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Why Aren’t Libraries Saving These Gossip Rags?

To reconstruct the story of queer America, we need to open up its tabloids. 

Empty book shelves, c. 1900. [Library of Congress]

A few years ago, while researching trans life in the 1930s for my new book The Other Olympians, I stumbled across the headline  “Sex Repeal! Science Solves the Riddle of Man-Women Wonders.” The article was published in the September 1939 issue of a New York-based tabloid magazine called True, which chronicled the lives of bank robbers and devil worshippers, had an occasionally estranged relationship to facts, and ran from 1937 to 1974. Curiosity piqued, I did some digging. Copies of True were not held in any institutional archives that I could find. But this specific issue, along with dozens of others, was available on eBay. I decided to pay $21.50 to buy it. 

Article in True, ​​​1939. [Michael Waters]

Over the years, magazines like True — tabloids, gossip sheets, and other publications that traffic in scandal — have provided the scaffolding for my research into the queer past. As a journalist, I have written about gay book clubs and gender-neutral pronouns, often focusing on the decades before Stonewall, when you have to get creative to find sources that document people who challenged gender and sexual norms. The scandal sheet Sensation, which was published throughout the 1940s and 1950s in New York, is the only magazine that gave Barbara Ann Richards, a high-profile Los Angeles trans woman, the space to write about her life in 1941. The grocery store tabloid Whisper, which printed an article on “How Beach Towns Fight the Homo Invasion” in the 1960s, was an essential source for my research into the history of gay beaches. This racy coverage of queer people was hardly exceptional. Other articles in Whisper chronicle New York City’s status as the “Homo Capital of the World”; a 1962 edition of the tabloid Top Secret offers advice on “Hidden Homos — And How To Spot Them!” Both Whisper and Top Secret were frequently stocked in grocery stores throughout the 1950s and 1960s. 

Perhaps because of their perception of unreliability, few institutional archives have worked to preserve these magazines. You’d be hard-pressed to find any library — maybe with the exception of the Kinsey Institute in Indiana — with more than a couple token copies of WhisperTrue, or Top Secret. The only two issues of a short-lived pulp magazine called Harlem Stories — which, in one 1932 story, chronicled lesbian love in Harlem nightclubs — is all but lost. Meanwhile, the full run of Broadway Brevities is fragmented across the personal collections of scholars, most notably the historian Will Straw. But the institutional failure to preserve tabloid magazines is proving to be a mistake. These dubious rags contain some of the frankest depictions we have of the early-20th-century queer community. 

Dig into the footnotes of any historian of the gay and trans past, and you’ll start to see publications like these. Broadway Brevities — a Jazz-Era tabloid that regularly reported on gay nightlife, with headlines like “Third Sex Plague Spreads Anew!” or “Queer Female City Bars Men!” — served as a major source for historians like George Chauncey, author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. In the notes for that book, Chauncey wrote that he bought copies from used bookstores and visited a mix of personal and public archives across New York, Boston, and Bloomington. The historian Hugh Ryan used the L.A. magazine Confidential, which published an article in 1959 on “Love Without Men in Women’s Prison,” for his book on queer life in the Women’s House of Detention. Ryan told me found the article through eBay.

Cheaply printed and widely disseminated, pulp publications were much less costly than the highbrow magazines — in 1950, while Vogue retailed for 50 cents, Whisper was available for a cool 25. They weren’t beholden to corporate interests; no high-profile company would have wanted to advertise in their pages, anyway. “Tabloids are allowed to tell the truth because they’re so disreputable,” Ryan told me. “You can find these salacious truths, queer truths, in these kinds of places at times when you can’t find them anywhere else.” Sure, pulp magazines were brimming with stereotypes and half-truths, and they sometimes did real damage to their LGBT subjects: Confidential, for instance, is best known for outing Liberace and threatening to out Rock Hudson. But they were also the only publications bold enough to report on some big stories that took power to account.. Ryan pointed out that the edition of Confidential he used for his book — the one about lesbian love in prison — had, on its cover, an inconvenient truth for the automobile industry: “Car Exhausts Cause Lung Cancer!” 

In the traditional hierarchy of media sources, low-brow gossip magazines, built on sensationalism and lurid speculation into personal lives, tends to score poorly. Although Confidential hired a former cop to be a “fact verifier,” it is clear that most of these magazines don’t let fact checking get in the way of an attention-grabbing and embellished detail. While traditional newspapers considered sexuality too impolite to discuss, True cast courtesy aside. Most struck a consistent note of disapproval, playing on homophobic and transphobic tropes so as not to ruffle the feathers of police, or the public at large. But there’s a twist here: sometimes, even the homophobic coverage seemed to be written with a wink, as if these magazines knew that many queer readers were buying copies, too. 

It is precisely that commitment to eschewing social norms that makes tabloid magazines so valuable today. Queerness exists only in glimmers in the archives of the New York Times, which often steered clear of covering the gay community and didn’t even put “gay” in its style guide until the 1980s, but it is part of the texture of the mid-century tabloid magazine. To reconstruct the story of queer America, in other words, we need to open up its tabloids. 


One thing that makes tabloid magazines so fascinating is that they had two tracks of readers, who seemed to understand the same stories very differently. A straight, cis reader could page through them, and buy a copy off the stand, without batting an eye. But while they outwardly condemned queer communities, tabloids, intentionally or not, also served as a handy guidebook for people who wanted to locate others like themselves. In the 1930s, gay activists like Elver Barker read Sexology, a pulp magazine that strove to answer Americans’ questions about sex science, to learn about the wider queer community. Elver remembered making the pilgrimage to the newsstand in his town of Newcastle, Wyoming, alongside “another gay boy.” 

Today, historians practice a third way of reading these tabloids. We must untangle the artifice — I’ve encountered more than a few stories that seem to be entirely made up— while also interrogating how queer and non-queer audiences might have received them. Reading these magazines, I’ve learned to trace the breadcrumbs. Often, they gave leads about the bars or beaches where queer people congregated, and how police and the public responded to them. In these publications, a researcher can find trails of queerness that warrant further investigation: a place or a person, say. In the 1960s, Whisper noted that the city of Cape May, New Jersey, passed a new ordinance to “curb the erotic activities of vacationing queers” who had launched “the biggest beach assault since the D-Day invasion of Normandy.” That led me to newspapers that reported on Cape May, where I was able to find out what these policies were. 

Although Broadway Brevities often discussed these communities with a chiding tone, their write-ups revealed an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of gay life.“They’d say things like definitely don’t go to this bar on Friday nights unless you want to see perverts, and the doorman’s name is Frank,” Ryan told me. Even the gay beach article in Whisper was written by someone with the pseudonym “I.M. Kamp” — almost certainly a nod to the queer reader, who pried open the pages of Whisper not to gawk at gays invading the beach but rather to join them. 

Perhaps the finger-wagging posture toward queer people was the best way to get the story past police officers who confiscated magazines like Sexology that took a generally more sympathetic tone, and seized copies of one of America’s first outwardly gay magazines, ONE, in the 1950s. Writing about queer communities through a lens of disapproval allowed tabloids to get these stories into print without worrying as much about a crackdown. At the same time, their zeal for racy stories made them feel inessential, the detritus of the media ecosystem, unworthy of preservation. And so while they managed to survive an era of anti-obscenity laws,they struggled in the decades since to survive the inattention of those who would just as soon assign them to the trash heap of history.

I thought about this a lot when my copy of True arrived from the eBay seller. The article I had been waiting to read claimed that “51 authentic cases of sex reversal” — meaning, people changing sex — “have been reported in all medical history.” The man I was most interested in, the trans athlete Mark Weston, whose life is chronicled in The Other Olympians, made an appearance. He was described as “a famous English athlete” who “suddenly discovered that she was supposed to be a he.” Sure, True included some dodgy details about gender transition — for instance the claim that “a tumor may change a man into a woman or a woman into a man.” But I suspect that to a queer reader in 1939, the article also would have been an excellent reminder that they were not alone.