The right of individuals to exercise free speech without fear of government censorship, coercion or crack down has been much in the news recently as President Trump tries to bully NFL owners into firing football players who “take a knee” during the national anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men.
The First Amendment is perhaps the most cherished—and most assailed—of constitutional rights, with the interpretation changing with time and administrations. That became abundantly clear on Wednesday as Americans learned that Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner died at age 91.
Hefner is widely believed to be one of the instigators of the sexual revolution of the 1950/60s, launching Playboy Magazine in December 1953 featuring a nude centerfold of actress Marilyn Monroe at a time when chaste ultra-conservative conformity and McCarthyism were in full swing. From the beginning, Hefner championed the First Amendment, not only by celebrating female nudity but by serializing such controversial works as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and in 1955, The year was 1955, science fiction author Charles Beaumont’s futuristic short story “The Crooked Man” in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is criminalized.
But perhaps Hefner’s greatest contribution to the sexual revolution and the parallel quiet movement for LGBT equality was the Playboy Forum where wide ranging discussions on taboo topics, including homosexuality, were enthusiastically encouraged.
“What makes Hugh Hefner really important is the combination of his belief in the First Amendment and his Playboy philosophy,” which rebelled against religiously-mandated codes of sexual morality, Charles Francis, president of the Mattachine Society of Washington DC, tells the Los Angeles Blade.
“He was an early supporter of LGBT equality,” says Francis. “Playboy gave a platform where the first serious considerations about homosexuality could take place, well before Stonewall. (Mattachine Society/DC founder) Frank Kameny had serious back-and-forth discussions with psychiatrists and psychologists who thought homosexuality was an illness and a perversion. The Playboy philosophy was basically liberally enlightened about sex and humanistic and empathetic— homosexuals should be treated as human beings, not as perverts or deviants. It wasn’t porn or smut; it was progressive and encouraged open-minded inquiry.”
In fact, Francis says, Frank Kameny introduced his famous slogan “Gay is Good” in the “Playboy Forum” in the March 1969 issue. The forum enabled him to express his outrage at “normal” anti-gay attitudes and policies.
“The Playboy Forum gave Kameny the space to engage in substantive debate, over years, with such psychiatrists David H. Barlow and Gerald Davison about aversion therapy and whether or not homosexuality was a mental illness,” Francis says. “Dr. David Barlow is a past President of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, and still very much alive.
In the day, Barlow was promoting various therapies at the University of Mississippi, including something called ‘fading,’ in which a patient seeking to be ‘cured’ of homosexuality would be exposed to a series of images, ‘fading’ from a naked young man into a highly sexualized black woman.”
Though the Playboy Forum pushed back on Frank “that homosexuality is a ‘compulsion based on phobic responses to heterosexual stimuli,’” Francis says, “the Forum itself was the only mainstream, popular platform to give him that much space and the ability to write at length about his ideas and reactions to psychiatrists like Davison and Barlow.”
Historian Mark Stein wrote in his 2010 legal accounting of the sexual revolution, Sexual Injustice, that Playboy created “what may have been the country’s most influential forum for public discussion about homosexuality during this period.”
Francis discovered in the Kameny Papers at the Library of Congress that “Playboy Forum Associate Editor Henry Fenwick actually shared with Frank many of the letters (names withheld) Playboy had received on these exchanges–from groups like Texas Advocates for Human Dignity,” Francis says. “Fenwick wrote Kameny on May 7, 1969, just months before the Stonewall riots: “In spite of our differences of opinion I hope we can continue to keep our lines of communication open. I believe the dialogue to be very useful, and we appreciate your continued cooperation.”
It turns out Hefner may have read Kameny’s “Gay is Good” missives, too. In a 1999 interview, Carrie Leigh, who lived with Hefner for five years in the 1980s and filed three lawsuits against him, told the Washington Post that Hefner’s infamous and misogynistic sexual swinging also included men.
The Post reported: “Leigh and other Hefner girlfriends from the 1980s say they were also disturbed by Hefner’s propensity for sexual encounters with men. Leigh says she interrupted Hefner’s liaisons with men a couple of times. The irony that this symbol of heterosexual male virility was involved homosexually was not lost on her. But her real fear was that it indicated Hefner’s only true interest in women was exploitive. ‘It bothered me. It totally flipped me out,’ she says. ‘I tried to accept it. He thought it was all okay.’”
Indeed, in the interview with the Post, Hefner acknowledged having bisexual trysts.
“There was some bisexuality in the heterosexual, swinging part of my life,” Hefner told the Post, adding that Leigh, who also had lesbian dalliances was “obsessed” with gays and her suspicion that he preferred men was only a “projection” on her part.
“I was testing the boundaries, just knocking down walls,” Hefner said. “That period of sexual experimentation is long gone.”
Aside from dabbling in bisexuality and promoting open discussions, Hefner also stood up for civil rights, gay rights, and opened his Playboy Mansion for AIDS fundraisers. When straight readers sent in angry letters about Beaumont’s sci fi depiction of straight people having to sneak into dark barrooms to find someone to love, Hefner was quick to reply. “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society,” he wrote, “then the reverse was wrong, too.”
But the greatest boon to Hefner and his Playboy Enterprises—and hence the goose that jump-started the sexual revolution and the sexual liberation movement was a gay lawsuit that reached the US Supreme Court—ONE Inc. v. Olesen, the landmark lawsuit that the gay publication, ONE Magazine, was not obscene and could therefore be sent through the US Post Office.
“ONE filled a very critical role for gays and lesbians during a very dark time,” BoxTurtleBulletin founder Jim Burroway wrote on January 13th, 2008, the 50th anniversary of the first gay victory at the Supreme Court on January 13, 1958.
ONE’s 1953 debut coincided with a major anti-gay push by the federal government, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower siding with communist and gay-hunter, Sen. Joe McCarthy, who framed gays as a subversive national security risk and a threat to the country’s moral fiber. Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 included a “sexual perversion” clause that prohibited gays and lesbians from federal employment; homosexuality was a crime in every state and considered a mental illness.
J. Edgar Hoover launched a major FBI crackdown on every aspect of homosexuality, from entrapment stings to confiscating and trying to shut down publications such as ONE Magazine, which was sold in gay bars and by subscription. The FBI, Burroway writes, “went so far as to write to the employers of ONE’s editors and writers (they all depended on their day jobs for income), saying that their employees were ‘deviants’ and ‘security risks.’ Fortunately, no one lost their jobs, the FBI decided it wasn’t worth their time, and ONE continued publishing.”
The U.S. Post Office then took up the mantle, with the Los Angeles branch checking each issue before shipping. In August 1953, postal authorities held up the issue on “Homosexual Marriage” for three weeks to check if it violated federal laws. It didn’t and it was released. ONE sniped back in the October issue, saying on the cover “ONE is not grateful”:
“It is true that this decision is historic. Never before has a governmental agency of this size admitted that homosexuals not only have legal rights but might have respectable motives as well. The admission is welcome, but it’s tardy and far from enough. As we sit around quietly like nice little ladies and gentlemen gradually educating the public and the courts at our leisure, thousands of homosexuals are being unjustly arrested, blackmailed, fined, jailed, intimidated, beaten, ruined and murdered.”
The victory was short-lived. Having seen a copy of the March 1954 issue—“The Importance of Being Different”— Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Alexander Wiley (R-WI), wrote a protest letter to U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, registering a “vigorous protest against the use of the United States mails to transmit a so-called ‘magazine’ devoted to the advancement of sexual perversions.” Allowing a homosexual magazine to operate, he wrote, “(a) runs utterly contrary to every moral principle, (b) runs utterly contrary to our intentions to safeguard our nation’s youngsters, (c) likewise, it is the very opposite of the entire purpose of our governmental security program…”
ONE tried not to get shut down through government censorship, having their young straight lawyer, Eric Julber, to write rules to avoid conflict. But the October 1954 issue featured a fictional short story entitled “Sappho Remembered,” in which two young lovers touched four times and declared their love—and, most deplorable—the story had a happy, not dire or suicidal ending. The issue also featured a snarky poem about the gay arrests of British notable and two ads postal authorities construed as promoting obscenity.
LA postal officials seized the “You Can’t Print It!” issue and, Burroway reports, “charged the editors with violating the 1873 Comstock Act, which prohibited sending ‘obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious’ material through the mail.”
Broke, ONE’s editors waited a year to sue, with Julber,30, taking the case pro bono. The ACLU, which was still defending anti-sodomy laws at the time, refused to help. Julber flew solo and it didn’t go well as he argued that ONE Magazine was not pornographic but educational. In March 1956, the judge ruled for the Post Office, as did the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in February 1957, writing that the magazine “has a primary purpose of exciting lust, lewd and lascivious thoughts and sensual desires in the minds of persons reading it.”
Julber filed his petition with the Supreme Court on June 13, 1957. He argued that lower courts had allowed publications advocating nudism, so why did the 9th Circuit “singled out and discriminated against” ONE because it dealt with homosexuality?
In fact, Hefner’s HMH Publishing Company sued the US Post Office in 1955 because Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield deemed Playboy obscene and prohibited its distribution through the mail. Hefner won and received $100,000 in damages, as well as Playboy being granted a “B” class permit to operate without the risk of government censorship.
In a quirk of fate, the Supreme Court had been dealing with the issue of obscenity in Roth v. the United States. New York book dealer Samuel Roth was appealing his conviction for selling and mailing sexually explicit books, circulars and advertising. The Justices upheld his conviction in a 6-3 decision, but narrowed the definition of obscenity, which is not constitutionally protected free speech under the First Amendment.
“All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guaranties, unless excludable because they encroach upon the limited area of more important interests; but implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance,” wrote Justice William J. Brennan, adding that “Sex and obscenity are not synonymous.”
The Court handed down its ruling on June 24, 1957, 11 days after Julber filed his petition. The Court took ONE’s case and rendered a one-sentence ruling in ONE Incorporated vs Olesen on January 13, 1958, reversing the 9th Circuit decision, expanding the First Amendment and limiting the Comstock Act. No longer branded “obscene,” ONE Magazine—and similar magazines—could be sent through the mail without legal action taken by the Post Office.
ONE editors noted this coverage from The New York Times: “The court today reversed a post office ban on a magazine, One, which deals with homosexuality. The petition for review filed by the lawyer, Eric Julber of Los Angeles, had apparently raised only one question: was the magazine ‘obscene’ within the statute banning importation of obscene matter? The court’s order appeared to answer: No.”
Hefner existed in a parallel universe, with Playboy Magazine, like ONE Magazine, also considered “smut” by the moral arbiters at the Post Office. And despite Hefner’s earlier win—and despite ONE Magazine’s win in January, by November 1958, the Post Office was after Hefner again, this time trying to ban the “lewd” Playboy from the mail system entirely. Hefner got a restraining order, which enabled him to keep distributing Playboy, while he continued to challenge the Post Office through the courts. Hefner won his lawsuit at the Supreme court, HMH Publishing vs the US Post Office in 1959.
ONE Magazine writer and editor Jim Kepner said Hefner was always grateful for the legal victory achieved by ONE Magazine at the Supreme Court, which paved the way for his victory—and for the sexual revolution. And gays were grateful, too, for the Playboy Forum that allowed them to see themselves as human beings, not society’s deviants.
Indeed, one can almost say that gays bought Playboy for the articles.