Once upon a time, Barracks Row was home to a gay publishing powerhouse that helped define gay identity and community.
From 1958-1972 the building at 507-513 Eighth Street SE (formerly the Ward 6 COVID Center and now the home of Taoti Creative) was the site of one of America’s first gay presses.
Known as MANual Enterprises, it would be known as The Guild Press starting in 1964. The press published ‘art books’, physique magazines and gay fiction.
After a two-year battle, the little press on Barracks Row emerged victorious in 1962 with a Supreme Court verdict that said publications could not be declared obscene just because they were designed for the homosexual reader.
It was a huge victory for publisher Herman Lynn Womack, who had been appealing a conviction for sending obscenity through the US Mail. The ‘obscenity’ in question were physique magazines. Presenting themselves as body building and health publications, the magazines were intended for men who wanted to see photographs of nearly nude male bodies. They also reached a wide audience, giving men a window —and sometimes, a doorway— to a subculture of same-sex desire.
That was the root of the obscenity case against Womack: that these magazines were actually “obscene” because, like Playboy, they were a way for men to look at photos of sexually attractive bodies –just in this case, those bodies were male.
After multiple charges were brought against him in 1960, Womack fought the case, bringing MANual Enterprises v. Day (1962) all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1962, writing for a majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan ruled that the magazines did not meet the test of obscenity, “patent offensiveness.” They couldn’t be called obscene just because they were intended for gay men.
In the 1950s and 1960s, “homosexuality” was defined as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and same-sex attraction was looked at as abnormal and dangerous. ‘Homosexuality’ was compared to ‘communism’; thousands of gay men and lesbian women were purged from roles in federal government during the Lavender Scare. Even in private industry, people could lose their job for simply being suspected of same-sex interests.
So the case was a victory for Womack, and it was a huge victory for the movement. Scholars have called Womack a “first amendment pioneer,” and argued that the MANual court case affirmed the existence of both a gay identity and culture.
After his victory, Womack got bold. He started publishing an expanded list of materials from the Eighth Street Press. These included new titles on top of his physique magazines Grecian Pictorial, MANual and Trim; he continued to publish increasingly racy pulp fiction as well as non-fiction, one of the earliest gay travel guides and a male pen-pal service.
A Memorable Character
H. Lynn Womack, as he referred to himself, was a memorable character. Born in 1923 to tenant farmers in Mississippi, Womack transferred to George Washington University in 1941 where he finished an MA in psychology. In 1946, Womack left his second wife, deciding to fully accept that he was attracted to men. Finishing his PhD in Philosophy at Johns Hopkins in 1955, he went on to become a professor at George Washington University and later Mary Washington University.
According to historian Philip Clark, an investment in what turned out to be a scheme paid off. The judge in the resulting case determined that Womack was too much of an academic to be party to financial crimes; Womack kept the cash. In 1952, Womack used the money to purchase the printing plant on Eighth Street. He operated it as MANual Enterprises, the first incarnation of the business. He later bought Grecian Guild Pictorial magazine and began printing it from the press.
Womack was a striking figure and a slippery businessman. “A few years ago, by his own account Womack, a white-haired, white-complexioned man of 56 who appears to weigh at least 300 pounds, was the fourth largest pornographer in America,” noted reporter James Lardner, who covered Womack for a 1978 Washington Post article.
He weaponized the designation of homosexuality as an illness. In 1969, he had himself briefly committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to avoid creditors. By that point, Womack had several bookstores throughout the District, including along H Street NW and 14th Street NW in addition to his home at the corner of Seventh and E Streets SE.
A Larger Agenda
But Womack had an larger agenda than profit. As early as 1958, Grecian Guild hosted a convention in New Orleans presided over by an Episcopal minister who attacked negative attitudes towards the nude male body and the expression of emotions as puritanism.
Former St. Martin’s Press editor Michael Denney has said that the Grecian Guild, which boasted 40,000 subscribers in 1960, should be looked at as one of the earliest homophile organizations. (The term homophile was used by activists to create distance themselves from the use of the word homosexual to describe an illness. The use of “-phile” emphasized love over sex). For comparison, ONE magazine, linked to homophile rights organization the Mattachine Society, had 5,000 subscribers.
Readers lived in big cities but also in small towns and rural areas all over the country. In Guild magazines and books they read that they were not alone: like-minded people lived across the nation and the globe, they were ‘normal’, and they were t very different from most Americans. Characters in Guild-published stories often realize that men all over the world are attracted to men and that it was a regular part of life, often ending when the protagonist falls in love.
To many, these were revelatory and revolutionary ideas.
Aside from bringing tens of thousands of male readers together in shared print culture, the magazine also trumpeted ideas under Womack’s editorship. In 1963, an article argued it was censorship itself that was perverse, telling readers they need to take action in their own locales. “Don’t just lie down … spread the truth around. Insist on your rights at all times.” A July 1964 editorial in written by Womack called for public approval of homosexual men and women: “Homosexuals should be allowed to acknowledge their inclinations and be able to obtain public office,” he wrote.
By 1964, the Guild Press was publishing the International Guild Guide, one of the first gay tourism guide books, listing “only those places you will be welcome”.
End of An Era
But Womack’s print contributions were short-lived. His publications grew bolder; in 1970, the FBI raided his Capitol Hill press. The case ended in 1975 when he was convicted on obscenity charges that his newly-named Potomac News Company used photos of what were argued to be teenaged models, some completely nude and suggestively posed. His initial 7-and-a-half-year sentence was later reduced to six months. He moved to Virginia and then to Florida, where he died in 1985.
As Clark, the historian, has argued, the Guild Press contributed to the formation of a positive gay identity. They also helped build an early gay community: the publications provided ways for gay men to connect to one another, presented gay life as normal and celebrated gay sex and the male body.
H. Lynn Womack and the Guild Press played an important role in helping to form new attitudes towards gay life and establishing the existence of a homosexual identity and culture, a key part of the LGBTQ movement as it built strength in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some of the pages that bound the community together originated in a little place on Eighth Street SE, here on Capitol Hill.
Elizabeth O’Gorek is recovering historian and The Hill Rag’s general assignment reporter. Much of this article draws on work from the author’s unpublished dissertation. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.