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Exclusive: listen to Studs Terkel on gay rights in newly unearthed interview
‘The homosexual people are really no different from the rest of us.’
We live in an era colored by massive victories for LGBT rights. As of last June, same-sex couples can legally marry anywhere in the United States. Children as young as 14 are coming out as queer in social media posts. The LGBT community is courted by politicians, with President Obama being the first to pose for the cover of a gay magazine.
There are still problems, but the strides that have been made are staggering—and it only takes one small peek into the not-so-distant past to reveal just how much has been gained.
In 1982, the famed journalist and historian Studs Terkel sat down with what was then called Parents and Friends of Gays (later, it would become PFLAG) in Chicago. Terkel interviewed four members of the group, all parents, for his long-running show on local radio station WFMT.
Today, the hourlong recording of the heartbreaking interview is available for the first time in decades, exclusive to the Daily Dot.
On Thursday, WFMT launched the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. As part of a partnership with the Chicago History Museum, the archive will eventually house 5,600 interviews from Terkel’s radio show, which aired from 1952 to 1997.
The web archive is being supported by a Kickstarter fundraiser that aims to raise $75,000 for the preservation of Terkel’s legacy as the forefather of modern-day storytelling.
Terkel interviewed everyone during his 46 years on air: from Martin Luther King Jr. to Janis Joplin, Tennessee Williams to Muhammed Ali. But it was the iconic journalist’s dedication to interviewing civil rights activists on the fringes that set him apart—and this interview with an early iteration of PFLAG is something most journalists of the time would not have touched.
The agonizing clip reveals a different world for LGBT rights (spoiler: there weren’t any). The four Chicago-area parents who sat down with Terkel in 1982 spoke of the “tragedy” of discovering their children were gay in a world that viciously shunned and mocked them.
In one segment, a father named Herb explains the basic premise of this semi-underground parenting support group.
“The group that we represent actually is called Parents and Friends of Gays. It is a group that meets once a month. And is really here number one to support our gay children and number two to support the parents of the gays. Because any parent who has a gay child knows, it’s a rather traumatic experience when they first find out that their child is gay. We try to help these parents in their times of need. By the same token, we try to help our children with support—because being gay, as we all know, is really not accepted by society these days. In some instances it’s really quite a handicap for these youngsters. To have society turned against them and the parents turned against them, I think, is a little bit too much.”
To hear homosexuality referred to as a “handicap” is stunning from a 2016 vantage point. And what’s even more of a shock is realizing, through the interview’s progression, that one of the biggest struggles a parent faced in 1982 was the decision to come out—not as gay themselves, but as the parent of a gay child.
“I felt that if I continued to hide the fact that he is gay, I’m just hiding the acceptance that I’m giving him,” said Marshall, who chose to publicly come out as the father of a gay son on Terkel’s program. “And there might be some repercussions, being in business and being a member of the community. I expect to hear some talk about it. But I am taking my stand at this point and I don’t regret it.”
Though the four parents assembled for the interview spoke mostly of their own struggles to accept their gay children, so much more is revealed about the restrictions placed on the LGBT community at the time. In one statement, Herb explained how he realized that his son would never have children—and you realize, while listening, that adoption, marriage, and family were simply inconceivable options for a gay person back then.
In another segment of the interview, a mom named Bessie discussed her fears for the discrimination her daughter would face, including the possibility that she would never be able to work due to her sexual orientation.
“My daughter came out to me about three years ago. It was a very traumatic situation for us…because she was in college, and she’s a black woman. And my feelings were, here she’s a black woman and take on to be a member of another minority group. That in itself would make it very difficult for her to get a job, and that was my main concern. I was concerned also about the kind of support that she would get: from peers, from the community at large, around her sexual preferance. It was really rough for me, because I’m thinking ‘no one is going to hire my daughter.She’s going to have problems getting heard, being black. She’s going to have problems getting heard, being a female. And then to be a lesbian.’ It was really rough for me. “
Terkel’s interview not an easy listen, but its one that puts everything into perspective. To hear four loving parents in defensive turmoil, stating over and over again that “the homosexual people are really no different from the rest of us,” in an effort to convince the public not to come after their children with stakes and torches is painful.
Such an important historical document serves to remind us of the treacherous, uphill climb that the LGBT community (and our families and allies) undertook through decades of hostility and shaming. Ultimately, it reminds us to be grateful for what we have gained.
Illustration via Max Fleishman
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.