PRE-GAY L.A.: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MOVEMENT FOR HOMOSEXUAL RIGHTS
By C. Todd White
University of Illinois Press
$25; 280 pages;
The very first homosexual publication to have appeared with any regularity in the US was Vice Versa, which surfaced in Los Angeles in June 1947. It was produced by a secretary at RKO Studios who called herself Lisa Ben, an anagram for "lesbian," and it lasted for nine issues. It "fluctuated from 14 to 20 stapled pages consisting of play and film reviews, poetry, fiction, and pointed social commentary through a ‘Queer as It Seems’ department." Only ten copies were produced and distributed to a close circle of friends who in turn were to pass it on to others.
This is one of the nuggets of largely forgotten gay history to be gleaned from "Pre-Gay L.A." by C. Todd White, a visiting professor of anthropology at James Madison University, who based the book on his doctoral thesis. The volume’s subtitle is "A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights," but that is somewhat misleading, because most of the book is a minutely detailed organizational history of ONE, Inc. and ONE magazine.
It may be difficult for young queers of today, who’ve grown up watching "Will and Grace" and surfing the multitude of gay offerings on the Internet, to understand what extraordinary courage it took for the women and men chronicled here to begin organizing associations of homosexuals. White is right to point out the importance to gay organizing of Alfred Kinsey’s famous, best-selling 1948 study of sexuality, which, for the first time, documented a stunning array of same-sex attractions and practices, breaking the sense of isolation in which the sexual dissidents of the 1940s and 1950s lived. There is no better description of the reign of terror under which homosexuals struggled to survive in that dark time than Kinsey’s, for as he wrote then:
"Rarely has man been more cruel against man than in the condemnation and punishment of those accused of the so-called sexual perversions. The punishment for sexual acts which are crimes against persons has never been more severe. The penalties have included imprisonment, torture, the loss of life and limb, banishment, blackmail, social ostracism, the loss of social prestige, renunciation by friends and families, the loss of position in school or in business, severe penalties meted out for convictions of men serving in the armed forces, public condemnation by emotionally insecure and vindictive judges on the bench, and the torture endured by those who live in perpetual fear that their non-conformist sexual behavior will be exposed to public view. These are the penalties which have been imposed on and against persons who have failed to adhere to the mandated customs. Such cruelties have not often been matched, except in religious and racial persecution."
No wonder that, as White writes, "Homosexual people sensed they had a champion in Kinsey." And in laying the foundation for an organization of homosexuals that would eventually become the Mattachine Society at the end of 1950, its legendary founder, Harry Hay, and his lover, Rudi Gernreich, when collecting signatures on California’s beaches for the Communist-inspired Stockholm Peace Petition against the Korean War, would initiate discussions with signers by asking, "Have you read the ‘Kinsey Report’?" In this way, they built up lists of names for future use in queer organizing.
One of Mattachine’s seven founding members was Dale Jennings, a World War II combat veteran who, like Hay, was a Communist. When he was arrested on a phony charge of having solicited sex from an undercover cop, Jennings was persuaded by Hay to fight the charge in court, and with the aid of left-wing civil rights lawyer George Shibley — who had come to prominence as the defense lawyer for the Mexican-Americans in the famous 1940s "Zoot Suit" murder case, a fact White doesn’t mention — Jennings eventually had his case dismissed. Mattachine, which had formed a Citizen’s Committee to Outlaw Entrapment to fight the Jennings case, saw its membership boom as a result.
The merit of White’s book is that it rescues from unjust obscurity Jennings, the first editor of ONE magazine, and other founders of ONE, Inc. Another central figure in ONE was William Lambert Dorr Legg — who frequently used the pseudonym Bill Lambert — a professor of landscape architecture and one of ONE’s most erudite figures. Legg and his African-American partner, Merton Bird, in the late 1940s had founded the Knights of the Clock, a small social and mutual aid organization for mixed-race homosexual couples, and several of their fellow Knights joined them when Jennings and Legg led a split from the Mattachine Society to form ONE in November 1952.
The premier issue of ONE magazine, the first pro-gay publication distributed publicly in the US, appeared in January 1953, and was peddled by its creators "from bar stool to bar stool" in the many Los Angeles gay bars for the price of a beer (20 cents). If Jennings was, according to White, "the heart of ONE magazine… during its first year," the publication’s dominant figure thereafter was another of its founders, Don Slater, a young University of Southern California graduate, thanks to the GI Bill, with a degree in English, who would be supported during his long tenure as the magazine’s editor by his Latino lover, Antonio Sanchez, a musician who also helped start ONE.
By the end of its first year, ONE magazine could boast of nearly a thousand subscribers, with another 1,500 copies distributed through newsstands. Lesbian activists like Stella Rush, Corky Wolf, and Joan Corbin also played an important role in the magazine, seeing to its art work, writing articles, and performing many of the technical and workaday chores needed to publish it.
After three issues, ONE magazine gave birth to ONE, Inc. Legg, who was hired as business manager at the princely sum of $25 a week and thus became the first full-time employee of a homosexual organization in America, increasingly began to conceive of the organization as a broader-reaching institution. In March 1954, Legg engineered what White calls "a closed-door coup" to oust Jennings as the magazine’s editor after a year of increasingly stormy conflicts between the two.
Slater eventually took over as the magazine’s editor, and the next decade of ONE’s history would essentially be centered on the conflict between the short, ebullient, and anarchic editor and the tall, imperious, and authoritarian Legg. It was Legg who spurred the founding of ONE Institute, which sponsored classes on gay culture — which at their height drew an enrollment of some 250 — scholarly studies, and European tours. ONE magazine’s circulation eventually reached 5,000 copies, and ONE Institute prospered thanks to an eccentric female-to-male transsexual millionaire from Louisiana, Reed Erickson, who provided the Institute with monthly subsidies and eventually shelled out $1.8 million for a Los Angeles mansion to house it.
In October 1954, the US Postal Service declared the magazine "obscene" for running a lesbian love story. ONE sued, and finally won in a landmark 1958 Supreme Court decision that established forever the right of gay publications to be distributed through the mails. But a suicidal 1965 split in ONE, Inc. between the Legg and Slater factions, which tore each other apart in a two-year lawsuit, eventually led to ONE magazine’s demise in 1967. The name is kept alive today through the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, which is affiliated with USC and proclaims itself "the world’s largest research library on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered heritage and concerns."
It’s unfortunate that White is not a better writer. He has little narrative sense, and his cluttered book is rather disjointed — names appear with no information as to who those people were; the text is larded with lengthy exegeses from texts on sociological and anthropological methodology and arcane words from the academic vocabulary that most readers won’t know; and there are long sections based on the records of ONE’s board meetings which document bureaucratic and parliamentary minutiae that make for truly soporific reading. A doctoral thesis meant to impress a professor does not necessarily make for an easily readable book.
Still, for those with the stamina to slog through White’s infelicitous prose, "Pre-Gay L.A." contains valuable information about a host of queer pioneers whose names have been forgotten but who merit being honored for their courage and foresight. For that, White deserves to be applauded.
The extensive web site for the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives is at http://www.onearchives.org/.