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.
For men, it was easier to pass as heterosexual as a "bachelor," while two men living together inherently raised suspicions. Women living together could pass as "spinsters" a little easier, but in both situations the couple needed an "alibi" to explain their relationship to people who might be hostile to them. On the other hand, it should be noted that ONE magazine ran an article about "homosexual marriage" as early as 1953, basically arguing that one way to gain heterosexual sympathy was to emphasize gays’ long-term relationships and make that a central part of a civil-rights strategy. This foreshadows the current push for marriage in many ways. It has been a part of the broader civil rights discussion basically from the beginning of the American gay rights movement.
In “Masked Voices,” we learn that a couple of magazines surveyed their readers in the late 1950s and '60s about marriage--both opposite-sex and same-sex marriage. Can you tell us about the results, and what it says about the way gay people lived then?
The surveys suggest to me that gay people were very invested in the institution of marriage during the 1950s and early 1960s and went to great lengths--and took great risks--to participate in marriages. On the one hand, if you take the two surveys together, somewhere between 20% and 25% say they have been in opposite-sex marriages. People would marry a person of the opposite sex for the sake of family expectations, because they wanted to raise a family, or to appear more "normal" for professional reasons. Many led double lives with one or more gay lovers on the side. Sometimes the spouse knew and sometimes not. I think a lot of these people got married before they realized or accepted that they were gay.
The surveys also show that long-term same-sex relationships were an important dimension of gay social life. In one male-only survey, 42% agreed that the term "marriage" described one of their long-term relationships; an additional 9% used the word to describe shorter relationships. Taken together, that's a slim majority of gay men who thought of themselves as having been married to another gay man at least once. In another survey, which combined men and women, 59% said they had been in relationships "of some permanency," which is similar to a marriage.
The surveys, of course, are not very scientific, and do not represent any sort of scientific cross section of gay population. But it's interesting data. It tells me that marriage was an important part of gay people's lives. It was the '50s after all; there was a widespread idealization of family life that was very powerful for everyone in the culture, including lesbians and gay men.
Reading the letters in “Letters to ONE,” it’s very clear that being a gay person then, and deciding to live in a committed relationship, either with a person of the same sex, or with the opposite sex, was a really tricky thing to do.
There were risks in both situations. In an opposite-sex marriage, a gay person was protected socially by being able to pass as heterosexual. That took care of some problems, but it created others, especially emotional difficulties and stressful marriages that might involve harmful degrees of duplicity. In a same-sex marriage, by contrast, the couple's visibility as a couple stands out, especially if they live together. This visibility as a couple and the suspicions it could raise might cause problems with a person's job, or family, or community, or the police. Gay people were adept at having alibis or explanations for those who might not accept them; they were also willing to be honest with those they felt they could trust. In spite of these dangers, gay people put up with them. It seems to me, rather than being any sort of threat to marriage, they were actually its most creative practitioners.