1960s Homophile Culture and Politics in Drum: Sex in Perspective

1960s Homophile Culture and Politics in <i>Drum: Sex in Perspective</i>

By Travis York ’23

Throughout 1960s America, as individuals, organizations, and governments were attempting to stamp down on same-sex activities and deprive gay Americans of their equal rights, a mass movement for LGBTQIA+ equality swept the nation, as seen through various media sources. At the time, LGBTQIA+ identity was still forming, and many activists used the phrase “homophile movement” to describe their activism, which often centered on cisgender white gay men. Homophile organizations battled for recognition, an end to discrimination, and full equality. While every generation seems to have some revolution around morality and sex, the 1960s saw this revolution in a new form. Historians often view the homophile movement that emerged in the 1960s through the lens of organizations such as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and the American Civil Liberties Union. This has tended to present a singular narrative, yet many approaches were found in numerous organizations, small and large. Conflicts arose out of this divergence in etiquette within the homophile movement.

Drum: Sex in Perspective

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away." --Henry David Thoreau
Masthead for Drum: Sex in Perspective, taken from April 1965 issue. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 794.

The homophile magazines available within Mudd Library’s American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001) and Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219) are rich in their insight into the multiple methods of activism taken up by homophile organizations. One such approach, as described in the magazine Drum: Sex in Perspective in 1966, positioned “the homosexual’s chief problem…as an inability and reluctance to hold his head high as a homosexual.” Combatting this inability to reconcile with one’s own identity, Drum’s editor Clark Polak hoped that Drum’s

comments about the movement will: 1) create spirited discussion of movement objectives within the movement; 2) encourage those on the outside with ability to try to bring rationale to the seeming chaos; [and] serve as a much-needed check and balance for the movement leadership.

 Drum was a vital player because it combined the cultural and political.

First published in October 1964 by the Janus Society in Philadelphia, Drum usually ran as a monthly publication. The magazine explained itself as being “published monthly by male homosexuals for the entertainment and information of other male homosexuals” in September 1966. Drum featured anything from political news and opinion pieces to satirical essays and comic strips; it even included nude photographs of men comparable to many physique magazines of the 1960s. While this magazine offered a limited run from October 1964 to January 1969, its contents give significant insight into the conflicts within the homophile movement of the 1960s.

"Harry Chess, that man from A.U.N.T.I.E. (#0068 7/8), the rugged, virile, sensuous, clever, top agent of A.U.N.T.I.E.--(Agents'-Undercover-Network-to-Investigate-Evil)" with an illustration of a hairy-chested man
“Harry Chess” opening panel, Drum: Sex in Perspective, March 1965. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 794.

The magazine may have been most notorious among its readers for its running comic strip, “Harry Chess,” beginning in the April 1965 edition of Drum. “Harry Chess” first appeared next to the magazine’s “Beginner’s Guide to Cruising.” Readers often supplied their critique and praise for the comic strip in Drum’s “Ask Drum” section. “Harry Chess,” written and illustrated by the figure “A. Jay,” was raunchy, edging on explicit, and spoke directly to its audience. The muscular, loosely-clothed protagonist, Harry Chess, is a secret detective with A.U.N.T.I.E. (Agents’-Undercover-Network-To-Investigate-Evil). With his trusty sidekick Mickey Muscle, he fights the evil forces of his opponents such as Lewd Leather and his Terrible Motorcycle Boys. The comic queered tropes from popular contemporary media. Even the organization’s satirical name, A.U.N.T.I.E., parodies the network television show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which ran on NBC from 1964-1968. The language of “Harry Chess” was inherently queer-coded and spoke to the often-secret lifestyles of many queer men.

Drum celebrated the sexuality of men in 1960s America. Its insistence on overtly sexual themes signified the right for gay men across America to be emphatically proud of their sexuality. Polak stated in the September 1966 issue that “the primary problems facing the homosexual are the same as those facing the heterosexual: a general anti-sexual culture and climate,” and that “the homosexual problem is diminishing and the greater expansion of the so-called sexual revolution will continue to diminish it.” Polak’s commitment to a sexual revolution in America becomes clear in “Harry Chess.” In many ways, the comic is the epitome of Drum in that it openly stood for a male queerness that should be unabashedly bold and public.

The political ideology presented within the pages of Drum is situated within its appearance as a cultural magazine. From the beginning of its publication, Polak used Drum as a direct mode of critiquing official government policies and others fighting for and against homosexuality. In November 1964, Polak directly engaged the 1964 election between Democrat incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Republican opponent Senator Barry Goldwater, saying,

Covers of "Muscleboy," "The Vikings," and "The Young Physique" showing muscular men
Physique magazines of the 1950s taken from Drum: Sex in Perspective‘s October 1965 issue, which included an article focused on the history of the genre. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 794.

the morality plank in the Republican Platform is a direct expression of desire to control the private morals of the citizenry, but it is no more an interference than practices of the various agencies under the Democrats.

Through both satirical and editorial pieces, Drum consistently and explicitly pointed out hypocrisies within the laws oppressing gay Americans. While Polak used Drum to criticize government policies, he also used the platform to dismiss the criticism other homophile organizations leveled at Drum. Referring to the Mattachine Society of New York in the December 1965 issue, Polak claimed that “there are those who hold that the homophile movement’s real place in the community consists of just continuing to exist and this ‘state of being’ so to speak is sufficient raison d’etre…There are others who feel the movement should take a completely passive, educational stance.” Beyond the Mattachine Society, Polak criticized any homophile organization that viewed his approach to liberation as distasteful and distracting. In the August 1965 issue of Drum, Polak critiqued the homophile movement as a whole:

In constantly associating the movement with the essentially true, though not altogether useful view that homosexuals are identical with heterosexuals in all areas other than that of choice of sexual object, the individual homosexual is further alienated from the groups designed to attract him and isolated from the community at large.

Drum’s cultural and satirical pieces often masked its political tone, but the magazine consistently used its platform to send political messages to its audience.

Cover of Drum showing a man in a swimsuit holding a hat
Drum‘s photography often drew upon tropes familiar to readers of classic physique magazines, as seen in this cover (Drum: Sex in Perspective, August 1967). American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 794.

Throughout the homophile movement of the 1960s, various organizations aimed their aggression not only at the government and culture of homophobia but at each other as well. Drum magazine represents one strain in a long legacy of LGBTQIA+ activism, yet there has been limited historical analysis of it. Many of Polak’s contemporaries tried to diminish the role of Drum in the homophile movement, but, upon reflection, it is clear that Drum’s ideology still influences how we imagine activism today. Analyzing Drum brings up questions about the different approaches to achieving equality. In what ways was the movement for LGBTQIA+ equality one of culture versus politics? What role did satire and sexual innuendo play in creating an equal society? And the question most central to Drum in the 1960s is still relevant today: How can equality be achieved in a society that suppresses and even criminalizes the notion of queerness?


American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)

Arthur C. Warner Papers (MC219)

For Further Reading:

Armstrong, April C. “Early LGBTQIA+ Publishing and Civil Liberties During America’s ‘Lavender Scare’.”

Murphy, Michael J. “The Lives and Times of Harry Chess.” The Gay & Lesbian Review, (March-April 2014): 22-24.

Johnson, David K. “Physique Pioneers: The Politics of 1960s Gay Consumer Culture.” Journal of Social History, Vol. 43, No. 4, (2010): 867-892.