“You can do much to strengthen and promote power in the gay community,” the Los Angeles Advocate told its readers in 1967, “because you wield the great deciding weapon: The Almighty Dollar.” A slogan, if ever there was one, for the capitalist approach to gay liberation.
Today, we are accustomed to gay politics’ entanglement with business interests. Every June, corporate logos change suddenly to incorporate the colors of the LGBTQ Pride flag. Colgate toothpaste appears a multihued swirl and even the Bank of America logo is repainted in rainbow colors.
At the same time, activists are more willing than ever to attack corporations for anti-queer acts and to call for boycotts of their products. One of the more famous cases is that of Chick-fil-A. The fast food chain, which had been a target of criticism from LGBTQ groups since 2012, announced in November it would no longer donate to two charities that oppose gay marriage. Years of boycotts and pressure had borne fruit—the “almighty dollar” finally convinced the chain to stop its anti-queer advocacy.
In some ways, the queer consumer’s power is the movement’s ultimate weapon. In 2016, a marketing report valued U.S. LGBT disposable income at almost $1 trillion. “Look at how much L.G.B.T.Q. couples make in terms of their household income. From a disposable-income and consumer-spending standpoint, they are a lucrative audience,” a recent New York Times article quoted a media executive saying. U.S. corporations have become increasingly interested in cashing in on the queer American consumer. In pursuit of the gay dollar, companies give to advocacy groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign and gay pride parades around the country. Ad campaigns increasingly include or even target queer consumers, raising visibility and acceptance. Many companies have adopted a slew of policies in recent years appealing to LGBTQ consumers and employees alike.
The almighty dollar—and its power to shape policy in this country—serves as a guiding principle for a new book by David K. Johnson, a historian of homosexuality in the United States whose last book examined the McCarthyite Lavender Scare. In Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, which appeared in 2019 in Columbia University Press’s history of U.S. capitalism series, Johnson tracks the 1950s and 1960s expansion of physique magazines and book clubs catering to gay men. According to Johnson, the gay market—and not the radical liberation groups that came out of New York City’s 1969 Stonewall riots—constitutes the real bedrock of the American gay movement.
In arguing that the gay movement, and Stonewall in particular, emerged out of consumer capitalist structures, Johnson jumps into an ongoing debate among queer theorists and historians about the relationship of capitalism to queerness, a debate that often hinges on the question of whether capitalism is good or bad for queer people. Johnson himself notes the battle lines between those who embrace “the power of the market for good,” and “queer studies practitioners [who] remain deeply skeptical of consumption as an avenue for political engagement.”
In telling a largely progressive story about the success of gay entrepreneurs in building a political movement, Johnson implicitly sides with the former group. He thereby seems to rebuke leftist queer historians, such as the eminent Martin Duberman, who consider the activism that emerged after 1969 as anti-capitalist in nature and remain profoundly skeptical of markets’ entanglement in the politics of liberation. Ultimately, Johnson hopes to prompt activists and theorists today to reassess their dim view of capitalism, proposing that consumer markets might even be a force for progressive change. How convincing is his case?
Johnson’s book begins with the story of a man named Bob Mizer, an LA resident who in 1951 founded Physique Pictorial. Full of male models, it was, according to Johnson, “the first large-circulation American magazine targeting gay men.” One of Mizer’s customers noted that the models became ever “more youthful, slimmer and more suggestively posed.” An entrepreneur who sought to wed profit and community, Mizer envisioned becoming the “fulcrum” of “a constantly widening network of producers and consumers.”
The monograph covers a span of two decades, from the late 1940s through the late 1960s, revealing how the network of gay consumers did indeed expand over time. Readers learn about early gay novels in the United States as well as those who published and distributed them. In 1949, for instance, Greenberg Publishers in New York released Divided Path, a novel of gay love and coming out in small-town America. These publishers, Johnson contends, “were identifying, cultivating, and quantifying the extent of a gay market. Publishing gay books did more than just break the silence about homosexuality, as important as that was. It created a business model that offered support to community-building efforts nationwide.”
These books also gave rise to services that advertised and distributed them. In 1952, for instance, the Cory Book Service launched in New York to market such publications to a gay audience. The model was replicated by homophile groups including the Mattachine Society, ONE and Daughters of Bilitis. These efforts, Johnson argues, were precursors to the gay bookstores that began to crop up in American cities in the 1970s.
Not only did gay publishers appeal directly to their clients’ sexual and romantic interests, they also began offering ways for gay men to meet each other, a kind of Grindr avant la lettre. Personal advertisements and subscription services for gay men went back to at least the early twentieth century in Great Britain, but Johnson focuses on the Adonis Male Club, which offered one personal correspondent per month chosen based on various preferences. When prosecutors went after the organization, they noted, “The membership application included space for occupation, hobby, age, height, weight, and an ambiguous category for ‘measurements,’” the last item clear evidence of “homosexual intent.”
In unearthing this partially submerged world of gay entrepreneurship, Johnson is making two arguments about the origins of the American gay movement at once. The first is that these magazines, novels and subscription services created a kind of early network or community for gay men in the United States. It provided a way for them to find each other, while at the same time delivering revenue for early homophile organizations. Without the modern gay market in the 1950s and 1960s, there might never have been a gay movement in the 1970s.
The second side to Johnson’s argument is that these endeavors provided an opening through which gay Americans could fight discriminatory laws and legal practices. The magazines, novels and subscription services Johnson surveys were primarily distributed through the U.S. Postal Service. Under a succession of morally conservative Postmasters General the Service sought to combat the distribution of these supposedly obscene materials.
In its quest the Postal Service was assisted by Congress, which in 1959 passed legislation allowing obscenity prosecutions in jurisdictions where mail was received, not merely from which it was sent. The law expanded the Service’s reach by allowing it to shop for jurisdictions in which it could pursue obscenity prosecutions. As a result, the number of arrests for mail-order obscenity rose from 314 in 1959 to more than 800 in 1964.
But these trials created opportunities for gay entrepreneurs to organize and challenge their persecutors in court. In Buying Gay, Johnson details numerous of these cases, such as ONE v. Olesen, a 1958 case that established homosexual magazines were not in and of themselves obscene.
If the book has anything of a protagonist, it is Lynn Womack, who founded one of the first companies that vertically integrated all the parts of producing and distributing homoerotic publications. The owner of TRIM, a physique magazine, he also set up his own relationships with both photographers and newsstands around the country.
In 1962 Womack wound up before the Supreme Court. In Manual v. Day, the Court established that Womack’s publications were not “patently offensive” and thus not obscene. Johnson contends that this decision was “the Supreme Court’s first formal opinion on the rights of gay people.” In so doing he places it in a tradition with more recent LGBTQ victories at the Supreme Court, including Lawrence v. Texas, United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges.
Johnson’s climax comes with the founding of the Directory Services, Inc. (DSI), which began in 1963 with the aim of creating a directory of gay businesses. Its two founders knew firsthand the difficulty gay men experienced navigating the ever-growing field of gay publications and decided to cash in. By 1967, DSI employed fourteen people and reported a gross income of over $1 million.
In making these arguments, Johnson appeals to a Hegelian view of history as an accumulation of forces moving in opposition to each other, but often, from the perspective of historical actors, with unintended consequences. In a similar key, Johnson maintains that gay liberation would have paradoxically been impossible without a gay market. While the explosion of gay newspapers and commercial outlets in the late 1960s and early 1970s is often attributed to “the advent of gay liberation,” Johnson notes that in fact “they represented a maturation of a gay market tied to male images that had been developing since 1951.” When the Stonewall riots erupted in 1969, Johnson contends they represented a “desire of gay men and women to have control of their own commercial spaces.”
Buying Gay is thoroughly researched and avoids the kind of polemical claims that can win scholars both fame and notoriety. Nonetheless, I suspect Buying Gay—with the role it gives American capitalism in the steady march of gay progress—will both have an impact on the practices of the history of sexuality and be controversial among queer theorists and historians.
Queer theory and history are loosely organized, multifaceted and often fraught fields within the academy, but one of their principal bêtes noires has been the progressive narrative arcs that sometimes characterize the telling of queer history. For much of its existence, the history of sexuality often followed a standard narrative formulation: things were bad, and now they are good (or at least getting better). There were variations on the theme, to be sure, but the advent of modern sexual identity in the nineteenth century, the growth of gay liberation movements in the 1970s and the success of gay marriage in the West have all been taken as benchmarks in the slow progress of sexual freedom.
But theorists and historians who employ queer methodologies contend that such stories efface the experiences of individuals and groups that do not fit into those arcs. They have excoriated contemporary gay activism for focusing too much on conforming with the heterosexual majority through priorities such as gay marriage and eliminating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The elucidation of these priorities and the process by which they came to be the focus of gay activism in the United States sidelined trans activists, lesbians, queer people of color, sex workers and the working classes. Telling the history of gay activism as one of triumph ignores their continued suffering and the ways in which the winners—middle-class gay men—were able to set the agenda.
Thus, the first question one might ask of Buying Gay is where are the women, the trans people or the people of color? Johnson has a partial answer to this. He makes no secret about the fact that his story traces a cis-male history. And he gestures to the fact that most of the magazines, authors, novels and networks he writes about were made by and for primarily white men. Occasionally, he points out, they would include physique models of color or make other gestures at inclusion. But overall the broader critique stands that, if the gay market of the 1950s and 1960s was the bedrock of later liberation, it was a remarkably narrow basis that conceived of itself as the domain of already more privileged individuals.
But the more pressing concern queer scholars are likely to have with his argument, I think, will have to do with the way it encourages us to think of capitalism as a benign or even positive force in the story of gay liberation. In Johnson’s telling, the market was the place where queer people could make the most difference and do the necessary spadework of community and identity building. It was through the dollar, rather than the vote or the protest, that gay people could exercise clout.
While overreaching occasionally—the Stonewall riots, for instance, were certainly not a defense of capitalism or of New York City’s mob-run queer bars—the book’s basic facts and narrative are sound. But subtle as he is, Johnson implies that this argument should apply not only to the 1950s and 1960s, but also to today when he writes that the DSI “served the same functions that in a digital age are provided by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Grindr, and a host of other web-based companies.” What he means is that just as mid-century market forces once provided opportunities for gay people to build community, so too do today’s market of internet and tech monopolies.
It is true that the internet has proved to be a powerful force for the gay movement. In 2010, Dan Savage and Terry Miller launched the It Gets Better campaign against queer suicides, harnessing YouTube to deliver messages of hope to teenagers around the country. Likewise, Grindr and other web-based dating apps have made it far easier to meet other queer people, especially for those who do not live in cities with a large number of gay bars, bookstores, cafés and other brick-and-mortar meeting places. I myself have met many friends and boyfriends on such apps.
But it would also be risible to suggest these corporations are fundamentally on the side of queer liberation. In June 2019, YouTube, even as it changed its logo to the obligatory Pride Month rainbow, decided to continue allowing a far-right content creator to use its platform to spread homophobic hate. On December 17, 2018, Tumblr, a blogging site that had become a hub for pages dedicated to heterodox sexualities and sexual interests, purged any content it deemed to be pornographic. Even as it connects gay people and has made efforts to provide its users with information about STI prevention, Grindr has faced questions about everything from how it increases loneliness within the gay community to its use by authoritarian governments to arrest queer people.
Facebook is one of the worst offenders. In 2017, it blocked drag performers and trans individuals from using their preferred names on the site. And only this year, in addition to granting Donald Trump’s reelection campaign free reign to post false information, Facebook allowed advertisements full of inaccurate information about HIV transmission and medication.
The point is not so much that these corporations or the market in which they exist are either good or evil. As Michel Foucault pointed out in The History of Sexuality (one of the originary texts of the modern discipline of gender and sexuality studies), “where there is power, there is resistance.” It should come as no surprise to queer historians that even fundamentally conservative or repressive institutions can at times be turned to progressive ends.
But many queer scholars would argue that in conceiving of our freedom as a freedom of the marketplace, we leased our ability to imagine the world to corporations whose sole interests are in their bottom lines. This is certainly not Johnson’s argument, but it is unavoidably what is at stake in questions over the role of capitalism in the queer movement. It is also at the heart of broader question of whether we view the gay liberation movement as a success or a failure.
These debates have clearly demarcated battle lines in the academy. Johnson not only appears as a defender of capitalism, but also seems to be on the side of those who would argue the LGBTQ movement is largely a success. On the other side are those such as Duberman, who, in his recent book Has the Gay Movement Failed?, contended that today’s gay movement has betrayed the radical legacy of the Gay Liberation Front, the group that the Stonewall riots gave birth to. The modern movement, he insists, has denied the GLF’s conception of gay liberation as not merely freedom from government persecution but rather a freedom to build a more equitable world.
What is most useful and original in Johnson’s work is that he offers a new genealogy of the LGBTQ movement in the United States, one that helps us understand the underlying logic of the political choices and strategies that Duberman views through the lens of betrayal. While I am certainly not prepared to accept Johnson’s rosy view of American capitalism—or, for that matter, his dim view of the state—I do think Buying Gay offers a powerful counterpoint to histories of queer activism by reminding us of the economic necessities that drive liberation efforts.
It is not enough, Buying Gay insists, to be critical of capitalism, as many queer activists are and have been. After all, we live in a capitalist society that shapes most of the decisions most of us make on a daily basis. We need not give up on our more radical ambitions in order to learn something from the entrepreneur-activists of the 1950s and 1960s, who figured out how to blend their political with their entrepreneurial aims. Indeed, if we are persuaded by Johnson’s contention that the foundation of the gay movement was in profit-generating enterprise, then its recent trajectory looks less like betrayal than a homecoming.
If you liked this review, you may also be interested in these other pieces by Sam Clowes Huneke on the gay left and sexuality in the Soviet Union.