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Gay and Lesbian Press

Gay and Lesbian Press

For fifty years gay and lesbian presses in America have published papers and magazines that give a distinctive voice to their concerns. Their editorial approach and journalistic style—una-bashed, irreverent, and confrontational—reflect a commitment to bolstering the strength of the gay community that they serve, and to documenting the homophobic attitudes of society. The dissemination of ideas through the written word of the gay and lesbian presses has been a building block in the development of the gay subculture. The publications act as a powerful resource in the promotion of homosexual rights on a national and international scale, and as a coalescing agent in bringing together gay activists and closeted individuals, those from rural areas and urban gay ghettos. Mirroring the diversity of the gay and lesbian community, its presses are as varied as the interests of its constituency. Some publishers focus upon either gay or lesbian issues, while others maintain a more inclusive gender stance.

The core of the press group is comprised of a small collection of specialist presses, along with a widespread array of local and national newspapers and magazines. Historically, the distribution of gay and lesbian books was generally through privately owned gay and lesbian bookstores, located in urban gay neighborhoods. Initially there was strong opposition by regular booksellers to stocking gay and lesbian titles, but this changed by the 1990s when booksellers, along with other commercial enterprises, had come to recognize the gay and lesbian market as a vast untapped resource. It was predicted that by the year 2000, more than 20,000 gay and lesbian titles would be published.

During the first half of the twentieth century most of the materials published that provided a positive viewpoint on homosexuality were issued through private presses. Often the publications produced were of poor quality, frequently printed by hand, typed, or copied on mimeograph machines. In this discrete endeavor, the print runs were necessarily small, though there were notable exceptions in the literary field, where homosexual concerns were explored under the guise of metaphorical language and symbolism. The precursor to the modern-day gay and lesbian presses can be observed in two early twentieth-century German periodicals, Der Eigene and Jahrbuch fur Sexuelle Zwischenstufen.

The sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was the editor of the Jahrbuch fur Sexuelle Zwischenstufen from 1899 to 1923. Published in Berlin, the journal contained an academic perspective on homosexuality featuring full-length articles, bibliographies of new books, and articles by Eugen Wilhelm. Der Eigene, headed by Adolf Brand, was devoted to the field of arts, and later developed into a publication of Gemeinschaft der Eigenen, a German homosexual movement. The publication was high in quality, with many black and white, sepia, and color illustrations. Der Eigene was published from 1898 to 1930, until the rise of the National Socialist movement in Germany, which culminated in the upswing of Nazi persecution of homosexuals in the mid-1930s, bringing the flourishing gay presses to an abrupt halt.

During the 1920s small and secretive gay presses started to emerge in the United States. The first gay publication to emerge was Henry Gerber's short-lived Friendship and Freedom (1924). The magazine was published by the Society for Human Rights, founded by Gerber in Chicago. Two issues were published, produced on a mimeograph machine and running to approximately 100 hundred copies. When police learned of the activities of the Society for Human Rights they seized the remaining copies of Friendship and Freedom and arrested the membership of the group, including Gerber, who was dismissed from his postal job as a result of his activities. He also worked on another publication, Chanticleer, during the 1930s, of which 50 percent of the contents were devoted to homosexual issues and the remaining proportion to atheistic advocacy. Gerber also published a single-sheet mimeographed newsletter for Contacts pen pal club from 1930 to 1939. The newsletter contained a few short news articles and was distributed among 30 to 70 members of the club. None of these publications were able either to appeal to or demand a large readership due to limited publishing numbers, geographic constraints, and the restrictive attitudes of society. Most existed on the margins of journalism, fearing the intervention of the police or government officials under one pretext or another.

Following World War II there was a revival of the Homophile Movement in the United States, and new gay and lesbian journals began to emerge. The earliest surviving publication, The Ladder, dates back to 1947, and was edited by Lisa Ben in Los Angeles. Lisa Ben was the author's pseudonym, an anagram for lesbian, used to conceal her actual identity. Small press runs of Vice Versa were printed from 1947 to 1948. Typical of publishing during the era, the periodical was typed on a dozen carbon copies and distributed by hand at several Los Angeles lesbian bars. Vice Versa helped to lay the groundwork for the creation of a gay and lesbian press in the United States. Early in 1953 Martin Block, Dale Jennings, and Bill Lambert planned what would become the first openly sold gay and lesbian magazine in the nation. The title, ONE Magazine, was derived from the Carlyle quote "A common bond of brotherhood makes all men one." Martin Block edited the first issues of ONE in 1953, and Dale Jennings took over for the final part of the year. The format was small, a six by seven-inch pamphlet, with only 500 copies printed, and sold for 20 cents. Distribution and sales occurred primarily at gay and lesbian bars and organized homophile meetings. Most of the issues focused on news, homosexual persecution, and police harassment, but the journal went further than some of its predecessors and included fiction, poetry, and theoretical and political articles. The mission of the editors and staff of ONE was to remove homophobic attitudes from within the homosexual community as well as from society at large, while simultaneously creating and nurturing the community and its culture. From ONE Magazine also sprang the membership newsletter, ONE Confidential, and the first scholarly treatment of homosexual issues, ONE Institute Quarterly of Homophile Studies.

Jim Kepner joined the staff of ONE Magazine in 1954. A victim of police harassment in a bar raid, Kepner's writings advocated the need for gay self-respect, education, community-building, and gay identity. While the writings of Kepner and others at ONE took a militant stance, The Mattachine Review, established by Harold Call in 1955, subscribed to an assimilationist and conformist viewpoint. A squeaky clean image was advocated and promoted by the Mattachine Review and by The Ladder, a Daughters of Bilitis publication, as the tool for gays and lesbians to gain entree into a society known to repress homosexuals. In spite of the fact that these early gay presses worked collegially well together, ONE was frequently chastised by Mattachine for its aggressive and confrontational attitudes, while the Daughters of Bilitis were offended by it. The women of the Daughters of Bilitis, Mattachine, and ONE denied that there were separate women's issues as such during this period. Many insisted they were just like everyone else, with a strong sense of commitment to the gay community. Many women were included as authors in One Magazine, with an all-women's issue printed in February of 1954. Topical concerns and coverage of women was also a key facet of ONE Magazine.

By the end of the 1950s, monthly homosexual magazines were being discreetly mailed, first class, in plain brown wrappers to avoid interception by postal authorities. The contents mainly contained news articles, editorials, literature, and non-erotic illustrations that were subtly suggestive rather than graphic. Personal ads did not appear due to legal and societal constraints.

The turbulence of the 1960s saw both a changing attitude towards homosexuality and the development of an underground press, which acted as fertile ground for new gay publishers. These unprecedented materials held a hard edge and bite. Obscene language appeared frequently in the articles, and personal ads became a regular feature, in which the authors would express their most intimate desires and fetishes. The Gay Liberation Movement had found its voice by the end of the decade in publications such as The Advocate, The Body Politic (Toronto), Come Out, Gay Community News (Boston), Gay Sunshine, and Gay (New York).

During the 1970s gay and lesbian presses grew and flourished. More magazines, newspapers, and newsletters began to appear, many with a specialized identity featuring religious, political, or professional interests. Local and regional publications also burgeoned, and as the proliferation of gay and lesbian periodicals increased so did the "in your face" frankness of the content. New homosexual organizations were created on both sides of the gender divide, many of them distributing their own publication. Some of the new periodicals had a short life, while others have continued printing to the present day.

Glossy illustrated magazines focusing on male nudity, erotic illustrations, short stories, and personal and classified advertisement rich in graphic detail became a common feature of the gay press during this period. Magazines such as Blueboy, In Touch, and Mandate, became more readily available on the newsstands or by subscription. Their articles and editorials quickly reached a nationwide audience, creating a norm of taste and attitude within the gay community. Beyond the major urban centers, many smaller cities began producing local gay newspapers. Often distributed at the gay bars, some became known as "bar rags." Many of these newspapers joined forces to found the Gay and Lesbian Press Association. More importantly, new scholarly journals such as the Gai Saber (1997-1978), Gay Books Bulletin/Cabirion (1979-1985), and Journal of Homosexuality (1974—) provided an academic basis for the pursuit of in-depth gay and lesbian research and university studies.

The gay and lesbian press market has predominantly been segregated by gender. Book sales are ranked on separate male and female bestseller lists, with few bestsellers appearing simultaneously on both. During the 1960s and early 1970s many of the lesbian publications were usurped under the feminist banner. Signs of a developing lesbian press could be observed from Marie Kuda's Lesbian Writers Conferences, which were held annually from 1974 until 1979. The establishment of lesbian-friendly presses made it possible for fiction and non-fiction to be published in book form rather than in small circulation magazines. Support for lesbian writing was due in large part to women's bookstores across the country, which made lesbian books more accessible than ever before. These bookstores have continued to play a significant role in the sale of lesbian materials.

Through the power of the written word gay and lesbian presses have created a common language and a shared frame of reference for a diverse population of gays and lesbians. Bonding together through periodicals and books, the specter of isolation has been removed, and replaced by a sense of "gay identity." The presses have also created a window through which the outside world can look at the many aspects of gay life, and have provided a written record for deeper understanding and further research.

—Michael A. Lutes

Further Reading:

Kepner, Jim. Rough News, Daring Views: 1950s Pioneer Gay Press Journalism. New York, Haworth Press, 1998.

Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Malinowsky, H. Robert. International Directory of Gay and Lesbian Periodicals. Phoenix, Oryx Press, 1987.

Miller, Alan. Our Own Voices: A Directory of Gay and Lesbian Periodicals, 1890-1990: Including the Holdings of the Canadian Gay Archives. Toronto, The Archives, 1991.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America. Boston, Faber and Faber, 1995.

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