Early LGBTQIA+ Publishing and Civil Liberties During America’s “Lavender Scare”

Documentation of LGBTQIA+ communities prior to the Stonewall riots of 1969 can be sparse. During the immediate post-World War II period, all manifestations of non-heterosexuality were under deliberate government attack within the era’s overall attempt to find and root out all “un-American activities.” Through a series of measures—the U.S. State Department purging employees with “homosexual proclivities,” the FBI maintaining lists of known or suspected homosexuals, and Dwight D. Eisenhower issuing an order barring non-heterosexual people from federal employment—those who fell outside the established norms were driven underground as perceived threats to national security.

The U.S. Post Office participated in the “Lavender Scare” by keeping track of addresses where any material related to homosexuality was mailed. They frequently seized items said to be “obscene.” In many cases, any reference to homosexuality whatsoever rendered a publication “obscene.” Trying to run a magazine for LGBTQIA+ people in the mid-20th century was thus a significant challenge, and preserving the record of the existence of such magazines was sometimes difficult.

Legal challenges to this oppression quickly mounted. In One, Inc. v. Oleson, the first Supreme Court case to deal with homosexuality, the justices examined lower court rulings that had supported Los Angeles Postmaster Otto Oleson in his claims that the October 1954 issue of ONE: The Homosexual Magazine could not be mailed under the Comstock Act’s prohibition on the postal service delivering obscene material. Oleson’s rationale was as follows: the magazine contained a story about a lesbian’s feelings for another woman that might be “lustfully stimulating to the homosexual reader,” a poem about gay cruising that used “filthy language,” and an advertisement for another magazine that might lead readers to other “obscene matter.” The justices’ unanimous ruling on January 13, 1958 reversed the decisions of two lower courts and eased—although it did not eliminate—the official suppression of LGBTQIA+ publications. In essence, it rejected the claim that any mention of homosexuality was automatically obscene. A series of other high court rulings on obscenity cases gradually chipped away at restrictions on similar materials.

ONE Magazine, June 1955. Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219), Box 29.

Researchers looking for examples of these publications in our holdings can find them in two of the collections in Mudd’s Public Policy Papers: the American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001) and the Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219). The ACLU took on many of these censorship cases, and have maintained some examples of the publications within their files. Meanwhile, Warner, an alum of the Class of 1938, was a prominent figure in the gay liberation movement—then called the “homophile movement”—and chair of the legal department of the Mattachine Society of New York. There are issues of each of the publications discussed in this post scattered across Warner’s papers.

The Mattachine Society, a group that originated in San Francisco and had many regional chapters, published the Mattachine Review. It took its name from a medieval French term that described anonymous, masked male dancers who daringly satirized societal conventions. Its members also formed One, Inc. Members remained anonymous, unless legal battles revealed their identities. Together, Mattachine Review and ONE: The Homosexual Magazine (most commonly referred to as “ONE Magazine“) represent the earliest known examples of LGBTQIA+ magazines in the United States, sending issues to subscribers throughout the country and beyond.

Mattachine Review, December 1969. Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219), Box 29.

In Philadelphia, the Janus Society (formed in 1962) began publishing another LGBTQIA+ magazine found in our collections and subject to seizure as obscene, Drum: Sex in Perspective, in 1964. It quickly became the most popular magazine in its genre in the U.S. Its editor, Clark Polak, was arrested multiple times for distributing obscene materials. The publication, unlike its predecessors, often included nude photographs, which subjected it to a different kind of scrutiny.

Drum: Sex in Perspective, October 1965. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 794, Folder 11.

Readers will notice different approaches in the politically-minded magazines like ONE and the national and regional Mattachine Review in contrast with more culturally-focused Drum, but there is a theme that appears consistently: these publications offered a sense of community to the isolated and marginalized, even if it was risky to accept delivery of their mailings. As “Mr. R.” wrote in to the editor of ONE, printed in the January 1956 issue,

With the relaxing of the tense-spring which I always felt was my soul, I find it so much easier to live with a world that is not as hostile as I had thought. ONE has not only shown me that there are millions with the same desires as myself, but that these longings are a natural emotion and not ones to look upon with shame and disgust.

“Mr. J. R. M.” of Ohio echoed these sentiments in the October 1956 issue of Mattachine Review:

Four years ago I was in the nightmarish throes of a complete nervous breakdown, and things looked pretty hopeless. … I had begun to believe that I was no longer a human being but a freak monstrosity … after treatment with sympathetic social counsellors and several copies of Matachine Review … for the first time in years, I feel like a living, breathing human soul. Thanks!

Although the primary content one finds in these publications is about and for gay men, Mattachine Review and Drum also offered support and publicity for the Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955 as a social organization for lesbian women in San Francisco. ONE and Drum also had some content specifically geared toward a female audience, and based on the letters to the editor, had women among their readership. Thus, although all of these magazines had a focus that tilted male, one can also learn about the experiences of lesbian communities through these publications. Other articles address bisexuality among both men and women.

ONE Magazine, January 1956. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 1127, Folder 6.

Further, one can get hints of the lives of nonbinary, genderfluid, and transgender people in the pages of these publications, though this appears less frequently than other content. References to the “third sex” crop up here and there, for example. Drum’s October 1964 issue’s “Woman’s Way” column, by Joan Fraser, advised women who did not identify with femininity not to attempt to be something other than themselves by conforming to societal expectations.

Each of us is an individual, with her own destiny to work out. … And if a woman is more comfortable in dungarees, hammering together a house for her dog, perhaps she should avoid situations which compromise her image of herself.

Drum: Sex in Perspective, January 1968. Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219), Box 3.

In the January 1968 issue of Drum—ultimately the last one—a letter from “H.M.H.” appears, giving an account of the longing to transition:

[It] seemed to me I’d be happier as a girl than a boy (which biology claimed I was) and I experimented with the notion. I think I’d have been a quite successful girl (in many ways) if my mother hadn’t caught me dressed like one frequently and discouraged the whole thing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, finding out that these publications existed as resources for the marginalized meant stumbling across hints and piecing them together to uncover a secret world. In a way, researchers who read between the lines of our finding aids may be engaged in a similar discovery process. Our documentation of these communities is filed away with the records of their legal battles, but the materials tell us much more about their lives than simply what happened to them in court. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that the records of these communities exist for us today within our collections because of a sustained attempt to silence and eradicate them. This may be a testament to the futility of the effort.

 

Sources:

American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)

Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219)

 

For further reading:

Charles, Douglas M. Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s ‘Sex Deviates’ Program. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2015.

The Ladder: A Lesbian Review. 1959-1972. Smith College Libraries.

New York City Trans Oral History Project. New York Public Library.

ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. University of Southern California Libraries.

Wilcox Archives. William Way LGBT Community Center (Philadelphia).

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