On this date, ONE Incorporated v. K. Olesen (355 U.S. 371) was decided by the United States Supreme Court. It was a historic decision for the civil rights of LGBT people in the United States, as it was the first time the Supreme Court had explicitly ruled on homosexuality.
Background: The idea for a publication dedicated to homosexuals emerged from a Mattachine Society discussion meeting held on October 15, 1952. ONE Inc.’s Articles of Incorporation were signed on Nov. 15, 1952 by “Tony Sanchez” (a pseudonym), Martin Block, and Dale Jennings. Other founders were Merton Bird, W. Dorr Legg, Don Slater, and Chuck Rowland. Jennings and Rowland were also Mattachine Society founders. Merton Bird and Dorr Legg were also founders of The Knights of the Clock, a support group for interracial gay couples that had begun in Los Angeles in 1950. According to ONE Inc.’s Articles of Incorporation:
…the specific and primary purposes … are to publish and disseminate a magazine dealing primarily with homosexuality from the scientific, historical and critical point of view, and to aid in the social integration and rehabilitation of the sexual variant.
The name of ONE Inc. and their magazine of the same name originated from a quote from Thomas Carlyle and appears on the title page: “A mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one .” Despite the quote, ONE readily admitted women, and Joan Corbin (as Eve Elloree), Irma Wolf (as Ann Carrl Reid), Stella Rush (as Sten Russell), Helen Sandoz (as Helen Sanders), and Betty Perdue (as Geraldine Jackson) were vital to its early success. The magazine continued publication until 1969.
In January 1953, ONE: The Homosexual Magazine, the first U.S. pro-gay publication, had its inaugural issue, which was sold openly on the streets of Los Angeles. It sported a very sophisticated look, with bold graphics and professional typset and design. ONE’s slick offering quickly caught the attention of gays and lesbians across the country, and circulation jumped to nearly 2,000 within a few months — with most subscribers paying extra to have their magazine delivered in an unmarked wrapper. Tame by modern standards, ONE hardly matched the girlie magazines of the time and only delicately talked about sex. The content initially consisted mainly of essays on topics of interest to the gay community but also included stories, poems, and book reviews. (In one short story, a lesbian couple touched each other four times before living happily ever after — which was apparently the story’s real crime in the eyes of the government.) After a campaign of harassment from the United States Postal Service and FBI, the Postmaster of Los Angeles declared the October 1954 issue obscene and therefore unmailable under the Comstock laws. The magazine decided to sue. Interestingly, even the ACLU wouldn’t represent it, having defended the constitutionality of laws that made homosexual behavior criminal, but nevertheless ONE‘s editors did manage to find a lawyer.
Decision: The first court decision (March 1956) sided with the Post Office, in which U.S. District Judge Thurmond Clark stated that “the suggestion that homosexuals should be recognized as a segment of the populace is rejected.” The magazine also lost before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (February 1957), which described the October 1954 issue of ONE as “morally, depraving and debasing.” However, to the surprise of all concerned, an appeal to the Supreme Court was not only accepted but, citing its recent landmark decision in Roth v. United States 354 U.S. 476 (1957), the Court, without even waiting for oral arguments, reversed the 9th Circuit in a terse per curiam decision (meaning that they held the issue to be so obvious that no lengthy written opinion was needed).
Remarkably, the news media gave the Supreme Court decision scant attention. The coverage of it in the New York Times read in full:
Reversed unanimously and apparently on the same ground [as in a previously mentioned case involving nudist magazines] a Post Office order excluding from the mails a magazine dealing with homosexuality.
Nevertheless, the case was a landmark, establishing the right to send gay and lesbian material through the mail. It gave life to the country’s incipient gay civil rights movement, more than a decade before the Stonewall Riots. Yet even today, many gay rights activists likely haven’t heard of One Inc. v. K. Olesen. That’s probably because it was followed by four decades of hostile rulings from the nation’s top court, relegating gays and lesbians to second-class citizenship.
- Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price, Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001).