Physique mags helped usher in the gay market

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday April 24, 2019
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"Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked A Movement"
"Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked A Movement"

One never knows what treasures they might find in an attic.

David K. Johnson, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, was researching his first book in the attic of a 1960s gay rights activist, looking for typewritten correspondence in the 1950s and 1960s documenting the federal government's Cold War purge of suspected homosexuals as threats to national security, when he discovered copies of magazines called Drum, Physique Pictorial, and MANual, full of images of nearly naked men.

This was in the 1990s and, at first, he disregarded them as commercial entertainment, not seeing them as historically important, but soon galleries and museums had retrospective exhibitions.

In an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Johnson, 58, explained what then inspired him to write a book on this subject.

"I saw a disconnect between how gay men appreciated the works of 1950s physique artists and photographers and how most scholars studying the history of the LGBT movement dismissed them," wrote Johnson, who is gay. "Art houses like Taschen published increasingly lavish coffee-table books of their work, Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland got their own nonprofit foundations, and yet academics only saw evidence of racism, self-loathing, or the closet. I thought these pioneering gay artists and photographers deserved a closer look.

"The new field of the history of capitalism provided the perfect lens for this examination," he continued. "I decided to look not just at the images they created but the businesses they sponsored. And I soon discovered that they were enmeshed in a larger consumer culture network of gay merchandise, books, and clothing all available through magazines and mail-order catalogs."

By the end of that decade, a few scholars began taking these physique magazines seriously as historical artifacts, even though LGBT community historians had minimized their significance. Part of the problem was gaining access to them as only recently have academic and community-based libraries began collecting them.

"Many early historians of the LGBT movement, with roots in a gay liberationist ethos that was explicitly anti-capitalist, viewed for-profit enterprises such as physique publishers with skepticism, considering them peripheral to movement politics ... favoring homophile and nonprofit publications over commercial ones," Johnson wrote.

Finishing his book, "The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government," Johnson traveled around the country researching the idea of a "gay market" that existed a decade before Stonewall. He discovered that "with a circulation rate ten times that of their homophile competitors, physique magazines were the primary gay media outlet in the nation such that by 1963, domestic sales of physique magazines topped nine million per year," he wrote.

Johnson realized that "by making gay desire visible, by marketing it to the masses and defending it from government censorship, physique entrepreneurs helped create a sense of a national gay community," such that consumer culture played a pivotal role in shaping gay male cultural life and later political engagement.

"They created a sense of a virtual or imagined community," Johnson wrote. "Gay men throughout the country, in small towns and big cities, could find these magazines on their local newsstands or subscribe to them through the mail. Through these magazines, they knew there were tens of thousands of other 'physique enthusiasts' like themselves out there. Grecian Guild went further and offered membership in a fraternal order, complete with regional conventions, pins, chaplains, and local chapters. Others started offering pen pal clubs and gay book clubs. They would print letters and photos from customers, often including their mailing address. The magazines became increasingly interactive — offering customers opportunities to connect with other customers, a kind of analog version of what today we call social media."

Author David K. Johnson  

The early gay market
Development of a gay market and gay identity formation reinforced one another.

Johnson tells the story of the rise and decline of physique magazines during the period from 1951 to 1967 in his new book on the subject, "Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked A Movement" (Columbia University Press), as well as arguing that both homophile organizations and physique enterprises were fulfilling many of the same functions — fostering community, providing legal advice, and fighting repression among others, but the latter surpassed the former both in numbers and influence such that gay commerce was not a byproduct of the gay movement but a catalyst to it.

"Historians tend to focus on the role of the homophile organizations such as the Mattachine Society and ONE," Johnson wrote. "But homophile mailing lists were a tenth the size of those of physique publishers. Homophile leaders were jealous of the physique's popularity and income stream. They kept a very close watch on these publications and slowly began to copy their formats. Once the battle against postal censorship was won, the two types of publications merged. It's why I suggest we think of this period not as the homophile era but the physique era, since they were the dominant gay media presence of the period."

There were business directories so that customers could find other gay services, bars, and resources. Furthermore, physique entrepreneurs, building on their financial success, developed other businesses, creating a new niche gay market that included the Cory Book Service, the Grecian Guild (gay social fraternity), and the Adonis Club (pen pals). Only when these gay entrepreneurs organized into large conglomerates with nationwide distribution systems were they able to acquire the resources that enabled them to fight censorship.

It is here that Johnson sees a historical connection between his first book and his new work.

"In some ways 'Buying Gay' also looks at the homophobic Cold War policies of the federal government," he wrote. "But it looks at how they were carried out by an agency of the federal government we don't think much about — the post office and its army of postal inspectors. The post office determined that these magazines were encouraging homosexuality in American society and launched a campaign to stop them. They infiltrated physique photographer mailing lists, raided production facilities, and made 'educational visits' to customers to get them to seek psychiatric treatment. In their campaign against physique consumers, the post office signaled out teachers, knowing that they were particularly vulnerable. So 'Buying Gay' like 'The Lavender Scare,' is very much about federal government efforts to police a growing gay subculture."

Johnson said that physique publications had vigorous and public fights with postal censors.

"They stood up for their right to publish these materials, both editorially and in court. They helped create a sense among their readership of being part of an oppressed minority group, one that required a collective response. They helped take the struggle of gay people out of the realm of psychiatry and place it in the context of civil rights and the First Amendment," he wrote.

Lynn Womack, developer of a publishing empire of gay novels and magazines (Guild Press), fought against censorship, culminating in the famous 1962 Supreme Court decision in MANual v. Day that gay publications were not obscene "because they were not patently offensive," Johnson wrote.

Directory Services Inc., which marketed directories of gay businesses, won a landmark federal district court decision that the Constitution included protections for DSI's homosexual customers, by allowing full frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism, "paving the way for the sort of modern gay press we have come to know and love," he wrote.

Furthermore, physique photographers and publishers offered a new vision of gay masculinity.

"With depictions of muscular male bodies and invocations of heroic Greek warriors, they represent an avowedly masculine aesthetic that rejected the language of camp and drag common in gay bars of the period," Johnson wrote. "These were masculine-identified men who enjoyed looking at each other's bodies and enjoyed hanging out together naked at the pool."

However, heterosexual weightlifters resented the success of these magazines despite the fact they indirectly promoted their sport.

"Mainstream bodybuilding magazines such as Strength & Health and Iron Man saw these new gay-oriented physique magazines cutting into their bottom line," Johnson wrote. "They warned readers about these new 'little queer magazines' on America's newsstands. They were jealous of their economic success and some objected to what they saw as a group of immoral perverts taking over their sport."

Despite these advances, the allowance of full frontal nudity and public marketing of gay films (mostly porno) by the mid- to late-1960s put most of these physique magazines out of business, but a publication like the Advocate would have been impossible without the legal victories of Guild Press and DSI. Also, Grindr, Scruff, and other gay hookup apps are a legacy of these magazines.

"What physique magazines were selling was contact, both real and imagined, with other customers," Johnson wrote. "Their pen pal clubs, directories, and address exchanges were precursors to Grindr and Scruff. They are all commercial enterprises that help gay men connect. You can't form a movement if you can't find each other."

Johnson noted that the late San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk opened Castro Camera that offered gay-friendly film-developing services and not just to sell cameras.

"It became an important gay community center because it solved a problem that existed throughout the physique era — it provided a place for gay men and women to develop homoerotic images."

By meeting together, they could discuss common problems, especially discrimination, which led to political activism and gay power through economic clout (the gay and labor organized boycott of Coors beer), launching Milk's groundbreaking election to the Board of Supervisors in 1977. (He was assassinated a year later.)

Johnson summarized that gay activism didn't begin with Stonewall, that commercial enterprises formed a key component of the early gay rights movement, and that physique entrepreneurs such as Mizer were early gay rights activists.

"He began publishing Physique Pictorial as a way to provide gay physique photographers like himself a safe space to offer their products as they were being pushed out of mainstream fitness magazines," Johnson wrote. "He offered photographs of healthy, fun-loving homoerotism that normalized same-sex desire. His images substantiated his friend Alfred Kinsey's findings that homosexual desire was normal."

So, according to Johnson, the physique era laid the foundation that made Stonewall possible.

"Stonewall was also about the right to consume — the right to buy a drink with others like oneself," he wrote. "So yes, I think physique magazines, by winning the right of gay consumers to buy homoerotic images and magazines, laid the foundation for the rebellion of the patrons of the Stonewall Inn. Before we could think of ourselves as a political movement, we saw ourselves as an economic force. 'Gay Power' as initially conceived was about economic as much as political muscle."