Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Debate Over Same-sex Marriage, 1953-1959—and Sixty Years Later

By: Jim Elledge

On Sunday morning, May 6, Vice-President Joe Biden looked Meet the Press host David Gregory straight in the eye and announced his support of same-sex marriage. While not quite the second “shot heard round the world,” it nevertheless heralded a new, and long overdue, support of equality for all Americans. Within days, President Barack Obama made his own stance public. His views had evolved, and now he, too, would support equality in marriage. Had it not been for the unblinking eye of TV, Gregory’s moxie, and Biden’s honesty, we’d probably still be in the dark about Obama and what may very well be a deciding factor in the next election among right-wing Christians—and right-wing others.

Many of us believe that the debate over what is usually called “gay marriage” is a relatively new phenomenon in this country. We typically believe it’s a product of the push for human rights by various political ideologies at the end of the twentieth century, a consequence of TV’s inclusivity (from its Uncle Tom-ish—or would be Auntie Mame-ish?—Three’s Company to the much more with-it Modern Life), and the result of the liberalism of many icons of popular culture, from Brangelina to Lady Gaga. But that’s not the case. The debate originated in the 1950s.

While I was compiling the essays in the three-volume Queers in American Popular Culture that I edited for Praeger/ABC-Clio (2010), C. Todd White submitted an eye-opening essay that he’d written entitled “Marry, Mary! (Quite Contrary): Homosexual Marriage in ONE Magazine, 1953-1959” to me. In it, White shines the spotlight on the debate among queer people—not between liberals and conservatives—about same-sex marriage as it played out in L.A.’s leading magazine for gay men and women. Appearing in its August 1953 issue, E.B. Saunders’ “Reformer’s Choice: Marriage License or Just License?” was the first published article to explore that debate, often tongue-in-cheek, and caused a stir.

Saunders succinctly revealed the complexity of the concept of gay marriage in Cold War America when he announced that the debate was premature: “Is it not a bit crazy to talk of homosexual marriage when homosexual sex is still forbidden?” In every state in the Union, same-sex sexual activities were illegal, and those caught engaged in them were subject to fines and/or prison terms. Premature or not, “homosexual marriage” became a hot topic in ONE’s Letters to the Editor column in subsequent issues. Interestingly, many gays pooh-poohed the idea because they were against aping heterosexual conventions. Eventually, the hubbub died down, ONE published other pieces, subscribers wrote other letters, and in June 1969, the world of gay men and women changed forever because of the riot at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

Almost sixty years ago, the first debate of same-sex marriage was noted in an obscure magazine with a tiny subscription base and quickly forgotten. Then as now, popular culture played an important role in the debate. Then as now, it was a complicated issue. 

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