Reading History: Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement (David K. Johnson)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

In Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, noted historian David K. Johnson (known for his research on the Lavender Scare), does a deep dive into the world of physique magazines and the strong connection between capitalism and activism in the fledgling gay rights movement.

Johnson shows the extent to which these magazines provided a site in which gay male desire could have free rein, an important psychic and collective space in a culture and society that relentlessly pathologized and policed gay desire. As a result, these magazines also played a pivotal role in the coalescing of a specifically gay male identity, one that was unequivocally centered on erotic desire. Those who bought these magazines–and who wrote to them–recognized that they were part of something greater than themselves.

As Johnson amply demonstrates, it’s a mistake to keep consumption and politics separated; instead, we should see them as two streams that constantly fed into and reinforced one another in the years preceding Stonewall. Indeed, the owners of these magazines were often at the forefront court cases that were to have a significant impact on the trajectory of gay rights and, indeed, the very legitimacy of gay identity. Several cases went right up to the Supreme Court, which surprisingly frequently decided matters in their favour. One of the great strengths of Johnson’s book is that he brings to light these oft-forgotten cases.

Johnson doesn’t unnecessarily valourize these men and women (because yes, there were women who owned physique magazines). They were often at odds with one another (hardly surprising, considering the large personalities involved), and they were not always allies with one another. Despite their differences, however, they all played a part. Collectively, they forged important sites of resistance that continue to have an effect on our culture today.

The book also makes it clear just how ubiquitous was the condemnation of homosexuality in Cold War America. It’s one of those things that you probably know on a subconscious level, but which you can’t really grasp in its enormity until you read about it from a historian’s perspective. From our standpoint, it seems so silly that so many people in government and in society at large would have such bigoted ideas about people who happen to love differently than they do, but it does explain why it is that there are still far too many Americans who would like nothing more than to chase queer people back into the closet. In the era that Johnson documents, the post office was determined to crack down on what it termed “obscenity,” a ridiculously flexible term that allowed them to subject numerous individuals to state persecution.

It’s important to point out, as Johnson does, that this was very frequently a white gay male community. While some magazines did feature men of color, it was far more common for the era’s segregationist ethos to permeate its magazines. It’s actually rather refreshing to see a writer of queer history acknowledge the implicit (and often explicit) racism that has long plagued the LGBT rights movement.

Those with little familiarity with Cold War history, or with queer history, will learn a great deal from Johnson’s book. Though he primarily focuses on physique magazines, he also demonstrates that there were a variety of other print venues in which gay men found expression. There were even book clubs devoted to distributing gay-oriented books to (surprisingly large) numbers of subscribers. If anyone has ever told you that there weren’t gay people when they were young, you can simply brandish the examples that Johnson documents to show them just how wrong they were. Gay people have always existed in America, and it is important to recognize the many ways in which their experience has taken shape.

Johnson’s work does justice to an all-too-often ignored aspect of gay life in Cold War America. Just as importantly, it shows us the ways in which the the actions of Stonewall in 1969 did not emerge from a vacuum. Instead, it was a logical outcome to a gay community that had slowly been taking shape in the years after the end of the World War II and that, in the wake of Stonewall, would finally come into its own.

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