Flipping-the-Script of Gender Politics
F Mira: Capulanas, 2009 (CC)
To understand what is so special about Bachelor, it’s important to note the context. In 1937, although queer nightlife thrived in major cities, there were no formal queer organizations. One of the first such groups, the Mattachine Society, did not arrive until 1950. The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian-specific group, appeared in 1955. ONE Magazine—often credited, dubiously, as the first gay magazine in the United States—didn’t start publishing until 1953. The main exception was a small Chicago group called the Society for Human Rights, which was raided by police in 1924. In a sign of the times, a Chicago Examiner headline dubbed the gay-rights group a “strange sex cult.” (The Society for Human Rights had a newsletter of its own, Friendship and Freedom—maybe the first explicitly queer publication in US history—but police confiscated it, and no copy survives.)
Meanwhile, publishing anything explicitly queer came with its own dangers. The Comstock Act classified any gay content as “obscene”; police would regularly shut down publications that spoke too frankly about homosexuality. The queer coding in magazines like Bachelor wasn’t just meant to wink at queer readers—it was also the only way a publication that wanted to discuss queerness could survive.
Bachelor entered newsstands amid that media abyss. And, as time wore on, it only seemed to get more queer. A typical article praised a watercolorist named James Reynolds for “conjur[ing] up so vividly…certain Greek gods and heroes.” One issue featured a sketch of two men holding hands; another featured an illustration of two naked women, who whispered to each other, “Don’t look now, but I think we’ve come up in the wrong magazine!” George Platt Lynes, a queer photographer, wrote for Bachelor about the “amorous regard” he developed for his subjects—for the sake of straight female viewers, of course. (In Work! A Queer History of Modeling, historian Elspeth H. Brown writes of Lynes’s piece, “The joke is on any chance heterosexual readership of Bachelor magazine, though not, of course, on the gay men who surely read it.”)
Whether Criswell really wanted Bachelor to appeal to queer people is unknowable, though probably unlikely. There’s no evidence of her having a special knowledge of or relationship to the queer community. Rather, Criswell intended Bachelor as a flipping-the-script of gender politics: whereas plenty of magazines of the era sexualized women, Criswell wanted hers to cast a romantic spotlight on men. “Half the business of history has been investing women with romance,” she told reporters in January 1937, just a month before the official launch of Bachelor. “It’s time somebody started lending glamor to men, especially unmarried ones.”