By Marc Stein
This month, the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco is marking the fiftieth anniversary of LIFE magazine’s influential photographic essay “Homosexuality in America.” The essay, which appeared in a weekly periodical that was read by millions of U.S. Americans, is featured in an exhibit curated by community historian Paul Gabriel. According to the museum’s website, the exhibit, titled “1964: The Year San Francisco Came Out,” addresses “an infamous LIFE magazine article that catapulted San Francisco into national consciousness as the ‘gay capital’ of America.” In highlighting the historical significance of “Homosexuality in America,” the GLBT History Museum joins the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, which is featuring the LIFE magazine essay in “What It Means To Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility.” Curated by Sophie Hackett, the associate curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, this exhibit was part of the recently-concluded WorldPride 2014 festivities in Toronto.
Discussing “Homosexuality in America” on Huffington Post, Hackett writes that the article in LIFE was “one of the first depictions of gay life in a mainstream magazine.” Hackett is right to say that it was “one of the first”; for example, in December 1962 Philadelphia Magazine published “The Furtive Fraternity,” a lengthy expose on gay life by journalist Gaeton Fonzi. As is so often the case in the history of mainstream media, “national” media stories were preceded and anticipated by “local” ones.
In October 1964, two years after “The Furtive Fraternity” was “exposed,” one of the most interesting and revealing responses to “Homosexuality in America” also was published in Philadelphia. The first issue of Drum, the self-described “gay Playboy” that quickly became the most popular gay movement magazine in North America, featured “Heterosexuality in America,” an essay by the internationally acclaimed writer “P. Arody.” Arody’s campy name and the politics of “Heterosexuality in America” were consistent with the magazine’s first advertisement, which declared: “Drum presents news for ‘queers,’ and fiction for ‘perverts.’ Photo essays for ‘fairies,’ and laughs for ‘faggots.'” Over the next five years, Drum charted a new direction for the homophile movement and led the way in calling for gay rights advocates to join the sexual revolution.
This was not the first time that American heterosexuality became the butt of a queer joke in a U.S. periodical that celebrated sexual freedom. In 1955, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine had published Charles Beaumont’s short story “The Crooked Man,” which presented the revealing story of a straight man struggling against persecution in a fantastical dystopian society dominated by homosexuals.
The politics of Drum‘s essay, however, were quite different from those that were featured in Beaumont’s short story. According to Arody, who inverted and revised much of the language found in the Life magazine essay, “Heterosexuality shears across the spectrum of America life—the professions, the arts, business and labor. It always has. But today, especially in big cities, heterosexuals are openly admitting, even flaunting, their deviation.” The essay depicted “the heterosexual world” as “sad and often sordid” and emphasized that “for every obvious heterosexual, there are probably nine nearly impossible to detect.” Later in the essay, Arody noted, “It is estimated that 95% of all heterosexual men are sex criminals and…the overwhelming majority of heterosexual marrieds also consistently violate the law.” This was because “jail sentences that may range to life imprisonment and unlimited fines can be set against married heterosexuals who do anything other than direct sexual intercourse” and “anal and oral contacts between marrieds are strictly prohibited by law.” The concluding paragraph declared that heterosexuals “form a separate and distinct class of persons in many respects and they have adopted customs which seem perverse and sometimes even sinister to the average homosexual.” Nevertheless, Arody argued for tolerance and compassion: “The mainstream of heterosexual life is not much different from the mainstream of homosexual life” and “differences which seem extreme at first lose most of the emotionally laden values once a close and human appreciation is applied.”
Drum‘s response to LIFE was not limited to the essay by Arody. Immediately following “Heterosexuality in America,” the magazine published a letter to LIFE by Clark Polak, the editor of Drum and the president of its publisher, the Janus Society, which was a Philadelphia-based homophile group. Polak wrote:
As an individual who is homosexual and as the President of the Janus Society, I must protest your treatment of homosexuals and homosexuality. I would like to call your attention to some of the inconsistencies in your story: 1) While your photographs rivet attention on the 15% of homosexuals who are obvious, little effort is made to show the other 85% who are unidentifiable in society. 2) You reduce the evidence of Drs. Hooker, van den Haag, and Kinsey to secondary positions while emphasizing the opinions of Dr. Bieber in addition to dwelling on the more sensational aspects of the new ‘Kinsey’ report. 3) You fail to explain how the majority of homosexuals…are in your quotes ‘emotionally disturbed’ while they still function successfully in their respective occupations. 4) You fail to take a stand for law reform when the preponderance of the evidence is pointing forcefully in that direction. 5) Entrapment is both illegal and undesirable procedure, but your comments on the Officer-Jerry dialogue fail to call attention to this fact.
It is our position that until such time as there is clear cut evidence to contradict our stand, homosexuality per se is not a significant factor in determining military or civilian fitness for employment, psychological maturity, social desirability, or public and private acceptance.
Each individual must be judged on his or her own merits and cannot properly be accepted or rejected because of homosexuality.
Drum then published a response to Polak’s letter by “Patricia Hines for the Editors” of LIFE:
Naturally we regret your disappointment in LIFE’s June 26 report, “Homosexuality in America.” It was our intention to present a balanced and fair account of the problems surrounding homosexuality, and I believe we made clear the difficulties caused homosexuals by law enforcement procedures as they are practiced in a city such as San Francisco. We stated clearly in the article that the large majority of homosexuals are unidentifiable in society. Within the framework of our report, however, where we chose to treat the growing openness of homosexual society, we focused attention primarily upon the identifiable minority. As for our treatment of present-day scientific views, we believe we gave a fair account. As you know, the findings of many researchers such as Kinsey have been widely critized [sic] from a methodological viewpoint, while the opinion voiced by Dr. Bieber is representative of widely held views of psychologists and psychiatrists. We did not, however, present either approach as a final word on the subject.
Although space limitations did not permit us to publish your letter in our Letters Column, we hope you’ll have a chance to see the sampling of reader response to the article—pro and con—in our July 17 issue.
Over the next five years, Drum championed sexual liberation, political militancy, and gay-affirmative sensibilities within the homophile movement, contributing greatly to an under-studied tradition within the early gay and lesbian movement in the United States. As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of LIFE magazine’s essay “Homosexuality in America,” let’s also mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Drum, the radicalization of gay and lesbian resistance to oppression, and the call for new ways of thinking about “Heterosexuality in America.”
Marc Stein is the author of Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (2012), Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (2010), and City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 (2000). He is a professor of history and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at York University in Toronto and in August will become the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State University.