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Walter Cronkite … Off the Record

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The venerable journalist was both renowned and respected for his integrity and passion for the news. What you may not know is that he was an early advocate of the fight for gay rights, as revealed in this archival interview.

GAY HISTORY MONTH SPECIAL

By Mark Segal • Edited by Jason Villemez
Photo courtesy Gay History Project

Chronkite
Walter Chronkite

Mark Segal met Walter Cronkite when he disrupted the live broadcast of the CBS Evening News in December 1973 by holding a sign in front of Cronkite which read “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” They later became friends, and this interview was recorded on March 6, 1996, during one of their lunches. Walter Cronkite’s candor surprised Segal, who thought Cronkite’s comments reflected a man ahead of his time. Upon Cronkite’s death, Segal pulled the interview out of the drawer, where it had resided, unpublished, for 13 years.

OutSmart is proud to print this interview as part of our continuing support of the Gay History Project.

Mark Segal: What are your thoughts on gay marriage?
Walter Cronkite: I don’t see why states should have any interest in gay marriage. That’s not an issue that the state government or any government should be involved in. This is a personal question and should be solved on a personal basis, and I just don’t believe the government has any role in it.

If there is an attempt to legislate against it, like the attempt to legislate against abortion, this is an interference of personal and civil rights that should be protested and contested. Short of that, the attitude ought to be, “Well, that’s the way they feel. This doesn’t have to be the way I feel, but let’s live and live together and accept these things.”

So I think that I’m getting on very dangerous ground here, but I think there is a danger in trying to force an acceptance of your lifestyle. This ought to come through the more gradual educational process. But I don’t want to sound like [Republican presidential candidate Steve] Forbes and abortion.

It really isn’t your business to sell this to the public. Educate the public. But don’t try to sell it. And, and I think that there, sometimes the line is crossed there—that you’re trying to propagandize the people to, to accept what, what you believe to be right. There is a fine line there between defense and aggression, and that line has to be very clearly defined and closely observed.

Acceptance has been a long time coming, and we still have areas like the military where public support has risen, but those in the leadership have not bought into the notion.
In the military, I believe fully that, there again, it’s a question of one’s civil rights and one certainly should have the right to live as one chooses. The suggestion that homosexuality is somehow going to be forced upon the other members of the barracks seems to me to be a non-issue. It’s just a ridiculous red herring.

I know that some of my friends in the military think it’s a ridiculous issue to make, to make an issue of what could be, could be handled quite as easily, as well—open rights.

The right wing has used us as an election ploy for years, but there have been and still are legitimate conservative extremists who wish violence upon the gay community.  How should we deal with people like that?
I think we all should be fearful of any issue regarding extremists, whether they’re left or right. And certainly I’d be very concerned, particularly if I were one of the minority groups [targeted in] this attempt to enforce a moral code through some misinterpretation of some religious beliefs. I’d be very worried about that. Yeah, I’d be concerned. I’m concerned about that kind of attitude from both left and right in the country; militants who are fanatic in their beliefs are dangerous wherever they lie.

I don’t like the word “attack.” I wouldn’t “attack” anybody. That’s certainly not necessary and probably counterproductive. But defense mechanisms against the know-nothings in our world certainly are required. There you have a duty to answer those arguments that are, to your mind, completely out of line. I think that that’s fundamental, a fundamental right and a fundamental duty, a fundamental responsibility to what you believe in.

What about demonstrations?
There’s no question that militant demonstrations offend a proportion of the population no matter what the subject matter is. There are people that would rather not be awakened to issues, rather not be bothered by issues. They do not like seeing the city streets used as theater for issues, and they are the people who do not understand the Constitution and the right to demonstrate. Those are the very ones, who, if you ask them if people have a right to demonstrate, if you said to them, “Do you believe in the Constitution? It says people have the right to express their opinion,” they’d all say, “Oh, yes, absolutely.” “Well, do they have the right to demonstrate in front of the White House?” “Oh, no! They shouldn’t be doing that!”

People have a kind of, I guess, a cleavage between theory and what they really want to see happening on the streets. So, there’s always going to be that resentment towards demonstrators, no matter if it’s gay-rights demonstrators or political, other issues. I don’t think that you could make a judgment on the success of such a thing. You have to make a judgment on the basis of the entire approach, the public perceptions from the situation, as opposed to before such activity began, and I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a very positive, educational effect.

Whatever can be done to educate the public to the nature of homosexuality, to the rights, civil rights to those who have a different lifestyle than the majority, this sort of thing, this is what is required.

What do you think of the gay movement now compared to it beginnings?
It seems to me that the gay movement has been highly successful. I think there’s much more awareness, obviously, of the issue in the country. It seems to me that the approval rating among the polls is good, and if that’s the result, then the movement has been successful.

For more Gay History Project, turn to “An Affair to Remember: Peter Doyle’s Lifelong Love of Walt Whitman,” on page 76.

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