Historian David K. Johnson follows ‘The Lavender Scare’ with ‘Buying Gay’

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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The history of the LGBTQ community has largely been erased from our educational institutions, historian David K. Johnson says. It’s one of the many byproducts of decades of stigma and intolerance that he attempts to remedy as a professor at the University of South Florida (USF).

His courses explore politics, culture, gender and sexuality in the U.S., mostly post-World War II. “Even in my standard history classes, whenever the topic of homosexuality comes up, students are riveted because they aren’t familiar with it from other history classes,” he explains. “I like to show how the issues of gender and sexuality have been central to American history for quite some time.”

In part, that’s why he helped found the Florida LGBT History Initiative within Special Collections at the USF Library, the first scholarly effort to document the history of Tampa Bay’s LGBTQ community. The collection is international in scope and provides valuable research materials for scholars across all disciplines.

Johnson’s desire to elevate LGBTQ history also led to the publication of his first book in 2004, “The Lavender Scare.” The work details the mass firing of gay and lesbian federal workers in the early 1950s during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, which claimed that communists had infiltrated the U.S. federal government during The Cold War.

The award-winning account, which is now taught in California’s 11th grade curriculum, inspired a documentary of the same name. Narrated by Glenn Close and featuring the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, David Hyde Pierce and more, it premiered on PBS this year to critical acclaim.

“When I wrote ‘The Lavender Scare’ very few gay and lesbian scholars were talking about this,” Johnson says. “I had hoped that it would become impossible to teach or write about the Red Scare and the McCarthy era’s witch hunts without also talking about how gay men and lesbians were affected. Remarkably, that has now come to be true. It’s really gratifying.”

In a sense, he sees his follow-up “Buying Gay”—published this year by Columbia University Press—as a natural continuation of “The Lavender Scare.” Just as the latter detailed the persecution of gays and lesbians from the federal government, his new book explores its oppression of early gay entrepreneurs within the same time period.

“Buying Gay” details the emergence of a new type of publication appearing on 1951’s newsstands:  physique magazines produced by and for gay men. The magazines and the images within them, which featured nearly naked men, articles, letters from readers and advertisements, served as an introduction to gay culture for many individuals growing up in the 1950s and 60s.

The publishers behind these homoerotic magazines were a part of a wider world of “physique entrepreneurs,” men and women who ran photography studios or mail-order catalogs, organized pen-pal services or book clubs and specialized in niche advertising for gay audiences. “Buying Gay” argues that while these types of businesses were often seen as peripheral to the LGBTQ community’s fight for civil rights, LGBTQ commerce was actually an important catalyst for the entire movement.

“Offering a vivid look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs and their customers, and presenting a wealth of illustrations, ‘Buying Gay’ explores the connections—and tensions—between the market and the movement,” its official synopsis reads. “With circulation rates many times higher than the openly political ‘homophile’ magazines, physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time.

“This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and upend censorship laws, paving the way for open expression,” it continues. “Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office, including the court victory that allowed full-frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. ‘Buying Gay’ reconceives the history of the gay rights movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a site for resistance.”

Johnson’s extensive research for “Buying Gay” took him across the country in his efforts to locate remaining copies of magazines like “Physique Pictorial” and “Grecian Guild.” He also sought to find a record of those who had produced or read them.

Over the course of a decade, he traveled to the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, which fosters a greater understanding of sexuality through historical preservation, and leaned heavily on LGBTQ archives in California and New York. “It took a lot of sleuthing,” he says, “because libraries didn’t generally keep these kinds of materials. They were considered pornographic.”

The historian was able to conduct a number of interviews with magazine readers. “Almost any gay man you talk to that is over around 65 can vividly remember seeing these magazines on the newsstands in whatever small town or neighborhood they grew up in,” Johnson says.

“Imagine being a gay man in the 1950s,” he continues. “You think there’s nothing out there—and then you see ‘Physique Pictorial’ or ‘Grecian Guild.’ They were lifelines to a larger gay world.”

Johnson muses that the magazines and the pen pal services that developed from them were precursors to modern dating apps like Grindr or Scruff. “It provided a way for gay men to connect in an analog world. It’s really kind of the first time that gay men could conceive of themselves as a national or even international community,” he elaborates. “The mail was the internet of the 1960s.”

With their success came struggle, and physique entrepreneurs were often at the center of legal battles—particularly against the U.S. Post Office. Johnson says that while he was aware ahead of his initial research that the federal government was monitoring magazine distribution, even he was surprised by their level of vitriol for their producers and audience, private U.S. citizens.

“They were actually going after customers,” he explains. “They were confiscating mailing lists for these magazines and looking through them—finding and targeting people and going to their places of employment, saying, ‘We found these letters or these images that you sent in the mail.’”

Johnson calls it astounding. “As late as the early 1960s, in the United States, the U.S. Post Office was trying to prosecute people for the letters they sent in the mail,” he says. “‘Buying Gay’ is ultimately the story of these courageous men and women who tried to connect their community through magazines and books, services and pen pal clubs.”

He sees physique entrepreneurs not only as business owners, but also activists. “They helped create community and places for resistance. We forget about that … about the struggle between the federal government and the gay community,” Johnson says. “Buying Gay” makes sure we don’t.

“Buying Gay” is available now wherever books are sold.

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