In the early 1950s when the homophile movement (the early name for the gay rifts movement) began, 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.
Chuck Holmes made a fortune as the founder of the Falcon Studios, a wildly successful gay porn studio who was one of the first to switch from film to videocassette in the 1980s. He later directed his fortune toward philanthropy, funding HIV/AIDS outreach programs, as well as San Francisco Community Center Project, Amnesty International, Global Green, Sierra Club, The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign. He was also active in supporting political campaigns both locally in San Francisco, and at the national level.
In 2002, Holmes’ name was installed over the San Francisco LGBT Center, and public outrage was swift. Detractors called the move, which was in recognition of the late gay mogul’s $1 million bequest to the beleaguered center, “insane.” The detractors feared 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.
In 2013, Equality Florida’s Tampa Steering Committee presented Jason Gibson, CEO and founder of Corbin Fisher, a leading “amateur” gay porn website, with its Service and Leadership Award. The award honors an individual whose tremendous support has directly contributed to Equality Florida’s ability to break through to a new level of outreach and effectiveness in the effort to secure full equality for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Corbin Fisher and Gibson gave more than $120,000 to Equality Florida in recent years, and employees have also contributed video editing and production skills to public service announcements. During the 2008 campaign seasons, Corbin Fisher assisted Equality Florida in developing a mobile voting website and provided legal services to the organization. These contributions continued even after Corbin Fisher moved its base of operations from Florida to Nevada in 2010. Since arriving in Nevada, Corbin Fisher and Gibson have contributed more than $25,000 to local and national LGBT advocacy organizations, Las Vegas’ arts and culture community, and the city’s new gay and lesbian center. Beyond financial contributions to LGBT groups and non-profits, the company said it encourages activism and philanthropy among staff — all employees of the company are given paid time off to volunteer for charitable organizations, continuing its policy where charitable donations made by individual employees to non-profit groups are matched by the company.
Rather than be a liability, pornographers can provide a strategic advantage to the movement. They not only know the legal restrictions and how to get around them both then and now, but the early gay pornographers 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 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. The same exists today with the internet, though the GLBT community is presented more in the mainstream media as well.
From the early days of gay liberation, porn has been embraced as a vital part of our cultural fabric. The very first issue of The Advocate celebrated a court victory won by two pornographers, Conrad Germain and Lloyd Spinar, who had faced 145 years in prison for sending nudes through the mail, on its front page. Gay sexuality was dangerous and subversive, and any chance to speak it, explicitly or otherwise, was a strike for freedom and visibility.
And at a time when mainstream media portrayed homosexuals as pathological, depressive and criminal, porn offered a sunny alternative. We might scoff at porn theaters now, but looking up at that screen, a closeted man could see a promise of gay life that was open and positive, with larger-than-life men who were bold and unashamed in ways he might only aspire to be.
For those who lived outside city centers, that same promise came in the form of mail-order magazines and 8mm loops, which was Chuck Holmes’ business. As the owner of the legendary Falcon Studios, Holmes had the widest reach of the early pornographers, and he was vocal about creating imagery that would make gay men feel proud of their sexuality. For tens of thousands of closeted customers in small towns across the country, those Falcon films were the “It Gets Better” videos of their day.
Pornographers contributed in thousands of other ways, of course — by funding the movement directly, by lending resources and distribution, by educating audiences about safer sex during the AIDS crisis, and by lending their mailing lists to fledgling organizations like the Human Rights Campaign Fund. Holmes served on the HRC’s Board of Directors.
But as the movement moved more into the mainstream, adult filmmakers were less and less welcome; their contributions pushed back into the closet. Checks, literally and metaphorically, were returned. Despite his tireless work on behalf of gay and progressive causes, only in recent years have pornographers been welcomed with open arms as Jason Gibson has been.
Some of you may see this history as a black eye on the movement, something that will hurt us in political fights over issues like marriage. I believe detractors and anti-gay politicians will always find something to hurt us until attitudes across America change enough that homophobic comments will only hurt those who say them. If we allow our sexuality to be a source of shame, and hide our history to appease our critics, we’re not nearly as out or proud as we think we are.