The August 1953 cover of ONE magazine. (ONE National Gay and Lesbian…)
Election day was, by just about any measure, a landmark day in gay and lesbian history in the United States. Four states voted in referendums to support same-sex marriage, and we saw the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
To reflect on these momentous events, I reached out to Craig M. Loftin, the author of two remarkable books released this year about gay and lesbian life in the 1950s and '60s: “Masked Voices: Gay and Lesbians in Cold War America,” and “Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s,” both published by the State University of New York Press.
Loftin’s books are based on a treasure trove of letters he discovered a decade ago inside unmarked boxes while working at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Readers of the magazine ONE wrote those between 1953 and 1967, at a time when ONE was one of the few periodicals in the U.S. openly writing about homosexual issues. The letters offer a deeply moving window into gay and lesbian life during a period when most gay people lived a closeted and often persecuted existence.
ONE’s staff writers, and its readers, often took up the debate about marriage and homosexuality, including a cover story about the topic in its August 1953 issue. My discussion with Loftin took up gay marriage, and what he learned about gay and lesbian history from the ONE letters.
Can you tell me how you came upon the ONE letters? And what did it feel like to begin to read them?
About 10 years ago I was volunteering at the ONE Archive helping them process material. I was also keeping my eye out for sources that I might use for a dissertation in American history at USC. My training is primarily in social history, which emphasizes the voices of everyday people as well as marginalized groups, and these were perfect: the voices of thousands of gay men and lesbians from the 1950s and early 1960s. After that, I felt very humbled by those letters--all those stories, all those people's lives waiting to be read. I felt a responsibility to do them justice in my research and scholarship. Then, I sort of felt a sense of trepidation, because, after all, we already know that things were very tough for gay people in the 1950s. I knew there would be a lot of heartbreaking stories in those boxes.
And you found several heartbreaking stories right away.
The very first letter that I pulled out of the one of the boxes was a letter written by a young man who was in a mental hospital--he had been arrested for a gay offense and the court sent him there to be "cured." This set the tone for what I was expecting to find in the rest of the letters. Once I started reading them, though, I was surprised at how upbeat and resilient so many of them were.
Yes, it’s very clear reading these letters how people feel comfortable with their own sexuality, despite the prevailing prejudices of the day.
While some of the letters conformed to my expectations of gloom and despair, more of them seemed defiant, angry, and passionate in their belief that it was time to get together and figure out how to change society's attitudes about gay men and lesbians. It’s important to realize this process has been going on long before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which is when most people assume the gay rights movement began. ONE (and its predecessor, The Mattachine Society) was based in Los Angeles, so it's yet another example of something starting in LA and then spreading across the country--slowly and cautiously at first, but gaining more momentum in later decades.
There are many wonderful letters in "Letters to ONE" from people in committed relationships. Many describe the struggles required to find and keep those relationships. I'm wondering if you came upon any letter writers who suggested that same-sex marriage might be legal one day.
Yes, but more as a fantasy than an actual strategic goal. Before they could seriously think about legalizing same-sex marriage, they had to imagine homosexuality itself being legal. Homosexuality was illegal throughout the U.S. during the 1950s (in the form of “sodomy” laws or "crimes against nature," which were only applied to gays). Illinois was the first state legalize to homosexuality in 1961; the second state, Connecticut, legalized it in 1970. Because of that, rather than trying to have their marriages recognized by the state, same-sex couples went to greater lengths to conceal their relationships.