Media Censorship: When Gay And Lesbian Content Was Illegal

Michael Bronski,

Release Date
October 18, 2016


Free Speech

Harvard Professor Michael Bronski explains what led to the pivotal moment when the Supreme Court ruled that discussing homosexuality was “okay.”
Unfortunately there was actually a time when magazines with “gay or lesbian content”– not pornographic content– were censored by the Post Office. This era was a dark time for the LGBTQ community, when any media created by or for them could be seized.

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We were thinking about free expression in gay, and lesbian people. I think one thing to focus on publications, and the media, particularly books. My name is Michael Bronski. I’m professor of the Practice of Activism and Media at Harvard University.

In the past 5 decades in England, and America, maybe other European countries there’s been an enormous push against state censorship. Certainly in America right? We saw enormous Supreme Court battles that allowed books such as William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch,” John Cleland’s erotic novel from the 1700’s “Fanny Hill,” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” Were all seen as being not pornographic, but not obscene which is the legal standard. Right?

Since then it opened the flood gates to any number of highly literary to highly pornographic materials out in the culture. What’s interesting is that 2 things here. One thing is that when we look at the history of gay, and lesbian publishing there’s always been a different standard. In 1954 there’s a group called Mattachine Society. They publish a journal called “One” the homosexual magazine. Which was confiscated by the post office, by the postal officials.

This is 1954, because it had 2 stories that had, by our standards, they could be in “Better Homes and Gardens” or “Redbook.” They were not at all erotic, but they talked about gay men, and lesbians. The post office decided that in fact homosexual content ipso factor was pornographic, because it was simply gay, and lesbian.

One magazine fought this, and in 1958, so it took 4 years to get to the lower courts. 1958 it went to the Supreme Court in a case called One versus Olesen. In which the Supreme Court ruled that in fact homosexual material in, and of itself was not pornographic. The Supreme Court at that point would have held that if in fact it was images of naked people having sex that it would have been pornographic. Gay, and lesbian content in and of itself was not pornographic.

Since that time, certainly by the later 60’s, the market was flooded by heterosexual pornography, straight pornography, novels that discussed homosexual, and heterosexual. By the later 60’s, because of the Supreme Court rulings from the late 50’s early 60’s, we had culturally people were publishing literary novels, pornographic novels, pornographic pictures. All of which were protected under the first amendment.

One could argue, I think it’s true, that in fact for the homosexual material part of the key for that was One inc. versus Olsen lawsuit from 1958. That said that any homosexual content by itself is not obscene. We all know that you can rent porno movies on TV now. You can get any number of books. Best selling novels often have highly erotic, and explicitly graphic content. It’s all protected.

When we look at all these Supreme Court decisions, and I’m thinking of the ones about Fanny Hill, and Naked Lunch, and things just before this comes this important decision which is One Inc. V. Olesen. Based on the fact that One magazine, quote One the homosexual magazine, was seized by the post office, and was actually deemed as being pornographic. Simply because it had gay, and lesbian content in it.

the real importance, I think, of One Inc. V. Olesen is that it really comes in the beginning of these other censorship things. It really sets the tone saying that content per se, before you get to it being overly sexual or being too graphic, content per se should not be censored. I think for gay, and lesbian people, but I think for the entire censorship battle.

That One Inc, V. Olesen is this pivotal moment in which the Supreme Court says that discussing homosexuality in and of itself is fine. What that meant is that on some level the simple discussion made homosexuality okay, because it was able to be discussed.