How physique entrepreneurs consolidated the power of the gay community in the United States, allowing them to resist the persecution from the U.S. Postal Service.
By: Johnny Fulfer and Catherine Cueto
David Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. Pp. 328. Hardcover, $32.00.
Like many other photographers looking for shots of nearly naked men in the 1950s, Bob Mizer went to the beaches of California, where strapping men could be seen preparing for the next bodybuilding competition. The American fitness culture was booming, and bodybuilding magazines were paying photographers like Mizer hard cash to capture this muscular marvel. One of the central reasons that bodybuilding competitions and muscle magazines were so successful in the 1950s, was because the gay community made up its largest fanbase.
As historian David Johnson shows in his new book Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, Mizer recognized the potential of the gay market, launching the first issue of Physique Pictorial in May 1951. Mizer’s new physique magazine didn’t just publish images of muscle men, however, he also showed off a broad range of body types along with short biographies of his models, picturing them as up-and-coming professionals instead of degenerates, as homosexuals were often depicted in the mainstream media during the 1950s.
Shortly after Mizer launched Physique Pictorial, Donald Cory and Brandt Aymar started a book club for gay men called the Cory Book Service. While historians have overlooked the impact of this book club, Johnson shows how they identified a “reservoir of protest” by marketing gay books in the mail and producing an ever-growing community of gay men with the power to protest the continual persecution of gays in the United States (p. 79).
Even more than gay bars, Johnson shows how the Cory Book Service united gay men around the country, serving as a “lifeline to gay culture” (p. 69).
Randolph Benson and John Bullock later joined the community of physique entrepreneurs when they established a new brotherhood of homosexuals called The Grecian Guild. Their associated magazine, Grecian Guild Pictorial, marshaled the homoeroticism of the Hellenistic era to not only create a new magazine with images of the ideal Greek body, but also create a community of like-minded people.
Long before contemporary social media, physique publications inspired the formation of book services, directory services, book stores, beauty contests, camera shops, and pen pal services. These shops and services created a space for homosexuals to simultaneously consume homosexual goods and connect with other men.
This growing gay community came under attack, however, by the oldest law enforcement agency in the nation: the U.S. Postal Service. Because they were homosexual publications, postal inspectors frequently barred physique magazines from the mail and placed their publishers in jail. By targeting homophile publications and their consumers, the U.S. government demonstrated how far they would go to suppress homosexuality during the Cold War.
Lynn Womack, a former philosophy professor turned physique entrepreneur, responded to this continual harassment by hiring Stanley Dietz, a lawyer who fought the U.S. Postal Service using “civil rights language” in the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The Manual v. Day case not only made it illegal to ban mail for simply being homosexual, it also marked the first-time homosexuality was legally recognized as the equivalent of heterosexuality (p. 168-69).
While historians have marginalized the significance of Womack and his legal victory, Johnson argues that the Manual v. Day decision had a significant impact on the gay marketplace—allowing physique entrepreneurs to distribute gay magazines more widely and expand the “imagined community” that emerged from this commercial expansion (p. 187).
Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, Lynn Womack’s MANual, and Randolph Benson’s and John Bullock’s Grecian Guild Pictorial made “gay desire visible,” inviting men to not only gaze at the bodies of other men, but also join a growing community of homosexuals (p. xi).
Building on his 2004 book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (which was recently turned into documentary film that will be released in June 2019), Johnson shows how physique entrepreneurs consolidated the power of the gay community in the United States, allowing them to resist the persecution from the U.S. Postal Service amidst the anti-communism of the Cold War.
By tracing the experience of these physique entrepreneurs, Johnson moves beyond a binary lens that depicts capitalism as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This does not imply that we should celebrate the market, but that we should recognize the mixed legacy capitalism has had in the United States, aiming to not only understand its exploitative nature (and there has been a lot of that), but also how it has brought the gay community together for constructive ends.
About the Author: Johnny Fulfer received a B.S. in Economics and B.S. in History from Eastern Oregon University and is currently pursuing an M.A. in American History from the University of South Florida. Johnny is interested in U.S. history during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, monetary history, political economy, the history of economic thought, and the history of capitalism. You can find his published work on Academia. @JohnnyFulfer1
About the Author: Catherine Cueto received her BA in History from the University of South Florida. She often researches and engages with Florida and Ybor City histories, specifically histories that engage with immigrant communities and identities, diaspora, gender and sexuality, race, labor, and social justice in the United States since the Civil War. As a third generation Tampeño of Latin extraction, she enjoys bringing scholarship back to her community, capturing and disseminating the stories that aren’t commonly told, stories about women, laborers, minorities, immigrants and everyday people.