Buying Gay by David K. Johnson

During the 1950s and 60s, magazines focusing on the male form exploded across the United States, and yet their academic value has mostly been ignored. These magazines, created largely by and for gay men created a “gay market” which ultimately crafted the bones for the broader gay movement. Fortunately and finally, historian David K. Johnson has thrown back the curtain on this period which he has dubbed the Physique Era of gay American history.

For many, on first examining these publications, it might be easy to dismiss them. Most contain images of “beefcakes” somewhat awkwardly, somewhat suggestively posing in revealing straps. And yet, Johnson successfully captures their formation as the genesis to a broader movement. Bob Mizer might have been pushing the bounds for male art photography for commercial purposes when he founded the Athletic Model Guild, but there’s a compelling argument that he laid the groundwork for a broader social movement in the process.

Johnson’s research, pulling from a wealth of archives and personal interviews, is beautifully constructed. He approaches this obviously as a scholar, but understands how to pull back and keep everything accessible to a broader audience. The result is a text that’s both academic and breezy.

This is even more remarkable as Johnson explores beyond Mizer’s beginnings. Plenty of other magazines were publishing at this time, and they receive attention. Then there’s the Adonis Male Club, a pen pal service; Lynn Womack’s gay book club; and the business directories of Directory Services, Inc. What connects all of these institutions aside from the gay factor is the adversity they faced from the American government. These sections, discussing specific actions and court cases and the resulting uprising, are the most engrossing.

Buying Gay is nothing short of a triumph for gay scholarship.


Title: Buying Gay
Author: David K. Johnson
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Classification: LGBTQIA+, Nonfiction

Johnson’s Twitter | Publisher’s Page | Goodreads


Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.

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