Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement. David K. Johnson. Columbia University Press, 2019. 320 pages. $32.00.
Before Grindr and Growler and the internet, before X-Tube and a thousand other porn sites, before Blue Rays and DVDs and VHS tapes, before roadside adult “bookstores” and before magazines like Obsession and Blueboy, there were the physique magazines.
These magazines featured well chiseled male bodies in tiny briefs in wrestling poses or alone striking poses that showed off their muscles. The thinly veiled homoeroticism of it all was the closest thing to gay porn our forebears could get their hands on.
The history of these physique periodicals has largely been neglected by scholars, which is why David K. Johnson’s new book, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, is so important. As the title suggests, Johnson argues that the men who published and consumed these magazines were instrumental in the early homophile movement of the 1950s.
In 1951, a new type of publication appeared on newsstands―the physique magazine produced by and for gay men. For many men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, served as an initiation into gay culture. The publishers behind them were part of a wider world of “physique entrepreneurs”: men as well as women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogs, pen-pal services, book clubs, and niche advertising for gay audiences. Such businesses have often been seen as peripheral to the gay political movement. In this book, Johnson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, shows how gay commerce was not a byproduct but rather an important catalyst for the gay rights movement.
Offering a vivid look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs & their customers, and presenting a wealth of illustrations, Buying Gay explores the connections―and tensions―between the market and the movement. With circulation rates many times higher than the openly political “homophile” magazines, physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time. This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and upend censorship laws, paving the way for open expression.
Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office, including the court victory that allowed full-frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. Buying Gay reconceives the history of the gay rights movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a site for resistance.
The only disappointment in the book (and this is a minor point) was the lack of any information on New Orleans’ own Pops Whitesell, the photographer who was a part of the French Quarter Renaissance in the 1920s and who in later years photographed models for a physique magazine. But otherwise, Buying Gay is an imminently interesting read and fills a gap in the historical record of the pre-Stonewall gay liberation movement.
David K. Johnson is also the author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2004), which was made into an award-winning documentary.