Readers loved the trailblazing publication, writing in to say, “I honestly thought I was the only one.” But gay publishing pioneer John Baker faced fierce opponents both in and out of the gay community over William & John. Some were determined to censor and ultimately close the magazine. He speaks with editor-at-large Gary Nunn.
John Baker was 21 and on the long train journey from Sydney to Melbourne, his heart in his mouth.
At the other end, shortly after he left Flinders Street Station for Victoria’s court rooms, he was sure he’d be sent to prison.
The reason for his court ordered appearance was an eponymous magazine he’d set up with William, his then boyfriend, titled William & John. It was the first ever commercial gay magazine in Australia.
But it was in trouble. The magazine contained nude male centrefolds, relatively tame by today’s standards, but scandalous back in 1972.
“Distributing indecent material” was the charge, more strictly enforced in Victoria than other states. In Victorian newsagents, full frontal nudes had to be ‘masked’ with little pouches. Sometimes, the offending phallus was scratched out or painted over.
Baker stopped counting after the 64th obscenity charge, which he’d pin to the wall of the magazine’s offices in Sussex Street, Sydney. Initially it was an act of nonchalance, but as the charges piled up and cluttered several noticeboards, it became clear the magazine’s opponents were relentless in their pursuit of him.
“It was very stressful getting prosecuted all the time,” Baker tells The Sentinel.
On that day, when prosecutors had finally got him into court, Baker remembers feeling defiant. The groundbreaking magazine was his baby.
“I was willing to go to jail over it,” he says. “I thought, ‘Stuff this! I’m not paying their fines!
No Mardi Gras, homosexuality illegal
Today, Baker, 71, can’t be sure if the ‘obscenity’ referred to the male nudes – soft pornographic centrefold pictures of solo men, no erections – or the gay themes of the articles.
This was more than 12 years before homosexuality was decriminalised in NSW, and three years before any Australian jurisdiction decriminalised homosexuality. He didn’t end up going to jail that day, instead sucking up the relatively low fine of $10 (about $100 today) ordered by the judge.
“I wasn’t going to go to jail over $10!” he quips.
But soon, the fines started adding up, threatening to bankrupt the magazine. A group of pro bono lawyers were helping fend them off – but it was only going to last so long.
Although the world was on the “cusp of change”, as Baker puts it, with counterculture, women’s lib and hippies cutting through the status quo, Australia didn’t yet seem ready for its breakthrough moment of reckoning for gay liberation. That was to happen six years later in 1978, with the first protest march through Sydney giving birth to Mardi Gras.
Gay lib and male nudes
That’s not to say that gay liberation wasn’t underway. William & John included material from activist group Sydney Gay Liberation.
One ad, titled GAY LIB, reads: “We are homosexuals who no longer want to accept the position society has defined for us. And that position is RATSHIT! But we can change this … we can debunk false perceptions.”
In his first ever editorial in the first edition of William & John, Baker writes that the magazine intends to “campaign for the rights of homosexuals, provide a voice for the camp community, publish great pictures and provide entertainment and information to stimulate, intrigue and please”.
It’s clear the publication was instrumental in setting the conditions and providing the infrastructure for the very first Mardi Gras protest march, along with other groups.
One such activist group was CAMP Inc, which published one of Australia’s first LGBTQI newsletters, CAMP Ink, from 1970 onwards, promoting gay liberation.
It was very different from William & John, which was much more of a magazine, with a focus on titillation, amusement and entertainment, in addition to gay liberation. William & John was a commercial publication, costing $1, and was available by mail order and in newsagents. Its print run was approximately 10,000 per monthly edition, which grew as it became more successful.
Time to organise, publicise and journalise the gay experience
John Baker first had the idea of publishing his own gay magazine as a result of being a copy boy for another magazine company.
“My job was to go around to all the photographers, publishers, the printers, the typesetters. I knew the model for magazine publishing,” he says.
Over parties and brunches with other gay men in Manly, where he lived, Baker shared his dream of one day publishing his very own gay magazine. Friends and peers loved the idea.
“The gay scene was completely underground then. You’d find out about parties via word of mouth,” he says.
It was time to organise, publicise and journalise the largely clandestine gay experience.
Baker’s boyfriend, William Easton, came up with the idea of calling it William & John – much to Baker’s distaste.
“I thought it was a bit egotistical, but William persuaded me!” he says.
Easton took the photographs for the magazine, while Baker commissioned writers and dealt with distribution, printing and sales.
He started by placing an ad for the magazine in left-wing paper The Nation Review – the only mainstream newspaper prepared to accept gay classifieds. The response shocked him.
“We received literally thousands of pre-publication subscriptions – people sent their money in envelopes!” he says.
It was a much higher volume than Baker expected.
“Immediately I thought: ‘This is a success! It’ll be a much more professional magazine than I’d imagined.’”
He used the money to rent offices on Sussex Street, with the vision of setting up a gay hub.
A publishing contact set up a distribution network – regular distributors refused to do so – and, suddenly, Baker’s innovative gay magazine was in newsagents across the country, ready to intrigue, please – and sometimes shock.
Some initial opponents came from within the gay community itself.
“A lot of the gay lib self-appointed leaders – the vanguard of gay activism – were from the University of Sydney and [the magazine] caused a ripple; I felt that group was quite conservative,” Baker says.
“They included people like activist Dennis Altman. They thought it was inappropriate because of the male nudity,” he says.
But male nudity was only part of the magazine’s offering. One feature, ‘The Pink Triangle’, details the atrocities inflicted upon gay people by Hitler in concentration camps, then only 30 years prior.
“Hundreds of books have been written about … the atrocities committed on the pitiable Jews,” the journalist writes. “But nothing, or almost nothing has been written about the homosexuals in Hitler’s concentration camps.”
Other pieces reflect the winds of change at the time – one is titled ‘The Abortion Laws: A Case for Reform’. Another feature explores if there’s a genetic explanation to homosexuality. It sits alongside a piece on venereal disease.
Another piece by former CAMP Ink editor Michael Delaney – who, incidentally, became John Baker’s boyfriend after he and William split – interrogates a professor of psychiatry at UNSW, who describes offering aversion therapy to gay men for whom their sexual orientation is a “stress that they’d feel better without”. He claims aversion therapy is successful and refuses to say definitively whether he views homosexuality as a psychological illness as there’s “not enough evidence to say it isn’t”.
There were also reviews, an advice column and cookery slots.
It was, perhaps, because of such salubrious content that Dennis Altman eventually decided to come on board in support by writing for the magazine.
Chaos and stress
Despite its popularity and any perceived professionalism, behind the scenes was, says Baker, “chaotic”.
“I was 21 at the time, and Michael was even younger, yet we were running the operation. We weren’t what you’d call organised or professional. Especially when it came to handling finances. Although Michael did love doing those kinds of interviews.”
Nonetheless, the money kept pouring in, via a mail order business and subscriptions. The staff team grew, including two lesbians who, in spite of the magazine’s definitive male slant, wanted to work for the pioneering publication.
The magazine grew in size and some of those initial raunchy black and white pictures became colour.
Curiously, no money came via advertising.
“I didn’t think anyone would want to be associated with us,” Baker says. “So I ripped off ads from other magazines, copying them and putting them in mine to make it look more respectable and professional.”
One such ad was for Absolut Vodka. “I think they almost certainly made profits out of it!” he says.
Baker began to be treated as guest of honour at parties.
“I remember going to a party in Melbourne and one in Redfern. People treated you like a celebrity. They’d say, ‘This is John – as in William & John!’ And people knew who I was! At other venues they’d announce us as we walked in.”
Then there were the letters – dozens of letters, glowing with gratitude.
“They’d say things like, ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this in the newsagents – I really, really appreciate you publishing something like this – I honestly thought I was the only one.’
“It felt good to hear that,” Baker says. “You knew it made an impact.”
Things soured between William and John. Furious that John had left him, William initially took the break up badly. But bigger challenges awaited.
A national current affairs TV show covered the story of the sensational magazine’s release. William, a science teacher at a Church of England Grammar School, featured in the broadcast. The ramifications were devastating.
“He lost his job over it,” Baker says. “Whether they asked him to leave, or he had little option due to the embarrassment and shame it brought him, I can’t recall, but I know he lost his job over it.”
When the law came knocking over the obscenity charges, William hired a lawyer and tried to shift all blame onto John.
“The lawyers advised him to say he was conned into it; that he’s not the type of person who’d publish a magazine like this; it was all John’s fault,” Baker says.
Fighting the censors issuing constant, mounting fines and legal threats for expensive obscenity trials eventually took its toll, as the “stress and chaos” built up.
After one year, two boyfriends, eight editions and more than 64 fines, Baker threw his hat in the ring and left publishing for good. The magazine folded shortly after in early 1973.
“I was tired of it – I decided to travel overland to London on the hippie dope trail,” Baker says. “It took a year to get there.”
When Baker returned, he checked the old mailbox on Sussex Street. Nothing was there. It seemed everyone had moved on and forgotten about the trail the magazine had blazed.
Then, Baker spoke to the postmaster. Hundreds upon hundreds of letters had been sent to the now defunct magazine in Baker’s absence. Every one had been returned to sender.
More than a decade later, whilst in Adelaide, Baker received some shocking news. William had died of AIDS. HIV had come to Australia’s shores.
“Despite our differences, I remember hearing that news and feeling both very sad, and also very scared,” Baker says.
Wiliam’s trailblazing legacy lives on alongside John’s.
The magazine has featured in an exhibition at the State Library of NSW and in various queer archives.
Andrew Creagh has edited two such magazines: Campaign, and DNA, which is still on newsagent shelves today.
“Editorially, they were incredibly progressive,” he tells The Sentinel. “William & John was what would come to be known as ‘lifestyle’ publishing; they weren’t all about the politics of the day, though that was in there.”
He sees direct parallels with DNA magazine.
“I see a direct lineage to what we’re doing now with DNA. There are sexy men, there’s politics, arts and an irreverent attitude. We do all that! The formula is very similar.”
In many ways, he says, they were way ahead of their time.
“Despite the limitations of print publishing back then, I was amazed at how contemporary it felt.
“Their covers, typography, fonts and layouts had a distinctive visual style right from the start. There are many queer fanzines being published today that have this same ‘low-fi’ retro vibe, which is regarded as pretty hip,” he says.
In his book Pink Ink: The Golden Era for Gay Magazines, author Bill Calder writes: “William & John was the first attempt at a commercial magazine in Australia, and among the first elements of the emerging gay economy.”
The “initial promise” of profitability, he writes, didn’t fulfil its potential due to “insurmountable difficulties”, but it paved the way for the magazines that were to follow.
Baker has outlived both boyfriends from his publishing days; Michael Delaney died in a car accident in 1982.
He’d love to see all eight editions of his groundbreaking magazine – the first to publish a male nude in Australia – one day on display in an LGBTQI museum in Sydney.
“I try to force my ego from it,” he says. “But as it was the first, I really think those magazines deserve a better place than just sitting around in my house.”
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