Sage Milo: Introduction to the Middle East in the U.S. Homophile Press, 1953-64
The three main U.S. homophile magazines of the 1950s and early 1960s (ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder) published more than 120 items that referenced the Middle East and the people living in the region. This introduction provides a broad quantitative and qualitative overview of these contents.
Determining what counts as Middle Eastern content in the U.S. homophile periodicals, for the purpose of this project, was somewhat challenging. All specific references to the Middle East (or Near East as it was sometimes called) and any of the countries, cities, and peoples within the region were included. In some cases, individuals who were from the Middle East were included, even if the content is not directly related to the region (as in the case of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran). It should be noted, however, that even coming up with a list of countries to include in the Middle East required some decision-making. Armenia, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, for example, were included, although they are not always regarded as Middle Eastern. Another question concerned the inclusion of biblical and mythological references, as well as those that were mainly to Greek or Roman history but involved the Middle East. In this case the decision was made to include items with specific geographical references to the Middle East, as well as references to Middle Eastern individuals or stories that seemed to have particular significance for the homophile community, such as David and Jonathan, the Emperor Elagabalus, and Sodom and Gomorrah.
Of the 123 items identified, 61 were found in ONE, 46 in Mattachine Review, and 16 in The Ladder. There was at first an increase and then a decrease over time in the number of Middle East items; it rose from 14 in 1953-56 to 61 in 1957-60 and then went down to 49 in 1961-64. The most frequent geographical references in the homophile periodicals were to Sodom, Egypt, and Persia, mostly in historical rather than contemporary contexts. Of the 97 items (including letters) that referenced a specific sex or gender, 82 referenced men and 27 referenced women. None of the letters mentioned women and no letter that specified the gender of the writer was by a woman. Of the 123 items, 4 were letters to the editor by individuals or institutions from the Middle East; 6 were letters from the United States that referenced the Middle East, 11 were works of fiction or poetry, 23 were book or film reviews, 10 were news stories, 10 were media reprints, and 49 were news or features.
Only 4 letters to the editor came from individuals or institutions in the Middle East: 3 to Mattachine Review, 1 to ONE. They were mostly requests for copies or information and in that respect do not tell us much about the ideas of Middle East readers, the conditions of LGBT people in the region, or their perceptions of the United States. However, they do tell us something about the international reach of U.S. homophile periodicals, including a glimpse at how readers found out about their existence. A reader from Saudi Arabia, for example, wrote that he got the name of Mattachine Review from a Danish magazine (MR, Oct. 1961, 30). The Institute for Sexual Research in Tel-Aviv, Israel, stated that it received “related papers from ten different countries,” but “we have not yet received the Mattachine Review” (MR, Sep.-Oct. 1955, 37). There was no mention of how the authors learned about Mattachine Review, but it may have been through one of the other homophile magazines they received (all the titles they mentioned were European).
While Middle Easterners did not share their perceptions of the United States or the U.S. homophile movement in the letters published in the homophile periodicals, the authors and editors whose work was published in ONE, Mattachine Review, and The Ladder produced distinctive “knowledge” about the Middle East, particularly about the approach to sexuality of different cultures and countries in the region. U.S. homophile periodicals produced a dual representation of the Middle East as both more liberal and progressive and more conservative and traditional than the United States (sometimes referring to the “West” more generally). This duality is evident in representations of the Middle East in the past as well as the authors’ own time.
Representations of the Middle East as historically more liberal include references to the Bible, especially to the story of David and Jonathan (ONE, Sep. 1953, 22) and to cultures in the region that, according to the authors, had more deeply embedded traditions of homosexuality, homosociality, and gender fluidity. The authors of these types of representations usually focused on Egypt (ONE, Apr. 1957, 5) or Persia, and they invoked Persian poetry in particular (Mattachine Review, Feb. 1956, 25). There were multiple references to Elagabalus, a Roman emperor of Syrian descent who was said to have had several male lovers and even married one, who took the title of queen upon marriage (Mattachine Review, Apr. 1962, 9-11). These cultures were interpreted as being if not explicitly accepting, at least as environments favorable to homosexuals. Some of the items also represented the contemporary Middle East as more liberal than the United States. One piece about Israel, for example, stated that the country was much like the Orient in that “nothing is less difficult…than to make a friendly acquaintance by a quite obvious approach,” and that while there were not many “pure” homosexuals in the country, sex between men, mainly young, unmarried ones, was quite common and generally accepted. In relation to women, however, the author wrote that “one often sees the lesbian type in Israel, but one seldom sees a lesbian.” This contributor also mentioned that the laws against homosexuality were so mild as to be considered nonexistent (ONE, Dec. 1955, 6-7).
The perception of the Middle East as accepting of same-sex sexual relationships can be found as well in the fiction published in the homophile periodicals. An example of this would be the short story “That Nubian” by Harry Otis. This story of an American brother and sister traveling together to the Middle East focused on the sister’s failure to draw the sexual attention of a man she found attractive, while her brother enjoyed the open attitude of Egyptian men to homosexuality. This was presented as natural to the Egyptians (ONE, Mar. 1958, 22-25). Historian Craig Loftin notes that the depiction of “Oriental” people as sexually uninhibited and in touch with a natural eroticism was common in the homophile press and in Harry Otis’s stories in particular. Loftin also discusses the representation in Otis’s stories of “ugly American” tourists, those who complained about local customs, here represented by the sister (Loftin, Masked Voices, 76). The brother in this story was presented as a more “enlightened” type of American tourist in his ability to connect to and enjoy the sexual freedom of the Middle East.
Representations of the Middle East as more conservative in earlier historical periods tended to focus on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and letter writers especially used this story as evidence that the Bible was clearly opposed to homosexuality (The Ladder, Aug. 1962, 8; ONE, Feb. 1964, 30). It should be noted, however, that references to Sodom and Gomorrah were also made by authors to support the opposite position. Authors often stated that there was no evidence to support the claim that homosexuality was the sin that brought about the cities’ destruction (ONE, Nov. 1963, 19; ONE, Jun. 1964, 31; Mattachine Review, Mar. 1958, 16-18).
Contemporary examples sometimes treated the perceived conservatism of the Middle East as just common knowledge, such as a reference to Iran by the author of a report reprinted from the San Francisco Examiner. The author recorded the shock caused “here in conservative old Persia” (though initially referring to Iran) by American women wearing pants (The Ladder, Nov. 1957, 11). In one case Middle Eastern conservatism was portrayed as a remnant of historical values and customs: ONE reported on a case in Israel in which a husband was given a suspended sentence for “’having carnal knowledge of a woman against the order of nature (sodomy)’.” The explanation followed: “Of course the woman was his wife, and she gave her consent, but it made no difference in a land where Old Testament standards still are The Law” (ONE, Nov. 1964, 18).
Other elements to note about Middle East content in U.S. homophile periodicals include the fact that most of the writing was about men and seemed to be geared towards them. As mentioned earlier, none of the letters from or about the Middle East were written by or referenced women. With the exception of a mention of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut (whose name was spelled Hatsheput) as a “transvestite” and keeping a harem of both men and women (The Ladder, Feb. 1959, 11), the historical examples were of men who had sex with men. The discussions of the Bible and its approach to homosexuality also focused on male homosexuality, mainly referring to the men of Sodom. Another feature of many of the pieces about the Middle East is that they depicted same-sex relations in earlier periods and in different cultures as being essentially the same as homosexual relations in the mid-twentieth century U.S. context (Mattachine Review, Jun. 1961, 15-19; ONE, Feb. 1963, 22-24; Mattachine Review, Feb. 1956, 23-27)). This was used – explicitly in some cases, implicitly in others – as an argument for the universality of homosexuality and without acknowledgement of the historical and cultural specificity of the experiences. These representations also often conflated homosexuality and homosociality.
In conclusion, the Middle East seems to have been featured in the U.S. homophile press for its historical significance to Judeo-Christian cultures (especially to religious and legal attitudes toward homosexuality), as support for arguments about the universality of homosexuality, or in comparison with the United States, whether direct or not. This last element is interesting in light of recent representations of the Middle East, particularly the Islamic parts of the region, as more sexually conservative and oppressive than the United States. While the authors in the homophile magazines depicted the Middle East as conservative in some instances, the overall image was one of sexual freedom both for locals and for Westerners visiting and living in the region.