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Posts for February, 2008

Today in History: A Fog Begins to Lift

Jim Burroway

February 5th, 2008

Ten years ago, the February 5, 1998 edition of the journal Nature published a short report by a team led by Tuofu Zhu of Rockefeller University. That team examined the genome of an HIV-positive blood sample taken in 1959 from an unidentified man in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo (today’s Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire). By looking at how the virus has mutated over the past 40 years, and by projecting the mutation of that particular virus (dubbed ZR59) back further, they were able to estimate when the various HIV virus groups evolved from a common ancestor. Zhu and colleagues concluded:

Our results … indicate that the major-group viruses that dominate the global AIDS pandemic at present shared a common ancestor in the 1940s or the early 1950s. Given their ‘starburst’ phylogeny, HIV-1 was probably introduced into humans shortly before that time frame, about a decade or two earlier than previously estimated. …The factors that propelled the initial spread of HIV-1 in central Africa remain unknown: the role of large-scale vaccination campaigns, perhaps with multiple uses of non-sterilized needles, should be carefully examined, although social changes such as easier access to transportation, increasing population density and more frequent sexual contacts may have been more important.

That single serendipidous 1959 blood sample from a man whose name and fate is lost to history provided an important part of our understanding of where the virus came from. Simon Wain-Hobson wrote a commentary in the same issue of Nature explaining its implicaitons:

What else is the position of ZR59 among HIVs telling us? First, it probably means that the global epidemic was indeed founded by a single HIV although, in this respect, it is no different from the annual ’flu strain. Second, the centre of the radiation and ZR59 are a considerable stretch from any simian counterpart, suggesting that HIV had a human history before it went global. Third, the Big Bang seems to have occurred around, or just after, the Second World War. Emerging microbial infections often result from adaptation to changing ecological niches and habits. And, of course, the post-war era saw the collapse of European colonialism and attendant changes in urban and technological traits. As usual, when data are limited we’re in the realm of speculation, meaning that the story is not over. …

In 1959, the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine was awarded to Severo Ochoa and Arthur Kornberg for their work on nucleicacid polymerases, while the world rocked around to Elvis and Chuck Berry. There was fog in the English Channel.

And in 1959, a blood sample was drawn from an unknown HIV-positive man in the Belgian Congo. What he must have gone through afterwards…

Sources: Zhu, Tuofu; Korber, Bette E.; Mahmias, Andre J.; Hooper, Edward; Sharp, Paul M.; Ho, David D. ” An African HIV-1 sequence from 1959 and implications for the origin of the epidemic.” Nature 391, no. 6667 (February 5, 1998): 594-597. Abstract available here.

Wain-Hobson, Simon. “Immunodeficiency viruses, 1959 and all that.” Nature 391, no. 6667 (February 5, 1998): 531-532.

Today in History: AIDS in Africa

Jim Burroway

February 4th, 2008

In early 1988, the AIDS hysteria was in full swing. The air was filled with the rhetoric of the innocent “general population” besieged by disease-ridden homosexual men. Just two months earlier, Pat Buchannan wrote an op-ed in the New York Post saying,

There is one, only one, cause of the AIDS crisis — the willful refusal of homosexuals to cease indulging in the immoral, unnatural, unsanitary, unhealthy, and suicidal practice of anal intercourse, which is the primary means by which the AIDS virus is being spread throughout the “gay” community, and, thence, into the needles of IV drug abusers, the transfusions of hemophiliacs, and the bloodstreams of unsuspecting health workers, prostitutes, lovers, wives and children.

The scientific community however wasn’t seeing it that way. For more than five years, several articles had been appearing in medical journals pointing to central Africa as the source for the new disease. Another similar article appeared in the February 4, 1988 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine by lead author Dr. Nzila Nzilambi of Mama Yemo Hospital in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Mama Yemo Hospital saw a large number deaths in the middle 1970′s due to baffling diseases which strongly resembled what would later become known as AIDS. Dr. Nzilambi’s early personal interest in AIDS led him and a group of American and European researchers to investigate the possible origins of AIDS:

The Equateur province of Zaire occupies the northwestern part of the country and has a population of approximately four million people. The river Zaire is an important geographic landmark and provides a major trade route between the cities of Kinshasa and Kisingani.

In 1976, there was an epidemic of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in a remote part of the Equateur province, centered at the mission hospital of Yambuku, near the village of Yandongi. In the course of epidemiologic investigations of this epidemic, many hundreds of serum samples were collected from residents of the surrounding area. This same are was selected for the present study to allow follow-up of persons examined in 1976. There has been no evidence of Ebola virus activity in this region since the 1976 epidemic.

… Five of the 659 serum samples collected in 1976 had antibody to HIV according to both enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and Western blot analysis. One of the positive samples yielded HIV on culture. At follow-up in 1985, two of the persons who had tested positive for anti-HIV in 1976 were still alive and healthy: Subject 1, a 59-year-old woman, and Subject 2, a 57-year-old-man. Both had remained positive for anti-HIV. The ratio of helper to suppressor T cells was normal in Subject 1 but abnormally low in Subject 2.

A ten years span after infection with the HIV virus and the appearance of AIDS symptoms is quite common. It appears that Subject 1 follows this pattern and may have been very recently infected in 1976. Subject 2 however is beginning to exhibit damage to his immune system ten years after his blood was drawn. The authors continue:

Subject 3, was was 36 years old when blood was collected in 1976, died in 1978 after a prolonged illness characterized by weight loss, fever, cough, and diarrhea. She had lived in Kinshasa from 1972 to 1976, where she was unmarried and was considered a “free woman.” … Subject 4, who was the wife of Subject 2, was 43 years old when sampled for blood in 1976; she died in 1981 after a long illness associated with fever, weight loss, skin rash, and oral lesions. Subject 5, who was 7 years old in 1976, died of pneumonia and weight loss at the age of 16. With the exception of Subject 3, none of these seropositive persons had traveled outside the region of their respective home villages.

The results of our study showed that HIV infection was already present in an isolated area of the Equateur province of Zaire in 1976…

… The clinical descriptions of the modes of death in the three fatal seropositive cases were compatible with a diagnosis of AIDS. These findings illustrate that HIV infection and AIDS could have existed and remained stable in a rural area of Africa for a long period.

Researchers had been writing about AIDS in Africa for several years when this study came out. For example, one study two years earlier found an isolated case of HIV infection from a lone stored blood sample from Leopoldville (Kinshasa’s colonial name) taken in 1959. But none of these studies were able to prove where AIDS came from. That would have to wait until later.

But this one did provide solid evidence that HIV was already present in an isolated region of Zaire in 1976, long before it was noticed in America or Europe. And if the 7-year-old boy was infected from his mother at birth, then that would push the date in this community even further back into the late 1960′s.

Source: Nzilambi, Nzila; De Cock, Kevin M.; Forthal, Donald N.; et al. “The prevalence of infection with human immunodeficiency virus over a 10-year period in rural Zaire.” New England Journal of Medicine 318, no. 5 (February 4, 1988): 276-279. Abstract available here.

Today In History: A Simple Technique To Cure Homosexuality

Jim Burroway

January 18th, 2008

On January 18, 1964, the British Medical Journal published this article by R.J. McGuire and M. Vallance:

Aversion Therapy by Electric Shock: a Simple Technique

Aversion therapy has been used for many years in the treatment of alcoholism. Apomorphine and emetine are the usual drugs used as the unconditioned stimuli for nausea and vomiting, with alcohol as the conditioned stimulus. More recently the same procedure has been used in the treatment of sexual perversions — for example, fetishism, transvestism and homosexuality.

There are several disadvantages to the use of drugs in conditioning procedures. The time between the stimulus being presented and the nausea being produced is uncertain. The patient may not even feel nausea; and, further, the cerebral depressant effect of the drug may interfere with the patient’s ability to form conditioned responses. In addition, the treatment may have to be terminated prematurely because of its dangerous side-effects.

Alternative unpleasant responses can be used to produce aversion. In experimental psychology electric shock has been widely used both in animals and in humans. In clinical treatment, however, it has been less often used. The technique is simpler, more accurately controlled, and more certain in producing an unpleasant effect than drugs. This article describes a simple apparatus designed by one of us (R. J. McG.) and its use in the aversive treatment of sexual perversions, alcoholism, smoking, and neurotic symptoms.

Apparatus. — The components are cheap (under £1) and fit into a box approximately 6 in. (15 cm.) square and 2 in. (5 cm.) deep (Figs. 1 and 2). It is powered by a 9-volt battery and is therefore completely portable. The shock is administered through electrodes on a cuff around the patient’s forearm. To construct the apparatus requires no special skill, and the technical details are given at the end of the article.

A Simple Apparatus

This isn’t the first time a device for administering electric shock has been described in the medical literature for treating homosexuality. Electric Shock Aversion Therapy has been discussed since at least 1935. But as modern science entered the space age, at least a few therapists had managed to acquired the idea that there was a demand for an inexpensive home version. And so forty-four years ago, two researchers from Glasgow came to the rescue.

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.

Today in History: The Gay Men’s Health Crisis

Jim Burroway

January 12th, 2008

On January 12, 1982, eighty gay men gathered in writer Larry Kramer’s New York apartment to discuss the mysterious “gay cancer” that had been claiming the lives of their friends and lovers. Forced by bureaucratic apathy on the part of city officials, local health authorities, and even Mayor Ed Koch, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was born.

GMHC would go on to raise money to provide services and assistance for people with HIV/AIDS, including assistance from a large army of volunteers to meet day-to-day needs like cooking, housecleaning, dog-walking, and transportation to medical appointments, as well as help in navigating the apathetic bureaucratic maze. GMHC also distributed material to help educate the general public on the need for safer sex. In these areas, GMHC worked hard to meet the needs which had been, at best, ignored by local and national health authorities and charities (most shockingly, including most faith-based charities). GMHC also battled the overt stigmatization and hostility which grew among well-known public figures, nationally as well as locally.

GMHC quickly established itself as a well-regarded authority for HIV/AIDS education and service. By 1984, the Centers for Disease Control called on GMHC’s help in planning public conferences on AIDS. As the epidemic continued to grow, GMHC expanded its reach by assisting heterosexual men and women, hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users, and children. Today, the GMHC continues its work as one of the nation’s leading non-profit, volunteer-supported AIDS service and educational organizations.

Today In History: A Small New York Times Review

Jim Burroway

January 11th, 2008

It turns out that the month of January, 1948 was a rather scandalous month for the American Public. On January 5, Sexual Behavior In the Human Male, the first of the the two Kinsey Reports, was released. Then on January 10, Gore Vidal’s novel, The City and the Pillar was published. Gore wrote this novel, his third, at the relatively tender age of twenty-one, and it was the first mainstream novel dealing with homosexuality in its central characters.

I guess both books coming out within the space of less than a week was too much for the New York Times. Sixty years ago today, a small review appeared on its pages:

Presented as the case history of a standard homosexual, this novel adds little that is new to a groaning shelf. Mr. Vidal’s approach is coldly clinical: there is no real attempt to involve the reader’s emotions, as the author sets down Jimmie’s life story–his first experience during his high school days, his life as a cabin boy, a tennis bum, his adventures in Hollywood and points East. Backdrops are gaudy, and Jimmie’s more ardent acquaintances include a picture star (the idol of a million bobby soxers), a fashionable novelist and members of the armed forces. But the over-all picture is as unsensational as it is boring…

Most papers refused to review the novel, but those that did gave it mixed reviews. Perhaps the New York Times was experiencing “Kinsey Fatigue,” but the Washington Post called it “an artistic achievement” and the Atlantic Monthly said it was “a brilliant exposé of subterranean life.” Despite it’s “subterranean” themes and the New York Times’ displeasure, The City and the Pillar nevertheless made it to the best-seller’s list.

Although the gay characters’ portrayals were generally positive, the tone was dark and the ending tragic. It’s been widely reported that the publishers forced Vidal to change the ending to an unhappy one, but Gore himself denies this. But twenty years later, he published the novel again as The City and the Pillar Revised and changed the overall tone to be less dark.

Today in History: A Priest and Some Sisters

Jim Burroway

January 10th, 2008

On January 10, 1977, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of New York ordained the Rev. Ellen Marie Barrett to the priesthood. Her ordination into the diaconate in December 1975 had gone largely unnoticed. But her priestly ordination was marked by a storm of controversy throughout the Church and the secular press. Rev. Barrett had previously served with James Wickliff as the first co-presidents of Integrity, the LGBT Episcopal organization.

Coincidentally, on this same date in 1980, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence founded a “convent” in San Francisco. Originally a form of camp street theater, the controversial nuns soon took on more serious efforts when they became among the earliest bay-area AIDS charities at a time when few other established churches and organizations deigned to pitch in.

Their work didn’t end there. The Sisters helped organize the first AIDS Candlelight Vigil, and one of the Sisters created the rainbow flag, which is now the defining symbol of the gay rights movement. The sisters have raised more than $1 million in San Francisco alone and have benefited such groups as the Breast Cancer Network, Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and the Gay Games. The Sisters continue to bring meals to those who can no longer care for themselves, and they fund alternative proms for LGBT youth.

And through it all, they continue to be the favorite targets of many religious-right organizations, many of which still show scant evidence of performing the charitable work that the Sisters do. Ironic, isn’t it?

Update: Okay, I’ve had two historical errors coming from the same source. That source also gave me the wrong date for the Kinsey report. Lesson: Don’t believe everything you read without verifying it from other sources. Which, of course, is why I started this web site to begin with. How embarrassing….

Today in History: ACLU Denied Equality for Gays and Lesbians

Jim Burroway

January 7th, 2008

Today the American Civil Liberties Union is a stalwart champion for equality for the LGBT community. But that wasn’t always the case. On this day in 1957, the ACLU’s Board of directors adopted this statement:

The American Civil Liberties Union is occasionally called upon to defend the civil liberties of homosexuals. It is not within the province of the Union to evaluate the social validity of laws aimed at the suppression or elimination of homosexuals.

That policy statement was published in the March 1957 issue of Civil Liberties: Monthly Publication of the ACLU. Ironically, that statement was placed next to a sidebar marking the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision.

The ACLU would change course some seven years later, thanks largely to the efforts of Washington, D.C. activist Frank Kameny. In November, 1961, in the same month that Kameny helped found the Washington Mattachine Society, he also helped found that city’s chapter of the ACLU. After he persuaded that chapter to support gay rights, the Washington chapter lobbied the national ACLU to rescind their policy. The national ACLU finally acted in 1964, and by the end of the decade ACLU attorneys were on the front lines in defending gays and lesbians in American courts.

Today in History: Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”

No kidding this time

Jim Burroway

January 5th, 2008

Sexual Behavior In the Human MaleTwo days ago, this web site suffered a case of premature celebration. How embarrassing. I swear, it’s never happened before.

The first volume of the “Kinsey Reports” was actually released sixty years ago today, not January 3rd. We regret the error on our earlier post.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, we look at the controversies, the statistics, the methodological problems, and the revolutionary role the Kinsey surveys played in American culture in our latest report, “According To The Kinsey Reports: A Noisy Revolution In Social Science and Popular Culture.”

The Kinsey Intitute also has an interesting history page on their web site.

Today in History: Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”

Jim Burroway

January 3rd, 2008

Sexual Behavior In the Human MaleSixty years ago on January 5, 1948, the first installment of what would become known as “The Kinsey Reports” was released. (Correction: The actual release date was January 5th, 1948.) The dry, scientific Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published by a little-known publisher of medical textbooks and journals, who had no idea what they were getting into when they agreed to publish the book. Their experience was with a limited customer base where a run of 5,000 copies was considered a huge success. They ended up publishing a quarter of a million during that first year instead.

The only one who wasn’t surprised by the runaway success of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was Alfred Kinsey himself. He and his colleagues had spent the previous nine years interviewing nearly 12,000 people across the country, asking them questions covering more than five hundred details of their intimate, sexual lives. And the book came out just as America was emerging from the frugality that marked the Great Depression and World War II, full of economic and cultural vitality and itching to make thousands of babies at the start of the Baby Boom.

Ooh!The Kinsey Reports quickly entered popular culture along with Tiki-chic, bachelor pads, and a huge post-war baby boom. Sex was breaking out all over, and “Kinsey” became a popular code-word for anything risque. Now, sixty years later, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (and its companion volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which appeared in 1953) are still the books that everyone loves — especially those who never read them. They are also the books that social conservatives love to hate, blaming them for sparking the sexual revolution of the 1960′s.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, we look at the controversies, the statistics, the methodological problems, and the revolutionary role these two book played in American culture in our latest report, “According To The Kinsey Reports: A Noisy Revolution In Social Science and Popular Culture”

Today in History: The Temerity Of A Kiss

In commemoration of the Black Cat raid of 1966, celebrate this New Year's Eve with a radical act. Kiss him "on the mouth for three to five seconds."

Jim Burroway

December 31st, 2007

This essay first appeared last year. Since then, the readership of Box Turtle Bulletin has increased ten-fold, so I thought it might be appropriate to re-post this to premiere our series for 2008, “Today In History.”


You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

It all began exactly forty years ago this New Year’s Eve, on Sunset Blvd., in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a small bar called the Black Cat. There were some sixty or seventy patrons gathered during those final moments of 1966, counting down the last few seconds to midnight. Couples gathered and stood next to each other, and as the countdown approached zero, they leaned into one other, and, amid the shouts of “Happy New Year!” and the opening strands of Auld Lang Syne, they did something all couples do all around the world.

They kissed.

And immediately at least six plainclothes officers who had infiltrated the gay bar began viciously beating and arresting the kissing offenders. As the melee widened, several people tried to escape to the nearby New Faces bar. Undercover officers followed and raided that bar as well. One of the New Faces workers was beaten so badly by police that they cracked a rib, fractured his skull and ruptured his spleen.

Six Black Cat kissers were tried and convicted of “lewd or dissolute conduct” in a public place, conduct that consisted of male couples hugging and kissing. According to one police report, one couple had “kissed on the mouth for three to five seconds.” Apparently, three to five seconds are what constituted “lewd or dissolute conduct” among the LAPD.

It’s hard to describe what it was like to be gay in Los Angeles in the 1950’s and ’60’s. It was virtually illegal to be gay in LA, where undercover officers displayed unusual zeal to “clean up the streets.” No place was safe, not even private homes, bars or clubs. “Gay bars” barely existed. If one establishment gained a reputation as a gay hangout, it would be raided and shut down. Undercover officers would infiltrate private parties and bars suspected of being frequented by gay men. If they saw anyone who engaged in any sort of social touching, hand-holding, dancing, or even simple small-talk that might, in the imagination of the undercover officer, conceivably lead to “something more”, they were arrested. Entrapment was the norm and it didn’t take much to get arrested. Simply arranging to meet for dinner or exchanging phone numbers with an undercover officer was often enough to trigger an arrest — and being labeled a sex offender under California Law.

But all of that began to change with the profoundly radical act of a kiss.

It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.

Two and one half years before the Stonewall rebellion in New York, there was another rebellion underway in Los Angeles as the gay community stood its ground in defense of a kiss. In this case of do or die, more than 200 activists gathered at the corner of Sanborn and Sunset to protest the arrests and the ongoing police brutality and intimidation. At a time when few would dare to publicly identify themselves as homosexual for fear of intimidation and arrest, this first open gay-rights protest in Los Angeles was a very bold step. It led to the formation of PRIDE, a gay rights group in Los Angeles, and it swelled the ranks of the Mattachine Society. Where previous raids drove gay men further underground, this time the reaction was different. Gay activism in Los Angeles came of age that night forty years ago.

In the ensuing publicity, two of the convicted kissers, Charles W. Talley and Benny Norman Baker, were able to find some very brave heterosexual lawyers who agreed to handle their appeals. No gay lawyers were willing to publicly come out to take the case. Charles (the one described in the police report kissing someone “on the mouth for three to five seconds”) and Benny appealed their convictions all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But their kiss was much too radical for that august institution. In 1968, the court refused to hear Talley vs. California, and so their convictions stood.

There’s no question that we have come a very long way since 1966. But in some ways, we haven’t yet come far enough. Male couples can still be beaten for simply holding hands in public. The ordinary act of placing one’s hand in another’s – the same thing so many heterosexual couples do with such ease and innocence – is still too provocative even today in many places. A kiss would be downright heroic.

In a society where heterosexual couples can kiss wherever they please and lesbians kissing is considered “hot”, a kiss is still a very radical act when that kiss is shared between two men. Critics point to the popularity of Will & Grace as evidence that gay men are accepted, but long-suffering Will Truman (Eric McCormack) rarely had a boyfriend. And when he finally got one, he wasn’t allowed to kiss him on the lips for the longest time. It wasn’t until the the show had been on the air for eight seasons that Will was finally allowed to kiss James Hanson (Taye Diggs).

A few years ago, Oliver Stone put Alexander the Great in bed naked with Hephaistion after they expressed their undying love for each other. But even though Stone’s reputation is supposedly built on his bold interpretations of history, he chickened out and only let Alexander share his kiss with Olympia in a love scene that was more a struggle for dominance than an expression of love. And while Ennis Del Mar and Jack Tripp Twist were finally allowed to kiss each other in the remotest reaches of Brokeback Mountain where nobody could see them, all of that kissing still came to an end some twenty-five years ago with Jack’s brutal murder.

Forty years after the Black Cat raid, men still cannot be seen kissing each other, unless ratings are tanking during the final season or one of them dies.

And yet, what are two lovers supposed to do?

And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

A lot has changed since 1966, but the passage of forty years has not tamed the temerity of a simple kiss. For gay men, a kiss is still seen a boldly radical act. But it is also our declaration of independence, on which forty years ago many have pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

So all you men out there, do something radical this New Year’s Eve. Kiss him. On the Mouth. For three to five seconds.

I don’t care who you kiss or why. You can kiss him for love, you can kiss him for lust, or you can kiss him just because he’s cute. You can kiss him because he’s the love of your life, or you can kiss him because he’s a total stranger who you’ll never see again. But just kiss him, and kiss him boldly.

Kiss him for all of those who were not allowed to kiss. Kiss him for those who were beaten and arrested for kissing, and for those who fought back to defend that kiss. Kiss him for those heroes who declared an end to the shame of kissing. Kiss him because now you can; because today your greatest freedom is in that kiss. Kiss him on the mouth. And for good measure, kiss him for much, much longer than three to five seconds. Kiss him hard and long, with a kiss of forty years and still counting.

And wish him a very happy New Year.

Update: When I first wrote this, I had very few readers to admonish me for leaving something very important out: Ladies grab your gal and plant one on her “for three to five seconds,” at least. And don’t let up until you’re good and ready! I sincerely apologize for leaving you out. It was very boorish of me.

The same good wishes goes for everyone else, whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself. And have a very happy New Year.

That’s the advantage of having a larger readership this time: it keeps us accountable and on our toes, and it holds us to ever higher standards for ourselves and for each other. Thanks for your comments.

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