Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Physique Pioneers: The Politics of 1960s Gay Consumer Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Physique Pioneers: The Politics of 1960s Gay Consumer Culture

Article excerpt

While growing up in a small town in Missouri in the 1950s, Bill Kelley learned from reading the best-selling paperback Washington Confidential that the nation's capital was teeming not only with prostitutes, gamblers, Communists, and drug dealers, but also "fairies and Fair Dealers." Like millions of Americans who read tabloid journalist Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer's expose, he learned that police efforts to eliminate the moral degenerates from the city focused on Lafayette Park. The reporters alleged that so many gay men aggregated in this "garden of pansies" that it created "a constant soprano symphony of homosexual twittering." Lait and Mottimer had hoped to warn their readers of the dangers in Washington, D.C., but Kelley was more intrigued than repulsed. While on a high school trip to the nation's capital for the National Spelling Bee, Kelley made a surreptitious visit to Lafayette Park. He had only a limited time away from his chaperones, and as he later recalled, "I wasn't taking any chances of being misunderstood." In order to identify himself to other gay men, he went to a nearby newsstand, bought a copy of a physique magazine, and carried it with him as he walked around the park. (1)

Bill Kelley's Lafayette Park story has been used to illustrate the ways in which cold war era anti-gay propaganda functioned as a virtual tour guide to the gay subculture. And because he would later move to Chicago and become involved in the early homosexual rights movement as a member of the Chicago chapter of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay political and social service organizations, Kelley has appeared in a number of histories of the gay rights movement. But one aspect of the story has been overlooked: For a young man like Kelley from middle-America at mid-century, the purchase of a consumer item acted as means of sexual self-identification and served as an entryway into the gay community. (2)

This study outlines a history of gay patterns of mass consumption from 1945 to 1969--an examination of the production, sale, and consumption of physique magazines, paperback novels, greeting cards, and other items available through gay-oriented mail order catalogs and how these consumer networks fostered a sense of community. I examine how the magazine publishers, in their struggles with censorship laws, marshaled a rhetoric of legal rights and collective action and, therefore, how the first gay judicial victories were for the right to produce and purchase such commodities. I argue that before there was a national gay political community there was a national gay commercial market and that the development of that market by a small group of gay entrepreneurs was a key, overlooked catalyst to the rise of a gay movement in America.

This project sits at the intersection of two historiographies--that, of consumer culture and that of gay and lesbian community and identity formation. The history of consumer culture has become a hotly debated topic in the field of U.S. history, as demonstrated in a recent roundtable exchange in The Journal of American History. (3) From prominent colonialists studying the American Revolution to scholars specializing in the post-World War II "Affluent Society," historians are demonstrating the importance of individuals' relationships to consumer goods as a key to understanding their sense of self, community, and even national identity. Many scholars see the rise of mass consumer culture as an oppressive force limiting the agency of individuals. William Leach and Susan Strasser portray the rise of national brands, department stores, and advertising agencies as the imposition of an alien corporate culture on local, autonomous agents. Leach calls the culture of consumer capitalism "among the most nonconsensual public cultures ever created." (4) Other scholars emphasize the potentially libratory aspects of consumer society--highlighting how it became a catalyst to group identity formation and collective action. …

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