The cover of David K. Johnson’s Buying Gay

Back in the 1990s, historian David K. Johnson was conducting research on what would become his book Lavender Scare (now a documentary film), a history of the conflict between the US government and its homosexual population, which was considered as dangerous a threat to national security as communists. Amid the government documents he stumbled upon at the home of an activist, he also found  Drum, Physique Pictorial, and MANual — magazines that unabashedly celebrated the statuesque beauty of the male body. While he had to delay falling into these particular rabbit holes to focus on his work in progress, eventually returning to them led him to write Buying Gay, a history of the seminal importance that physique magazines had for the gay community in the United States between the end of World War II and the Stonewall riots.

Buying Gay is a thorough, and extremely entertaining read that delights in several ways anyone remotely interested in the subject matter. The most apparent way, for those invested in the visual arts, is his aesthetic analysis of the tropes of physique magazines. Sure, they celebrated an aesthetic that rejected any form  of effeminacy. Physique magazines, after all, were a byproduct of the turn-of-the-century investment in physical culture, which developed among middle-class men in urbanizing areas, across the spectrum of sexual orientations. “Gay men in the early twentieth century were adept at appropriating urban public spaces for their own purposes, whether bars, public parks, Turkish baths, or the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA),” writes Johnson.

The gyms, contests, and magazines surrounding bodybuilding were another such public space that gay men actively, if cautiously, appropriated. The proliferation of bodybuilding contests, both local and national, depended on a large gay fan base.

Johnson introduces us to the artists who created physique-adjacent artworks. Among mainstream audiences, Finnish illustrator Tom of Finland is perhaps the best known artist in this category. (His art adorns clothing lines, and towels; there is a foundation in his name, and his recent biopic is a balanced tribute to him.) Perhaps for this very reason, Johnson doesn’t dwell too much on his legacy, making room for other visual artists. Virginia-born, George Quaintance, who was a photographer, painter, and illustrator whose homoerotic artwork, whether it was set in a ranch or in a Grecian bathhouse, was meant to convey a sense of camaraderie. Alfonso Hanagan, also known as “Lon of New York,” was Quaintance’s mentor, and had been photographing bodybuilders since moving to New York in 1936. Perhaps the most entrepreneurial artist was Bob Mizer: starting out as a photographer, he founded the Athletic Model Guild and, by 1951, founded the magazine Physique Pictorial.

Forrester Millard and John Miller, Physique Pictorial, June 1954; Bob Mizer signaled that Physique Pictorial would offer something different by featuring images of two men in posing straps, their arms draped over one another (courtesy the Bob Mizer Foundation).

Buying Gay is about more than the worship of the male body as a mere object of beauty: It details how physique magazine publishers fostered burgeoning communities by, for example, starting pen-pal clubs and gatherings that allowed readers to interact with photographers and editors and with one another. The book shows how these editors were receptive to readers’ feedback. 

“The proliferation of gay physique magazines ushered in a broader aesthetic than that exemplified by traditional weightlifting magazines,” Johnson writes referring to Mizer’s decision to pivot to more “natural” builds as opposed to overly muscular beefcakes that were the standard fare in said magazines.  “It was partly by offering more diverse body types and poses that they distinguished themselves as gay.” Sure, by today’s standards, this does not qualify as inclusive: in fact,  by “natural,” they largely meant “classical,” the lithe, and moderately developed body that is usually seen in Greek statues. However, while physique magazine editors weren’t doing a great job promoting diversity, especially by touting their affinity with ancient Greece, they did try to include non-white models. Johnson relates that, in 1959, a new subscriber from Harlem wrote to complain to Grecian Guild Pictorial about the absence of  “physique shots of Negroes,” so editors made efforts in that direction, which include a photo of black bodybuilder Joe Harris by Kris Studios of Chicago in the July issue. The next issue of Grecian Guild Pictorial, dated August 1959 (after the one including the said photo of Harris) featured Latino model Emilio Mercedes. “Such inclusions were tokenism at best,” is Johnson’s deadpan assessment, but it’s not like editorial direction in magazines did a 180-degree turn in the last 60 years.

And considering Johnson’s work in the Lavender Scare, it would be expected of him to deal with more than gorgeous illustrations. He does, by focusing on lawsuits that helped advance gay rights, usually against the bigotry embedded in the postal service. One central figure is attorney Stanley Dietz, who had gotten his start in his law practice which protected people of color from police brutality, was the first lawyer to argue a case regarding gay rights before the supreme court. He managed to shift the discourse from lofty talk about what constituted obscenity to a discussion of civil rights. “The Post Office’s refusal to mail their magazines ‘reduces a large segment of our society to second class citizenship,’  writes Johnson, recapping Dietz’s argument. “Applying such civil rights language to gay men in 1962,” Johnson continues, “was virtually unprecedented and must have shocked the justices.

In 1959 VIM editor Jack Zuideveld launched a plan to make his physique magazine more explicitly gay, including favorable articles on homosexuality and bisexuality, along with pictorial centerfolds (VIM cover, July 1959).

The case, ONE, Inc. v. Olesen, called into question the ability of the United States Postal Service to single-handedly make determinations of obscenity. “It established a new obscenity criterion — material had to be ‘patently offensive’ to not enjoy protection under the First Amendment,” writes Johnson. Reading the recaps of the lawsuits is perhaps less endearing (especially for an audience primarily interested in visual culture) than Johnson’s lively, almost narrative, explanation of the taxonomies of homophile aesthetics, but the addition of foundational lawsuits and historical context helps make Buying Gay a solid academic work rather than a dignified catalog of art. 

Oddly, I find that the work that bears the closest similarity to Buying Gay is the horror anthology Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. Yes, the subject matter could not be more different, since Hendrix’s book deals with all the subgenres of paperback horror (satanic panic, haunted houses, zombies, monstrous babies) but both books manage to highlight and analyze the neuroses and proclivities of American society through the lens of a very specific and niche subculture. As far as I am concerned, the educational potential of pop culture is undisputed, and Johnson seamlessly demonstrates that. 

Buying Gay was published in March 2019 by Columbia University Press.

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Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.