Pauline Phillips, better known as “Dear Abby,” passed away this week at the age of 94. Her support for gays and lesbians is noted in many of her obituaries including those in The Advocate and the Minneapolis StarTribune.
In the era of Facebook, CNN, instant communication and the internet, it may be hard to remember (or imagine) the impact that Pauline and her sister, Esther Friedman Lederer who wrote “Dear Ann,” had on popular culture and social attitudes.
The Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies recently received a clipping collection from Robert Halfhill. Robert started saving news reports on GLBT issues in 1970. By the time he donated his collection it filled 20 boxes and included local newspapers, national publications and a number of GLBT publications.
Sorting through the first boxes, the early years don’t take up much space. The file from 1973 has a few national articles and 12 clippings from the Minneapolis Tribune. In that dozen are 2 letters to the editor and 6 Dear Ann columns. If you were a Tribune reader that year, half of the mention of homosexuality you saw in your local paper may have been from the advice column. The next year has more clippings but Dear Ann remains a leading source of information. Out of 54 clippings that mention homosexuality in the Tribune during 1974, 14 were letters to the editor and 10 were Dear Ann columns.
Much like society, attitudes in the advice columns evolved over the years. In her column published in the Minneapolis Tribune on January 9, 1973, Ann Landers wrote:
“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. In our culture, in the year 1973, we are not conditioned to accept homosexuality as the normal human condition.
For 18 years I have been pleading for compassion and understanding and equal rights for homosexuals, and I will continue to do so. But I do not believe homosexual activity is normal behavior and unfortunately most people have a tendency to equate any and all abnormalities with sin, disgrace and shame.”
It was only 6 years later that her sister wrote one of her famous replies. When a writer complained about a gay couple moving in and asked how he could improve the quality of the neighborhood, Pauline “Dear Abby” Phillips replied “You could move.”
The sisters, writing as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, helped shape social attitudes on GLBT and other social issues for generations of Americans.
Lisa Vecoli, Curator, Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies