Dr. McMurtrie and the Gay Kiss

[25 June 2014]

By Michael Abernethy

Above: Michael Sam. Photographer unknown.


So, we have a gay player in the National Football League. Granted, Michael Sam hasn’t played a game, and he may not even make St. Louis’ final team roster, but the fact that an openly gay man was drafted seemed to cause quite an uproar.

However, the news that the All-American and Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year was drafted didn’t get nearly the attention as the news that he celebrated his good fortune with a kiss, like almost every other draftee. But Sam kissed a man, his boyfriend. Cover the kiddies’ eyes! Armageddon has come to ESPN.

Some complained that the kiss was shown at all, while others complained that it was shown on a sports channel. In a now viral video clip, one Dallas talk show panelist was so disgusted by not only the kiss but also the conversation about it that she walked off the show. She was not the first to use the phrase “don’t want it in my face”, although this seemed to be the center of her arguments.

Seriously, where the hell have these people been? After all, it’s been 23 years since the first homosexual kiss on fictional TV (a lesbian kiss on L. A. Law), and there have been gay kisses on a variety of shows (Roseanne, Will and Grace, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Greek and just about every day and primetime soap opera, to name just a few). Gay and lesbian couples have also kissed on awards shows, talk shows, and reality shows. News programs showed gay men kissing in reports during the late ‘60s and ‘70s; gay weddings have occurred on such shows as Conan and this year’s Grammy Awards. In case you were too busy watching The 700 Club, “it” has been in your face for decades.

Even if Sam does play, he won’t be the first openly gay player in one of the United States’ big four sports—hockey, baseball, basketball, and football. Jason Collins earned that honor when the former first round draftee played in several games for the Brooklyn Nets, and in so doing, wound up being named one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People this past spring.

Indeed, all this noise about Sam and Collins overlooks that there have been openly gay and lesbian players in other sports for quite some time, from women’s basketball to bowling, and most particularly in sports more popular outside the US, such as rugby, polo, tennis, and soccer. Nonetheless, Sam and Collins have helped shattered the stained glass ceiling for gay players in sports with heteronormative cultures.

Combine this news with the fact that gay marriage is gaining ground in conservative states, either through court order or public opinion, and there is much of which to be proud during this year’s Pride celebrations. Presently, North Dakota is the only state where gay marriage is banned that the ban hasn’t been challenged in court. Meanwhile, polls in Arizona show that, for the first time, a majority of citizens support gay marriage. Some predict that the issue will be on the ballot sometime in the next few years and will pass, meaning that gays and lesbians will have the right to marry in Arizona because their neighbors think they should (unless you are Hispanic, in which case you will probably be detained by the police too frequently to get married).

It would appear that the United States is in a period when the slow march towards equality has finally turned into a run. Still, there is much to be done. The gains that we have today rest on the groundbreaking work of those who came before.

Recently, I bought a gay and lesbian almanac at a book sale, so I decided to see what happened in the LGBT movement 100 years ago, knowing there would be no reports on gay or lesbian athletes (although they existed) and “gay marriage” simply meant you were happy with your spouse. [Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary, 1983, Harper & Row: New York]

However, there was a report from Dr. Douglas C. McMurtrie that contained a shocking revelation: men in prison have sex with other men. Before there is a chorus of “Really?”, keep in mind that this was 1914, and male-on-male sex was never discussed in polite society. Mever. As happens today, the more salacious aspects of the report got the most attention, obscuring this noteworthy observation by McMurtrie:

In many cases (of same-sex relationships in prison) the original attraction seems spiritual rather than physical and many of the manifestations of normal love may be observed… Such a relationship as I have just described will soon ripen into love. Often, of course, some form of physical gratification may eventually ensue. (p. 344)

Although McMurtrie’s research focused mostly on what would today be called “dad-son” relationships, with an older male providing solace to a younger one, it is important to note that McMurtrie acknowledges the fact that a love can exist between two men beyond a physical sexual attraction. In other words, two men can fall in love. In 1914, it helped if they were locked in a cell together; I don’t know if McMurtrie followed up with an equally scandalous report on men at sea.

However, McMurtrie did follow up with a paper on lesbian love, which he presented the same year. McMurtrie served as director of the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, so his selection of lesbianism as a focus may seem unusual. However, he also wrote a regular column on “sexual psychology”; unfortunately, his examination of lesbianism focused primarily on the term “lesbian” as opposed to the actual state of being a lesbian.

His article is noteworthy, nonetheless, for its admonition of lexicographers who defined lesbianism as a friendship love between two women, overlooking the sexual or romantic feelings two women could have for one another. In other words, like men in prison, women can fall in love.

Having covered gay men (albeit prisoners) and lesbians, 1914 also saw one of the first reports on “one of the newest discovered anomalies”: transvestism. Note that author Dr. Bernard S. Talmcy didn’t say transvestism was new, just that it was newly discovered. Apparently, aside from men in drag on stage, cross-dressers had done an excellent job of hiding in their wives’ closets.

Reporting to the Society of Medical Jurisprudence, Dr. Talmcy showed definite bias against his subjects, four men who reported in interviews that they enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing. Despite his disgust with the subject, he did make one important observation: transvestism is not synonymous with homosexuality. Two of the four subjects had homosexual desires, while two did not. In fact, the idea seems repulsive to the latter two.

Speaking of the first subject, Talmcy reports, “He has no homosexual inclinations, but rather a profound repugnance to homosexual relationship (sic). He never longed for a male instead of a female lover.” A very understanding female lover, apparently, considering the social mores of the time.

While the LGT portions of the community were covered in 1914, bisexuals were largely overlooked, even by Dr. McMurtrie, who covered the subject of homosexuality in several columns. Since anyone who had sex with someone of the same sex was automatically classified as homosexual, regardless of the number of opposite sex relationships he or she had, that’s not surprising. Thus, it’s not surprising that for the almanac’s 700 plus pages, bisexuality has only 13 listings in the index, and most of those are for passing references.

It would be easy to dismiss these three reports; for one, it all sounds like history, and history is boring, and is this going to be on the test? Further, they didn’t really change anything; life didn’t improve for gay, lesbian, or trans individuals. Even the men writing had disdain for their subjects, so one can’t expect a few medical reports to open any doors. Nonetheless, they introduced new ideas and understandings about the LGBT community, which opened the door for future researchers to examine aspects of homosexual and trans behavior with more objectivity and come to conclusions that might not set well with long-held cultural beliefs.
No one examining homosexuality in the early part of the 20th century imagined that they were setting the stage for a black man to publically kiss a white man without fear of being dragged out into the street and killed. Yet, the small insights they made laid a foundation for a tower of research that led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Which led to a swell in gay rights movements. Which led to more people coming out of the closet. Which led to growing acceptance of LGBT individuals. Which led to a gay football player in the NFL and lesbians exchanging vows in Iowa.

Happy Pride, everyone.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/182410-dr.-mcmurtrie-and-the-gay-kiss/