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Libel in Fact: The Trial's Sexual Politics

The sexual politics of the Goldwater v. Ginzburg libel trial

The two sides were far apart on many issues: Central to these issues was whether Mr. Goldwater had been libeled by Fact magazine's articles. There was disagreement as to whether Mr. Goldwater had suffered a nervous breakdown as the magazine claimed, and, also, whether the Senator could become isolated and paranoid in the future.

Sexual politics entered the mix as well. Mr. Ginzburg was perceived by some as suggesting that Mr. Goldwater had homosexual tendencies.

When asked during the trial (on May 21st) whether he had meant to suggest that Mr. Goldwater was a homosexual, Mr. Ginzburg replied, "Absolutely not. I didn't think so then or now that the Senator was or is a homosexual, either overt or latent."

Mr. Ginzburg had, however, referred to Senator Goldwater's father as effeminate, his mother as masculine, and argued that Mr. Ginzburg "identified with a masculine mother and a feminine father."  One line of psychiatric thinking at the time was that such identifications might lead to poor masculine adjustments and possibly homosexuality.

In making such statements in 1968, Mr. Ginsburg might have guessed that such a description could raise the idea in many people's minds that Goldwater was himself effeminate, and possibly homosexual. 

Mr. Ginzburg had argued in his article that Mr. Goldwater's underlying uncertainty as to his masculinity meant he had "something to prove," and this, in turn, rendered him more prone toward violence toward others (i.e., starting a nuclear war as president).

The 1960s was a time of general intolerance of variations from what were then the sexual norms of masculinity and femininity -- although young men and women began to challenge such prevailing sexual stereotypes.  When young men grew their hair a few inches longer than a crewcut, for example, they often were ridiculed as "looking like girls."  When women began talk of liberation from a feminine role some found oppressive, they met considerable resistance from both men and women.

The plaintiff and the defendents were far apart as to whether libel had occurred, but they were on the same side in one sad respect: both sides recognized that their audiences were uncomfortable with variations from the sexual norms of the day; both sides assumed a degree of anti-gay sentiment among those they addressed.

Mr. Goldwater objected to Mr. Ginzburg's descriptions of his sexual identifications and nature.

Senator Goldwater's attorney, Charles Robb, raised the issue in court, asking Mr. Goldwater: "Did you ever had any anxiety about your manhood?" Goldwater replied, "No, I never had any doubts about it," raising some appreciative laughter in the courtroom.

Fair enough, but when Mr. Goldwater was asked during the trial whether the Fact article had caused him mental anguish, he singled out in particular the sexual descriptions of him in the article.  Commenting on whether Mr. Ginsburg's descriptions caused him injury, he said:

"It did and it still does. Even today when people smile at me on the street I don't know whether they're thinking, ‘There goes that queer, that homosexual, that fears for his masculinity and hates his wife.'"

Sexual identity was and is, for many, a highly-charged personal issue.  It is a challenge in terms of personality, for each of us must arrive at some integration of the physical needs and mental desires we experience, on the one hand, and the social and cultural setting within which we operate, on the other.  The physical, mental, and social systems can exert a sometimes tough set of conflicting pressures out of which to fashion a sexual identity. 

Mr. Ginzburg's depiction of Mr. Goldwater was aided and abetted in this instance by many groups' readiness to ridicule anyone not plainly and conventionally heterosexual. In 1964, an accusation of sexual deviancy of almost any form could potentially harm someone's reputation in a serious fashion; such reputational harm is central to libel law

Both sides were all too willing to accept the anti-homosexual atmosphere of the time. 

Consider again Mr. Goldwater's remark that he was bothered by the idea that people might see him and think, "There goes that queer."  To allow such a remark at the trial suggests that Mr. Goldwater and perhaps his lawyer disregarded the possibility that a member of the jury might be gay, and disregarded the possibility that some public respect was due to gays and the gay community. 

More on the trial next week...


"Absolutely not...I didn't think so..."  Burks, E. C. (1968, May 22).  Ginzburg Defends Goldwater story.  New York Times, p.44.

"Did you ever have any anxiety"... reported May 8th, "It did and still does,"...reported May 9th.

Burks, E. C. (1968, May 8). Goldwater, testifying in libel suit, says he never saw a psychiatrist. New York Times, p. 28.

Burks, E. C. (1968, May 9). Goldwater seeks libel precedent. New York Times, p. 35.

Copyright © 2009 by John D. Mayer