Row Of Dominoes

The second half of the 1950s went much like the first. By 1955, the Mattachine Society had opened a chapter in New York, making it the first gay rights organisation to span a continent. Moral panic seemed to be the theme of 1955. In April 1955, Iowa enacted a sexual psychopath law. The law, which was a reaction to the assault and murder of a young boy, allowed for the involuntary  commitment of anyone charged with a public offence who court or law enforcement officials believed would commit a sexual offence. Twenty gay men in Sioux City were committed in 1955 alone. None of the men had any connection to the case which inspired the creation of the law. On Halloween 1955, three men were arrested in Boise, Idaho on charges of sodomy and lewd conduct. The resulting panic ended with 16 arrests and 15 convictions, and over 1500 men being questioned.

In December 1955, under the guise of Executive Order 10450, Frank Kearney, a US Army Map Services astronomer, was fired after his superiors found out he was gay. Kearney was blacklisted from every seeking federal employment again. Two days after Kearney is fired, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied the appeal of Raymond Longernecker, who had been denied VA benefits because of a blue discharge. The Court determined that the laws specifically denied the courts jurisdiction over the VA. However, the Court determined that the VA acted wrongly by assuming that a blue discharge was dishonourable, and that Longernecker should receive his benefits. The VA ignored the Court’s suggestion, and Longernecker never received his benefits.

In 1957, the Wolfenden Report was published in the UK. The report determined that homosexuality should not be illegal. In response, the Homosexual Law Reform Society is formed, to campaign on the sole issue of decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Wolfenden Report’s recommendations would be ignored for a decade.

Two landmark cases were decided by the US Supreme Court in 1957 and 1958: Roth v. United States and One, Inc v. Olesen. In Roth v. United States, the US Supreme Court redefined the Constitutional test, originally based on the 1868 English case of Hicklin v. Regina, which determined what material was considered obscene and thus not protected under the First Amendment. Roth, a literary business owner in NYC, had been convicted under a federal statute of sending obscene, lewd and lascivious material through the mail. The Court upheld the convictions, in a 6-3 decision, arguing that obscene material was not protected by the First Amendment. The Court did, however, more strictly define the parameters for obscene material. Justice William Brennan, writing the majority opinion, defined obscene material as material which was patently offensive, and without redeeming social value.

In January 1958, the Court presented its decision in One, Inc v Olesen. After Executive Order 10450, the FBI launched investigations and crackdowns into homosexuality across the US. (Remember: all 50 states had laws against homosexuality, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness, and as a result of the Red Scare and HUAC hearings, homosexuals were considered both subversive and a threat to the moral finer of America.) During the FBI crackdown, and panic that ensued, many homosexuals lost their jobs for perceived homosexual activities. Vice units set up entrapment stings throughout the US, arresting men for accepting propositions, and even touching inappropriately. Throughout the ensuing panic, One, Inc began publishing ONE: The Homosexual Magazine. The FBI attempted to shut down the magazine, even writing to the employers of ONE’s editors, hoping that the threat of loss of employment would end the magazine. No one lost their job, ONE continued printing, and the FBI gave up. The US Postal Service, however, did not.

From the beginning of ONE Magazine’s publication, the USPS would vet each issue to determine if it violated the postal service’s anti-obscenity standards. The USPS also argued that, since homosexuality was illegal in all 50 states, they didn’t want to be accused of promoting criminal activity. In August 1953, the USPS held that month’s issue for three week whilst deciding if it violated any federal or state laws. Officials in DC finally decided there were no legal violations to the issue, and ordered it sent. In October 1953 ONE responded to the USPS’s decision to allow the mailing of the August issue (see addendum below). In March 1954, having read the issue (and let’s all just speculate how THAT happened) the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Alexander Wiley from Wisconsin, wrote a letter of protest to the Postmaster General asking why the USPS was delivering a magazine which advanced ‘sexual perversion.’ Having the backing of a high ranking Senator, the USPS acted. In October 1954, an issue entitled You Can’t Print It! which featured rules and regulations created by the magazine’s lawyer on what was, and was not, permissible in an attempt to keep ONE out of trouble, the USPS seized all copies of the magazine and charged the editors with violating the 1873 Comstock Act. ONE Magazine sued.

Because of ONE’s precarious financial situation at the time, it took them a year to sue. Their staff lawyer, Eric Julber, a recent law school graduate, took on the case for free. Julber attempted to gain the assistance of the ACLU, but they defended the rights of the states to have anti-sodomy laws and refused the case. Julber argued, before a federal court, that ONE Magazine was educational, not pornographic. In March 1956, the federal judge did not agree, upholding the right of the USPS to refuse to deliver. In February 1957, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the federal judge’s decision, and called ONE Magazine morally depraved, and argued its sole purpose was to excite lustful, lewd and lascivious thought in its readers. Julber appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, not believing the Court would take it. To everyone’s surprise, it did. On 13 January 1958, the Supreme Court wrote a one sentence decision, without ever hearing any oral arguments. The Court reversed the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, citing Roth v. United States. This was the first time the Supreme Court ruled on any case in the issue of gay rights. The Court’s decision granted homosexuals the right to publish material that fell outside the definition of obscenity as defined in Roth, as established by the First Amendment. The case made the national press, including The New York Times, marking the first time any gay rights issue was raised in the national press of any nation.

On Halloween 1958, 30-year-old Jack Dobbins was murdered in Charleston, SC. Dobbins had been bludgeoned to death with a brass candlestick, naked, and left on his sofa in the living room to be found by a maid. On 2 November, Airman 3rd Class John Joseph Mahoon, stationed at Charleston AFB, was arrested and held without bail. The News and Courier, Charleston’s paper, followed the coverage of the murder and arrest, calling Dobbins, who was a Korean war veteran, affable, pleasant, and personable. Not once did the newspaper mention Dobbins sexuality. As it turned out, they didn’t have to.

The newspaper articles following Mahoon’s arrest began to slowly paint a picture of Dobbins’ life, and laid out a moral argument for Mahoon’s lawyers. Mahoon was described, in print, as boyish and clean cut, a small boy at 5’6 and 9.5st. When the trial began on 9 December, Mahoon’s defence immediately began to paint a picture of a depraved gay man (even asking the maid to comment on the colour of his sheets) versus an unsuspecting and law abiding youth. When closing arguments came that night, the prosecution asked for the death penalty for an “obvious” murder, whilst the defence asked for an acquittal on the grounds of self-defence. When the jury took to the jury room at 8pm, the assumption of a guilty verdict hung in the air. At midnight, when the jury had yet to return, the Judge called them back and demanded a verdict that night. Eight minutes later they returned, and declared Mahoon not guilty.

In May 1959, a clash between police and patrons outside of Cooper’s Donuts in LA, a hang out for drag queens and street hustlers, result in police being pelted with donuts, and several arrests. On 23 December 1959 the Supreme Court of California ruled, in Vallegra v. Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, that a 1955 statute which allowed ABC to revoke the liquor licence of any established that allowed ‘sexual perverts’ as their main patrons violated the state constitution. The court further insinuated that had the revocation of the liquor licence been a result of actual homosexual conduct, rather than merely an assumed gathering of homosexuals, that it would have upheld the statute. This decision resulted in the legal right of homosexuals to congregate in one place, openly, in the state of California, provided there was no physical contact (which was still illegal).

Although the 1950s saw some highly publicised advances for gay rights, society still sided with morality. Threats of communism, an increasingly changed society in the United States as the Civil Rights movement hit its momentum, and increasingly changing social structures saw the world’s society dig in its heels.

Part XVII- Homosexuality, Politics and the 1960s

[History Note: In 1966, the Warren Court further upheld the opinion of Roth that material was only unprotected by the First Amendment if it was both patently offensive, and utterly without redeeming social value in Memoirs v. Massachussettes. As a result of both Roth and Memoirs, the Warren Court came under fire from conservatives who wanted states to have more power to suppress ‘obscene’ material. During the 1968 Presidential election, Richard Nixon campaigned against the Warren Court, pledging to only appoint ‘strict constructionist’ judgesThe definition of unprotected obscene material was amended in 1973 in Miller v. Californiawhich changed ‘utterly without socially redeeming value’ to ‘lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’ ALSO: The August 1953 issue of ONE Magazine which was held by the USPS? The cover story was on gay marriage.]

[Comstock Act:Illegal to send “obscene” material through the mail, including information on contraceptives, distribution of abortion information, and pornography. The definition of “obscene” was redefined by Roth v. United States]

[Addendum: ONE Magazine October 1953 Front and Back Covers: AND SCOTUS decision issue:]




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