March 9, 2007
Volume 35
Issue 10
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Thursday, Oct 17, 2019



Past Out by Liz Highleyman
What is the history of ONE Inc.?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

ONE Inc., founded in the early 1950s, was at the forefront of the nascent homophile movement, and has played an important role in preserving GLBT history and culture to the present day.

In the wake of World War II, Los Angeles became the hub of a burgeoning homosexual community. In October 1952, two years after Harry Hay co-founded the Mattachine Society, several members decided to start the first gay magazine with a national circulation. The founding members included Dorr Legg, Donald Slater, Martin Block, Tony Reyes, Merton Bird, and Dale Jennings, who months earlier had become a movement hero when he successfully contested a false charge of sexual solicitation. The group was interracial from the start, and before long women took part, too, including Joan Corbin, Irma Wolf, and Stella Rush.

In November, the group incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization called ONE Inc. - inspired by writer Thomas Carlyle's "mystic bond of brotherhood that makes all men one." Its stated goal: "To promote the integration into society of such persons whose behavior varies from current moral and social standards." The first issue of ONE was published in January 1953. Along with essays, poetry, and book reviews, the magazine also featured the "Tangents" column by Jim Kepner, which compiled relevant news from around the world. Initially sold in gay bars for 25 cents, the magazine achieved a nationwide circulation of 5,000 copies by the end of the decade.

By the mid-1950s, the Mattachine Society had ousted its founders and turned in a more conservative direction, leaving ONE Inc. as the community's radical voice, promoting, in the words of historian John D'Emilio, "a stance of combative pride in being gay." In 1954, the Los Angeles postmaster refused to accept the October issue, branding it "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and filthy." ONE Inc. sued, and the case (ONE v. Olesen) made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In January 1958, the high court unanimously overturned two lower court rulings, affirming that gay publications were not, per se, obscene.

ONE Inc. also made history as the first homophile organization to open a public office. Located in a run-down area of downtown Los Angeles, the two-room office became the first de facto gay community center. As the only visible homosexual presence outside the bars, the young organization began offering social services such as job placement and help for newcomers to the city. Legg, the group's business manager, quit his job as an architect and was hired as the nascent movement's first full-time paid employee, earning $25 per week.

Within a few years, ONE began offering courses on various aspects of homosexuality and compiled a library of research materials. In 1956, Legg, Kepner, and retired University of Southern California (USC) professor Merritt Thompson established the ONE Institute of Homophile Studies, the first American academic institution dealing with gay issues. Two years later, the group created the first gay scholarly journal, the ONE Institute Quarterly of Homophile Studies. Kepner served as the initial editor, but left to concentrate on his own gay archives, which grew out of a collection of books and newspaper clippings he had started in the early 1940s.

In 1964, ONE began receiving funding from female-to-male philanthropist Reed Erickson, which for tax purposes was funneled through a new nonprofit, the Institute for the Study of Human Resources (ISHR). But the influx of money spurred disagreement about ONE's mission. In 1965, Legg, the chairman, installed his allies on ONE's board, and Slater (then editor of ONE magazine) retaliated by removing the contents of ONE's offices in a late-night raid. After a series of lawsuits, Slater obtained the organization's property, while Legg retained exclusive use of the "ONE" name. Slater changed the title of his magazine to Tangents and founded the Homosexual Information Center. Legg's faction continued to publish a separate magazine called ONE until 1968.

Under Legg, the ONE Institute and ISHR coordinated the compilation of an extensive bibliography of homosexuality and offered a public lecture series featuring GLBT luminaries such as Harry Hay and writer Christopher Isherwood, as well as heterosexual allies, including psychologist Evelyn Hooker and sexologist Vern Bullough. In 1981, the ONE Institute Graduate School of Homophile Studies was accredited by California to offer the first master's and doctoral degrees in GLBT studies. But the relationship between Legg and Erickson grew increasingly contentious, sparking a legal battle that consumed the organization's attention well into the 1990s. By 1986, ONE stopped granting degrees, though it continued its lecture series and maintained its library; Legg exercised control over the institute until his death in 1994.

In the mid-1990s, what remained of the ONE Institute and ISHR merged with Kepner's International Gay and Lesbian Archives. In May 2001, the combined ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives - the largest collection of GLBT material in the world - opened in a building donated by USC. More than 50 years after its founding, ONE remains, according to its current mission statement, "dedicated to collecting, preserving, documenting, studying, and communicating our history, our challenges, and our aspirations."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at

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