest them. The article was strangely silent on the subject of whether the accused himself had sought sex in the park restroom (Gaynor, 1962).
The first frame represented in the article is that gay men are fundamentally different and inferior to most of society; they are “the other.” The frame is supported by the concepts of deviance and abnormality, which are used to distinguish the behavior of the men from that which is normative and expected. A form of the word “deviate” is applied either to the subjects of the article or to men like them no fewer than eight times; the word “abnormal” is applied to them three times. It should be noted that the term “gay” never appears in the article, which was fairly typical journalistic practice for the time. Both instances of the word “homosexual” are as adjectives, modifying “depravity” and “behavior.” Thus, the only distinguishing subcommunity to which the men belonged appears to be “deviates” (Gaynor, 1962).
A second frame for which evidence can be found in the article effectively renders gay men as sub-human. Early on, the article warns readers, “The things which some of these men did cannot be printed. They did break the laws of Ohio, of decency and of humanity” (Gaynor, 1962, 1). Ohio law, of course, is codified and therefore tacitly recognized and understood by members of the society, subject to the interpretation of the judiciary. The reporter did not specify what laws “of decency and of humanity” had been violated; presumably, these were such widely shared and uncontested understandings of the boundaries of appropriate human behavior that they did not need to be specified, let alone adjudicated, since the men had broken them. The offensiveness and sub-humanness of their behavior was reinforced with the sub-headline: “Can’t be printed” (1). If there was any doubt that the men’s behavior located them outside of boundaries of “decent” and “human,” a later sentence made it clear: “Officials said although they suspected such activity in the toilet facility, no one expected to witness the bestial scenes which the cameras recorded” (1).
A third frame suggests the propensity of gay men to commit far worse criminal acts than sodomy, including child molestation and murder, and thus pose a threat to the safety of community. As the article noted, homosexual sodomy alone was at the time considered to be such a serious offense that it carried a potential sentence of one to 20 years in the state penitentiary (Gaynor, 1962). It also suggested that the surveillance operation was halted prematurely when one man was seen attempting to molest a young boy. At that point, the man was arrested, the stake-out ended, and the restroom was ordered permanently closed, "for the protection of the citizens of Mansfield." A more pervasive relationship between homosexual behavior and child molestation was suggested by the sentence, “The chief also urged the public to cooperate in cleaning abnormal sex activity from Mansfield by reporting persons acting suspiciously around children, parks and playgrounds” (2). As was the case in the Miami Herald coverage a few years before, the article uncritically repeated the police department’s relating of male homosexuality with the sexual molestation of young girls, and then extended the relationship to include murder: "Chief Kyler said the investigation of male sex deviates began shortly after the killing of nine year-old Jean Bertoch and seven year-old Connie Lynn Hurrell near North Lake Park Saturday, June 23. Jerrell R. Howell, 18, a youth with a past record of molesting, planned the double killing, in which he reportedly stomped the girls to death with his feet, is waiting grand jury action in county jail" (1). Near the end of the article, the reporter repeated Kyler’s conflation of the concepts of homosexuality and murder, but again uncritically failed to indicate whether the accused ever had committed any sort of homosexual act, let alone in a public place: “Chief Kyler said today ‘The investigation is an outcome of the brutal murder of two little girls in North Lake Park. This is to be a continuous investigation to assure that this type of subject is not permitted to run at large in the City of Mansfield. These men are from all walks of life, not just one class of society. Any sex deviate may be a potential killer’” (2).
A final significant frame suggests that gay men are ill; therefore, their apprehension and treatment is for their benefit, and they are grateful for it. The reporter noted the connection in state law between homosexuality and mental illness, which reflected the conclusions of much of the community of mental health profession of the period: “Prosecutor Rex Larson said today that the law requires persons charged with sodomy be given a psychiatric examination” (2).
But the construction of gay men as mentally ill also was supported by the reputed self-reports of the accused, who perhaps had internalized that shared cultural understanding: “Some of the suspects reportedly seemed “relieved” at being caught…Officials said one man said he was glad it was over. The suspect reportedly stated he may have been subconsciously attempting to get caught by police. The particular suspect, a married man with children and a respected man in his community, is reported to have said he did not know why he committed such acts, except that he sometimes got ‘an urge’” (2). The account continued under the sub-headline “Despised himself”: “He stated that he would despise himself at the conclusion of a depraved act, had consulted a minister, and made other attempts to straighten himself out, but to no avail” (2).
Sometime after the public restroom sting and newspaper account, the Mansfield Police Department funded production and distribution of a 14-minute color film of the operation titled Mansfield Police Camera Surveillance. The film opened with what appears to be a uniform patch with the title embroidered into it, followed by an on-camera introduction by the police chief. The chief made clear that the intended audience for the film was other police departments, and related homosexuality and criminal activity, particularly child molestation and murder. The remainder of the film consisted of voice-over narration of crime scene film and photographs of the bodies of two female children who were purportedly stomped to death by a would-be children molester, behind-the-scenes film of the surveillance operation, and the surveillance film interspersed with booking photographs of men arrested in the operation.
The film echoes the four frames identified in the newspaper coverage. The first represented gay men as different, as the “other;” they quite literally were to be set apart from the rest of society. The narrator noted that two of the men depicted in the film had been forced to leave other cities, and observed, “If we had used this police method, other communities would have had quite an influx of undesirables.” Once more, the term “gay” never was used; the term “homosexual” was used once, this time as a noun. The term “deviant” was used 12 times to refer to men who engage in homosexual behavior; variations of the word “pervert” were used six times; “abnormal” was used three times; and “depraved” and “depravity” each were used once. The seeming interchangeability of these terms in describing those who engage in homosexual behaviors serves not only to cement their status as “others,” but also as reprehensible. These “others,” the viewer was told, must be known, “The quick solution to a crime such as this is possible only when the police department knows their sex deviants,” and monitored, “We must know the sex deviants in our community. Know them and watch them.” The task would not be easy, because, “We know that many sex deviants operate quietly. They may not attract the attention of either the public or the police for many years.”
A second frame in the film renders gay man as sub-human. As in the newspaper article, same-sex desire and homosexual acts were identified as crimes not only against the state, but against nature: “Law enforcement officials agree that practices of sex perversion are acquired patterns of abnormal depravity, and that such practices are in violation of both natural and moral law.” The frame more extensively developed the concept of what it means to exist outside of humanity. At one point, the comparison of the surveillance video and a nature film was quite explicit: “Notice how these subjects listen for footsteps and watch the door. Fear of being caught in the act.”
The frame relating homosexual acts to criminal activity was very much evidenced in the film. Thirteen times during the course of the film, scenes of men in the restroom engaging in sexual acts ranging from anal and oral sex to mutual masturbation were interspersed with police booking photographs, while the narrator enumerated the subject’s criminal record. In many cases, the only crime mentioned was the sodomy charge initiated by the surveillance operation. In other cases, the men had prior convictions for sodomy or indecent exposure. Only four had records including assault or property crimes such as burglary. Nevertheless, the film attempted to draw a connection between property crimes and sex crimes, which ended in a conflation of tranvestism, homosexuality, and theft: “Some of these people start out by stealing women's underclothing. While stealing these articles, they discover sexual excitement associated with the act of breaking into houses and apartments.” But, the narrator warned, the crimes a sexual deviant may be impelled to commit don’t stop at property crime, for, “… As their perversion becomes progressively acute, they tend to become involved in some of the most vicious crimes in police records.” The connection between the supposed impetus for the restroom sting – the brutal murder of two young girls – remained at best tenuous. According to the film, the lone suspect in the murders was arrested within six hours of the discovery of the bodies. Even so, “Four weeks after this brutal crime with the small girls, the mother of one of the victims reported to police a suspicious young man with a small boy in the park. He had been committing an act of oral sodomy on the boy. This [second] subject was apprehended, and during interrogation, disclosed that his immoral acts started in this restroom. Now a pattern of homosexual activity was centered in the city.” The film mentioned no connection between the two men.
Three additional frames relating to homosexuality not prominent in the newspaper article are manifest in the film. The first is a restatement of the shared cultural belief of the time that homosexuals were child molesters. Though just two of the men depicted in the film (only one of whose arrest had resulted from the surveillance operation) ever had been convicted of child molestation, the interweaving of child molestation with shots of the suspects connected the concepts of sexual “deviancy” and molestation: “As police officers, we realize that child molesting is the most revolting crime we can be faced with. But as parents, think of the anguish when we realize a sex deviant has touched our children.” The attribution of the connection to “police officers” had the effect of elevating the credibility of this shared cultural understanding to the level of expert conclusion.
The second frame both equates homosexuality with illness and employs a disease metaphor in describing the influence of homosexual sodomy on larger society. Homosexuality as a marker of mental illness was established by identification of four of the surveillance film suspects as “psychopaths” who had been committed to a state hospital. The narrator then reminded the viewer that, “Sex perversion, like disease, knows no social bounds. Rich, poor, college graduate, the illiterate.” Finally, homosexuals replaced homosexuality as the disease: “These people become a point of social contagion, seeking continually to recruit others, particularly the youth, into their own deviant cult. Society is bound to be seriously damaged if practices of this kind are condoned.”
A final frame takes note of the growing movement in the mental health community to classify lesbians and gays as distinctive, but not sick, and to identify that movement as wrongheaded: “It is confusing to the public when the police are advocating a firmer attitude in dealing with the deviant problem to have highly respected and widely quoted authorities tell the public that the sex deviant is harmless.” The frame accomplishes this both by classifying police as anti-sex deviant and “respected authorities” as pro-sex deviant and by again invoking the shared cultural perception of homosexuals as pedophiles or violent criminals: “Some voices in higher places would like to change the law and allow police to interfere only when the warping influence of sex perversion has finally resulted in the molesting of a child or the maiming of a victim.” The divergence of perspectives was explained by repeating the construction of gay men as quiet and subterranean, but also as a latent threat: “The sex pervert in his more innocuous form is too frequently regarded as merely a queer individual who never hurts anyone but himself. All too often, we lose sight of the fact that he represents a social problem because he is not content with being a degenerate himself, but must have degenerate companions and is ever-seeking the younger victim.”
Problematic Visibility and Homophobia (1976)
By the mid-1970s, the social status of lesbians and gays had undergone almost revolutionary change, and visibility had dramatically increased, though by and large construction of queer identity still was in the hands of media corporations controlled by straight, white males. The moves by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to declare homosexuality no longer a mental illness and by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to drop their ban on civilian gays and lesbians in the federal government damaged the validity of the frame that cast homosexuals as sick, deviate, and poor citizens. The Stonewall riots of 1969 had launched the more militant phase of the gay rights movement and made queers difficult for the media to ignore (Streitmatter, 2006). The number of gay and lesbian characters on television dramatically increased, though representations largely retained time-tested stereotypes, almost never took the form of regular characters, and reified heteronormativity by casting lesbians and gays as troubled people who only would cease to be troubled through associations with traditional families. Tropiano (2002) attributes the phenomenon to straight Hollywood liberals who had come to dominate television production practices in the 1970s. He argues their works advocated tolerance toward the inferior rather than acceptance and thus the validation of a lifestyle.
According to Altman (1971), their ideology led liberals of the time to think of homosexuals as people who happened to be attracted to others of the same sex, but also to deny the centrality of that difference to their being. Their implicit hope was that lesbians and gays would merge imperceptibly into the social fabric as it was without altering it.
On rare occasions, queer people found themselves in better positions to construct their own identities, such as the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family, in which eldest son Lance Loud effectively outed himself to a national prime time television audience. Media reaction to that rare authentic representation revealed persistent homophobia, with critics referring to him as the “evil flower” and “emotional dwarf” of the family (Jones, 2002, 60).
Streitmatter (2006) argues that the story of Oliver Sipple, the gay Vietnam veteran who saved President Gerald Ford from an assassination attempt in San Francisco, provided a compelling case study of the power of widespread homophobia that was pervasive in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. Though initial press coverage of Sipple was quite positive, revelations that he was a gay man that appeared in a San Francisco newspaper created a sensation. When the press told Sipple’s mother, who lived in Michigan, of his homosexuality, her proud descriptions of him turned decidedly negative, and she refused further contact with him. Streitmatter observes that the fact that a national hero’s sexuality was a significant story to begin with indicated the negative stereotyping against lesbians and gays that was endemic in the period.
Fourteen years after Mansfield’s park restroom sex sting, the city announced it would spend $18,000 in federal funds to replace the long-closed underground toilets with a new public restroom facility above ground (“Restroom Site Picked,” 1976). The proposal was supported by the members of the parks board and the Downtown Business Association (Heydinger, 1976d), but quickly drew opposition from members of the city council, a petition campaign from a group of angry citizens (Heydinger, 1976b), and a threatened lawsuit by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (Heydinger, 1976c). A total of seven items – six articles and one letter to the editor – appeared in the Mansfield News Journal in the seven weeks between the announcement of the new restrooms and the eventual decision by the city administration to abandon the project. Most made veiled references to the 1962 police operation; none mentioned the operation, arrests, film, or sexual activity specifically.
Three distinct frames seemed evident from the items. The first associated homosexuality with unspecified but negative past events. The headline of one article referred to the “’Stigma of Past Homosexual Activities,’” and its text quoted the head of the citizen’s group’s allusion to “’the unsavory situation that occurred there not too long ago,’” and his warning that “’we might run into the same situation we had there five or six [sic] years ago,’” as well as the city council president’s observation that “the city ‘can’t hide from the past’” (Heydinger, 1976a, 11).
Subsequent articles reminded readers that “opposition to the project still centers around the homosexual activities that took place in the old underground Central Park restrooms a number of years ago,” included the view of the president of the park board that the “apparent fear by many that homosexual activity would return to Central Park as a result of the restrooms” was “unjustified” (Brennan, 1976a, 6), and repeated the contention of the head of the opposition group that the new restroom “will most certainly be a headquarters for vandals and other undesirables,” as well as his reference to “the unsavory situation which forced the closing of the Central Park restrooms some years ago” (Slabaugh, 1976, 4). This frame appeared to access cultural history in which most adult readers of the newspaper would share, and therefore could remain implicit.
A second was a reproduction of the frame from discourses surrounding the 1962 arrests that “othered” gay men. One article suggested a physical separation of gay men from the dominant culture, reporting that the head of the park board believed “homosexuals now have their own places and no longer have to congregate in public restrooms” (Brennan, 1976a, 6). In his letter to the editor, the head of the petition movement distinguished gay men from legitimate users of public facilities, observing that in one nearby city “one of the already closed park restrooms was abandoned at the request of recreational officials who stated that the presence of undesirables at the restrooms interfered with recreational activities” (Slabaugh, 1976, 4). He also distinguished gays from contributors to the local economy, warning that their presence may mean “that good and regular customers might avoid our downtown” (Slabaugh, 1976, 4). The newspaper’s attribution to a council member with an affluent constituency that “the petition movement is not restricted to the southern upper-middle-class section of the city” (Brennan, 1976b, 6) addressed the alienation of the city’s gays from those best connected to local power elites.
The persistence of a third frame is suggested by the newspaper’s publication of remarks made by a second council member. The member cited as justification for his opposition to the new restrooms that “groups of young people are already congregating near the [park’s] bandshell” (Heydinger, 1976a, 11), which accesses timeworn associations between homosexuality and child molestation.
Queer Media & Contested Identities (2013)
The early years of the 21st century present a topology for public discourse that is distinct from the previous two periods. The U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of the remaining sodomy laws dramatically altered the legal status of queer people in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003). Its declaration a decade later that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional prompted the legalization of same-sex marriages in a number of states (U.S. v. Windsor, 2013).
Self-identified lesbians and gays, once an anomaly in the business, political, and media realms, are more widespread, if not yet commonplace. Perhaps more importantly, lesbians and gays are now more active in the discursive construction of their identities, thanks to the proliferation of both media technologies and content choices that have disrupted the roles of dominant media organizations and political elites in framing issues surrounding them. Dozens of national publications, countless internet websites, major cable/satellite television and radio channels, and at least one large consumer marketing research company are run by self-identified queers, representing voices and perspectives not previously heard.
This context is vastly different from the one in which the park restroom sting in Mansfield in 1962 existed. The existence of a powerful national lesbian and gay media was effectively precluded by obscenity laws of the period, which were interpreted to prohibit the mailing of homophile publications, including the brazenly titled ONE – The Homosexual Magazine. The claim by postal officials in Los Angeles that ONE was obscene, and therefore not mailable, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in One, Inc. v. Olesen (1958). Likewise, the Court overturned a similar ban on three magazines featuring homoerotic images by Virginia postal authorities in Manual Enterprises v. Day (1962). Scholars consider these cases pivotal in laying the groundwork for a national gay press (Watson, 2006).
Gay media, particularly internet-based gay media, have appropriated the long-forgotten original film, promulgating the construction of new frames by which it may be interpreted. PopcornQ, a website dedicated to film representations of queerness operated in the 1990s and early 2000s by the gay-owned Liberty Media conglomerate (since acquired by Here Media, which ultimately shut down the PopcornQ website), allowed downloads of the film under the more in-group friendly title Mansfield Ohio Tearoom Busts, and posted viewer reactions. George Painter (2004) made reference to the surveillance operation and the film and court cases that followed in his comprehensive web-based history of sodomy laws. The website associated with television’s Turner Classic Movies includes a sparse but descriptive entry in its film database (see tcm.com/tcmdb/title/796432/Tearoom/). Even the web reference site Wikipedia mentions the arrests and film in its “Mansfield, Ohio” entry (see wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansfield,_Ohio). In 2007, filmmaker William E. Jones acquired a print of the original and screened it as Tearoom in 2008 at exhibitions at such venues as the Whitney Museum in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (see williamejones.com/collections/about/11.) Versions of the film still exist on the social media website YouTube.com, and references to the film elsewhere in cyberspace have made it virtually as familiar to more recent generations of lesbians, gays, and interested allies as photos of the Stonewall Inn or Harvey Milk.
The re-imagining of the film and its antecedent police action suggest a set of frames very different from those evident in either 1962 or 1976. The first, which conceptually relates the scenes from the film to other pre-Stonewall era film representations of lesbians and gays now regarded as “camp” arises not from statements made in reference to it, but by comparisons made inevitable by its location by authors of the former PopcornQ website alongside such period pieces as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Calamity Jane, Glen or Glenda, and Auntie Mame as well as vintage television commercials for snack cakes featuring “Twinkie the Kid.”
A second frame constructs the surveillance operation as an example of the oppression of gay men by power elites that characterized the period. Three users of the former PopcornQ site offering their reviews used variations of the word “disturbing” in their descriptions; two used “sad” and another called it “awful.” The operation was equated with “entrapment” and revealed “prejudice,” “bigotry,” and “ignorance” on the part of police, who were “misinformed” and “preying” upon gay men. Words like “ridiculous” were used to describe the film’s representations of gay men. Painter (2004) referred to the operation as “an incredibly virulent anti-Gay witch hunt.”
Finally, the frame evidenced by the most richly developed prose presented the film as not simply a period piece, but as one manifesting persistent attitudes in the culture. One comment warned that the film “shows how every citizen must be constantly vigilant. Freedom is lost one statute, ordinance, license, permit at a time,” and concluded by questioning, “Are things really any better 40 years later?” The theme of vigilance was echoed by a second viewer who saw such events as the surveillance as being part of “a history that should be understood if it is to be kept in check.” Another believed that “this stuff is still quite timely, and it can be easily imagined that devices like this are used today to destroy more lives.” The assessment of one commenter suggested a variant of the frame, in which queers were empowered not simply by vigilance to encroachments on their rights and freedoms, but also by their ability to influence broader metaframes of gay people: “Although this video was made in the 60's, gay men are still fucking in damp, cold, stench ridden toilets. We must stop flaunting our shame and prove that gay sex is a joyous exchange too. Until we get out of the toilets, this movie will still have powerful meaning to voters.”
Consideration of the evolution in the frames addressing the 1962 public restroom surveillance operation and the resulting film suggests three observations. First, the changes seem to mirror a broader cultural progression in the frames through which society knows and understands lesbians and gays. Homosexual sodomy was a crime in most of the United States well into the 1960s and officially viewed even by the medical community as a mental illness into the 1970s. A conviction on sodomy charges often meant a prison sentence more lengthy than those meted out to criminal assault convicts, and frequently also involved psychiatric evaluation or commitment to a mental hospital. Beyond supporting frames associating gays with criminal behavior and illness, these social contexts likely contributed to the “othering” frame and the more extreme sub-humanization frame, since the shared cultural stigmatization of lesbians and gays tended to preclude their assimilation into or stability within mainstream professional or social domains. The frames associating male homosexuality with child molestation were a matter of broad cultural currency in the 1960s, though the extension of these frames to embrace the assault and murder of younger females appears to owe in large degree to its enthusiastic sponsorship by police agencies, including those in Miami and Mansfield. The film’s contention that “the quick solution to a crime such as (the brutal murder of two young girls) is possible only when the police department knows their sex deviants,” viewed from the perspective of a less homophobic culture, may in fact be re-appropriated as an admission that gay men are convenient and unsympathetic suspects for police agencies under public pressure to solve horrific and otherwise unexplainable crimes.
Second, the striking similarity in frames evident in both the newspaper coverage and film suggest the adeptness of the police in sponsoring frames in local media discourse. As I can attest from five years working as a journalist in Mansfield, much of this owes to unequal power relations between local police agencies and local media. Such agencies are monopolistic suppliers of information about criminal activity and other major spectacles, including fires, traffic accidents, and property damage due to severe weather. While official printed reports of such matters are freely available, details not part of the reports are obtainable only from watch commanders or the agency chief, and the extensiveness of those details frequently vary with agency perceptions of the friendliness of the reporter or media outlet. Local media, on the other hand, are dependent on this information not merely as the basis for stories that fill local pages and air time, but also as a marginal benefit they can tout to advertisers and audiences who have larger market media alternatives available. Meager advertising revenues common to smaller media markets mean operating budgets seldom allow the human resources to pursue the information independently. The police department was effective in its sponsorship of frames in which homosexuality was equated with deviance, child molestation, criminality, mental illness, and “other-ness” through lowering the perceived cost of a good the media desired by establishing the price as a longstanding tacit understanding that the frames largely would remain intact. With few external checks on this transaction—media in Cleveland and Columbus did not immediately pursue the story—and little in shared cultural experience to contest these frames, their dominance was assured.
Finally, the progress of the broader cultural metaframe of “queerness” cannot be understood without consideration of the role of media fragmentation and the growth in number and influence of gay-owned and gay-targeted media in contesting the representation of lesbians and gays. In the early-1960s, the subterranean status of the nascent gay culture, the legal and social status of homosexuality, and legal prohibitions on queer content that amounted to a comprehensive “gag order” on lesbian and gay voices combined to assure frames advanced by powerful elites in which lesbians and gay were represented negatively would not be challenged. By the mid-1970s, steady erosion in laws against homosexual sodomy and their enforcement had led to increased visibility of lesbians and gays and some moderation in cultural attitudes toward them.
However, that visibility was ultimately controlled by corporate media outlets whose organizational climate simultaneously stifled queer voices, left uncontested shared cultural stereotypes, and perpetuated homophobic representations of gays as different, inferior, and threatening to mainstream culture. Thus, while newspaper coverage of the proposal to rebuild the Central Park restrooms in Mansfield in 1976 revealed frames that were anti-gay but not as virulent as those in 1962, competing frames in which the men caught in the surveillance operation were represented as more sympathetic or even as victims continued their exclusion from social discourse on the matter. Ironically, the recent “rediscovery” of the surveillance film by web-based media, particularly in the context of the fall of the sodomy laws in 2003, the rise of marriage equality in the early 21st century, and the increased salience of reports of post-9/11 domestic surveillance, seems to promote discourse in which frames highly critical of the police operation are dominant and those supporting it and demonizing its subjects are curiously absent.
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Bruce Drushel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami University and is Director of its Film Studies program. He currently serves as Vice-President for Programming and Area Chairs of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association and chairs its Gay, Lesbian & Queer Studies area. He has received its David M. Sokol Award (2012) and Presidential Award (2013) for service to the organization. He is editor of the book Fan Phenomenon: Star Trek and was co-editor of the books Queer Identities/Political Realities and Ethics of Emerging Media. His work also has appeared in Journal of Homosexuality, Journal of Media Economics, European Financial Journal, and FemSpec, and in books addressing free speech and social networks, free speech and 9/11, media in the Caribbean, C-SPAN as a pedagogical tool, LGBT persons and on-line media, minority sexualities and non-western cultures, and AIDS and popular culture. He is founding co-editor of the journal Queer Studies in Media & Popular Culture from Intellect. He recently edited a special issue of Journal of Homosexuality on AIDS and Culture, co-edited a special issue of Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, and currently is co-editing a special issue of Journal of American Culture.
© 2014 Bruce Drushel, used by permission
Technoculture Volume 4 (2014)