Esther Lederer, better known to the world as Ann Landers, was a fascinating woman. Sometimes she expressed unpopular opinions. She repeatedly favored legalization of prostitution and was pro-choice, yet denounced the views of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She also opposed loose sexual morals, interracial dating and interfaith dating. Most confusing was her stance on homosexuality. She seemed to simultaneously support it, and abhor it. What were her real feelings, and was this her greatest internal struggle?
Landers Against Homosexuality
Ann Landers did not mince words when she talked of gays. She described homosexuality as “unnatural”, a “sickness”, and a “dysfunction”. Those are not the words of love.
On January 8, 1973, she said, “Why can’t members of the same sex kiss publicly and dance together and proclaim their love as heterosexual lovers do? Because homosexuality is unnatural. It is, in spite of what some psychiatrists say, a sickness — a dysfunction… I do not believe homosexual activity is normal behavior”.
On March 2, 1973, “I am with the psychiatrists who believe homosexuals are sick and that sex between two men or two women is unnatural.”
On April 24, 1973, “I have rethought my position and I believe my original conclusion is correct. Homosexuality is unnatural. Individuals who prefer members of their own gender as sex partners are sick”.
Her stance became slightly stronger on July 23, 1976, when she said, “I do NOT believe homosexuality is ‘just another lifestyle’. I believe these people suffer from a severe personality disorder. Granted, some are sicker than others, but sick they are, and all the fancy rhetoric from the American Psychiatric Association will not change it.” Having previously relied on the field of psychiatry to support her, it is interesting to see her abandon that line of reasoning when it turns against her. Landers, it seems, knows more about mental health than psychiatrists do.
Landers Supporting Homosexuality
What I find mind-boggling, and I doubt I am alone, is that at the exact same time Landers was perpetuating the notion that homosexuals were “sick”, she claimed to be pushing for their equal rights. I am not aware of what she did to push for these rights, but having millions of readers hear her call people “sick” probably did not help her cause.
On January 8, 1973, the same column where she called homosexuality a “dysfunction” and a “sickness”, she claimed that, “For 18 years I have been pleading for compassion and understanding and equal rights for homosexuals, and I will continue to do so.” Why would someone plead for equal rights of a minority they feel has a sickness?
Then on July 23, 1976, again in the same column where she calls homosexuals “sick” and suffering from “a severe personality disorder”, she says, “I fought for the civil rights of homosexuals 20 years ago and argued that they should be regarded as full and equal citizens.”
On April 27, 1992, after reviewing research and receiving nearly 75,000 letters that gays and lesbians wrote to her saying that they were overwhelmingly (Ann says 30-1) happy being gay, Ann wrote, “It is my firm conviction that homosexuality is not learned behavior, it is genetic. It can be suppressed but not altered.” While she did not blatantly say that homosexuality was acceptable, this was the closest she came to denying it was unnatural.
As most people know, Pauline Phillips (better known as Abigail VanBuren) was the columnist who wrote “Dear Abby”, and was Ann Landers’ twin sister. How two sisters had successful advice columns for almost fifty years is quite a mystery, but outside of our scope here. What did Abby think of homosexuality?
The short answer is, I do not know for sure. She did not seem to tackle the issue head-on like Ann did, and perhaps that was for the best. The closest she came to mentioning homosexuality was in 1984, when she referred a distraught parent to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Was this an endorsement? Perhaps. Her daughter later wrote, “Over the decades during which my mother wrote this column, she never once told me she had received a letter from — or encountered — anyone who told her he or she had ‘chosen’ to be a homosexual.” But that does not clearly express how Abby felt.
Pauline’s daughter Jeanne took over the column when the former retired. At that point, Abby became far more outspoken than Ann ever was. In her March 15, 2005 column, following Ann’s comment of 1992, Abby came down unequivocally on the side of scientists who say sexual orientation is a matter of genetics, not personal choice. She advised a mother who had cautioned her 14-year-old daughter to keep her feelings for other girls secret to “come to terms with your own feelings about homosexuality.”
An irate reader named wrote to Abby and demanded she retract her pro-homosexual writing. He said that if she did not “publicly admit” her “error”, he would know she was “a mouthpiece for the gay and lesbian crowd.” She clarified on May 11, 2005, “Homosexuality is simply a variant of sexual orientation. Those who claim it is ‘unnatural’ should direct their attention to Dr. Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford University with a Ph.D. from Harvard, who states that more than 300 vertebrate species have been found to practice homosexuality.” The choice of the word “unnatural”, the same word Ann Landers used, may not be coincidental.
In 2006, addressing a groom whose gay brother refused to serve as best man or even attend the wedding because he did not have the right to marry, she made it clear her sympathies lay with the boycotting brother. She compared the way society sees homosexuals to the way it once saw women or slaves.
June 9, 2006, had one of the strangest homosexual questions. A grandmother from Missouri wondered whether a circumcision could “cure” homosexuality. After explaining that homosexuality is not an illness, she makes this interesting remark: “Circumcision is a sacred rite of the Jewish religion. If your theory were valid, then there would be no Jewish homosexuals.”
By 2007, she had said, “I believe if two people want to commit to each other, God bless ’em. That is the highest form of commitment, for heaven’s sake.” If that is too subtle for you, Abby was endorsing the legalization of so-called gay marriage. “If gay Americans are not allowed to get married and have all the benefits that American citizens are entitled to by the Bill of Rights, they should get one hell of a tax break. That is my opinion.”
What Ann Landers thought of homosexuals is a mystery. She paradoxically seemed to accept that they were “sick” and needed help, yet fought for their equal rights rather than pushing for some sort of cure. Her sister seems to have been more gay-friendly, though her silence masks that and makes any concrete assertion impossible.
Today, Landers is retired and their is a new Abby. And the new Abby takes about as polar opposite a view to homosexuality from Ann Landers as is possible — she not only considers it natural, and not an illness, but pushes for the full legalization of same-sex marriage. The advice column has gone from being the last bastion of traditional morals to being a progressive voice for culture change and civil rights.
And let’s not even begin to talk about the influence of Dan Savage…