While there was no organized gay community in Wisconsin until after Stonewall there is ample of evidence of gay life long before. In this piece I want to write about how one source gives us a lens into pre-Stonewall Wisconsin.
The earliest public efforts of gay activism after World War II (then referred to as homophile) were located in Southern California. Folks involved launched the first truly national publication in 1952 called ONE. The name derived from a quote of English writer Thomas Carlyle “a mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one….” From searching the pages of the magazine one gets a glimpses of the good, the bad, and the ugly of gay life in Wisconsin in the 1950s and early 1960s. I want to deal primarily with the good.
In Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America, Rodger Streimatter notes while most of their 5,000 monthly copies were sold in newsstands of the larger cities they did have about 1,000 subscribers. In 1954 they were so bold as to publish a list by state and Wisconsin appeared with 26 subscribers. This was a ranking of 11th in the states a little better than our population rank of 14th but not by much. California was first with 276 so we were about one-tenth of their home base but not a negligible number. So in the 1950s there were enough interested folks to boldly take a magazine that on its front proudly proclaimed itself “The Homosexual Viewpoint.”
In a recent interview with Henry Eichhorn, an early 1950s Wisconsin subscriber who is still active with the gay community, he recalls no reservations about having a subscription, especially since it came in the proverbial plain brown wrapper. Reading the monthly issues helped end the isolation of the period or sense of being the only one dealing with homosexuality.
The publication followed in the general tradition of little magazines and included literary work, both fiction and poetry, plus book reviews for those volumes with gay subject matter. Serious policy discussions and polemics on the topic of homosexuality appeared. Some writers were nationally known (such as Norman Mailer) and others of more limited renown. Editorials spoke to issues and conditions. A section labeled “Tangents” contained news tidbits from clippings sent by subscribers since the staff proclaimed they could not afford a clipping service (a feature of libraries and journalism now past).
Additionally the publication printed letters from subscribers and other correspondents. Five brave Wisconsin folks appear in the letters, though here the discernment is clouded by only initials used for identification. And the question pops up is Mr. R from Madison the same Mr. R. from Milwaukee a few years latter. A Mr. B from Milwaukee is a frequent writer who appears. Additionally a Doctor K., an M.D. from a blocked out small Wisconsin town writes. A Mr. B.H. from Milwaukee also pops up.
The poignancy of the overall letters from across the country is quite stirring and the magazine features on its cover of January 1960 a young many with pen in hand under the subscription “I Just Had to Write.”
The Wisconsin letters finds some of the good of gay life. These are people who find their homosexual lives as positive. Mr. B from Milwaukee, who is in his fifties, writes in 1959 “I have for many years considered myself fairly well adjusted.”
Doctor K. notes “It may be of interest to you that though everyone in this small town is convinced that I am ‘queer,’ I have a huge practice. I never date girls; I have many boys who come to visit; my lover comes up often enough to be recognized and greeted on the streets and no one seems to mind. Quite tolerant I feel.” So in addition to a quiet acceptance the good doctor is reporting on a successful professional life, a social circle of gay friends, and a domestic partner all in 1962.
Mr. R of Madison is eager for his monthly copy because he believes the magazine is “certainly to be congratulated upon its wonderful work in the field of advancement of the homosexual’s lot.”
Mr. B. of Milwaukee in April 1963 reports on discussions with friends from Illinois after the new state law revison that decriminalized homosexuality there. While most answers were non-committal he notes “one couple who lived together were a little relieved or had less inward guilty feeling or tenseness about their condition.” Thus we can see gay folk from Wisconsin were in connection with other nearby gay communities and had networks for information and evaluation of public policy changes
Mr. B. had other sources of information he tracked and reported in a letter on an article in a1963 issue of SEXOLOGY. The article noted same sex behavior among male dolphins and Mr. B. concluded “So who says it’s unnatural?” Thus he had access to multiple sources for reinforcing his positive views on his homosexuality.
Mr. R. of Madison wrote to comment on an article of November 1958 entitled “Homosexuals without Masks.” In the story, a homosexual named Tom, complained about a slim young man who minced past. Other complaints were about disgusting queens, flaming faggots, and short-haired, stomping dykes. Mr. R. writes, “if the attitude of many homosexual men is such as that, then we may as well give up the ship. How can this man ever hope that the world will ever accept the gay crowd when even individuals among them refuse to accept others of their own kind.” Mr. R. shows that the fight against internal homophobia and the fight for an inclusive community was serious work even in 1959. Mr. R. concludes with a patriotic flourish by using a quote from Ben Franklin “We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The well-adjusted Mr. B. in his letter of June 1959 takes to task another writer who feeling himself at age 37 no longer needing the magazine. “I do agree wholeheartedly with him that it must be a great help to younger men—so what’s wrong with continuing to support it, hoping it will reach more of the younger men and help them get on the right track? ONE can’t do that without help from some of us adjusted ones.” Presumably this was not just a chicken-hawk outlook but an intergenerational view of the need for community.
Mr. B. in one of his earliest letters in March 1958 had congratulated ONE on winning its postal case. Further he noted “It must make all you people feel as though your work is not in vain. It will take a long, long time, but I hope that just as in this case, one, by one, you aims will be accomplished.” One cannot know what Mr. B considered a long time but in 24 years from the date of his letter Wisconsin would be the first state in the nation to enact a gay rights law. But his expression of hope and progress expressed in the 1950s was the base upon which to build for future gains for the “homophile” community.