Helis Sikk

On the December 1968 cover of The Los Angeles Advocate, two muscular nude white men pose against a scenic background. One of the men kneels down and embraces the other from behind, with his arms wrapped around the latter’s naked genital area. The image is a still from a soft-core pornography film, Autumn Nocturne (1968), directed by Pat Rocco and screened at the Park Theatre in Los Angeles. With this erotic cover, the The Los Angeles Advocate captures the essence of an important segment of the LGBTQ culture at a time when a multitude of voices were emerging to define what it meant to be “homosexual in America.”

The Los Angeles Advocate, December 1968 (courtesy of Human Sexuality Collection, Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library).

Unjustly forgotten, in the late 1960s Pat Rocco became—as the historian Whitney Strub has written— the “first American filmmaker to shoot and exhibit openly gay erotic” films. Rocco diverged from other gay film producers at the time as a storyteller whose shorts included extended narratives that aimed to romanticize homosexual relationships. His films were intentionally soft-core without explicit un-simulated displays of sexual activity. These films played an important role in not just popularizing gay film, but in legitimizing gay identity with positive portrayals of male intimacy. When the Park Theatre switched back to mainstream programming and the gay film scene moved toward more commercial hardcore pornography in the 1970s, Rocco quit the film industry but continued his activist work as a photographer and community organizer.

Rocco’s aesthetics and intent were a perfect fit for The Los Angeles Advocate. Founded in 1967, it was the first commercial, and now the longest published, national LGBTQ publication. The Los Angeles Advocate was a bold contrast to the publications of the more conservative homophile movement in the 1950s. As Andrew Lester shows in his discussion of the documentary, The Rejected, homophile politics of respectability came with a unique set of “possibilities and limitations.” However, the magazine was much less radical in its agenda and erotic content than the groundbreaking Philadelphia-based publication, Drum (1964-1967), as Marc Stein has argued. The journalist and historian Jim Kepner recalled that although undeniably an ambitious business endeavor, “gay self-respect was a primary concern” for the magazine’s editor-in-chief and founder, Dick Michaels. Embracing the sexual aspect of gay male culture while continuing to report on serious topics, such as police violence and changes in policy, were part of his mission for the publication. When the banker David Goodstein bought the publication in 1974, the strategic convergence of politics and eroticism continued, although its profit-seeking basis moved sexually explicit content off the covers to the inside and back of the magazine in order to attract mainstream advertisers.

Erotic images that were part of the magazine in the 1960s and 1970s did not last beyond the 1980s. For example, forty years later, the glossy 2008 cover of The Advocate featuring actress Kim Cattrall stands in striking contrast to the still from Pat Rocco’s soft-core pornography film. Media scholar Michael Schudson has argued that publications that had moved leftward in the 1970s shifted to the right in the 1980s, following the Reagan administration and the influence of the conservative movement. This shift toward the conservative coincided with the AIDS epidemic, which further relegated the sexual aspect of gay culture to the private realm. The cover from 1968 captures a unique moment in pre-Stonewall culture when one among several movement-building strategies included consciously combining eroticism with serious news stories.

Sikk picHelis Sikk is a PhD candidate at the College of William and Mary. She received her master’s in American Studies from the University of Wyoming, and her bachelor’s in English Language and Literature from the University of Tartu, Estonia. She prefers a feral interdisciplinary approach to the relationships between queerness, built environment, media and visual cultures. A recent Smithsonian Fellow, she is currently getting ready to defend her dissertation on the affective economies of LGBTQ activism in the United States.


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