How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement
by david k. johnson
columbia, 328 pages, $32
How did the gay liberation movement, so radical in the Stonewall days, come to make peace with corporate America? Conventional wisdom has it that after Stonewall, corporate and consumerist forces invaded gay culture. That narrative may be about to change. David K. Johnson, a social and legal historian at the University of South Florida, argues for a longstanding close relationship between the free market and sexual freedom. Buying Gay, an installment in the Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series, argues that the gay political movement owes a great deal—its very existence—to consumer capitalism.
Johnson argues that gay commercial culture originated in the 1940s and 1950s in the market for physique magazines. These magazines generated merchandise, networks of correspondence, and the legal strategies that would defeat obscenity laws and pave the way for decades of political organizing. What built the LGBT identity was not critical theory or a revolutionary vanguard, but bootstrap entrepreneurship, mass marketing, and free enterprise. Johnson’s preface puts it bluntly:
An organized and powerful gay community was aided and abetted by capitalism. As physique entrepreneurs freed themselves from the constraints of censorship, they sparked a movement. Less the spawn of Marx and Lenin, it turns out they were, for better or for worse, more the children of Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton.
Johnson’s narrative begins soon after World War II, when photography studios began to specialize in male nudes. By this time, the “taking, sharing, and selling of such images had been central to gay culture for well over a half century,” but what was new was the attempt of gay entrepreneurs to monetize the practice. The first such entrepreneur was Bob Mizer, an apprentice at a Los Angeles studio who spent his spare time photographing bodybuilders at Muscle Beach and selling his work to physique magazines. In the mid-1940s, Mizer expanded his hobby into a studio of his own, and in 1951 started his own magazine: Physique Pictorial, the first bodybuilding magazine for homosexuals. Physique Pictorial faced an immediate challenge: how to market a semi-underground product to a diffuse audience. It needed to create for itself a mass market in order to survive.
To construct a sense of intimacy among far-flung customers, Mizer encouraged letter-writing. Letters to gay physique magazines often expressed a desire for correspondence that might help overcome the writer’s isolation: “I get very lonely, so introduce me warmly once again to your readers.” Correspondents included revealing photos of themselves, hoping to have them printed with their letters. Mizer frequently obliged. Aware, as Johnson puts it, that “customer lists were their most valuable commodity,” physique magazines blurred the line between customer and commodity by idealizing voyeurism. Mizer once wrote to a friend that “a picture is rarely unpopular if the model looks directly into the lens,” reciprocating the reader’s stare. Physique Pictorial devoted advertising space to explicit photo albums compiled by specialized studios and individual amateurs, and printed illustrations of men gathering to share pictures. The exchange of images would remain central to this emerging commercial “community.”
What the gay-magazine marketplace promised its consumers was human connection; what it provided was objects for sexual pleasure. The objects were often lonely men themselves, and turning them into supply for mass-marketed fantasy often entailed misrepresenting them. Mizer “constructed a fantasy narrative about his models,” often out of whole cloth—especially when he used straight models. As Mizer wrote to a friend, “I would doom a model’s popularity if I announced he was married with two kids.”
Mizer’s success inspired other gay entrepreneurs. By the mid-1950s, there were gay booksellers, gay pen pal services, and many other physique magazines. In the late fifties, entrepreneurs attempted to consolidate parts of the market into “gay conglomerates.” The first attempt was by H. Lynn Womack, who left his philosophy professorship at Mary Washington College to publish the magazine TRIM and later founded a distribution company for gay magazines. Lloyd Spinar and Conrad Germain’s Directory Services, Inc. (DSI) was, as Johnson puts it, “The Sears Roebuck catalog of gay merchandise.” These enterprises tended to depict their customers as successful businessmen who blended seamlessly into the professional world, while keeping homes that were conspicuously un-bourgeois. Magazines advertised novelty items for display that “transformed the home itself into a site of gay consumption.”
Johnson attends closely to the gay marketplace’s legal battles against censorship. (His previous book documented another phase in the mid-century conflict between gays and the government: the federal prosecution of homosexuals suspected of communist ties during the “lavender scare.”) The Post Office, tasked with fighting the spread of obscene materials, became physique magazines’ bitterest opponent. Postal inspectors routinely infiltrated mailing lists and performed sting operations to enforce anti-obscenity laws. But once gay “conglomerates” formed, resources became available for legal battles against these laws.
The campaign against obscenity laws reached the Supreme Court. Womack, arrested in 1960 on a charge of conspiracy to mail obscene material, appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court and won. His case, MANual Enterprises, Inc. v. Day, was handed down the same day as Engel v. Vitale, which famously declared school prayer unconstitutional. The coincidence led to some unfortunate headlines for the early gay movement: “Court Outlaws Prayer, Promotes Homosexuality.” DSI also won legal victories in the 1960s.
Arguments that proved successful for gay magazines tended to emphasize the role of markets and market forces in society. One that proved decisive in MANual v. Day, and later became a staple across gay literature, was simply that demand has the right to supply. Defendants frequently compared physique magazines to Playboy, arguing, as Womack later put it, that “if homosexuals want a literature they have a right to it.” Womack’s lawyer asked the Supreme Court: “If we so-called normal people, according to our law, are entitled to have our pin-ups . . . why shouldn’t they be allowed to have their pin-ups?”
A less popular but no less crucial argument concerned the definition of “obscenity.” In Roth v. United States (1957), the Court had ruled that a work is obscene if, “applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” Judge Earl Larson, in DSI’s case, ruled that the market itself was the best barometer of community standards. Commerce defines community.
Defendants of gay entrepreneurs learned to rush through local trials to appeal, and to waive their right to trial by jury—avoiding at every step local people who might speak accurately to community standards. Juries and local courts were never as friendly to the gay market as were distant federal judges. Their best chance was a unilateral ruling from civil-libertarian judges. (DSI got lucky with Larson, who’d founded the Minnesota ACLU before becoming a judge.) Johnson, somewhat (but only somewhat) tongue-in-cheek, characterizes DSI’s legal strategy as “part of a larger conservative politics that championed free enterprise and individual liberty, not collective action.” Their fight was to deregulate a market.
Physique magazines demonstrated the need for anti-obscenity laws. They became more exploitative and explicit after each legal victory. In the heyday of Physique Pictorial, Mizer had avoided full-frontal nudity and photographing young subjects, and cautioned colleagues to do the same. But “within a year [of Larson’s ruling], publications appeared with cover photos of naked boys in bed, the sexual connotations no longer even thinly disguised.” Legal accommodation did not push gay entrepreneurs toward bourgeois norms, but instead licensed more explicit sexual material.
Johnson insists that the “gay community” never stopped being commercial. “Gay power” meant purchasing power: Vector magazine instructed readers, “When you visit our friends and advertisers, tell ’em you saw it in Vector—that’s GAY POWER!” The Stonewall riots reflected “the desire of gay men and women to have control of their own commercial spaces.” And through it all, the “buying, selling, and exchanging of images of the male body . . .has been and continues to be central to gay culture.” Harvey Milk, Johnson notes, was at various points a financial analyst and a camera shop owner.
Johnson makes a strong case, if not exactly the one he intends. The claim that capitalism gave rise to the gay community needs refining. The gay market always struggled with local institutions, especially juries and independently owned newsstands. Physique Pictorial was able to reach a profitable audience only on a national, even international, level, and it did so by means of mass-marketing techniques (mailing lists, catalogues, advertising) developed earlier in the twentieth century. Later on, gay entrepreneurs won legal accommodation only after imitating the corporate conglomerates that emerged mid-century. By Johnson’s account, physique magazines (gay and mainstream) existed in the first place only because “traditional markers of masculinity such as land or independent business ownership became less accessible” as a result of industrialization and urbanization, requiring “new markers of masculinity,” such as physical muscularity. The gay market was a product of specific twentieth-century developments in American capitalism.
Johnson posits the gay community as a happy synthesis of the century-old opposition between community and consumerism; “consumer culture helped create community,” says the book’s back cover. But it’s clear that in some cases, as in the letter-writing networks of the early gay market, marketplaces build a community that is not just thin, but actively objectifies and commodifies its participants. It keeps people estranged, their relationships mediated by the market, even when it brings them together; this is why the in-person gay political organizing of the 1960s and 1970s retained many features of the distant correspondence of the 1940s and 1950s—including, according to Johnson, the exchange of images. Gay advocacy is now bringing legal and social pressure to bear on religious groups, but Buying Gay is a worthwhile reminder that the first victims of gay culture are gay people themselves.
Philip Jeffery is a Public Interest Fellow working as a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.