The first issue of the pioneering magazine ONE hit newsstands in January 1953.
Begun by an offshoot group of the Mattachine Society, ONE bravely offered “the homosexual viewpoint” to its readers, addressing such topics as gay bars, blackmail, and same-sex marriage during the conformist and repressive McCarthy Era. In 1958, the Supreme Court upheld the right under the First Amendment for ONE to publish and to be distributed through the mails. Thereafter, mere discussion of homosexuality in the U.S. could no longer be deemed obscene.
Among those on the staff of ONE were former Michiganders W. Dorr Legg and Irma Wolf.
The earliest subscriber to ONE in Metro Detroit was someone named Leo Janas, a resident of the Down River, blue-collar suburb of Wyandotte. Seven months after ONE began publication, Mr. Janas wrote to request a “sealed first class subscription,” taping a nickel, dime, and quarter to his letter to cover the cost of forty cents.
I came upon the original typed letter in 2010 as a doctoral student doing research for my dissertation in the records of ONE Incorporated held at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California.
In the course of all of my research, I could not possibly chase every lead or do an in-depth investigation of every name that I came upon in the archives. To ensure that the project not become more unwieldy than it already had, and for the sake of finishing, I had to be selective about who to pursue.
Something about Mr. Janas piqued my interest. Here was a real person, the first subscriber to ONE magazine from Metro Detroit, and from Wyandotte of all places.
My digging yielded more silences than revelations, more questions than answers.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS (Beneficiary Identification and Records Locator) File, a database available through Ancestry.com, Mr. Janas served in the U.S. Army from November 19, 1943 to May 4, 1946.
From searching through multiple years of the Polk’s Down River Directory at the Library of Michigan, I found Mr. Janas residing with his parents through 1953, the year he wrote to ONE. After the Army, he attended Stenotype College and then worked as a checker for the Earl C. Smith trucking company. The Polk’s directory that covers Lincoln Park, Allen Park, and Melvindale shows Mr. Janas working as an office manager for the same firm and living in the suburb of Melvindale from 1956 to 1960. By the late 1970s, he lived at 1633 N. Franklin in Dearborn and worked as a traffic manager for Aar Brooks and Perkins Corp. A decade later, he was back living with his parents in Wyandotte in the house where he grew up. By then he was working for the City of Detroit.
The Social Security Death Index reveals that his mother died in 1991. His father died in 1997. He died five years later.
On a visit to the Bacon Memorial District Library in Wyandotte, I found a perfunctory death notice for Mr. Janas in the local newspaper. It simply listed his surviving sister and brother and noted arrangements by Czopek Funeral Directors. I also looked through what yearbooks the library had, always a fun exercise. Mr. Janas’s senior portrait is absent from the Theodore Roosevelt High School yearbook. He is pictured, however, in the 1939 edition as a member of the International Friendship Club. It’s barely a blur of an image, but it puts a face to a name.
The death certificate for Leo Joseph Janas, filed with Michigan Division of Vital Records, fills out a few remaining details. He died April 28, 2002 at age 79 from arteriosclerotic heart disease. He also suffered from end-stage dementia. Different fields on the document record that he served in the military, that he held clerical jobs in the shipping industry, that he was categorized as white and of Polish descent, and that his body was cremated. For my own interests, box 12 indicates that he was “Never married.”
Just the basic facts: he was a World War II vet, a clerical worker, and a postwar suburban homeowner who seems to have cared for his aging parents and remained a bachelor to the end. Yet there’s so much more I wish to know.
At age thirty, Mr. Janas took out a subscription to one of the earliest homosexual publications, but how did he learn about its existence? What kind of gay identity, if any, did he possess? Did he have gay friends? Did he visit any of the gay bars in Detroit? Did he participate in any local gay organizations? Did he enjoy an active sex life or experience romances? Did he ever have a special someone? Did he ever suffer discrimination? What was he like? How did he even see himself?
In many ways, the silences surrounding Leo Janas seem so ordinary. Therein lies their fascination. Therein lies an ache for meaning.