The Secret Gay Network Of Midcentury American Businessmen

In the 1950s, closeted businessmen found community, friendship—and sex—on the road.

The mid-20th-century traveling businessman has become an archetype: A lonely guy with a briefcase, traveling from one anonymous office to another, cut off from both deep social ties and his own deepest feelings.

But, for a subset of these men, historian Nicholas L. Syrett writes in The Journal of the History of Sexuality, a life of business travel represented a sense of freedom that would have been impossible in earlier decades. Studying the letters of around 50 gay men, Syrett finds a hidden world of community, friendship, and sex that seem born of that particular era.

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In the 1940s and ’50s, interstate highways, growing car ownership, and affordable flights turned travel into a standard part of business life, creating a unique masculine culture on the road. It’s not surprising, Syrett writes, that “a workforce composed almost exclusively of men—at least at the level above that of secretary—should have led to homosexual practices among at least some of its participants.”

Many men who had sex with men in the pre-Stonewall era were deeply closeted, or else didn’t use their sexual behavior to define their identity at all. But Syrett writes that the 50 letter-writers he studied identified as gay, at least privately, and did not marry women. On the other hand, they didn’t necessarily move to big cities with visible gay communities either.

The men writing each other were generally quite conservative and uninterested in challenging the sexual politics of their time. “Their primary experiences with gay culture seem to have come through travel and the connections that it fostered,” Syrett writes.

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At the center of the loose network of men writing to each other was Stewart Samuel Howe. In 1930, Howe founded an agency that maintained contact between fraternities and their alumni. His work involved frequent travel to his offices across the country and to college campuses.

For decades, Howe exchanged letters with other gay men he met through his work, sometimes making introductions. In one typical letter, a friend of Howe’s wrote him to say he would welcome a visit from a young man who sounded like a “most desirable house guest” based on Howe’s description.

Howe’s business and sexual worlds often overlapped: He found sexual partners among recent college graduates he met through his work with fraternities and hitchhikers he picked up in his travels.

Often, he went on to recommend these young men for jobs or for posts in the Armed Forces, or as potential sexual partners for his gay friends.

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Many of Howe’s correspondents did the same, fostering connections among men all over the country.

“In letter after letter, one man wrote to another about someone he should look up when visiting or moving to a new town,” Syrett explains. “Others detailed the fact that they have made these recommendations or recounted their good fortune in having received such a connection.”

Syrett also notes that despite their transgressive behavior, the men writing each other were generally quite conservative and uninterested in challenging the sexual politics of their time: “Though they were clearly not engaged in a struggle for gay liberation… these men organized in service of their own personal liberation and did so through corporate capitalism and not leftist political organizing.”

A version of this story originally appeared on JSTOR.

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Vice and Pacific Standard.
@LiviaGershon