Our History: Early Awakenings and Survival

A newspaper columnist from the 1950s chronicles the hidden life of his friends, revealing that even under-cover gay men found community.

A newspaper columnist from the 1950s chronicles the hidden life of his friends, revealing that even under-cover gay men found community.

The 1950s were a terrible time for gay folk. Their lives were illegal and their passions, criminal. At best they were considered “sick.” And witch-hunts were begining to be stoked by Wisconsin’s own Senator Joe McCarthy, who ironically had a nickname based on his WWII experience, “Tail Gunner Joe.” But we’ll tell the story of the pitchfork throwers another time. This time, this is about underground survival in such a troubling period.

Our tale comes from a newspaper column entitled “Rambling Around,” by a news guy who wrote in coded language about a gay network in the Capital City. Though the terms may have been thought safe or discreet at the time, the story now seems to scream “Fabulous!”

He begins by discussing how, since his discharge from the army (meaning he was a real and patriotic guy), he’s had compassion and picked up hitchhikers. While on his way to Madison, near Evansville he stopped for a “young man.” When he pulled away from the ditch he heard “a very commanding voice” telling him to drive to Richland Center 70 miles away to drop the fellow off. He notices the person is “pretty well under the influence of liquor,” and finds that his rider’s life story includes time in the reformatory for young men. Lo and behold, the driver finds “reform schools don’t rehabilitate errant youth.” And “his knowledge of criminal ways and immoral living was greatly enhanced during his fifteen-year confinement.” Trying not to display discomfort, the driver “questioned him about life in reform school until we reached Madison.” Once in the city, he stopped on the Square near a police officer and told the hitchhiker to exit and breathed a sigh of relief when he did. No doubt thrilling as it was to hear about the immoral life of reform school, there was likely an end to total compassion for hunky hitchhikers for the journalist.

But the real tale of the column was that he “spent the weekend with a group of friends that are conducting a noble experiment in living.” He described the group this way, “Deeply concerned over the apparent inability of modern man to live a gracious, refined, and hospitable way of life in the press of unstable times, these young men are attempting in a modest way to recreate a friendly, leisurely manner of living.” Remember this is the 50s—a boom time of growing factories and tract houses in suburbia, but these “young men” are having none of it.

Among the group, he notes, you “will find representatives in the field of the theater, ballet, art, music, politics, literature, horticulture, and agriculture. ” It is a list of the gayest professions ever, with the presumed exception of farmers, but Will Fellows’ book, “Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest,” has shown just how many John Deeres were out there, too.

To vouch for their American bona fides, the journalist notes that, even though they may converse in French or Spanish “to increase the fluency of their acquired tongues,” they are in complete accord that “the rabble rousing communist must be eliminated from American society. ” So they ensured that their ajar closet door was painted red, white and blue to avoid the witch-hunts.

Their homes, even though all the men were of a very modest incomes, are described as having “refined and impeccable taste.” Some have modern décor in the land of Frank Lloyd Wright, some are showplaces of antiques, “while the bolder spirits have combined period pieces with the ability of interior decorators.” Now, this is pre-Martha, but how gay can you get? Besides, they are described as preparing Café Diablo.

“On the subject of friendship they are equally adamant.” Some have “At Home” gatherings on Sundays when friends drop in, take off their shoes (anything else?), raid the icebox, discuss esthetics and have enlightened conversation. “Whenever a light is burning in any of these homes it is like a beacon of hospitality, for owners have endeavored to make their firesides a haven for unexpected guests.” Or was that tricks? From other sources, this circle was known to invite boys from the traveling rodeos to drop by their firesides.

The Sunday “At Homes” created by a circle of friends or family-of-choice were surely a counterpoint to the family Sunday dinners of the straight world. They are an indication of the fullness of the gay men’s social life that flourished around Madison even in the secretive 1950s.

That our journalist was a clear admirer comes out in his closure, with a hope for a brighter future. “They have dedicated their lives to better living in beautiful surroundings with emphasis on hospitality, friendliness, informality, and comfort. A remarkable experiment that is finding more and more adherents each year.”

Can we say, recruit? Nevertheless, they would be amazed at the open gay community we have today. And we have their brave efforts at the beginning of it to thank.