10 Lessons Learned From 60s-Era Gay Skin Mags
I recently acquired a number 60s-era "physique," "nudist," and "connoisseur" magazines at the Antiques Garage Flea Market in Chelsea. In other words, I have a stack of mid-century, pre-Stonewall skin mags. Here's a short review of some things I learned, remembered, and otherwise discovered as a result.
1. SAILORS MUST BE VERSATILE:
One of the magazines that cast men as sailors, Crew, published in the summer of 1963, came complete with a not-very-subtly coded manifesto on the hard and soft qualities found in ideal seamen. "…A sailor must have a husky and rugged physique… For all his virility, his massive chest and powerful biceps, he is at heart a tender and sensitive individual who can express himself in his off hours by painting or needlework. Versatility is therefore a prime requisite for any seafaring man."
The subsequent examples were indeed splendid. Here are two:
Sadly, this was in the age of "decency laws" and penises were verboten. A bit of ass came through at times, but rarely. It wouldn't be long, though, before men could see other men's wangs. But more on those bits in a bit.
2. NO MEN'S EARRINGS AT TIFFANY:
Reading through a 1965 edition of Tiger, a magazine that consisted of text reprinted from seminal gay rag Drum and pictures from the Minnesota-based studio, DSI Inc, I came across a Tiffany & Co ad reading "We're sorry. But we do NOT carry earrings for men. Nor will we." As seen above, the magazine explains the advert appeared in the New York Times on December 6, 1964.
I recall once hearing something about Tiffany creating the policy to thwart homosexuality, but couldn't quite place the memory. I did an online search on the matter and came up with a similarly hazy comment left on a 2009 NYT article about Tiffany selling men's earrings. Wrote the reader, "I seem to remember a Tiffany’s sign in the store on Fifth Avenue, in the 70s. A small card on which was printed: “Tiffany & Co does not sell mens’ earrings, and they never will.'" Clearly Tiffany has changed their policy, but does anyone else remember this being a thing?
3. "HILL-BILLY TOWN:" In the a mid-1966 edition of Drum, a reader from Vienna, West Virginia, wrote, "Your little magazine is one of the best I have ever obtained. Where else in this hill-billy town could I get the information and articles like Drum has?" As your own experience no doubt proves, reader, gay media, including skin mags, have been and remain essential vehicles for consciousness-raising and mass organization. They provide the information and in many cases the impetus for serious social change.
4. HATERS HAVE AND ARE GONNA HATE: That same issue of Drum featured this note: "The worst thing about Drum are those articles by [editor] Clark Polak who must think he's some sort of intellectual." And that was from a fan! Meanwhile, one anti-gay housewife wrote into a 1967 issue, "Your magazine is disgusting! Shame on you for printing such trash and allowing those photographs to be published!" Trolling is apparently an American tradition.
5. TOM WASN'T ALONE: Tom of Finland remains the most famous of the gay erotica illustators, but there were plenty of others. Before he founded Colt Studios, Jim French and a mystery man called Arion, perhaps a pseudonym for French himself, ran The Luger Studio, from which they illustrated and published illustrated pin-ups of the burgeoning gay stereotypes. Also, Kris Studios, seen in this issue of Brutes in Boots from May of 1967, also spillled a lot of ink for male-on-male fantasies.
6. INJUSTICE LOITERS: With momentum for ENDA/Freedom to Work growing, let's not forget past battles over employment discrimination.
In 1956, one year before Army astronomer Frank Kameny turned his gay-related firing into national news, a man named Bruce Scott was dismissed from the Labor Department on suspicion of being homosexual born from a "loitering" arrest and "undisclosed information that you are homosexual."
A few years later, Scott reapplied for his old job and was rejected because of the whole gay thing. With his eyes opened to discrimination, and with Kameny and the Mattachine Society as guides, Scott filed a lawsuit against the Department of Labor and in 1965, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned his rejection. Still, the Civil Service Commission refused to employ Scott. So, he sued again. And again he won. That decision ordered the government to restore "[the] appellant to the status of one eligible to be considered for federal employment." Not only could the government not prove Scott was gay, a key part of their hateful argument, but the Court said, "Federal applicants for employment do not, wholly apart from Fifth Amendment concerns, forfeit all rights of privacy accorded to persons generally by the First Amendment..." This was the first time a gay man had won such a suit.
It wasn't until 1998 that President Clinton signed an executive order protecting gay and lesbian federal employees from on-the-job discrimination, and it took another 12 years before President Obama extended that order to transgender federal employees. There are still no protections for civilian employees.
I know all of this because it's discussed at length in a 1965 edition of Tiger magazine. Looking into it even further, I was reminded by Federal Globe, a site about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Employees of the Federal Government, that on June 30, 1865, before Scott v. Macy and Frank Kameny, Secretary of the Interior James Harla fired Walt Whitman from the New York as a Clerk in the Indian Office because of homo imagery in Whitman's 1855 collection Leaves of Grass. The gay imagery in those poems would be used against Whitman's ghost 100 years later, during a debate over the name of a Delaware River bridge.
This is the rabbit hole 60s-era porn led me down?!
7. COMPUTER DATING WAS EVEN MORE ANNOYING IN THE 1960S:
Above you see a small part of a questionnaire 60s-era readers would fill out and send to a company called "Computer Compatibles." That company would then run your answers through a then-high-tech IBM Computer and send you back the results. It's worth noting this advert references "men and women," so wasn't specifically catering toward the gays, but definitely knew it should speak to them, anyway.
8. THE PLIGHT OF THE 'SINGLE MALE NUDIST:' Publications like Mr. Sun, M.A.N., Male Athletic Nudist, and Sun Trek, all mid-late 60s magazines put out by LA-based publisher Wyngate & Bevins, led the "male nudist magazines" in which penises put forth as a symbol of protest over unjust discrimination against single male nudists. They were protesting ostracization from the nudist community, they said:
"One of the more disturbing attitudes that plague the nudist scene is the 'problem' of male singles. For a long time, too long and in some places even now, the male single was about as welcome in a nudist group as a patch of poison ivy. No one ever gave a very clear reason for this prejudice." One magazine then went on to debate the pros and cons of creating a men-only nudist camp. The pros won.
These magazines were meant to be read as liberation texts, not gay rags. But like magazines that peddled eroticized images of sailors or bikers, this too was a masquerade. "[It's] a masquerade of non-homoerotic intent: they are steadfastly about nudism and naturalism, and the philosophies and lifestyles that are part of those subcultures," writes Jeremiah Smith at the cultural criticism magazine Reconstruction.
Despite Mr. Sun's protests of heterosexuality, the rambling essays that accompany artsy shots of men in athletic poses are brimming with gay imagery. One essay, called "Nude for Sensory Understanding," proclaimed, "Stepping out of our clothing is more than just getting naked; it can be a new revelation about ourselves." Getting naked with other men unleashes "a new insight into the unused senses."
Of course, even today we can't really show pictures of penises without risking corporate backlash.
9. GOD, CENSORSHIP AND THE PENIS: These magazines were published in a swirl of censorship and battles for the freedom of speech. It was around this time that Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of the gay magazine Eros, was convicted of violating federal "obscene mail laws."
References to this and similar cases pepper most of the gay skin mags of this era, and in some scenarios, such as Drum's, led to their demise. Two magazines I found, Hombre and Tiger, waded into the debate by writing complete proclamation on the topic. Or was it a self-defense a la Mr. Sun? Either way, their words are enough to bring a tear to the most anti-gay of conservative patriots.
"[The publishers] hold that all of us, every citizen, have a common ground to defend… Those concerned with freedom have a responsibility of seeing to it that [all publications are] given the freedom of expression granted to it by the First Amendment of the Constitution…" You get the idea.
But even before this creed, both magazines include a message like the one pictured above. In it, they describe their publications as "naturalist" magazines -- we know what that means -- and defend their nude stance as a celebration of "God's handiwork." Again, one wonders what the modern right-winger would say to this: "It is our belief that the ability of man to be at one with himself, to have a high opinion of the portions of his body so long rejected and degraded, will make him strong, not weaker; more moral instead of less moral."
Penises for morality!
Founded in 1964, Drum was one of the few pre-Stonewall magazines to blend both sex and politics. News notices on blackmail trials or police raids were accompanied by romantic poems, pictorials lampooning "gay moments in sports" and the magazine even published the first gay comic strip, "Harry Chess: The Man from A.U.N.T.I.E"
Drum charted the changing times, chronicling activist wins and working with medical professionals to help declassify homosexuality as a mental illness.
Drum and its contemporaries "were a way of getting [movement activity] information to people who wouldn't bother to read it otherwise," said Barbara Gittings, editor of the early lesbian and then gay magazine the Ladder.
But Drum was also the first gay magazine to publish a full frontal picture of a naked man, in December of 1965, a decision that led to Polak being charged with 18 counts of distributing obscene materials. He eventually escaped imprisonment by agreeing to shutdown the magazine, which he did in 1967.
Three years later, in 1970, Polak left his hometown of Philadelphia and headed to Los Angeles, where he dabbled in real estate and art collecting and continued his activism. In addition to helping found the Stonewall Democratic Club, he created a gay chapter for the local ACLU. Unfortunately, Polak took his own life in 1980. His impact on gay culture, and American democracy, remains unparalleled and woefully under appreciated.