Staff meeting, One Inc., around 1954

Are you, or have you ever been, a homosexual?

‘One’ was America’s first proto-underground publication and fearless champion of gay rights

Dale M. Brumfield
Jan 20 · 12 min read

Hugh Hefner’s debut issue of Playboy, featuring a young actress named Marilyn Monroe on the cover, may have made the headlines in 1953, but a truly seminal moment in American sexuality in the media was quietly achieved the previous January, when a little periodical titled “One: the Homosexual Magazine” was mailed out on a subscription basis before appearing on newsstands in Los Angeles and San Francisco in May.

Unlike closeted gay publications of the 1940s that masqueraded as male physique and bodybuilding magazines, ONE was the first openly homosexual publication in the United States. ONE, however, was not visually explicit. There were no lurid photographs or snarky cartoons with double-entendre punchlines as those found in Playboy. ONE instead was packed with academic articles and stories pertinent to the homosexual lifestyle, including thoughtful pieces on gay marriage, lesbianism, and religion’s impact on homosexuals.

ONE arrived following an era during and just after World War II in which gay people started leaving small towns for the first time and forming communities in larger urban areas, where density and anonymity made the pursuit of same-sex relationships safer.

Safer, but only to a point — in Washington DC, U.S. Park Police in 1947 initiated their notorious “Sex Perversion Elimination Program,” which targeted gay men for arrest. A year later, Congress passed an act “for the treatment of sexual psychopaths,” that slapped a mentally ill label on those arrested for acting on same-sex desire. The surveillance, entrapment, and interrogation techniques used by vice squads in Los Angeles and Washington DC had a crushing impact on an already cautious, and almost completely hidden, gay community.

Then, as if Communism was not enough of a post-war subversive threat, the federal government conflated homosexuality with it, thanks especially to investigations initiated by Sen. Joe McCarthy and a subsequent report issued by the Hoey Committee, titled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government.” Using homosexuality as a smear tactic, McCarthy famously told a reporter that “If you want to be against McCarthy boys, you have to be either a communist or a cocksucker.”

Lavender Scare

In February 1950, the first federal government purge began when 91 employees identified as homosexuals were forced out of their jobs under the pretense that they were susceptible to blackmail, making them national security risks.

Employees were targeted by appearance, mannerisms and workplace snitches. They were then placed in a no-win situation by being asked such nonsense questions as “Are you, or have you ever been, a homosexual?” Both telling the truth and lying could get those people fired.

By 1953, the State Department reported that it had fired 425 employees for assertions of homosexuality, and that number topped out at 5,000 firings by 1958.

In the face of these expulsions, in April 1950 a small group of gay Los Angeles men organized a discussion group called first the Mattachine Foundation, then the Mattachine Society. This coincided with President Dwight Eisenhower’s notorious Executive Order 10450 — known as the “Lavender Scare” — which barred from the federal workforce individuals found to be involved with “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion.” This order effectively banned gays and their hiring from federal employment and civil equality until it was finally rescinded in 1975.

ONE tapped into the outrage and frustration gay men and women felt of their persecution, and challenged readers to believe that homosexuals had a right to exist, work jobs, pursue same-sex relationships and even thrive in American society. The magazine’s very survival until 1967 is a testament to the driving civil rights instincts of gays and lesbians throughout the suffocating and socially repressive 1950s.

ONE’s parent company, ONE Inc., had split away from the Los Angeles Mattachine Society in October 1952 when a group of members became disillusioned with Mattachine’s compulsive secrecy and ongoing internal disputes. They believed a regularly-published media vehicle could more effectively reach and unite gays across the country than Mattachine’s secretive, “members-only” structure. Articles of Incorporation were signed by Dale Jennings, Tony Reyes and Martin Block, and on November 15, 1952, planning for the first issue began almost immediately, with it appearing in January 1953.

“Somebody had said there should be a magazine, so six of us withdrew into the kitchen and talked it over” one of the founders anonymously recalled in an August 25, 1954 article in People Today magazine. “The group grew to fifteen and chipped in for the first issue. All 1,000 copies were sold.”

Rapid growth

ONE Inc.’s mission statement was also anything but lurid or scurrilous. “… A non-profit corporation formed to publish a magazine dealing primarily with homosexuality from the scientific, historical and critical point of view … to sponsor educational programs, lectures and concerts for the aid and benefit of social variants … to sponsor research and promote the integration into society of such persons whose behavior and inclinations vary from current moral and social standards.”

ONE’s founders believed that even though they had no experience in publishing, knowledge of the history of their culture was crucial for jump-starting a gay rights movement, therefore they strove to include history, including research on sexuality and profiles of famous gays through history, such as Plato and Tchaikovsky. Condemnations of McCarthyism were common, evidenced by stories with titles as “To be accused is to be guilty,” “You are a public enemy,” and “Are homosexuals security risks?”

Author Norman Mailer also was a contributor. His story “The Homosexual Villain” explained how he had historically disparaged gays until he read a copy of ONE. He claimed the issue made him “not unsympathetic” to the plight of homosexuals.

In addition to the original board founders, the organization and especially the magazine benefited from the untiring work of Jim Kepner, W. Dorr Legg, Dr. Thomas Merritt, as well as a lesbian couple, Joan Corbin and Irma Wolf (known also as Eve Elloree and Ann Carll Reid). Wolf worked as Editor from 1954 to 1957, while Corbin worked as an illustrator whose graceful line drawings gave the magazine its distinctive appearance.

By the time Wolf took over and the People Today story was published, things were looking positive. With a staff of about fifteen volunteers, ONE was publishing a whopping 10,000 copies per month, distributing 8,000 alone in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverley Hills and New York City. The remaining 2,000 copies were mailed in unmarked envelopes to subscribers all across America and even foreign countries.

And the mailing of those 2,000 copies made the Feds take notice.

On April 28, 1954, Alexander Wiley, at the time Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a blistering letter to Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield to express his outrage at the possibility ONE was being sent through first-class mail. “The purpose of my letter is to convey the most vigorous protest against the use of the United States mails to transmit a so-called ‘magazine’ devoted to the advancement of sexual perversion.”

While Summerfield took no immediate action, the magazine sparked FBI interest when the November 1955 issue ran a story titled “How much do we know about the homosexual male?” The story contained a section indicating there were homosexuals working in key government positions, including the FBI.

FBI Assistant Director Clyde Tolson was livid at the accusation, hand-writing at the bottom of a January 26, 1956 memo informing him of the story that “I think we should take this crowd on and make them put up or shut up.”

His boss J. Edgar Hoover responded, “I concur.” (see graphic, below)

On February 1, 1956, two agents at Hoover and Tolson’s request paid a personal visit to ONE’s spartan headquarters over top of a Goodwill store at 232 South Hill Street in Los Angeles and spoke with ONE board member William Lambert (actually it was William Dorr Legg, one of the founders, who like most staffers frequently used a pseudonym).

“This person refused to … acknowledge that he was a responsible official of ‘One,’ nor would he furnish any information concerning [redacted],” according to a February 2 memo written by an agent named Malone. After continuing to get no information from Lambert regarding the sources of the FBI story, Malone reported that “Lambert was specifically told that the FBI would not tolerate any such baseless statements in this or any other publication.”

Exasperated by Lambert (Legg)’s refusal to provide any details or take their visit seriously, Malone opted to get in one last dig at ONE in his memo — “The office of ‘One’ is poorly equipped with shabby furniture and a minimum of office equipment indicating a shoestring operation.”

That’ll show ‘em.

But despite the clownish methods employed by the FBI, the investigation turned serious — not because ONE was technically obscene, but because it had embarrassed the FBI. Lambert’s past was ordered thoroughly investigated, and it was — a February 10 memo to Special Agent Nichols from agent A. Jones states among other observations that “in January, 1949, it was reported that a car registered to [subject’s mother] had been observed parked in the vicinity of a Communist party meeting being held December 18, 1948 at [redacted] Los Angeles.”

It is unknown if they even had the correct William Lambert, or the correct car.

As ONE and ONE Inc. were investigated in attempts to gauge their legality to exist, the FBI also ordered postal authorities to again consider the “mailability” of ONE. As evidence, they presented the infamous November 1955 issue to the “Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter” desk.

But it was Los Angeles Postmaster Otto Olesen who took the bold step of declaring the October 1954 issue “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy,” thus un=mailable under the Comstock Law. Olesen particularly objected to a lesbian-based love story titled “Sappho Remembered” because he claimed it was “lustfully stimulating to the average homosexual reader.”

Never mind that it was perfectly legal to stimulate heterosexual readers by mailing Playboy.

Shut out of the Post Office and suddenly unable to reach thousands of subscribers, ONE immediately responded. Attorney Eric Julber, who had authored the cover story of the issue in question, went pro-Bono in U.S. District Court seeking an injunction against Olesen. “I thought [ONE] had a strong case,” Julber told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “They were not running a night club. They were writing a magazine. It was a very conservative magazine. It was just the subject matter — homosexuality — that made it ‘obscene.’”

ONE and Julber first encountered disappointment — U.S. District Judge Thurmond Clarke ruled for the defendant Olesen, writing in March 1956 that “The suggestion advanced that homosexuals should be recognized as a segment of our people and be accorded special privilege as a class is rejected.”

In February 1957, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the lower court decision citing another case, Roth v. United States, in which the Court held that obscenity was not “within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press.” Undaunted, Julber on June 13, 1957, convinced ONE to take it all the way, filing a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Victory

On January 13, 1958, in a stunning upset, SCOTUS both accepted One, Inc. v. Olesen and, without even hearing oral arguments, issued a terse per Curiam decision reversing the Ninth Circuit decision: “The petition for writ of certiorari is granted and the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed. Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476.” To the liberal justices, it was a free speech case. And the court conservatives were never in favor of post-office-induced censorship.

With a single, now almost forgotten sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court issued their first ruling to deal with the issue of homosexuality and the first to address free speech rights concerning homosexuality.

“By protecting ONE,” USC Law Professor David Cruz told the LA Times, “the Supreme Court facilitated the flourishing of a gay and lesbian culture and a sense of community at a time when the federal government was purging its ranks” of suspected gays.

“For the first time in American publishing history, a decision binding on every court now stands,” ONE boasted in the issue following the decision, “… affirming in effect that it is in no way proper to describe a love affair between two homosexuals as constitut(ing) obscenity.”

Influence

The judicial success of ONE’s trailblazing sparked similar publications.

A lesbian organization called the Daughters of Bilitis published the first edition of their publication, The Ladder, in October 1956. The Ladder was founded and edited by Phyllis Lyon, who also co-founded Bilitis in 1955 with Del Martin.

In 1964, Canadian gay nightclub owner Rick Kerr started TWO magazine, with the name an obvious homage to ONE. It was published for two years at 457 Church Street in Toronto. Then, on October 1, 1969, Frank Kameny and John Nichols Jr. founded the Gay Blade in Washington DC, which still survives as the Washington Blade.

A lasting legacy

In keeping with their original mission statement of education and advocacy, in 1956 ONE established the ONE Institute of Homophile Studies, which organized classes and conferences. The organization also published a journal titled the ONE Institute Quarterly, which was dedicated to the academic exploration of homosexuality.

In 1965, after twelve years of collaboration, ONE separated in a clash between editor Don Slater and business manager Dorr Legg. Sides were drawn and after a two-year battle, Legg’s faction retained the name “ONE, Inc.” while Slater’s faction retained the company library, including its valuable and historic archives. In 1968, Slater’s group was renamed the Homosexual Information Center [HIC], a non-profit that continues today. The magazine officially ceased publishing in 1967.

In 2005, the HIC donated its archives to the Vern and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Sex and Gender, a special collection inside Oviatt Library at California State University. In October 2010, ONE transferred its archives to the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives for historic preservation.

ONE, Inc. is still active in organizing exhibits and gathering new material.

“What is more important than the changes themselves is the attitude toward them, both on the part of homosexuals and the world at large,” wrote Nancy Ross in an October 25, 1969, Washington Post article titled “Homosexual Revolution.” “Therein lies the revolution, of which the new militancy and openness are merely the methods.”

***

Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net.

Sources:

Admin. “The Lavender Scare.” Mistakes Were Made, 1 July 2019, mwmblog.com/2019/06/30/the-lavender-scare/.

“The Ladder.” The Ladder | ONE Archives, 1 Jan. 1970, one.usc.edu/archive-location/ladder.

“Homosexuals Form New Organization.” People Today, 25 Aug. 1954, pp. 3–7.

Francis, Charles. “Gay Is Good! So Was ‘Hef.’” Los Angeles Blade, 2017, www.losangelesblade.com/2017/09/29/gay-good-hef/.

Meeker, Martin. “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 10, no. 1, 2001, pp. 78–116.

One Magazine, various issues.

Roscoe, Will. “Mattachine: Radical Roots of the Gay Movement.” FoundSF, 2018, www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Mattachine%3A Radical_Roots_of_the_Gay_Movement.

Savage, David G. “Supreme Court faced gay rights decision in 1958 over ‘obscene’ magazine.” Los Angeles Times, 11 Jan 2015. https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-court-gay-magazine-20150111-story.html

United States, Congress, U.S. Government Printing Office, and Hoey. “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government: Interim Report Submitted to the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments.” Government Printing Office, 1950.

United States, Congress, “Vault.fbi.gov.” Vault.fbi.gov. vault.fbi.gov/mattachine-society/mattachine-society-part-01-of-03/view.

White, C. Todd. Pre-Gay L.A.: a Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights. University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Dale M. Brumfield

Written by

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 10 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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