Launched in October 1956 by the lesbian rights group Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) as a membership recruitment tool, the Ladder magazine was for sixteen years the pioneering publication by and for lesbians. It stands today as one of the most important and enduring products of the homophile movement. Through the artwork on its covers and the content of its pages, the Ladder helped develop lesbian identity, promote lesbian visibility, and construct lesbian community during the 1950s and 1960s. It joined two other fledgling gay magazines—ONE and Mattachine Review—in launching a revolution in the publishing world by developing the homophile press. The Ladder helped make gay and lesbian periodicals accessible, attractive, and indispensable to a growing social movement.
The magazine's title reflects the thinking of the times. The typed, mimeographed newsletter was named the Ladder because its creators saw it as a vehicle for lesbians to lift themselves out of the depths of self-and societal hatred. In the first issue, editor "Ann Ferguson" (the short-lived pseudonym of Phyllis Lyon, one of DOB's founders) wrote, "With this first issue, we enter a field already ably served by ONE and Mattachine Review. We offer, however, that so-called 'feminine viewpoint' which they have had so much difficulty obtaining. It is to be hoped that our venture will encourage the women to take an ever-increasing part in the steadily-growing fight for understanding of the homophile minority."
Most of the women involved in DOB in 1956 protected themselves by using pen names in the newsletter. Being openly homosexual at that time exposed a lesbian or gay man to possible dismissal from employment, loss of family and friends, harassment, and arrest. From the first issue of the Ladder on, the leaders of DOB sought to reassure their readers that involvement in the organization would help, not harm, them. They also appealed for both financial support and original artwork, fiction, poetry, and essays.
Their calls were answered. Over the years they received a wealth of responses. In May and August 1957 the magazine received laudatory letters from Lorraine Hansberry, the African American playwright who made Broadway history with her award-winning 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun. (The letters were signed "L.H.N." and "L.N.," reflecting her married name, Nemiroff, although she separated from her husband in that same year.) The Ladder also debuted numerous lesbian and feminist authors and artists, such as the humorist and mystery writer Rita Mae Brown and the science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley. The magazine featured early works by researchers such as Jeannette Foster, who worked with the Kinsey Institute and was the author of Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956). Each issue also
included political commentary, reports on homophile conferences and meetings, and the Daughters of Bilitis's "statement of purpose." The Ladder was the one reliable source where lesbians could find information about homophile activities; read reviews of the growing numbers of works dealing with lesbianism and homosexuality; order LGB-themed records, books, and magazines; and find a sense of connection to other lesbians. In this era before LGBT bookstores and community centers, it was a virtual meeting space for lesbians.
DOB leaders also used the publication as a tool for research. They conducted their own demographic surveys of their readership, in 1958 and again in 1963. While the sample sizes of both surveys were small, these studies nonetheless were the first ones done by lesbians about lesbians, including information on family histories, education, employment, and relationships. As such, they aided the homophile groups' groundbreaking efforts to counter the prevailing medical, legal, and religious views that portrayed homosexual women and men as "deviant."
In the early 1960s, the Ladder underwent a dramatic transformation. Among other major changes—such as adding the words "A Lesbian Review" to the front cover—a new editor, Barbara Gittings, began publishing photographs of lesbians taken by her partner, Kay Tobin Lahusen. The black-and-white photographs ranged from "back of head" shots, in which no faces are visible, to close-ups of attractive women, singly and in couples. For example, the June 1966 issue of the Ladder featured Ernestine Eckstein (a pseudonym), an African American woman active with DOB in New York, who argued for public demonstrations and litigation as a means of securing basic rights for lesbians and gay men.
The Ladder in the mid-1960s was a forum where an evolving movement could debate tactics and strategies at a time when dissent and agitation for change were becoming more pronounced. In addition, by 1965 the Ladder was regularly monitoring and reporting on the print and electronic media's treatment of homosexuality and was reporting on the increasingly strategic uses of the media by gay men and lesbians, especially as guests on local radio and television talk shows around the country.
By 1968, the Ladder had a paid subscription list of about one thousand. It began to move from a focus on lesbian and gay liberation to lesbian feminist issues under the editorship of Barbara Grier ("Gene Damon"). But by 1970, increasingly fractious organizational disagreements over governance and ideology—for example, questions of local autonomy and the growing importance of the women's movement to many of the DOB's leaders—led Grier and then-DOB president Rita Laporte to abruptly sever the magazine's ties to the Daughters of Bilitis. They took the subscription list and production materials from DOB's headquarters in San Francisco and moved them to Grier's home in Nevada. Grier began to publish the Ladder independently as a lesbian-feminist journal, and it lasted for two more years. But DOB could not survive the loss of its magazine. It had been the glue that held the national organization together. While chapters continued their local activities throughout the 1970s, DOB as a national entity was dissolved in 1970.
During its sixteen years of existence, the Ladder drew on the talents and visions of numerous women, including editors Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, Barbara Gittings, Helen Sandoz, and Barbara Grier. It evolved from a typed, mimeographed twelve-page newsletter into a professionally printed, high-quality magazine sold at selected newsstands and bookstores in major cities. It is fondly remembered today by lesbians who were looking for love or friendship or just accurate information about homosexuality in the 1950s and 1960s, and old copies are still treasured by former subscribers. Each of them—and countless others, who gave their time and talent or simply shared copies at work or at the bars—helped create a publication that was a landmark in the development of modern LGBT culture and community.
Bullough, Vern, ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
Grier, Barbara and Coletta Reid, eds. The Lavender Herring: Lesbian Essays from the "Ladder." Baltimore: Diana Press, 1976.
Katz, Jonathan Ned, ed. The Ladder. Arno Series on Homosexuality. New York: Arno Press, 1975. (A complete, bound photo reprint of the magazine from its first issue.)
Kepner, Jim. Rough News, Daring Views: 1950s' Pioneer Gay Press Journalism. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1998.
Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/Woman. San Francisco: Glide, 1972. Rev. ed. Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1991.
Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Marcia M. Gallo
see alsobrown, rita mae; eckstein, ernestine; foster, jeannette; gittings, barbara, and kay tobin lahusen; grahn, judy; grier, barbara; hansberry, lorraine; homophile movement; homophile press; lesbian feminism; lyon, phyllis, and del martin; rule, jane; shelley, martha.
kick down the ladder reject or disown the friends or associates who have helped one to rise in the world, especially with the idea of preventing them from attaining a similar position.
See also crosses are ladders that lead to heaven, Jacob's ladder, snakes and ladders at snake.
lad·der / ˈladər/ • n. a structure consisting of a series of bars or steps between two upright lengths of wood, metal, or rope, used for climbing up or down something. ∎ fig. a series of ascending stages by which someone or something may advance or progress: employees on their way up the career ladder.