By most accounts, the 1950s weren’t a great decade for the gays. Joseph McCarthy was hunting “perverts” in civil office. The Post Office was screening mail for any hint of pro-gay content. As many as 100,000 service members were being dishonorably discharged from the Army and labeled “Class II homosexuals” — a felony offense.
And yet in the face of overwhelming harassment and persecution, a certain plucky queer magazine based in downtown Los Angeles was steadfast in its political mission to elevate gay and lesbian Americans. ONE Magazine, which ran daring covers like “Let’s Push Homophile Marriage” back in the early 1960s, was a political lightning rod and national organizing force at the time, motivating gay people to demand the civil rights afforded to their straight brethren. Even as gay Americans were being labeled national security risks by the federal government and blacklisted from jobs, the magazine continued publishing fiction, stories on gay figures in history, scientific news, poetry — “anything with a gay affirmative perspective and worldview,” as historian Craig Loftin puts it.
Loftin was a grad student at USC when the university was just beginning to document ONE magazine’s history as part of the ONE Archives, a library that would grow to become one of the largest repositories of LGBT materials in the world. “I arranged a little volunteer schedule to sort through a room of mystery boxes,” he says. The second night of his shift, he opened a door and discovered a stack that stretched to the ceiling, containing letters to One magazine from gay men (and a few women) around the country.
The letters, which he later compiled into a book, offer a snapshot of the anxieties, frustrations and violence that afflicted gays and lesbians of that era. For many of the writers, this was the first time they’d ever reached out to another gay person. “So many letters started off with: ‘Please forgive how long this letter is, but I've never had the chance to tell someone all of this before,’” he says. Some had been outed by coworkers or sent to jails or mental institutions, but what sturck Loftin was how few viewed themselves as victims. “There’s a tendency to overstate the victimhood status of gay men and lesbians in the 1950s,” Loftin says. “Yes, people suffered, but gay men and lesbians also used a lot of adaptive creativity to resist the oppressive society around them.”
Some even embraced what we’d now call gay pride. “Society frowns upon us officially yet envies us secretly,” one person from Miami wrote in 1960. He went on to describe being a “practicing homosexual” since pre-adolescent days, listing ways to best hide one’s queer leanings from straight men, whom he compares to ostriches (“just as long as it is not brought to his attention in an obvious manner, he cares little what his fellow man does.”) After describing a childhood tryst in florid detail, the letter writer concludes: “I will undoubtedly remain homosexual to my death. I do not deny it if asked. I do not flout it. To me, it has become as ‘natural’ and right as any other method of expressing one’s individuality.”
The term “the closet” doesn’t appear in any letters to One, Loftin says. The modern metaphor — associated with hiding, shame and misery — didn’t exist back then. Instead, letter writers talked of wearing masks to avoid persecution.
Many letter writers were also deeply conflicted about their identities. “I am 34 years of age and have never been able to lick this business of homosexuality,” one letter begins. “It has almost ruined my life because I have never been able to conquer it, and have never fully accepted it.”
W. Dorr Legg, one of the magazine’s founders (who would also go on to found the predecessor to the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest Republican organization advocating for LGBT people), wrote back to the writer, emphasizing the universality of his struggle for self-acceptance and encouraging him to look into the biological basis for homosexuality.
“They always tried to write back,” Loftin says. “Even if it was just a form letter.”
There was a lot of misery to address. One writer described being attracted to a coworker who never liked him back. “I know I can live without sex, since I have done so all my life, but very few men can live without love, and I am not one of these men,” the letter reads.
Others expressed disappointment with the gay communities in their cities. New York was singled out repeatedly as an especially hostile and lonely place for gay men. “You claim there are millions such as I, but why do I fail to find any?” one New Yorker wrote.
Visibility was a double-edged sword in those days: the lack of openly gay people in society meant that many letter writers were left to struggle to find their own form of self-acceptance on their own. But visibly gay men — especially those who presented as feminine — were seen as a threat to gay liberation.
“It surprised me just how angry a lot of gay people were about the sort of that type of visibility,” says Loftin. “It was an ingrained prejudice borne out of a survival strategy to not be too visible.” A particularly virulent strain of toxic masculinity was also at play in the fifties, Loftin adds.
For gay women, the problems of visibility were magnified. “Women for the most part who are lesbians try to be as inconspicuous as possible, not because we are ashamed but merely because it is easier to get along in this world when considered ‘normal,’” one 1957 letter from San Francisco reads. “When a man is pointed out as being gay, he receives one glance, a woman receives a second, and a third. Is it any wonder then that we prefer to keep quiet?”
Fears of being “found out” coursed through a relatively large percentage of the letters. Many worried that their mail would be opened and gay identities exposed. “Some were in complete panics, writing that when they got the magazines, the brown envelope had been torn, and that the magazine had been slightly revealed,” says Loftin.
They had reason to be paranoid: The USPS of the 1950s regularly cracked down on “obscene” gay content, even opening private, second-class mail in their hunt for offensive materials. ONE Magazine became a prime target: shortly after the FBI became aware of the magazine, in 1954, the agency began harassing its editorial board. A legal fight ensued, resulting in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled ONE was protected under the First Amendment.
But the letters also reflect plenty of hope — that the general public would come around to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s research, which found that 37% of adult males had had at least one homosexual experience, and that homosexuals would one day be treated as equal citizens in the eyes of the law.
“I think [the hope] has a lot to do with World War II,” says Loftin. “It’s the first time there’s a sense of national gay culture, when all these little urban subcultures start to mix together in that mobilization. Suddenly, you get people from small towns and people in big ones in the same showers and intimate barracks. When they get back to their home towns, there’s a mass awakening and you have this explosion of gay culture.”
That nascent sense of identity comes through strongly in the letters. “Many of these letter writers are people who haven’t been able to make any meaningful connection with gay culture, but they know there’s something different about them, they know this is who they are,” he says. “They’re fumbling around in the dark trying to make that connection.”
“Imagine what it was like for some of these people to write in,” adds Loftin. “The fear and anxiety, yes, but also the relief.”
The project to digitize letters to ONE Magazine and records from ONE Inc. and the Mattachine Society at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Top Image: Cover of ONE magazine, volume 5, number 5 (1957 May). | Eve Elloree, cover, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries