Roger Streitmatter: The Rise Of The Gay Press

Every issue of most gay and lesbian publications is something of a miracle. A small staff with a low budget and a tight deadline manages to pull together a good publication — often at the very last minute. But have you ever wondered where it all began? Who came up with the idea of publication especially for lesbian women or gay men? How did it evolve into what it is today?

Lisa Ben was a secretary who didn’t have much to do. Her boss told her to look busy anyway. She decided to occupy herself by typing a newsletter called Vice Versa. Only twelve copies were made, but it was the beginning of the gay and lesbian press in the United States.

“If anyone came around, I had to zip it into my briefcase quick,” Ben said in a published interview years later.

In 1947, Vice Versa, subtitled “America’s Gayest Magazine” was first distributed. Its creator’s name never appeared on its pages. (Actually, Lisa Ben is a pseudonym the anonymous author made by rearranging the letters in “lesbian,” but this pen name never appeared in the newsletter either.)

Vice Versa, the earliest known lesbian publication, only lasted nine issues. The twelve copies and the less than 20 pages of each issue broke new ground, though.

There were lots of magazines on newsstands, “yet, there is one kind of publication which would, I am sure, have great appeal to a definite group,” Ben wrote in the first issue.

“Hence the appearance of Vice Versa, a magazine dedicated, in all seriousness, to those of us who will never quite be able to adapt ourselves to the ironbound rules of Convention,” she wrote.

Six copies of that groundbreaking publication were created at one time using carbon paper, then the pages were retyped to create another set. Most of the copies were handed out at the If Club in Los Angeles; three of the first issue were mailed to friends. The mailing stopped when someone alerted the author that what she was writing could be considered obscene and should not be mailed.

It was 1958 before the U. S. Supreme Court decided that it was not illegal to mail gay and lesbian material. It took a four year legal battle to win this fight for something most groups took for granted.

A lot happened in the time between the hand-typed pages of Vice Versa in the forties and the glossy magazine Out in the 1990s. This emerging media both reported happening and became an invaluable part of the rise of the gay and lesbian movement.

“Written and edited by the same women and men who organized and marched in the picket lines, the publications of the mid-1960s articulated the political philosophy that fueled the new defiance,” Roger Streitmatter, a journalism professor at American University, wrote in his 1995 book Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America — available on Amazon. “The publications of the era directed this dramatic change from conforming to the dictates of society to building a national gay community with values often in conflict with those of heterosexual America — and proudly so.”

The evolution of the lesbian and gay media has not been a simple one nor has it been without obstacles. As Streitmatter writes, what was in the 1950s a “love that dare not speak its name” became militant in the Stonewall Rebellion of the 1960s. In the 1970s, the gay and lesbian press played a role in transforming the riot at the Stonewall Inn from a “moment,” into a “movement”– a movement toward gay and lesbian liberation.

Beginning in the seventies, the religious and political right sprang up to derail the gay and lesbian movement but they were largely unsuccessful. The whole story comes to a screeching halt, though, in the early 1980s when a “cancer” is discover among gay men. What later became known as AIDS killed a generation of leaders and the women of the community came forward to lead the movement. In the 1990s, gay and lesbian issues come to the forefront and the gay and lesbian press moved toward the mainstream with publications like Out that look like mainstream publications.

From typewritten pages in 1947 to the glossy professionally designed pages of 1998, the lesbian and gay press has come a long way.

If a secretary trying to look busy can become a pioneer in our community’s media, what can we accomplish?

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