In “The Bachelor Farmer” I portray the dissemination of a term, ‘homosexelles’ to describe men loving other men and women loving other women. Prior to Kertbeny’s new word in the late nineteenth century, only terms that described sex acts were used to define gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Over time that word, “homosexual,” came into common usage and a new identity group was born. However, being a homosexual wasn’t necessarily embraced by the general public including governments around the world.
In the 1950’s, a few men and women in the United States created a couple of groups to advocate for homosexuals. The Mattachine Society was generally the gay group while the Daughters of Bilitis was for lesbians. The Mattachine Society in Los Angeles decided the send out a magazine, a newsletter really, that published ideas relating to people with sexual identities that weren’t the norm.
However, they ran head first into a problem. Publishing their little magazine called “ONE” outside the immediate area meant using the United State Postal Service (USPS). Oops!
The Comstock Act gave the USPS broad censorship powers allowing it to decide if the content it was conveying was obscene and therefore subject to seizure. The postmaster in LA, Otto K. Olesen, refused to send through the mail an issue in 1954. Deb Price and Joyce Murdoch describe what happened next in their book, ‘Courting Justice’.
“After an 11-month delay that Julber [ONE’s pro bono general counsel] attributed to the magazine’s financial woes, ONE filed suit in federal court against Los Angeles postmaster Olesen, challenging the decision that the October 1954 issue was unmailable. Ironically, the cover of the disputed issue declared, ‘You Can’t Print It!’ In the anonymous cover article ‘by ONE’s legal counsel,’ Julber explained the censorship guidelines he’d cautiously instituted in trying to ensure that ONE did not run afoul of the federal law against mailing obscene material.” Page 31, 2001.
First the district federal court and then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Post Office. The appeals court confirmed the findings of the district court which said the following:
“1. The story "Sappho Remembered" appearing on pages 12 through 15, is obscene because lustfully stimulating to the homosexual reader.
2. The poem "Lord Samuel and Lord Montagu", appearing on pages 18 and 19, is obscene because of the filthy language used in it.
3. The advertisement for the Swiss publication "The Circle" appearing at the top of page 29, is non-mailable matter because it gives information for the obtaining of obscene matter.”
ONE, INCORPORATED v. OLESEN, 241 F.2d 772 (9th Cir. 1957)
What’s fascinating about this decision is the federal district court decided it wasn’t just ONE’s content that was obscene but it found that merely by publishing the contact information for another periodical, “The Circle,” it was sending out illegal material.
Simply talking about being a homosexual was considered lewd and lascivious.
Shortly thereafter something quite amazing occurred. We tend to think the “Stonewall Riots” were the beginning of the GLBT community’s efforts to be recognized. But, could “Stonewall” have happened without the idea of the ‘homosexual’ and the fact we were becoming a community by communicating with one another? Since I don’t like counterfactuals, I can’t say. In 1958 the United States Supreme Court decided the lower courts were wrong. They found the Postal Service couldn’t deny ONE access to the mail.
Strangely enough, there isn’t any written decision. The Supreme Court merely struck down the Ninth Circuit and federal district court’s findings as a matter of law. They referred to another of their court decisions as their basis for striking down the USPS’s actions.
In what could be described as a ‘silent nod,’ the Supreme Court said we could publish our poems, our stories, our ideas to others. We would no longer be forced to harmonize in the chorus. The GLBT community could step up and sing their ‘unchained melody’ if we’d like.
This decision isn’t highly celebrated. However, it opened up a floodgate of our ideas. When people are allowed to write, publish, and debate their ideas, things happen. I chose this decision, this event as my first post for a good reason. Take advantage of your voice and tell us your stories.
Sing your unchained melody.