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More than 110 years ago one of the pioneers of gay liberation was born in a small town in the American midwest. Through his writing and his work with Dr. Alfred Kinsey, Samuel Steward - better known to many as Phil Andros - helped shed light on the gay male sexual cultures of the pre-Stonewall era, recalls OutUK correspondent Liz Highleyman.
Steward was born in July 1909 in Woodsfield, Ohio and went on to become a poet, novelist, and university professor who left the world of academia to become a tattoo artist and pornographer.

Steward had a middle-class, Midwestern upbringing, and earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. at Ohio State University. While he was a student, Steward began a correspondence with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, which developed into a long-term friendship after he visited them in Paris in 1936.

When they asked if he was gay, he replied that he went both ways: "I don't see why I should go through life limping on just one leg to satisfy a so-called norm."

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Steward spent his early career as a college teacher. He was fired from a position at Washington State University after administrators deemed his first novel, Angels on the Bough (1936), too racy. He then moved to Chicago, where he taught at two Catholic universities, Loyola and DePaul. Throughout this time he kept extensive secret diaries, journals and statistics of his sex life, while he tattooed sailor-trainees from the US Navy's Great Lakes Naval Training Station, as well as gang members and street people out of a tattoo parlor on South State Street.

A colleague at the university introduced Steward to Dr. Kinsey in 1949, not long after the sex researcher had published his groundbreaking Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male. Kinsey's revelation that a sizeable portion of the population had engaged in homosexual activity "simply blasted this damn country wide open," Steward later recalled, adding that gay men regarded Kinsey as a saviour. Steward became an unofficial collaborator, providing Kinsey with information about the homosexual cruising scene and the nascent leather-S/M subculture.

Steward had gotten interested in S/M in his twenties. At the time, there were no specialty leather stores, and he bought his first leather jacket from Sears. Kinsey "went hog wild" over the small assortment of whips and other gear Steward had commissioned from a local saddler, and insisted on having everything duplicated for his own collection. On one occasion, Kinsey arranged for Steward and a sadist from New York City to visit his institute in Bloomington, Ind., where the two men were filmed engaging in S/M for three consecutive afternoons.

Even before he met Kinsey, Steward had been a compulsive record-keeper. Over the years, he documented 5,000 sexual encounters with 800 partners, including a brief affair with Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, a fling with Lord Alfred Douglas, and 211 encounters with a woman named Emmy. Although he saw a few hustlers on a regular basis for many years, he never had a long-term lover. "It would be nice, you know, to have a man around the house," he once wrote, "but if not, you settle for a dog."

By the early 1950s, Steward had grown frustrated as a tea cher, describing DePaul as "a kind of co-ed religious kindergarten" and the student body as "cowed, clannish, and conformist." As a sign of his "anti-intellectual revolt," Steward - who played bit parts with various ballet and drama companies - decided to get a small tattoo for a role. He soon left teaching and became a tattoo artist himself, working under the name Phil Sparrow.

Steward's working-class clientele opened his eyes to "a much more vibrant and vital life than I'd ever had up to that time." Tattooing took much of his time away from socializing at gay venues, but that suited him fine, since sexual prospects now walked into his South State Street shop. "I didn't have to go cruising," he recalled. "They all came to me." Steward had many sexual liaisons in his shop's back room, often with men who did not identify as homosexual. "[I]t was a lot more natural than the phoney middle-class morality that I had been familiar with," he later told an interviewer.

After Illinois raised the legal age for getting a tattoo, Steward moved to Oakland, Calif., in 1965. Although he continued to work as a tattooist for a few more years, he devoted an increasing amount of time to his writing.

Steward garnered the most acclaim for gay male erotica written under the name Phil Andros ("lover of men"). With titles like $tud, The Greek Way, and Different Strokes, many of the tales relate the adventures of the narrator, Phil, a young hustler (based largely on the real-life experiences of Steward and his acquaintances). Unlike the guilty, self-pitying homosexual characters typical of the era's literature, Phil was exuberant and unapologetic. According to the late author John Preston, Steward was "a pilgrim reporting on the multi-faceted mysteries and fantasies of a sensual experience that contradicted the mass-market concepts of the unhappy, guilt-ridden, tragicomic homosexual." In the 1980s, Steward wrote a series of mystery novels (including Murder Is Murder Is Murder) featuring Stein, Toklas, and a gay writer modelled after himself.

Steward died in 1993 at the age of 84. Men like Steward "who were willing to be themselves when doing such was dangerous and illegal," says author and leatherman Jack Rinella, "paved the way for you and me to live our lives openly and proudly."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

For further reading:
Kissack, Terence (editor). 2000. "Alfred Kinsey and Homosexuality in the '50s: The Recollections of Samuel Morris Steward." Journal of the History of Sexuality.
Steward, Samuel. 1977. Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Houghton).
Steward, Samuel. 1990. A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks, 1950-1965 (Haworth).

 

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