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Healy Thompson: Introduction to Africa in the U.S. Homophile Press, 1953-64

 

          Between 1953 and 1964, the three main U.S. homophile magazines (ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder) published 129 items that referenced Africa and Africans. This introduction provides a broad quantitative and qualitative overview of these contents.

          Determining what counted as an African reference was relatively straightforward. Every reference to Africa or any (known) African person, country, city, body of water, or other geographic location was included. Most notably all of North Africa was included, even though Egypt was also included in the content for the Middle East region of this project.

          The majority of the items identified were found in ONE (74 items), followed by Mattachine Review (44 items), and The Ladder (11 items).  While some of the differences in the quantity of coverage can be attributed to the fact that ONE began publication in 1953, Mattachine Review in 1955, and The Ladder in 1957, even during the period in which all three magazines were publishing ONE outpaced the other two periodicals in references to Africa. During the years reviewed for this project, the number of African items increased and then decreased, rising from 24 in 1953-56 to 56 in 1957-60 and then declining to 49 in 1961-64. Of the 118 items that referenced one or more specific sexes or genders or were authored by individuals who were identified with typically male or female names, 116 referenced or were authored by men and 85 referenced or were authored by women; most items (83) referenced both men and women, although many of these discussed homophile/homosexual men and (presumably) heterosexual women. No articles discussed women only, even when they focused (as they rarely did) on lesbians. A significant number of items referenced gender-crossing, masculinity in women, femininity in men, and other content that today might be regarded as trans* or intersex. Of the 129 items, there were 45 features, 22 reviews, 14 news items, 12 letters to the editor (11 of which were by Africans or people living in Africa), 12 works of fiction or poetry, 8 reprints, 7 miscellaneous items, 7 advertisements, and 2 editorials.

Items referencing North African locations and leaders made up the majority of what was published about Africa. Of those items, 36 were specific to Egypt (with no mention of any African location/leader outside of Egypt) and an additional 11 items referenced Egypt and also mentioned Africa. Ten items referenced only Morocco and/or Moroccan cities and 2 additional ones mentioned Morocco and Africa. There were 2 items whose only reference to Africa was specifically to North Africa and 7 items that mentioned only Algeria. There were several additional items that referenced places in North Africa and also referenced African cities or countries not in North Africa.

         While North Africa accounted for a clear majority of the items that made any mention of Africa, there were also numerous references to Africa (in general) and to South Africa (in particular).  There were 24 items that mentioned Africa without referencing any specific locations within Africa. Seventeen items mentioned only South Africa or cities in South Africa and an additional 9 items mentioned South Africa or South African cities along with other African countries or cities (making South Africa the most referenced country after Egypt).

         Interestingly, while North Africa accounted for more than half of the total items, it only accounted for one-quarter of the letters to the editor (two from Morocco and 1 from Algeria). Seven (58%) of the letters were from South Africa or mentioned South Africa and two were from Southern Rhodesia. The fact that none of the letters was from Egypt, the country that accounted for almost one-third of all items mentioning Africa, reflects a broader pattern in how Egypt was discussed in these periodicals during the 1950s and early 1960s.  Approximately half of the items that mentioned Egypt referenced Ancient Egypt and a large percentage of the remaining items used Egypt as a setting for a fictional work (or reviewed a book in which Egypt was the setting). In fact, most references to Egypt were only minor/passing references. In addition, of the 13 items that said something substantive about Egypt, 6 were about Ancient Egypt and/or were fiction.       

          Advertisements for, references to, and reviews of the 1961 book Camel’s Farewell by Harry Otis accounted for 9 of the references to Africa in the 3 magazines between June 1960 and March 1962, and 7 of those references were in Mattachine Review.  During this same period, Mattachine Review had just 9 additional items that mentioned Africa (4 of which were advertisements for or reviews of other books). As a result, readers of the Mattachine Review during 1960-1963 who were interested in sexuality in Africa would have found nothing substantive on the subject other than a fairly detailed section of an article in February 1960 (“Homosexuality Among the Indians and Other Native Peoples Around the World”) and the advertisements for and reviews of Camel’s Farewell.

          Throughout the period studied, both ONE and The Ladder had more substantive content about Africa (as a percentage of their overall content that referenced Africa) than Mattachine Review did. Excluding letters to the editor (whose content, when written by someone in the region, was always considered “major”/substantive for this project), 6 out of 10 items (60%) that referenced Africa in the Ladder had something substantive to say about the region. For ONE, it was 24 out of 67 (36%). For Mattachine Review, it was 15 out of 50 (30%), four of which were advertisements for Camel’s Farewell.

          Both minor and major references to Africa in the U.S. homophile magazines reflected and produced  “knowledge” about Africa in the context of the post-World War II decolonization of much of Africa. In this context, many items in the periodicals discussed or referred to current or past customs, traditions, or laws in Africa and directly or indirectly compared these to customs and laws in the United States.  There were three primary ways in which this was done.

          First, as has been mentioned, a significant number of the items that mentioned Africa referred to Ancient Egypt. Some of these items referred to the sexuality of Egyptian gods, goddesses, or leaders and others referenced Biblical stories involving Egypt. In many cases, items referencing Ancient Egypt portrayed it as more sexually liberal and more open to homosexuality and bisexuality than modern-day U.S. culture was. This view of Ancient Egypt as a more welcoming place for people interested in same-sex sex or cross-gender expression was reinforced by numerous fictional pieces set in Ancient Egypt that were printed in or reviewed by U.S. homophile magazines.

     Second, modern day Africa (especially North Africa) was portrayed in both fiction and nonfiction as a good travel destination for those seeking adventure and/or greater sexual freedom. Sometimes these items played heavily on exoticized images of Africa and Africans, especially in terms of their physicality and sexual openness.  For instance, Cecil de Vada’s short story “Mona Lisa” in the September 1960 issue of ONE is narrated by a white woman who travels to Africa with her husband. She is much taken with their female servant, Mona, whom she describes as “tall, slim, and graceful of carriage and the loveliest dark girl we had seen in our six visits to Africa.” The wife explains that her husband, who casts “furtive glances” at Mona, is oblivious to any attraction between the two women and leaves them alone for the night.  The narrator explains, “It surprised me how quickly Mona’s primordial passion awakened to my overtures.” In other cases, African countries or cities were simply presented as practical options for homophile travelers because of the opportunity, as R.H. Stuart put it about North Africa in the December 1955 issue of ONE, “to make a friendly acquaintance by a quite obvious approach and to know that you do so without danger.”

          Third, and related to this, indigenous cultures in Africa were presented as less sexually repressed and more open to homosexuality (or homosexual behavior) and gender variance than U.S. culture. Some items that referenced African cultures were written from an anthropological perspective and presented as objectively factual. Other items were written by non-Africans who had traveled or lived in Africa and were sharing (in fiction or nonfiction) their observations about African cultures. While both of these types of items were often written from a colonial perspective, they almost always presented their observations in (what at least the piece’s author would consider) a positive light. Given this, a reader of The Ladder, ONE, or Mattachine Review between 1953 and 1964 would have been presented with significant “evidence” to reinforce common thinking that Africa and Africans (with the possible exception of South Africa/ns) were stuck in the past and were less civilized than their counterparts in North America and Europe, but they would also likely have been led to conclude that this was largely a positive thing when it came to acceptance of sexual and gender variance.

         In addition to these three ways in which Africa was compared to and contrasted with the United States in regards to culture and sexuality, there was a fourth major theme for items referencing Africa. All three publications included articles about overpopulation. Population growth in Africa was often cited alongside population growth in Asia as an area of specific concern. This focus on overpopulation reflected similar concerns among the broader public during that time. However, unlike the many feminist counterparts that advocated birth control and sterilization initiatives to stem population growth, those who presented their views in The Ladder, Mattachine Review, and ONE argued that homosexuality was a natural solution to overpopulation and that it should be encouraged rather than discouraged.

  In many ways, references to Africa in U.S. homophile magazines served writers’ desires to reflect negatively on U.S. culture or escape from their daily lives. However, there were several items, primarily in ONE, that shared information or news about issues in Africa and presented that information in a way that suggested that Africa was newsworthy in its own right. Notably, the “Tangents: News & Views” section of ONE highlighted news from Africa on several occasions. For instance, one issue (Sep. 1955) reported on a sex change in Johannesburg, South Africa, while another (Dec. 1956) discussed censorship in South Africa and the modernization of divorce, child marriage, and polygamy laws in Tunisia. The April 1963 “Tangents: News & Views” column referred to population concerns in Egypt while also specifically discussing the efforts of the Egyptian government to distribute contraceptives to mitigate those concerns. In addition to “Tangents: News & Views,” the January 1956 issue of ONE carried a feature written by a South African (or someone living in South Africa) about censorship in South Africa.

            In conclusion, the views expressed in The Ladder, Mattachine Review, and ONE reflected broader thinking about Africa at the time in that they focused on the historical and Biblical significance of Egypt and relied on (presumably white) travelers and intellectuals from the United States to tell the stories of Africa (often making no distinction between different countries or regions within the continent). However, homophile publications differed from their mainstream counterparts in presenting various African cultures as superior to U.S. culture in their views of and approaches to sexuality and gender variance. Whereas for the general U.S. public, the sexual and gender customs of some African communities were considered backwards, uncivilized, and excessive, the same customs were portrayed in a positive light within the pages of the main U.S. homophile publications.