In the Early 1950s, U.S. Feds Tried to Kill the First Gay Magazine
It’s been nearly 69 years since queer media established its first modern foothold with the debut issue of ONE Magazine.
Despite it being within the lifetime of many people still alive today, the climate for queer people in the 1950s was almost unrecognizable from now. Homosexuality was considered an illness, a crime and grounds to be fired. Bars serving alcohol to gays had their liquor licenses revoked. A law in Iowa allowed gay men to be involuntarily committed as “sexual psychopaths.”
These were the conditions under which ONE, Inc. was formed, an offshoot of the Mattachine Society — an early activist group comprised of gay men. ONE launched the first issue of its magazine in January 1953.
Early issues tackled such topics as “Homosexual Rights,” “Are Homosexuals Neurotic?,” “Homophile Morality,” “The Margin of Masculinity,” “A Tribute to Dr. Kinsey” and, impressively, “Let’s Push Homophile Marriage.”
The magazine proved a lifeline for a gay community still struggling to connect. It’d be many decades before gay or queer people could safely congregate in public, even in major cities. At best, only a few small mailing lists connected queer people to each other through amateur newsletters. ONE provided the most ambitious and well-produced queer media to date. The print magazine had 2,000 subscribers within the first few months.
The government immediately intervened, beginning with FBI harassment directed towards the employers of the volunteer contributors. That was followed by action from the Post Office, which forced the magazine to delay shipping while inspectors could scrutinize it for obscene content.
“Never before has a governmental agency of this size admitted that homosexuals not only have legal rights but might have respectable motives as well,” read the cover of the October 1953 issue.
The admission is welcome, but it’s tardy and far from enough. As we sit around quietly like nice little ladies and gentlemen gradually educating the public and the courts at our leisure, thousands of homosexuals are being unjustly arrested, blackmailed, fined, jailed, intimidated, beaten, ruined and murdered.
The editors of ONE Magazine took steps to clarify the content that would keep them out of trouble. No matchmaking ads; no racy photos; no descriptions of physical intimacy — even cuddling. But the following year, an issue contained ads for sheer pajamas and a short story that involved some touching, which led the Post Office to seize the issue.
That led to a protracted legal fight that played out over the following four years, bouncing from one court to another until the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. ONE was initially dealt repeated setbacks, with a District Court and Appellate Court agreeing that federal law prohibited the distribution of what were considered “obscene materials.”
“The suggestion advanced that homosexuals should be recognized as a segment of our people and be accorded special privilege as a class is rejected,” wrote a federal judge in 1956.
Things looked grim for ONE — until the Supreme Court reversed one of the lower court decisions in January of 1958, five years after the launch of the magazine and 64 years ago next month.
The Court’s ruling was just a single sentence and cited a recent case that limited the extent to which the federal government could infringe on free speech. In their following issue, the editors of ONE Magazine wrote:
For the first time in American publishing history, a decision binding on every court now stands … affirming in effect that it is in no way proper to describe a love affair between two homosexuals as constituting obscenity.
The legacy of that ruling can still be felt to this day. It’s unlikely that queer media could have developed in the decades following if the court had not upheld the magazine’s right to exist. And although ONE ceased publishing in 1969, it’s thanks to that ruling that we have other milestones, including the founding of other LGBTQ magazines, and of course, the existence of queer sites like this one.
Did you know about the history of One Magazine?
This article was originally published in January 2016. It has since been updated.