In 2002, pornographer Chuck Holmes’ name was installed over the San Francisco LGBT Center, and public outrage was swift. Detractors called the move — in recognition of the late gay mogul’s $1 million bequest to the beleaguered center — “insane,” fearing it would only fuel right-wing allegations about the gay community’s obsession with sex. What those critics missed, and what continues to missed over a decade later, is the role pornographers like Holmes played in building the gay rights movement we know today.
Several years ago, I set out to make a documentary about Holmes, Seed Money, which premieres this spring. During the process, I discovered how much we, as a community, owe to intrepid smut-peddlers like Chuck who risked their lives to help us live out ours.
You see, when the early homophile movement began in the early 1950s, the U.S. government didn’t differentiate between homosexual rights manifestos, gay erotica or dirty pictures. All were considered illegal, and using the postal service to distribute any of them could and did result in long prison sentences.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that pornographers, who had years of experience fighting those battles, were often prominent figures in the emerging homophile movement’s leadership. Jim Kepner, founder of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, was a noted author of gay erotica. Hal Call, one of the first presidents of the Mattachine Society, the pioneering gay rights organization in San Francisco, was an adult film director and owner of the Adonis Bookstore.
Rather than be a liability, pornographers could provide a strategic advantage to the movement. They not only knew the legal restrictions (and how to get around them), they had the money to fight the obscenity battles that cleared the way for greater discussions of sexuality. Pornographers were the advance troops of our sexual revolution.
Homophile organizations like Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis had publications, of course, but their reach — often just a few thousand circulation — was miniscule compared to that of “posing strap” magazines like Physique Pictorial and Tomorrow’s Man. It wasn’t political tracts, but pornography that provided most gay men with their first connection to — and awareness of — a larger gay culture.