Tucker Carlson Should Own His Homophobia

Joke celebrating the assassin of a gay politician was an outgrowth of a wider culture of right-wing cruelty.

On November 27, 1979, Dan White, a former police officer, shot and killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. White had himself been onetime member of San Fransisco Board of Supervisor where his social conservatism led him to clash with Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. The assassinations were immediately understood as a homophobic hate crime.

As horrific as the murders were, White had sympathizers who shared his discomfort with gay rights. In 1984, The Washington Post reported, “there were also men in the city police department who believed San Francisco was being invaded by men who performed acts of perversion in public places--as though the swelling number of racial minorities was not trouble enough--and that Harvey Milk and George Moscone had made up the invaders' principal support team. The ‘Free Dan White’ T-shirts had appeared in police locker rooms long before White ever went to trial, and one officer remembers gazing at the wall where one of his colleagues had scrawled in large capital letters: ‘FREE AN INNOCENT MAN WHO WAS FOR THE PEOPLE. FREE DAN WHITE.’”

During the trial, the jury accepted the defence claim that White suffered from depression which led to diminished capacities. Instead of being found guilty of murder, White was convicted on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. He served five years in prison. It was widely believed at the time that homophobia in the jury fuelled the remarkably lenient sentence.

In 1991, Tucker Carlson, then a 22 year old student at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, listed on his yearbook that he belonged to the“Jesse Helms Foundation,” and the “Dan White Society.” Of course, no such groups existed. Carlson was doing the type of troll the liberals jokes that have become all too familiar. But as so often, jokes sprang from attitudes that are deadly serious.

Earlier this week, Carlson was fulminating on Fox News about a Washington Post reporter investigating his college days and old year books.

We’re probably on the cusp of an all too tedious cancel culture debate. You can already mumble out the talking points in your sleep: Tucker was only joking! This was thirty years ago! He was young! He’s being cancelled by humourless woke SJWs.

My suggestion is that any discussion of cancelling Carlson is red herring. Fox News has already made clear that they’re sticking with him no matter what because their audience loves him. Since Fox will remain wedded to Carlson, it’s better to ask what his 1991 homophobia says about him and the American right.

The key thing to remember is that Carlson’s comments were no outlier or indiscretion but in keeping with a cruel homophobia that was open and prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. As homophobia has become more socially unacceptable, thanks to a robust social movement that has changed the terrain of public opinion, right-wingers have become more guarded in expressing their disgust at LGBTQ people. But there’s ample evidence that the underlying opinions, including in Carlson’s case, have not changed.

James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, was puzzled by Carlson’s comments. “This is so weird,” he wrote. “Why would someone in college in the northeast in the late 1980s, even a homophobe, have been thinking about Dan White, who committed his crime in the late 1970s and committed suicide in 1985, and was not a household name? It’s such an obscure reference.”

It’s a bit liberal parochialism to think that Dan White and Harvey Milk would have been obscure to a right-wing college student like Tucker Carlson in 1991. Carlson grew up in a reactionary household and likely read from a young age journals like The American Spectator and National Review, which he would later write for.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these polemical organs were obsessed with Harvey Milk, who they saw as a harbinger of a social revolution that would destroy traditional America. They were too polite to use the slogan “Free Dan White” but the underlying sentiment of hatred for Harvey Milk was there, often with a veneer of frat boy mockery.

The most striking example is from the April 1983 issue of The American Spectator:

Homosexuals in San Francisco were clicking their heels when Mr. Scott Smith, the inamorato of the homosexual martyr, Harvey Milk, began legal proceedings to wrest a portion of the deceased city supervisor's $50,000 worker's compensation death benefit. The case could confer legal recognition on homosexual households, many of which contain pretty little things whose whole days are devoted to scrub, scrub, scrub; and the kitty's needs; and the canary; and the boa constrictor. When will the feminists give these hard-pressed queens a helping hand?

In the December 1984 issue of The American Spectator, the best-selling humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “Remarkable how assassination improves a politician. Leon Trotsky, John F. Kennedy, Che Guevara, and Harvey Milk all gained historical stature and support for their policies this way.”

The April 1982 issue of The American Spectator featured a particularly convoluted bit of prose that is hard to parse, but which contains an unmistakeable air of derision:

"Is Harvey Milk the gay Elvis?" That is the question now being asked in San Francisco about that city's slain supervisor The San Francisco Examiner's columnist Mr. Bill Mandel raised it in a poignant column on February 19 rafter Mr. Mandel had toured a display of Milk memorabilia called simply "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk." The display included Mr. Milk's ponytail, shed by him after his 1973 election defeat, his sixth-grade graduation certificate, a note from the Rev. Jim Jones and all the faithful of People's Temple, an amyl nitrate inhaler, and that interesting bag that he used for carrying his personal sex paraphernalia to homosexual bath houses. According to Mr. Mandel, "the Milk memorabilia put me in mind of European cathedrals' reliquaries, shrines to long dead saints." Yet the deeper questions that trouble us about this unique individual remain unanswered, in particular: Was his name really Milk?

The July 12, 1985 issue of National Review decried New York City spending tax payer money on “literally perverse projects” such as the Harvey Milk School. They warned that this was “a special school for the junior drag queen.”

If you look at what The American Spectator and National Review wrote about Harvey Milk, then Tucker Carlson’s 1991 homage to Dan White doesn’t seem odd. Carlson’s homophobia was and is squarely in the mainstream of the American right.

Nor is there any reason to think that Carlson has changed. In 2008, Carlson boasted that as a high school student he and a friend attacked a gay man. As Media Matters reported:

On the August 28 edition of MSBNC Live, hosted by MSNBC general manager Dan Abrams, Tucker Carlson, host of MSNBC’s Tucker, asserted, “Having sex in a public men’s room is outrageous. It’s also really common. I’ve been bothered in men’s rooms.” Carlson continued, “I’ve been bothered in Georgetown Park,” in Washington, D.C., “when I was in high school.” When Abrams asked how Carlson responded to being “bothered,” Carlson asserted, “I went back with someone I knew and grabbed the guy by the — you know, and grabbed him, and ... hit him against the stall with his head, actually.”

Carlson later walked back this story and offered a much more subdued account claiming that he and his friend only detained the man until a security guard arrived. Whatever version is true, it is undeniably the case that in telling the first version Carlson was boasting of assaulting a gay man.

More recently Carlson has warned that transgender people threaten “the perpetuation of the species.”

The worst outcome would be for Carlson to offer a half-hearted disingenuous sorry-not-sorry apology. Rather, it would be better if Carlson owned up to his homophobia and admitted that the 1991 yearbook reflected what he actually felt about Harvey Milk. Then at least we can have an honest debate.


For anyone wanting a fuller documentation of 1980s homophobia, here are some screen shots of the right-wing magazines quoted above:

American Spectator, April 1983

— P.J. Rourke, American Spectator, December 1984

American Spectator, April 1982

National Review, July 12, 1985.

Mental Health Break

Thinking about Tucker Carlson and right-wing homophobia all day is not good for my mental health nor for yours either, I suspect. I want to balance the above posts with some things that bring happiness to the world.

All Hail Elaine May

Elaine May, who as given so much smart hilarity to millions as a comedian, playwright, screenwriter, director and all around genius, turned 89 on April 21.

Here’s a classic skit she did with Mike Nichols, one of their funniest explorations of the verbal dance that accompanies courtship and coupling.

All Hail Elaine May Again!

May deserves a double tribute. Here’s a lovely drawing by Drew Friedman that captures her vitality and spark. I cherish this drawing for May’s expression of winsome coaxing and the gestural expressiveness of her hand.

500 Miles

In keeping with the culture of mid-20th century bohemianism that Elaine May exemplifies, Inside Llewyn Davis is an anxious movie but the soundtrack always comforts me.