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Today In History: ONE Magazine versus the U.S. Post Office

Jim Burroway

January 13th, 2008

Today marks a very important milestone in LGBT history. Fifty years ago today, on January 13, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its first ever pro-gay ruling in ONE Inc. v. Olesen, a landmark decision that allowed a magazine for gays and lesbians to be sent through the U.S. mail.

ONE, Inc. was founded by several members of the Los Angeles Mattachine Society who felt that a strong nationwide voice for education and advocacy was desperately needed. According to ONE, Inc.’s articles of incorporation, “…the specific and primary purposes … are to publish and disseminate a magazine dealing primarily with homosexuality from the scientific, historical and critical point of view, and to aid in the social integration and rehabilitation of the sexual variant.” But this wasn’t going to be just any magazine. Under the inaugural editorial leadership of Martin Block, Dale Jennings, Don Slater and Donald Webster Cory, ONE magazine was to be a first class product, a dramatic departure from the typewritten and mimeographed sheets which were more common at the time.

ONE, January 1953So when ONE debuted in January 1953, it sported a very sophisticated look, with bold graphics and professional typset and design. ONE’s slick offering quickly caught the attention gays and lesbians across the country, and circulation jumped to nearly 2,000 within a few months — with most subscribers paying extra to have their magazine delivered in an unmarked wrapper. Even still, ONE’s survival depended on the day jobs of its few contributors who typically worked under multiple pen names to make the staff appear larger to readers — and sometimes to protect their own identities.

By today’s standards, an early edition of ONE might look rather tame. There were no racy pictures, and even its fiction was mostly limited to depictions of longing and desire. There was rarely any evidence of physical contact in its pages. But what the magazine lacked in raciness, it made up for in audacity. ONE’s editorial tone was bold and unapologetic, covering politics, civil rights, legal issues, police harassment (which was particularly harsh in ONE’s home city of Los Angeles), employment and familial problems, and other social, philosophical, historical and psychological topics. And most importantly, ONE quickly became a voice for thousands of silent gays and lesbians across the U.S., many of whom wrote letters of deep gratitude to ONE’s editors. But in a sign of those times, all letters to the editor were published anonymously — from “m” in Winston-Salem, North Carolina or from “f” in Beaumont, Texas.

ONE filled a very critical role for gays and lesbians during a very dark time. ONE’s debut coincided with a major push to rid the U.S. civil service of homosexuals. President Dwight D. Eisenhower would sign Executive Order 10450 in April of that year, which barred gays and lesbians from federal employment with its “sexual perversion” clause. This followed a highly-publicized purge of more than 400 gays and lesbians from the civil service some three years earlier. Homosexuality was criminalized in every states, and it was stigmatized as a mental illness by the psychiatric profession. Gays were not only denounced as security risks, but risks to the very moral fiber of the nation. Homosexuals were treated as subversives, on par with the “Communist menace” on which leading politicians were staking their career. The FBI had launched a major crackdown on homosexuality across the U.S., with many gays and lesbians losing their jobs for merely receiving homophile publications in the mail. And vice squads everywhere were setting up entrapment stings in bars and other meeting places, where a simple proposition or touch could lead to arrest and public exposure.

ONE, August 1953So when ONE caught the eye of the FBI, they immediately launched an investigation to try to shut it down. They went so far as to write to the employers of ONE’s editors and writers (they all depended on their day jobs for income), saying that their employees were “deviants” and “security risks.” Fortunately, no one lost their jobs, the FBI decided it wasn’t worth their time, and ONE continued publishing.

The job of shutting down ONE then fell to the U.S. Post Office. Since its inception, Los Angeles postal authorities vetted each issue before deciding whether it was legal to ship under the Post Office’s stringent anti-obscenity standards. And since homosexuality was illegal in most states, ONE had the added problem of possibly being guilty of promoting criminal activity. The Post Office finally acted in August 1953, holding up that month’s issue for three weeks while deciding if it violated federal laws. (Ironically, the cover story for that issue was on “homosexual marriage,” an issue that is still contentious more than fifty years later.) Finally, officials in Washington decided the magazine didn’t violate federal laws and ordered the LA Post Office to release it for shipment.

ONE, October 1953ONE, true to its aggressive stance, reacted defiantly to that move in its October issue by proclaiming in an editorial printed on the cover, “ONE is not grateful”:

Your August issue is late because the postal authorities in Washington and Los Angeles had it under a microscope. They studied it carefully from the 2nd until the 18th of September and finally decided that there was nothing obscene, lewd or lascivious in it. They allowed it to continue on its way. We have been found suitable for mailing.

…But one point must be made very clear. ONE is not grateful. ONE thanks no one for this reluctant acceptance. It is true that this decision is historic. Never before has a governmental agency of this size admitted that homosexuals not only have legal rights but might have respectable motives as well. The admission is welcome, but it’s tardy and far from enough. As we sit around quietly like nice little ladies and gentlemen gradually educating the public and the courts at our leisure, thousands of homosexuals are being unjustly arrested, blackmailed, fined, jailed, intimidated, beaten, ruined and murdered. ONE’s victory might seem big and historic as you read of it in the comfort of your home (locked in the bathroom? hidden under a stack of other magazines? sealed first class?). But the deviate hearing of our late August issue through jail bars will not be overly impressed.

ONE’s editors knew they weren’t in the clear, but they didn’t know where their next threat would come from. That threat, it appears, may have come from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Alexander Wiley (R-WI), who wrote a letter of protest to U.S. Postmaster General Aurthur Summerfield. Having run across the March 1954 issue (the cover story was “The Importance of Being Different”) Sen. Wiley registered a “vigorous protest against the use of the United States mails to transmit a so-called ‘magazine’ devoted to the advancement of sexual perversions.” Allowing a homosexual magazine to operate, he wrote, “(a) runs utterly contrary to every moral principle, (b) runs utterly contrary to our intentions to safeguard our nation’s youngsters, (c) likewise, it is the very opposite of the entire purpose of our governmental security program…”

ONE, October 1954The particulars of this action wasn’t known by ONE’s editors. But as defiant as ONE was in the October 1953 issue, they knew that the threat of closure due to censorship still loomed large — that is, if finances and distribution problems didn’t get to them first. Financial pressures forced them to skip the August and September 1954 issues and they had to extend everyone’s subscriptions by two months. To try to avoid future legal problems, ONE’s editors asked Eric Julber, their young straight lawyer fresh out of law school, to write a set of rules for the staff to follow in the hopes of staying out of trouble. When readers began to complain that ONE was too tame, the editors asked Julber to print his rules in the returning October 1954 issue with a cover declaring, “You Can’t Print It!” Those rules prohibited:

(1) Lonely hearts ads, seeking pen pals or meetings.

(2) “Cheesecake” art or photos. To readers who ask, “But how about all the girlie magazines?” I can only reply that in our society, visual stimulation of man by woman is tolerated to a far greater extent than attempted visual stimulation of man by man, for what is in law a criminal purpose.

(3) Descriptions of sexual acts, or the preliminaries thereto. Again here, what is permissible in heterosexual literature is not permissible in ONE’s context.

(4) Descriptions of experiences which become too explicit. I.e., permissible: “John was my friend for a year.” Not permissible: “That night we made mad love.”

(5) Descriptions of homosexuality as a practice which the author encourages in others, or waxes too enthusiastic about.

(6) Fiction with too much physical contact between the characters. I.e., characters cannot rub knees, feel thighs, hold hands, soap backs, or undress before one another. (All examples taken from recent contributions).

Pajamas AdJulber also insisted that he review each issue before it was sent to the publisher. But all this failed to keep ONE out of trouble — maybe because Julber didn’t strictly enforce his own rules, allowing the October 1954 issue to be arguably the raciest to date. The very same issue which ran Julber’s rules also featured a fictional short story called “Sappho Remembered,” in which two young lovers touched four times, declared their love for each other, and the story had a happy ending. Another feature, a poem, made light of the arrest of several British public figures (including actor John Gielgfud) on “morals” charges (“Lord Samuel is a legal peer / (While real are Monty’s curls!) / Some peers are seers but some are queers / And some boys WILL be girls.”). And there were two ads — one for a Swedish magazine (which, postal officials charged, meant that ONE was advertising “obscene materials”) and another for men’s pajamas and intimate wear.

That was enough for the Los Angeles Post Office to seize that issue — the one with “You Can’t Print It!” on the cover — and charge the editors with violating the 1873 Comstock Act, which prohibited sending “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” material through the mail.

The editors were eager to sue the Post Office, but ONE’s financial condition was so perilous that they held off for nearly a year. Julber took the case for free and looked for help from the ACLU, but they wouldn’t touch it — the ACLU was still defending anti-sodomy laws at the time. Finally it was up to young Julber alone to argue ONE’s case in federal district court that the magazine was educational and not pornographic. It didn’t go well. The judge ruled for the Post Office in March 1956, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in February 1957, calling ONE “morally depraving and debasing” and saying that the magazine “has a primary purpose of exciting lust, lewd and lascivious thoughts and sensual desires in the minds of persons reading it.”

ONE then took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. To everyone’s surprise, the Court agreed to take the case, its first ever dealing with homosexuality. Even more surprising, the Supreme Court issued its short, one-sentence decision on January 13, 1958 without hearing oral arguments. That decision not only overturned the two lower courts, but the Court expanded the First Amendment’s free speech and press freedoms by effectively limiting the power of the Comstock Act to interfere with the written word. As a result, lesbian and gay publications could be mailed without legal repercussions, though many continued to experience harassment from the Post Office and U.S. Customs.

ONE, February 1958Editor Don Slater celebrated the ONE decision in the February 1958 issue:

By winning this decision ONE Magazine has made not only history but law as well and has changed the future for all U. S. homosexuals. Never before have homosexuals claimed their right as citizens. Not even the Berdache, nor the Greeks, nor the Napoleonic Code, nor Wolfenden “recommendations,” nor The American Law Institute “recommendations” have managed to mean so much to so many. ONE Magazine no longer asks for the right to be heard; it now exercises that right. It further requires that homosexuals be treated as a proper part of society free to discuss and educate and propagandize their beliefs with no greater limitations than for any other group.

…The New York Times has this to say about the decision: “The court today reversed a post office ban on a magazine, One, which deals with homosexuality. The petition for review filed by the lawyer, Eric Julber of Los Angeles, had apparently raised only one question: was the magazine ‘obscene’ within the statute banning importation of obscene matter? The court’s order appeared to answer: No.”

True to its educational mission, ONE, Inc founded the One Institute as an educational arm in 1956. In 1958, the ONE Institute Quarterly became the first academic journal on gay and lesbian studies in America. ONE magazine’s last issue was in 1967 following a very long and acrimonious split in ONE, Inc.’s governing board. Today, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives houses the world’s largest research library on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,and Transgender history near the main campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Sources: Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court, by Joyce Murdoch & Deb Price.

ONE magazine, October 1953, October 1954, February, 1958.

Comments

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Timothy Kincaid
January 13th, 2008 | LINK

I love Los Angeles. Our community tends to think that NYC or San Francisco made all the important advances but our city was often there before, if somewhat more quiet about it. And so many of the national groups started in LA.

Emily K
January 13th, 2008 | LINK

“But what the magazine lacked in raciness, it made up for in audacity.”

As if “raciness” is something you need to “make up for.” Absolutely not. Perhaps I differ from most gays in that most of the time I prefer NOT to read racy literature. It’s just not my taste, at least not at this point, just like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Fettucine Alfredo aren’t in my taste. I was born rather conservative, and very reserved in that manner. (And she’s still GAY, right?) yep. Still Jewish, too.

David
January 14th, 2008 | LINK

A fascinating and important bit of history.

Since your excellent post deals with freedom of speech, I hope, Jim, you do not mind my using it for a little self-defense. The topic of free speech came up in a conversation that occured on BTB back in November.

In one of my comments to the post, “Sometimes an Anti-Gay Appointment Makes Sense”, I quoted an opinion piece by a Lawrence VanDyke, who complained of anti-free speech activities by the governments of Canada, England, and Sweden. I thought the incidents brought up were plausible but fellow commentor Ben in Oakland was very skeptical of VanDyke’s claims.

On Saturday an article appeared on the National Post’s website about a man being investigated by a human rights commission in Canada — for republishing some cartoons.

The article states, “The commission is investigating Mr. Levant’s decision two years ago, as publisher of the Western Standard, to print a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. … Syed Soharwardy, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, filed a complaint after the Western Standard published the cartoons.”

Mr. Levant has placed a video of his opening statement before the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission on his website.

I think this episode verifies my view that VanDyke’s complaints were perfectly plausible.

Willie Hewes
January 14th, 2008 | LINK

Jim, just wanted to say I really appreciate these historical articles on BTB. Thank you.

The Story So Far… » Blog Archive » Freedom Of Speech And The Right To Exist
January 14th, 2008 | LINK

[...] Jim Burroway gives us a first rate retelling of that moment back in 1958: [...]

Larry Fafarman
January 14th, 2008 | LINK

–”Even more surprising, the Supreme Court issued its short, one-sentence decision on January 13, 1958 without hearing oral arguments.”–

The reason for that is that the court’s decision was based on a precedent — Roth v. United States — that was only about seven months old and was therefore too recent to have affected the lower court’s ruling in ONE Inc. v. Olesen. The entire opinion said, “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 .” Probably the only reason why the opinion was published at all was that the SC wanted to go on record as reversing the lower court’s decision, which had already been published (241 F.2d 772). To get a general description of the case, one must refer to the published lower court ruling.

Actually, the Supreme Court’s decision here was not a gay rights victory at all — this was just a general decision about sending alleged obscene material through the mail.

Jaft
January 14th, 2008 | LINK

Wow. I’m so glad you posted this. Too much of our history is simply unknown or scattered everywhere. It’s good, sometimes, just to be reminded we have one.

Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Queer Rights, circa 1953: “One Is Not Grateful”
January 15th, 2008 | LINK

[...] Box Turtle Bulletin tells a bit of fascinating history: One magazine, a gay rights magazine1 published in the 1950s. [...]

Betty Pawsheifer
January 15th, 2008 | LINK

Our community tends to think that NYC or San Francisco made all the important advances

Don’t forget DC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Kameny

Victor J. Banis
January 15th, 2008 | LINK

An important and often forgotten part of our history, from someone who was there. My first gay novel, The Why Not, was reviewed by Joe Hanson in One. This was an important publication for those of us struggling with our identity in those early days.

Victor J. Banis

Jim Burroway
January 15th, 2008 | LINK

Betty! We don’t want to forget about Frank Kameny!

Victor,

Thanks for stopping by with your note! I’m glad to see that ONE played such an important role for you. If I have anything to do with it, ONE will not be forgotten.

C. Todd White, Ph.D.
January 15th, 2008 | LINK

Great article! Glad you found information of use on the Tangents website, and thank you for linking to it.

FYI, it is Eric Julber, not Jubler! and the ONE Archives you refer to at the end of the article is not really related to ONE, Incorporated. When ONE divided in 1965, 1/2 of it survived as ONE and 1/2 became the Homosexual Information Center, which became a tax exempt organization in 1968 and currently hosts the Tangents website. ONE, Inc. legally merged with ISHR in 1966 ( see http://www.ishrdbaone.org/). The ONE Archives is more properly remembered as the descendent of Jim Kepner’s International Gay and Lesbian Archives. The materials that were ONE Inc.’s original archives (formally known as the Blanche M. Baker Memorial Library) have been with HIC since the 1965 split and are now being archived at the Vern and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Human Sexuality at CSUN. (See http://library.csun.edu/Collections/SCA/SC/bullough.html )

Please look for my book on this history, titled Pre-Gay L.A.: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights, which is due out from the University of Illinois Press early in 2009. Also, CLAGS is soon to host a website at OutHistory.org, and the HIC is sponsoring a pre-gay module there.

Cheers! And again, thanks for a wonderful article on this important day in LGBT History.

Jim Burroway
January 15th, 2008 | LINK

Dr. White,

Thank you very much for stopping by and offering an update on ONE’s history. And I very much look forward to seeing your book when it comes out.

Lori L. Lake
January 16th, 2008 | LINK

What a fascinating and immensely readable description of ONE Magazine’s trials and tribulations in the 1950s.

Obviously these brave people paved the way for my own writing. Without their struggle and commitment, I wouldn’t have the freedom to share my writing today. Thanks so very much for the article!
Lori L. Lake

Clyde
December 29th, 2008 | LINK

It’s time we all start uncovering our history in the community that we live in. For far to long we have focused on instant gratification dismissing the old man or women sitting next to us. They are the ones that hold our history. say hi to them and find out their history.

January 13, 1958 (a Monday) « Professor Olsen @ Large
January 29th, 2010 | LINK

[...] for interracial gay couples that had begun in Los Angeles in 1950.  According to ONE Inc.’s Articles of Incorporation: …the specific and primary purposes … are to publish and disseminate a magazine dealing [...]

Lesbian Columnists « Nel's New Day
May 22nd, 2011 | LINK

[...] a spinoff group from the advocate Mattachine Society for gays, came out with the first edition of One Magazine. Instead of the literary bent of the lesbian magazines, One’s intent was to be educational and [...]

Thomas Kraemer
December 15th, 2011 | LINK

W. Dorr Legg Legg was a Professor at Oregon State University from 1935-1942 and his personnel file recently became public under state law. While researching OSU history, I had fun reading it to see if there were any clues to why he had to resign (rumor says it was due to being homosexual). I posted several blog posts with images from Dorr’s personnel file and pictures of where he lived in Corvallis, Oregon, which confirms the FBI file erroneously listed Dorr’s address in Eugene, Oregon instead of the correct address in Corvallis, Oregon, home city of OSU (called Oregon State College when Dorr worked there).

Note, you will get a Google objectionable content warning because my blog was attacked by Justin Bieber fans:

Thomas Kraemer, “W. Dorr Legg OSU archives records 1935-1942,” posted July 31, 2010

Thomas Kraemer, “FBI files on gay OSU professor 1956,” posted July 7, 2011

Thomas Kraemer, “Gay Oregon Professor 1935,” posted Dec. 16, 2006

Thomas Kraemer, “OSU W. Dorr Legg homosexual marriage 1953 vs. CA Prop 8 2010,” posted Aug. 22, 1010

Nuance and LGBT News-Photo Essay
April 27th, 2012 | LINK

[...] ‘magazine’ devoted to the advancement of sexual perversions,” according to research by Jim Burroway of BoxTurtleBulletin. The defiant editors subsequently asked their legal counsel to write up what the rules were for an [...]

SHOES THROWER
July 18th, 2012 | LINK

Larry,

while this was about alleged obscenity, the Supreme Court in One implicitly held that these protections apply to homosexuals just as much as heterosexuals, just as it would do so for privacy forty-five years later in Lawrence v. Texas.

Mike Jameson
November 3rd, 2013 | LINK

In what I may be misremembering as the November 1963 edition of ONE MAGAZINE, I found a moving poem called “Five Hundred Days Ago Today.” That issue, featuring a black & white wood-block illustration of autumn leaves, was instrumental in the U.S. Army discharging me for being homosexual in August of 1964 when the magazine was found in my footlocker during a surprise barracks-wide inspection. I cannot find any reference to that poem anywhere on the Internet or in compilations of issue content on various websites dedicated to ONE.

Can anyone out there offer any insight or aid? I would like to find the poem and would love to have a copy of the issue for framing.

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