POLAK, Clark (b. 15 October 1937; d. 18 September 1980), activist.
One of the most important homophile activists of the 1960s, Clark Phillip Polak was the president of the Philadelphia-based Janus Society (1963–1969); the founder, publisher, and editor of Drum magazine (1964–1969); and the leader of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (1965–1969). Also the owner of several sex and pornography businesses, Polak consistently challenged the homophile movement to join the sexual revolution and affirm gay sexual culture. Relentlessly pursued by local, state, and federal authorities who accused him of violating obscenity laws, Polak was forced to relocate in the early 1970s, beginning a second career as a gay activist, real estate investor, and art collector in Southern California.
Polak was born in 1937 to middle-class Jewish parents in Philadelphia. Years later he claimed that he began having sex with boys at age five and was known as queer at Central High School. After flunking out of Pennsylvania State University, Polak became a businessman in Philadelphia, doing quite well as the owner of Frankford Personnel and Northeast Advertising Service. By the late 1950s Polak was living in Center City, the heart of gay Philadelphia. In 1957 he was arrested and released on disorderly conduct charges; the circumstances surrounding that arrest remain unclear.
Having encountered Donald Webster Cory's influential book The Homosexual in America (1951) in the 1950s, Polak joined the Janus Society in 1962. In 1963 he organized a Janus-sponsored lecture by Cory at the Essex Hotel, attracting an audience of approximately 125 people. Later in 1963, when the Drake Hotel attempted to withdraw from its agreement to rent space for a conference of East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), Polak reportedly made violent threats to the hotel managers. For this Polak was censured by ECHO, but his actions may have helped persuade the Drake to honor its agreement.
In late 1963 Polak was elected president of Janus, a position that he held for six tumultuous years. In many respects, Polak's work as a homophile leader paralleled that of other homophile activists. He organized public lectures on LGBT topics; raised money for LGBT causes; supported LGBT research projects; advocated for LGBT people with local, state, and federal authorities; worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to support LGBT civil rights; published and distributed LGBT materials; organized LGBT demonstrations; and presented pro-LGBT positions in mainstream newspaper, magazine, radio, and television media (including various Philadelphia outlets as well as Sexology, Playboy, the Wall Street Journal, and the Phil Donahue Show).
In other respects, Polak struck out in new directions, urging the homophile movement to become more militant, more radical, more pro-gay, and more sex-positive. Perhaps his greatest achievement was Drum magazine. While the Mattachine Review, ONE magazine, and the Ladder are often cited as the most significant homophile publications of the 1950s and 1960s, Drum had a circulation (approximately fifteen thousand, according to a 1968 Wall Street Journal article) that was larger than that of all of the others combined. It achieved this success by combining male physique photography (which the other main homophile periodicals rejected) with political news and commentary, cultural features, humorous comic strips, and an editorial stance that celebrated free gay sexual expression.
Meanwhile, Polak developed several sex businesses, including LARK Enterprises, which published personal advertisements; Trojan Book Service, which published and distributed gay pornographic materials that sometimes featured Polak's lover James Mitchell; and Beaver Book Service, which catered to the straight male market. Later in the 1960s Polak purchased and ran three pornographic bookstores in Philadelphia.
While leading Janus, publishing Drum, and running his sex businesses, Polak also founded the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS). Taking the profits earned from Drum and his sex businesses, Polak used the HLRS to fund a variety of important LGBT rights cases, including a 1967 New Jersey Supreme Court case, Val's v. Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, commonly referred to as Val's, that established the right of LGBT people to assemble in bars and a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Boutilier v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, that unsuccessfully challenged a federal immigration law that excluded homosexuals as "psychopathic personalities."
Over the course of the 1960s, Polak was criticized by many homophile activists who objected to his difficult and contentious personality, criticized his dictatorial leadership style, opposed the overwhelmingly male focus of his homophile activities, and rejected his radical sex politics. Meanwhile, Polak was targeted by federal, state, and local officials, who routinely harassed him, his allies, and his employees for alleged violations of obscenity laws. Ultimately, Polak was convicted on federal charges and in 1972 accepted a plea bargain under which he agreed to abandon his pornography businesses. By this time he had already moved to California, closing down Janus and HLRS.
In Southern California, Polak helped establish the Stonewall Democratic Club and the ACLU Gay Rights Chapter, supported the Los Angeles gay community center, funded the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, ran an art gallery and wrote art criticism, and made a second fortune in real estate. By the late 1970s Polak apparently was involved with rough hustlers, using drugs, and losing money. In September 1980 he committed suicide.
With his death, the LGBT movement lost one of its most colorful figures from the pre–Stonewall Riots era. For a variety of reasons, most scholars of homophile politics have paid little attention to Polak's activities, describing the movement as much more sexually, culturally, and politically conservative than it actually was. When Polak's activities are placed at the center, rather than the margins, of the history of the homophile movement, that history will have to be rewritten.
Kepner, Jim. "A Farewell to Friends Departed." National Gay Archives Bulletin (Fall 1983): 16.
Stein, Marc. "'Birthplace of the Nation': Imagining Lesbian and Gay Communities in Philadelphia, 1969–1970." In Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories. Edited by Brett Beemyn. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Stein, Marc. "Sex Politics in the City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves." Radical History Review 59 (1994): 60–92.
see alsocensorship, obscenity, and pornography law and policy; drum; homophile movement; homophile press; janus society.