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Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America

Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America analyzes approximately 1000 letters written to ONE, the first openly gay magazine in the United States, from 1953 to 1965. In these letters, a diverse cross-section of gay men and lesbians across the U.S. and beyond shared their anxieties about losing their jobs, their experiences explaining their homosexuality to family members, incidents of police harassment, and stories of falling in love and forming relationships. The letters provide an unprecedented window into the lives, thoughts, and feelings of a marginalized group of people who were ostracized by society as mentally ill, criminal, and a threat to national security.

Despite the unique pressures of the era—McCarthyism, antigay job purges, police raids of gay bars—the letters capture the defiance, resilience, and surprising optimism during years that are typically characterized as a dark age for homosexuals. Even in the face of blatant discrimination and prejudice, gay men and lesbians for the most part refused to apologize for who they were or internalize society’s harsh indictment of them. A civil rights impulse imbues the tone, vocabulary, and urgency of letters to ONE.

Masked Voices enriches our understanding of gay civil rights activism during the 1950s and 1960s by shedding light on a grass-roots dimension of the homophile movement in the form of hundreds of volunteers who helped convince wary newsstand vendors to openly sell a “Homosexual Magazine” on their shelves—not to mention ONE’s thousands of correspondents who risked postal harassment and unwanted exposure merely by mailing letters to the magazine. Even buying ONE on a newsstand or subscribing to it were risky endeavors that required overcoming significant degrees of fear and anxiety. In addition to this grass-roots element, the homophile movement had an international dimension that is often overlooked by scholars. ONE’s editors received mail from around the world and vigorously corresponded with European homophile activists. ONE’s international and grass-roots dimensions suggest that the homophile movement had a greater impact on gay people’s lives than commonly thought and shaped discourse about homosexuality during these years in important ways.

In addition to challenging our assumptions about early gay rights activism, the letters also show that many institutions presumed to be hostile to gay people in these years, such as psychiatry, religion, and the family, in fact treated homosexuality in nuanced and complex ways. For example, we often assume that gay people were uniformly kicked out of their families if their homosexuality came to light during these years, but the letters show that after a shocked initial reaction, most families learned to accept their lesbian and gay members. Gay people went to great lengths and took great risks to participate in marriages (same-sex and opposite sex), becoming the institution’s most creative practitioners during the post-World War II era. While the official stance of professional psychiatry was that homosexuality was a curable mental illness, many individual therapists rejected this view and genuinely helped their gay clients cope with the anxieties of living in a homophobic society. While many churches and church leaders condemned homosexuality, ONE received many letters from gay and gay-friendly ministers. An African-American letter writer, in fact, described a torrid love affair with his pastor, a pastor who was fully immersed in the Atlantic City gay community during the early 1960s. In short, the letters challenge our assumptions on a broad range of issues.

In order to avoid the penalties of being gay in the McCarthy era, gay men and lesbians guarded their visibility carefully. For many middle-class letter writers, gay visibility could mean professional ruin. Such anxieties, unfortunately, provoked many gay men who passed as heterosexual to condemn and ostracize flamboyantly effeminate gay men, creating a schism within the nascent national gay community. Yet it was those overtly effeminate gay men who, in their unapologetic visibility, perhaps best personified the civil rights impulse in their daily lives as they willingly risked discrimination, marginalization, and jail in order to express freely both their sexual identity and gender expression in a public manner.

The middle-class gay men and women who passed as heterosexual, however, should not simply be written off as “closeted.” This was not the metaphor they used to make sense of their lives during these years. Rather, the letters and other sources make clear that they saw themselves as wearing masks—a metaphor more imbued with a sense of rebellion, deception, and strategic adaptation compared to the notion of hiding away isolated in a dark closet. Loftin argues that the mask was a central political component of postwar lesbian and gay identity. “Rather than negate their sense of lesbian or gay identity, the mask in fact bolstered it by enabling gay people to survive each day while they searched for, and increasingly found, one another. The mask allowed gay people sufficient camouflage to construct a national community and stronger sense of collective identity and culture.” (223-24). It was a way of eluding McCarthyite repression while figuring out how to instill and grow a national civil rights consciousness that would flourish to significantly greater heights in the more fertile political atmosphere of the late 1960s.