Monomania L.A.: Jim Kepner and the Sanctuary of Sci-Fi | KCET
Monomania L.A.: Jim Kepner and the Sanctuary of Sci-Fi
Through a series of short films and articles, Monomania L.A. profiles five L.A. as Subject collectors who have turned a monomaniacal obsession with a particular aspect of Southern California history into a public resource. These collectors have documented disparate subjects -- the California orange, sci-fi reading circles, political graphics, a Mexican rancho, African American photographers -- but their stories share one thing in common: a passion for history that has enriched our understanding of Southern California's past.
What did science fiction and LGBTQ activism have in common in the 1950s? Quite a lot, it turns out, as ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives director Joseph Hawkins discovered when he dove into the personal papers of Jim Kepner. As a passionate science fiction fan and a pioneering activist for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) rights, Kepner (1923-97) belonged to both camps, and his collection of zines, artwork, and other sci-fi materials reveals hidden harmonies between the two movements.
Both envisioned alternate worlds free from the constraints of the time. Sci-fi authors dreamed of a future where technological innovation overcame the limitations of physics, like the gravity that then still bound humanity to the Earth. Likewise, members of the "homophile" movement (as supporters of LGBTQ rights then styled themselves) imagined a future where social progress trumped traditional ideas about gender identity and sexual orientation.
"In the initial phases," Hawkins says, "I think there was a kind of crossover whereby if you were in the sci-fi world, you were ostracized and considered strange, in the same way you were considered strange if you were in the homophile movement."
That observation sounds intuitive enough, but the early intersections between science fiction fandom and LGBTQ activism aren't well-documented. Hawkins only put the pieces together after perusing meeting minutes, notes, and other documents Kepner -- a "rat pack extraordinaire" -- had saved from a series of sci-fi reading circles he'd helped organize.
These meetings provided a forum for sharing and discussing ideas about the future, and they attracted a wide range of science fiction enthusiasts. Forrest Ackerman, who coined the term "sci-fi," was an active participant. So was L. Ron Hubbard, who went on to found the Church of Scientology. But Hawkins believes that such meetings also allowed for covert political organizing in a time when LGBTQ people feared public persecution.
"I'm certainly not trying to say that all these groups had huge homosexual overtones," said Hawkins, who also teaches anthropology and gender studies at USC. "What I am trying to say is that certainly homosexuals were disproportionately interested in these groups because of their ability to create cover for meetings."
Although cities across the United States hosted such reading circles, they flourished in Los Angeles. Indeed, the city was an early incubator of both science-fiction culture and LGBTQ activism.
"People could be something that they weren't under the scrutiny of the old world, which was East-Coast based. So you could actually come to the new frontier which was California and reinvent yourself."
That embrace of personal reinvention is evident in the artwork and fiction Kepner collected.
"If you look back at the literature," Hawkins said, "they are using it as a way to explore how sexuality might be different in the future and that there might be a possible world for them to live in in which their sexuality is accepted as a part of everyday life."
Hawkins' discovery speaks to the enduring value of monomaniacal collectors -- and the importance of preserving their collections in an institutional setting where scholars can make new connections. Kepner's private collection formed the basis for the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world.
"When I first came across this material I had no idea that there was any connection whatsoever between homosexuality and the sci-fi movement. Now I think the evidence is clear that there's a really deep connection," he said. "What I'm hoping is that a new generation of young people will come and do research on this material and find out what I haven't yet."
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