Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 29 September 1997

News Hound

From Making History by Eric Marcus


Editor's Note: This week's People feature showcases the early life of Jim Kepner, one of America's greatest pioneering journalist/ activists. It also helps to celebrate the forthcoming publication of an amazing collection his earliest news writing, Rough News, Daring Views: 1950s Pioneer Gay Press Journalism, due in late autumn, and published by The Harrington Park Press.

During its first years of publication, the pioneering ONE magazine attracted the attention of the U.S. Post Office and the FBI. The magazine also attracted the interest of Jlm Kepner, a young man who worked nights at a milk-carton-manufacturing plant south of Los Angeles. Jim first learned of the magazine in 1953, through the Mattachine Society. He eventually joined ONE's small volunteer staff, working as a news writer and columnist.

Jim Kepner doesn't know exactly when he was born because he was found on August 19, 1923, under an oleander bush in Galveston, Texas, wrapped In a Houston newspaper. He was estimated to be about seven months old. Jim grew up in Galveston and didn't learn that he was adopted until he was nineteen. He was relieved when he learned of his adoption because, "then I could believe in the theory of heredity. My adoptive parents tried hard, but they were both heavy drinkers."

Jim is the founder of the International Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, which he formed in 1972. He lived (Ed. note: at the time of this interview) in a small, rundown cottage at the bottom of a steep hill in an outlying Los Angeles neighborhood. His front yard (was) filled with cactus plants, a longtime hobby. Inside, the house overflows with files, books, and personal records collected during three and a half decades of involvement with the gay rights movement. When he recalled the past, Jim pulled details from a mind that seemed to be as fact packed as his house.


I realized at a very early age that I liked men. My father took me to the beach just before my fourth birthday. Out on the beach pavilion a band was playing while fireworks were going off across the waves. I was down in the middle of the crowd, knee high to everybody around me, and my father stepped away for the third or fourth time for a double boilermaker (two shots of whisky in a can of beer), leaving me holding a post. While my father was gone, a young man picked me up so I could see over the heads of the other people. I was in heaven. I was excited by the silky hair on his wrists and wanted to rub them, but I knew even then that you weren't supposed to do that. I also knew you weren't supposed to let strange men pick you up, but this was just so wonderful.

A year later we moved to a new house. Many afternoons I looked out across the street through my white picket fence and saw blond twin brothers, a year younger than I was, holding hands like the Dutch Cleanser boys. I wanted to make it triplets.

During those first years in school, I confessed to some other boys, who I thought felt the same way I did, that I felt about guys the way everybody was supposed to feel about girls. In the fifth grade it got all over school. It got so damned uncomfortable that I had to transfer to the only other school in my part of town, a German Lutheran school.

So I knew I was different, but I didn't know it was a category, and I had no concept of it having anything to do with sex. But I had had fantasies from the time I was ten of meeting a guy named John. His family would have a fatal accident, so my family would adopt him. And then, as soon as we were brothers, my family would take off for the hills, and we would be brothers for the rest of our lives.

It wasn't until I was a year out of high school that I began to have a clearer understanding. I went out on a triple date one night. The other two guys kept joking, "We're going to go all the way tonight." My girl was eyebrowless… She was more scared than I was. We got some rum and Coke. My girl took a sip of it and apparently thought she had had it and vomited on me. So the girls left. All three of us guys relaxed. We had done our duty. We had made the attempt. And then they started talking about homosexuals.

"What are homosexuals?" I asked. They said, "Well, that's when sailors are out at sea and there aren't any broads around and they can't get their rocks off. So they piss and shit in one another's faces to get their rocks off." Well, l nearly vomited. But I knew instinctively that their definition was right, that they had defined me, even if that wasn't what I had any desire to do. By the next day I was investigating the possibility of joining the navy or the merchant marine.

I eventually confessed to them what I felt, and one of them recommended his therapist. The therapist told me that it would go away, that all guys feel like that up to the time they're twenty or twenty-one. So he suggested that I find a nice young girl and get married and have a kid. I automatically knew that that would be a shitty trick to play on the nice young girl, and it would be a hell of a trick to play on the kid too.

Then a few days later--this was early 1942--our newspaper had a three-page ad for the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books. Those were enormously popular among free-thinkers of the twenties through the fifties. They were five-cent books, the size of little gospel tracts, with a cheap soft blue cover, running twenty-eight to fifty-six pages. There were short stories of H. G. Wells, plays by Shaw, books on how to build a birdhouse or a fence, secrets of infants found buried under nunneries, all sorts of anti-religious tracts and socialist tracts, and other literature that I was just ready for. Among the 1,792 titles at that time was, What Is Homosexuality? and Homosexuality in the Lives of the Great. So at a nickel a piece, I ordered at least twenty of them, including those two, hoping that no one would notice where my interests were focused. I sat on the post-office box for the next two or three weeks until they arrived, to make sure my parents wouldn't get them.

What Is Homosexuality? was a standard Freudian exposition explaining that homosexuality is caused by the Oedipus complex, the fixation on the mother who is domineering and overseductive, and a distant or absent or hostile father. I sort of bought the theory.

The booklet entitled Homosexuality in the Lives of the Great didn't deal with the theory so much, but told me that whatever my problem or condition was, it was shared with Michelangelo; Leonardo; all the old Greeks; Whitman; Wilde; Florence Nightengale; and many, may others. That was wonderful because I thought I was something sick and degrading. And to be in the company of these great people, that's an incredible standard of degradation. I thought that if this was a sickness, it was a strange kind of sickness.

A few months later my sister and I moved out to San Francisco, where I quickly discovered bookstores with lots of science fiction, which I was just going wild with, and a lot of gay books. While many critics now say that Gore Vidal wrote the first one (The City and the Piller, Dutton, 1946) I had thirty or forty on my shelves by the time his appeared. Several of them were more advanced than his. Vidal's book, like so many of the others, was Fruedian case study of a poor unfortunate who, if only his mother hadn't really wanted a daughter and if society hadn't treated him badly, could have been a successful tennis player or pianist or whatever. That was the formula for many of them, and they ended in suicide or accidental death. There were a few that broke the mold: His Finer Shadow in 1934; The Divided Path in 1949; and Quatrefoil in 1950; which did end in sudden death, but none of these three were Freudian case studies.

So I found a lot of literature about gays, but most of it was terribly depressing. And most of the nonfiction placed homosexuals in the category of sexual monstrosities, who were written about as if they were all lined up in pickle jars on a shelf.

In 1943, I got a pen-pal thing accidentally that put me in touch with what I thought was a gay organization. Someone put my name in Weird Tales magazine, and I received several letters from heartsick young girls in the Midwest and from one guy in Rheinlander, Wisconsin, who sent me his picture—very cute. We began the hinting process, which usually occupied two or three letters. The way you hinted was by saying you were interested in philosophy, poetry, and biographies, but not very interested in sports, except walking and swimming. You could mention tennis or Ping-Pong or miniature golf. So then you named a few recent biographies or poets that you'd read. You didn't start with people like Wilde or Whitman, but you could include Bacon or some of the ones who were less specifically identified. And then you brought it up.

In one his early letters, this pen pal asked if I had ever heard of the Sons of Hamidy. After another two or three letters, he described this as a secret national homosexual rights organization started in the 1880s that fell apart due to bitch fights, which is naturally what gay groups do. He said it was reorganized in 1934 and again fell apart during bitch fights and was now being reorganized with some senators and generals in leading roles. Through three or four letters I asked, "How do I join?" And he kept being vague. By this time he had been drafted and was in Coolidge, Arizona, which he told me was another big center of the Sons of Hamidy, along with Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He said, "We have people looking over San Francisco to see if it's the right sort of town."

I began receiving visits and letters from some of my pen pal's other correspondents and learned that I was national secretary of the Sons of Hamidy! Well, that was a jolt because, poor little me, I was a nobody. With all these senators and generals, what the hell was I doing as national secretary? And how did I get to be secretary, when my pen pal hadn't even told me how to join yet? It turned out that the Sons of Hamidy was his fantasy, as far as I can tell

When I first heard about the Mattachine—in the early 1950s, when I had just moved to L.A.—I thought it might also be a fantasy because the people who ran it had allowed rumors to circulate that some very influential people were behind it .The phrase, "senators and generals," was one of the first I heard, just like the Sons of Hamidy. So I was not quick to join.

But I kept hearing about Mattachine through the grapevine all over town. Everybody was buzzing about this gay group where people discussed things and where there were social activities. I would occasionally hear where a meeting was taking place, but I didn't drive at the time, and the meetings would be in some other hilly area in another part of town. Also I had to be at work at midnight about eight or nine miles southeast of L.A.

In the meantime, some friends gave me a housewarming, which turned into a regular Thursday night and Friday night party. The Friday night party sometimes lasted until Monday morning. The place was crowded with a mixture of science-fiction fans, gays, ex-radicals, and other assorted individuals. Several times I took a few people into the other room to discuss quietly starting a gay magazine or organization. A few times I got three or four people who were interested but when I called them the next day, they would say it was party talk. They'd tell me, "The last thing I want to do is get in a room with a bunch of screaming queens. Nobody could agree on anything." I said, "Look, you're not a screaming queen. I'm not a screaming queen. Why are you bringing that up?"

They also thought that nothing would ever change. But unlike most people—due in part to my Marxist and science-fiction background—I did not believe that society was static. Most gays did. If you mentioned organizing, they'd say that society hated us and always would, that you couldn't change things. Well, I knew that society was changing in many ways and needed to change in lots of other ways. I instinctively took a political approach to social problems. I always said, "Let's do something." Well, that approach was alien to most people, particularly most gays, and particularly at this time. This was an enormously conservative, conformist period, probably the most conformist period in our history, or at least our recent history. We were coming into the McCarthy era.

Nothing came of my attempts to start a group of my own. Eventually, in 1952, I went to my first Mattachine meeting. My friend, Betty Perdue, took me. It was in someone's big house in Los Feliz. Betty was known as "Geraldine Jackson" in the movement. She wrote a poem, "Proud and Unashamed," in the first issue of ONE magazine, though she never managed to achieve that condition herself. A Lutheran minister also went with us. He was terribly nervous, nellie, and paranoid.

When we got to the house, we knocked at the door. It was a "Joe sent me" sort of thing. They knew Betty and the minister, so we went right in. There were about 180 people in the room, sitting everywhere. There was a circular stairway going up to a landing, and both of those were filled with people. About 80 percent were men, 85 percent in their thirties or younger. No one was underage. That was verboten.

The announced topic was, "What do we do with these effeminate queens and these stalking butches who are giving us a bad name?" It was a lively discussion, but it seemed to me that the ones at this meeting who were most worried about the problem happened to be the effeminate queens and the stalking butches.

It took me a while to speak up. I was pretty shy, but I finally blurted out this story about the first time I went to a gay bar in the late spring of 1943. It was the Black Cat bar in San Francisco. I told them how I was going to join my brothers and sisters for the first time. I was on a cloud of idealism, so high that I was walking down Montgomery Street four inches above the sidewalk. I got almost to the door of the bar. I didn't see them coming. By this time I had read eight or ten novels and had read several accounts of bar raids, so I knew what was happening.

Standing outside the bar, I had chivalric visions of mounting my white charger and going in to save my brothers and sisters, but instead I hid in the doorway across the street, feeling like shit, feeling cowardly, feeling guilty.

The first view I got of my brothers and sisters was when 12 or 15 drag queens and about 12 or 15 butch numbers—men who would be called San Francisco clones today—were led out of the bar by the police. All the clones were looking guilty, and practically all the queens were struggling and sassing the cops. I felt so good when I heard one of the queens scream at the policeman who was shoving her, "Don't shove, you bastard, or I'll bite your fuckin' balls off!" That queen paid in blood. They beat her and two or three of the others. I was still hiding in the doorway, wanting to do something, wanting to shout something, but I wouldn't have known what to shout.

When I finished this story I said, "Look, the queens were the only ones who ever fought. If not for the queens, there wouldn't have been bars that the rest of us could sneak into. Because of them, we could go to the bars and be gay for one night; we could let our hair down"--figuratively. "But when we left the bars, we pinned up our hair and pretended we were like everyone else. And they didn't." When we left the bars, we were very careful not to go out at the same time any of the queens did. Some of them were real cute about tricking us and would walk out the door at the same time one of us more closety ones went out. There was a two-step that you used to do as you went out the door. You would take the minimum number of steps you had to in order to get into a position where you appeared to be passing by the bar.

I got very angry at this attack on the queens. I said, "They're our front line. And they're not the ones who cause prejudice. People are much more upset when they find out that their neighbor or friend who wasn't obvious is, in fact, gay." I think that causes a lot more prejudice than some obvious queen. People can relate to the queens in the same way they relate to Stepin Fetchit.

The format of the meeting was such that you couldn't tell who was running it. There were unofficial co-chairs, but they were instructed not to act as if they were really running things, just to keep the discussion going. There were also people who made announcements of activities. "There's going to be a beach party" or "Why don't we have a beach party, and would some people like to volunteer for arrangements?" This secrecy about who really ran the discussion groups was intentional.

By the time I got to my second or third meeting, the gossip was getting around that some of the people in charge were Communists. That was very disturbing in this period of history, because almost all the people w ho came to the discussion groups were very conformist, and they loved nothing better than to say, "We're just like everybody else except for w hat we do in bed. We don't u ant any special rights. We don't want to rock the boat."

When I got more involved in the organization, I realized that the need for secrecy was exaggerated. This was due, in part, to the fact that Harry Hay, one of the founders, had been through the Party, which was a pretty secret organization. But Harry also had this idea that gays had been an underground society throughout history. He had developed a Masonic Lodge approach to running Mattachine. Some of the others, like Martin Block, thought all this secrecy was a lot of bullshit.

After the changeover in leadership in 1953, when Mattachine became an open, democratic organization, the society went into decline--for two reasons. First, the new leaders, who were ultraconservatives, wanted tight control of what the different chapters of the organizations did. The result was inaction—paralysis--because a chapter would decide to do something and the ultraconservatives would veto it. Second, the mystique was gone. The mystique of the original Mattachine depended on the impression that there were some big people behind the organization. That impression made it seem safe and made it seem as if there were people who would take care of things for us, so we only had to show up at meetings and discuss things like, "Should I tell my parents?" "Can you be gay and Christian?" "If we're really gay, do we have to swish7" But that wasn't the case anymore. Suddenly, we had to do something besides talk, and a lot of people weren't interested in that.

I stayed with Mattachine for a while after the changeover, but eventually I became more involved in ONE magazine, which had begun publishing in early 1953. It was not a very impressive publication, and we never sold more than a few thousand copies a month, but it was the first, and it was ours.

ONE's staff seemed a little closed at the time I tried to get involved. When I spoke to a couple of people who ran the magazine, Dorr Legg and Dale Jennings, about doing some work, I wasn't exactly snatched up. So I began coming into the office frequently and talking to Dorr about ideas for articles. I did one called "The Importance of Being Honest," which appeared in March 1954. Then I wrote an article on the British witch-hunt, which had begun in the middle of 19j3. Hundreds of men were arrested on homosexual charges, including several prominent men, among them actor John Gielgud. At the same time, a similar, more limited witch-hunt began in Miami. There were other witch-hunts later in various other places, including one in South Carolina at a black college and one at the beach in Santa Monica. So I began reporting on these sorts of things. Then I started writing a regular column called "Tangents." It was concerned with gay news, censorship, conformity, civil rights, gender oddities, and other subjects that seemed to relate to our field of interest.

I got lots of complaints about the column from readers because the news was bad. Bars raided. Guys murdered by someone they had picked up or someone who saw them on the street and thought they were queer. Public officials arrested in public tearooms. I explained several times to ONE subscribers that we did not have five hundred reporters scattered around the world to provide us with independent reports. I depended on the straight press, and those were the kinds of stories they were publishing about gays. I was buying as many out-of town newspapers as I could.

You could read most papers for a year without finding any gay news unless you learned how to read between the lines. They might not have mentioned the raid of a homosexual or queer bar, but they'd mention a "house of ill repute." And if several men w ere arrested and no women were mentioned as present, you assumed it was not a whorehouse In the article they might mention one man w as dressed in a "womanish" manner. When Time magazine mentioned the subject, they usually used words like epicene to describe someone. When they reviewed--holding their noses--Tennessee Williams or Carson McCullers, they would use the term decadent. You looked for those words and then read the whole thing carefully. Then you would go and investigate. So I would write to one of our subscribers in the place from where the story was reported and ask, "Is this a gay story?"

I also explained to readers who complained about the negative news, "If I should know that a gay person was made president of General Electric, do you think I could report that?" Of course, I couldn't. First, we didn't report that kind of thing because of the absolute code by which it was considered unfair to bring another person out. That was an individual decision. Second, I would not have reported that kind of thing because we would have been sued for slander. The person we identified as gay would have probably lost his position anyhow. It would have hurt everybody. There was no point to it.

I also followed conformity stories. For instance, I opened one column with the awful line, "Elvis, the pelvis doesn't amuse me." But I objected to what the local authorities were doing about his concerts, raiding them or refusing permission for him to perform because of his sexy gyrations. Of course, I had to show my superiority first. Actually it wasn't until the fifth or sixth song I heard that I thought Elvis was any good.

And I also reported on the slow development of long hair and the breakaway from orthodox clothing styles. I did a story on the owner of a Beverly Hills antique store who was arrested because he had a statue of Michelangelo's David in the window. Things like that. These were censorship questions in general. Censorship hit us extra hard with a double standard. Anything that was heterosexual was considered obscene if it was extremely disgusting, provocative, or sexually explicit or had an excessive use of Anglo-Saxon language or detailed descriptions of the mechanics of sex. Anything that mentioned homosexuality was obscene simply if it did not point out how terribly, terribly disgusting and evil homosexuality was. No detail was permitted. That was what got the magazine hooked by the post office.

The August 1953 issue, which had the phrase "homosexual marriage" on the cover, w as seized by the post office--using the obscenity hook--and released. ONE printed an angry article saying that ONE was not grateful to the postmaster for releasing it. Some people thought that the fact that the postmaster had released it signified that we were okay, but that wasn't the case because the post office seized another issue of the magazine the October 1954 issue, which ironically happened to have a cover story on the law of mailable material.

I think the reason behind the post office's seizure of this second issue was an article in the previous issue suggesting that everybody knew that J. Edgar Hoover was sleeping with Clyde Tolson, his close partner. That article attracted the interest of the FBI. Much later, through the Freedom of Information Act, we found a note from Hoover to Tolson, which I have a copy of somewhere in storage, saying, 'We've got to get these bastards." There was also a note to the post office from Hoover urging them to check into ONE.

At the same time as the seizure, the FBI showed up at ONE's office wanting to know who had written the article about Hoover. They also came to visit me a couple of times and visited most members of the staff. One of the FBI agents sat right there in that chair. I was nervous; it was a tense situation. They asked me if a couple of members of the staff were Communists, and I hooted and said that they were very conservative. They were. I probably shouldn't have even told them that. I did say that I had been a member of the Communist party and that I had been kicked out for being gay. They wanted me to name people I had known in the Party and what they did. I owed no thanks to the Party for kicking me out, but I would not give information about individuals who were in the Party, whom I still respected.

The case went up through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the courts found the magazine utterly obscene, with no redeeming social values. But for the time being, the seizure affected only the individual issue. We were only forbidden to mail out further copies of that particular issue of ONE. But then several other issues were held up for a month or two. So we began using extreme measures to mail the magazine. Each member of the staff would take several long drives. At each town we would go off the highway, find the mailbox, and put in five or six copies. Nothing was on the plain brown wrapper to identify the magazine. Just the addressee and our return address. We mailed no more than fifteen or twenty copies in any one town.

We did this for three or four months before we discovered that the post office knew exactly what we were doing. About five weeks after we mailed one particular issue from towns all over southern California, I got a call from the post office to come in. The post office had virtually all of the issues we had mailed out for that month on a couple of flats. You see, they were inspecting each individual copy of the magazine we sent out for anything that they could hold it for, and some of the packages we mailed didn't have enough postage. There were different enclosures in each issue, depending on whether someone was getting a renewal notice. So a lot of issues would be right on the line as to whether they needed more postage, and because Dorr Legg, who was in charge of running the magazine, was always so much of a skinflint, he wouldn't let us use extra postage.

When I was called down by the post office, I had to weigh each magazine and put extra postage on about one out of ten copies. After that, we figured there was no point mailing the magazines from all over the state, since the post office obviously had no trouble finding each copy of the magazine we mailed, no matter where we mailed it from.

The ONE obscenity case went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling, clearing the magazine. That was in January 1958. Unfortunately, though, there w as no written opinion from the Supreme Court. But the ruling sort of opened the floodgates to publications that discussed homosexuality. It ended the double standard over what was considered obscene, and we were never bothered again.

* Excerpted from: Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990, An Oral History, by Eric Marcus, HarperCollins, 1992. Eric Marcus' most recent book is Icebreaker: The Autobiography of Rudy Galindo, Pocket Books, 1997. Information about Eric Marcus'works can be found on his Webpage:


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