THE “PHYSIQUE” photographers and periodicals of the 1950s and ’60s were not just a byproduct of the Homophile movement of this era, but were a catalyst for it. This in a nutshell is the thesis of a new book by David K. Johnson titled Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement. These entrepreneurs, argues Johnson, supported the movement financially and fought the legal battles that got it going.
This history has gone largely untold. LGBT historians tended to be dismissive of the physique pioneers, and some were hostile, “seeing in them only evidence of racism, self-loathing, or the closet,” in Johnson’s words.
A chapter of Buying Gay titled “I Want a Pen Pal!” tells a grim story, that of the vicious persecution of gay men by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield. Many gay men in the ’50s, especially those living in the country or small towns, were isolated and longed for companionship. Mail correspondence satisfied part of that need. Over the years, gay men using coded language found each other through such publications. The campiest of the small physique magazines was called Vim. In 1959 its new editor, Jack Zuideveld, a married man with two children, decided to make Vim more openly gay. In addition to photos of male bodies, he included news items and articles, both serious and light-hearted. It was Zuideveld’s wife Nirvana who got the idea for a pen-pal club. The Adonis Male Club made its debut in the June 1959 issue, and it soon had a membership of 750.
Alas, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield had pledged “a war to the finish” against what he considered purveyors of obscenity—and any suggestion of homosexuality qualified as obscene. Under Summerfield’s instigation, the U.S. government indicted over fifty members of the Adonis Male Club on charges of conspiracy to send obscene materials through the mail. The Post Office infiltrated mailing lists and visited gay men around the country, forcing them to turn over evidence, inform on others, and sign confessions. Several club members committed suicide, and several more attempted it. The Post Office began to pay “educational visits” to employers of men who were in gay pen-pal clubs or who received homoerotic material. They especially targeted teachers, whose lives and careers were often ruined even if they weren’t convicted of any criminal charges.
The federal trial involving the Adonis Male Club began in Chicago in January 1962. After a long and messy four-week trial, all of the ten defendants who had not already pled guilty were found guilty and placed on probation. Both Jack and Nirvana Zuideveld were sentenced to a year in federal prison.
With the new administration of John F. Kennedy, Summerfield was out as Postmaster General, replaced by the somewhat more enlightened Larry O’Brien. The New Republic in August 1965 printed an exposé of the Post Office’s extralegal tactics, including its “educational visits” to employers. O’Brien ordered the practice stopped. When the Department of Justice ordered a stop to prosecutions of private correspondents for obscenity, the Post Office largely ceased its campaign against consumers, although it continued to harass the physique magazines.
The Post Office found its nemesis in Lynn Womack, a “Caucasian albino” who grew up in Minnesota. After a checkered career (marriages, children, coming out at age 27, a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, employment in and outside of academia, various business ventures), Womack was seeking to invest a tidy sum that he had acquired through a rather dodgy business venture. From Randolph Benson of Grecian Guild he bought TRIM magazine, and found himself faced with a problem affecting all of the physique magazines: newsstand distribution. Since the American News Company had folded in 1957 under harassment by the Post Office, smaller distributors shied away from physique magazines. Tough as well as brilliant, Womack solved the problem by forming his own distribution network, declaring to Benson: “We will never again be at the mercy of a distributor, agent, newsstand owner, or anyone else.”
Womack began printing Grecian Guild Pictorial, and later bought the magazine. He also bought the physique magazines MANual and Fizeek. He assembled a stable of physique photographers, encouraging them to relocate near his Capitol Hill residence in Washington and offering legal defense if they got into trouble with the postal authorities. He put together a legal lending library of bulletins, briefs, and other materials related to homosexuality and censorship. According to Womack, his collection was “in constant use by attorneys from all over the country.”
In 1960 Womack and two of his photographers were arrested for placing nude photos in the mail. Magazines were seized and Womack’s 40,000-name mailing list was confiscated.