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Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s

Letters to ONE: Gay and Lesbian Voices from the 1950s and 1960s is an edited companion volume to Loftin’s monograph, Masked Voices. Letters to ONE contains 127 letters written from 1953 to 1965 to the first openly gay magazine in the United States. Most of the letters reproduced in this book were discovered in an archive in Los Angeles and not originally published in the magazine. ONE magazine was an important part of the 1950s and 1960s “homophile,” or early gay rights, movement. ONE encouraged its readers to think about themselves as part of an oppressed minority group with a distinct culture, history, and viewpoint. ONE was sold openly on newsstands in most American cities. It marked the debut of an openly gay press in the United States.

The letters in this book, written by ONE magazine readers from across the country (with several from other countries), address a wide range of topics, including job discrimination, family relations, science, psychiatry, religion, police, courts, and mass media. While some of the letters emphasize the bleaker aspects of gay life in the 1950s—McCarthyism, police raids, loneliness, isolation—a surprising number of them have an upbeat, defiant, and resilient tone. As Loftin writes in the introduction, “Gay people were undoubtedly victimized in these years, but most ONE correspondents did not think of themselves as victims.” (3) The letters are far more inspiring than depressing. Despite being written so many decades ago, many of the letters seem like they could have been written today.

The letters are arranged into five thematic chapters. The letters in the first chapter are autobiographical in nature. Several letters discuss “coming out” experiences (though “coming out” had a more limited meaning then, referring only to coming out to other gay people and not to heterosexuals), while other letters describe experiences in therapy or discuss the complex relationship between sexual identity and gender identity. One woman wrote in 1964, for example, “You see, outwardly I’m a woman, but inside I have a male’s emotions. In fact, at times I become two different people. For awhile I’m a woman, and even act like one then all of a sudden I’m a man. This change doesn’t show on the outside, only on the inside.” (54) The chapter also includes several letters from ministers, expressing their appreciation and approval of both homosexuality and ONE magazine.

The second chapter features letters describing sex and relationships. For gay men, sex partners were usually not difficult to find during these years. Lesbians were more likely to suffer from loneliness; many disliked going to gay bars. Both women and men, however, described frustration in establishing long-term relationships. A man from Texas complained in his letter, “I enjoy good music, good books, good plays, ballet, and many of the other so-called ‘finer things in life.’ And let’s face it … it is very seldom you meet people who really appreciate these things in gay bars. At least in Texas gay bars.” (85-86) Many other letters shared frustration over the fact that gay social life revolved around bars.

The third and fourth chapters focus on repressive aspects of gay life in the 1950s—police raids, surveillance, postal harassment—as well as the growing indignation and outrage among gay people throughout the country regarding such treatment. Correspondents commented on antigay political hysteria in Washington D.C. and wrote letters about a wave of crackdowns in Florida schools and universities. Some correspondents wrote letters from prisons, describing their experiences and asking ONE if it could help them find a lawyer. ONE also received letters written from inside mental institutions. Some gay men who were arrested for homosexual offenses chose mental hospitals over prisons when given the choice during a plea bargain. One such individual wrote a dense 20 page letter describing his daily routine in such a hospital, wondering after a couple of weeks if going to prison might have been more tolerable.

The letters in the final chapter comment on representations and stereotypes of homosexuals as depicted in media such as tabloid magazines, Reader’s Digest, and The Tonight Show. “I was interested to see how Johnny [Carson] handled the queenly Liberace on the show,” one man wrote in 1963. “He was careful not to exploit the situation for gay humor; at one point, however when Liberace held up a bathing suit (one of many gifts people had given him), with musical notes sewn on it, Johnny couldn’t resist saying that the bathing suit was particularly interesting around a certain note.” (208-09) The letters challenge the myth of homosexual invisibility in mass media before Stonewall and demonstrate the complex ways that gay men and lesbians thought about how popular culture depicted them.

The letters in the book are often blunt. They are entertaining and serious, funny and sad, heavy and lighthearted. They remind us that gay and lesbian lives in these years were rich and diverse, complex and nuanced, tragic and triumphant—sometimes all at the same time. This book allows us to listen to their voices in their own words and on their own terms.