Sam Steward

I learned a lot about Queer history as I did research for Blackmail, My Love, including the importance of the postal service. This sounds boring, but it’s not. I knew that the postal service played a central role in the evolution of obscenity laws: an effective way to prevent books about certain topics from being published was to make it illegal for them to move through the mails. Distribution becomes nearly impossible – or very dangerous. But I hadn’t though about the way this might have affected Queer individuals personally: how dangerous it made it for them to write love letters, for example, or send homoerotic pictures, even drawings, through the mail. One of my favorite research reads was Justin Spring’s Secret Historian, about the life of Samuel Steward. Steward was an apparently mild-mannered professor by day, and a sex renegade by night – he had lots and lots of erotic encounters, many of them anonymous, some of them paid for, some in groups, some solo – every kind of erotic encounter you could imagine, except one ensconced in a long-term monogamous relationship (which he disdained – but that’s another story). Later Steward wrote some of the earliest trashy gay pulp novels, and became official tattoo artist of the Oakland Hell’s Angels.

He knew all kinds of people – he gave Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas a Mix Master, which they adored. He and Alfred Kinsey became good friends, because they were both obsessed with sex, and obsessed with record-keeping and categorization. Steward provided a lot of information to the Kinsey Institute, and might have worked for them except that at the time you were required to be “demonstrably heterosexual” in order to be hired there. He was extraordinarily brazen, and extraordinary fortunate in getting away with it. He’d write a letter to a friend, for example, and then add some homoerotic illustration over the top. Suddenly putting that letter in the mail could put him in jail – and the FBI on the trail of its recipient.

Steward kept a record of all of his erotic encounters, what he called his Stud File: a huge box of index cards on which were written (in code) details of each of his many, many erotic encounters, including the activities they engaged in, his playmate’s cock size, etc. In the back of the file was a clipping, from a Texas newspaper, which gave an account of a woman there who was sentenced to jail time based on an erotic diary she kept: a diary. I love the fact that Steward kept this clipping at the back of his stud file: it’s like he was telling us that he knew exactly how dangerous it was to live his life the way he did, and that he was living it anyway. A friend of mine, Seth Eisen, created a performance piece about Steward’s life called “Homo File,” and the actor he found to play the part happened to be an aerialist, so he integrated that into the role, which I think is brilliant: there Sam Steward is on stage, hanging from the rafters, dangling upside down while he’s chatting with Alfred Kinsey. That’s how dangerous it was to be a Queer man in the fifties who wanted, and had, lots of sex.