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The History Of Race & Religion In GLBT Issues As Seen In Vintage African American Magazines

With a lot of the recent political conversation discussing the entwined struggle for civil rights between people of color and the LGBT folks, including the controversy that “rights” and “equality” have limits (sometimes based on the misguided “choice” to be gay, previous treatment, i.e. slavery, or even if only based on visual perceptions), the resulting fact is that many African-American churches are anti-gay. As a straight — but not narrow — white woman, I’m more than a bit reluctant to step in on the issue; but fearing my whiteness, my heterosexuality, and so remaining silent on the subject seems as much of a sin as when men retain their privilege behind a wall of silence on the matter of women’s equality. So, as a believer in equality for all, regardless of who has had it worst, here I go, adding my thoughts from a sex history perspective.

One thing I’ve always noted, and been rather fascinated by, is the number of vintage black publications — those by and for African-Americans, like Jet and Sepia — which seemed to cover less-than-mainstream sexuality in a very natural way. There were all sorts of outrageous, bawdy, and risque parties covered next to — and with the same ease as weddings, debutantes, and other society fare you’d find in “white” publication society pages. You can debate the cultural sensitivity and political correctness of much of it; but you can’t deny it was there. And what was there included covering cross-dressing, drag queens, female impersonators, and transgendered people.

While my collection isn’t properly cross-referenced, organized, categorized to make finding such things easily, we can be thankful for an Internet which makes the proof readily available — should you only search for it. (Kudos to my fellow collectors, such as vieilles_annonces on Flickr, who may hoard vintage magazines, but happily share what they have!)

Here’s an example:

GI’s at Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, Alaska, selected Elton Paris, a night club performer, as their favorite pinup girl. Later, they all had red faces when they discovered she was really a man who works in women’s clothes.

Note: There’s no red circle with a line through the Elton Paris’ photo, nor even an exclamation point in the text.

Jet, Hue, Sepia, etc., they were rather mainstream publications; despite the cheesecake on the covers (and inside pages), these were not men’s mags or smut rags. They regularly pushed fashions for black women. And there, too, were fashions for men who dressed like women. Like this story in Hue (April, 1954) entitled Female Fashions for Men.

And then I bumped into Charles Brown, who appeared in the July 16, 1953 issue of Jet magazine.

Charles Brown, 26-year old male shake dancer who plans to go to Germany for an operation which will make him a “woman,” shows friends in a Boston night club “correct technique” for displaying legs. Later Brown, who had hair set before visiting club, was arrested for wearing women’s clothes, fined $5.

Looking for more information on Charles Brown, I found this post at TransGriot which tells of Charles, who was born intersex, and her desire to physically become Carlett.  And there’s also this post on Carlett Angianlee Brown at I’ll Keep You Posted, which has lots more documentation (scans) from Jet on Carlett’s story. While I wish I knew what happened to Carlett, this isn’t just about her…

The fact that Carlett’s story and all the other articles on sexual fluidity are printed at all — and with an honesty which is refreshing both for it’s lack of moral and political lectures alike (often reports of eqthese people, events, situations, realities of injustice “just are”) — is amazing. In fact, there’s evidence that readers appreciated these stories for what they were.

A similar story to Carlett’s, that of Delisa Newton, From Man To Woman, was featured in the Volume 15, Issue 4 issue of Sepia (1966), prompting a reader to write into the magazine.

On page six in Sepia Volume 15, Issue 7, John W. Williams’ letter was published. We can only read parts of it from the “snippet” version of Google Books, but here’s the snips I could gather together; it may not be complete.

This shows just how much science is progressing, Your magazine is growing and really keeping up with the times. I am really grateful too, because I am a Negro and can greatly appreciate our magazines keeping up with the other national magazines.

Science is really wonderful, and God is a great God for having given man such wonderful ideas. We are living in an enlightened age and it is so wonderful that people are able to keep up with these changing times through the medium of the press.

I have much respect for Miss Newton for sharing her history-making information with the people of the entire world. Now that doctors know what to do about such malfunctions in the sex of a person, more people who have had the misfortune to be born that way, will be seeking help.

Sepia is a must on my reading list each month and has been for more than six years.

I’m sure the Delisa Newton story has gained you more readers.

Can you even imagine that happening today?

Me neither.

If such stories were told in magazines today, they’d be as sanitized as an airbrushed model — and people would respond with outrage. But back then, minority publications were, if not in a more enlightened age, acting more enlightened themselves. And readers responded in kind.

There may be a chuckle in many of these stories; but it seems to be a shared chuckle with the people & events involved, not at their expense. And maybe the stories and the photos exist more for entertainment, shock value, more than an educational purpose, but these stories are far more common in vintage magazines for people of color than they are in mainstream white magazines. Or the feminized male is purely a joke, a punchline. (The feminist in me must note that I’ve not seen so many stories of or attention paid to women seeking to become men; but I’ll hold off on that for now.) Even the frisky white men’s mags are void of such stories that minority publications, Jet et al., covered so regularly. Such stories, if and when they appear in publications for the majority, i.e. whites, are most often found in fetish publications.

Why is that?

And why did it change?

Clearly, there’s been a HUGE cultural shift. A prudish one which denies all “non-straight others” by omission. For people of all colors, as reflected in all publications.

Comments at the above articles on Carlett, and Jet magazine in general, express the same sentiments. And I think I’ll end with their thoughts.

In a comment, Della Belle says:

believe it or not , i have old cut outs from HUE magazine back in 1954 full of old school drag queens. They covered them at parties and a whole bunch of pics with them and their men. They covered it like it was nothing! there was no hate or anything published. They made it sound like one big great party! lol

Dynagurl writes:

We have gone sooooooooo far backwards. You try and get something like that printed today in an Ebony or Jet and all hell would break loose. These black megachurchs would have a melt-down. What in the world has happened to us?!?!

I picked up an old Ebony from 1950 and there was a big story about the drag balls in NY and Chi-town. Although a story about an inmate whom a pastor had labeled a pervert because he wanted a sex-change was included right next to it, still I’m just saying.

To which Transgriot replies:

Dynagurl,
We allowed the white fundies to infiltrate our churches to begin with, aided and abetted by the clones of Rev Ike and their ‘prosperity gospel’.

And Thomas echos that sentiment:

WOW, Corey, it’s fascinating to know that this scene even existed, let alone was chronicled by JET. What happened in the Black community? In so many ways and venues the tide has changed in our community as a result of de-segregation. I am starting to wonder about it’s effects.

Posted in Black Americana, Collecting, Gay, Magazines, Sex History.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Know The Fundamentals: Sex & Relationship Facts Rant « Sex~Kitten.net linked to this post on May 23, 2012

    […] and gender identification ~ something some of us seem to be struggling with more now than ever before. *heavy sigh* But get over it people. Face the facts. If you need help, I, of course, recommend, […]



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