History of LGBT: Newspapers and Magazines

Jane R Ballinger. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

The lesbian and gay press began quietly in California cities where gay men and lesbians congregated after World War II. The first known publication, Vice Versa, was distributed in Los Angeles in 1947 and 1948 by a young lesbian who used the pseudonym Lisa Ben (an anagram of lesbian). She produced the fifteen-page newsletterlike magazine on carbon paper on her typewriter at work and gave copies to her friends and other women in Los Angeles bars.

The first lesbian and gay publications with a national reach were launched in the 1950s, a time when the mainstream press virtually ignored gay and lesbian issues. What little coverage there was focused on crime and on homosexuality as a threat to society. ONE magazine was established in 1953 by a group of Los Angeles men who were frustrated with the lack of mainstream press attention to gay concerns. The magazine’s founders aimed to promote civil rights for homosexuals, but they chose not to affiliate with the nation’s largest homophile organization, the Mattachine Society, because they were not satisfied with the group’s assimilationist approach. ONE magazine continued publication for fourteen years, and its circulation of five thousand was among the largest of all pre-Stonewall homophile publications.

The Mattachine Review was founded in San Francisco in 1955 by members of the Mattachine Society, a homophile group that sought to gain acceptance by encouraging homosexuals to conform to the standards of the dominant heterosexual society. Like ONE magazine, the Mattachine Review was not written with a female audience in mind. It was aimed primarily at homosexual men and reached a circulation of one thousand.

In 1956, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, members of the San Francisco-based homophile organization Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), founded the first widely distributed lesbian publication, the Ladder. Like the Mattachine Review, the Ladder took a conciliatory tone in its early years, educating its readers and reassuring them with legal and medical advice. The Ladder was published for sixteen years, with circulation reaching a high of seven hundred, considerably less than the gay men’s publications. The influence of the magazine was reflected, however, in the many new publications it inspired in DOB chapters around the country.

All three of the flagship publications of the lesbian and gay press were subjected to government scrutiny and threats of censorship. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated them in search of obscene material or supporters of communism. FBI agents regularly harassed editors, contacting their employers and seriously damaging more than one career. Periodically, postal officials seized the magazines and claimed that sending homosexual materials through the mail was illegal because they were obscene. ONE engaged in a four-year court battle with U.S. postal officials, losing in district and federal courts, until the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 ruled in favor of the magazine, deeming that the subject of homosexuality was not by definition obscene and that ONE could be sent through the mail.

All of the pre-Stonewall publications were published by volunteers working on tight budgets. The content of the magazines was a mix of personal essays, poetry, fiction, letters to the editor, and referrals to journal articles and books dealing with homosexual issues. They also reported news from around the country, particularly news that documented the denial of civil rights to gay men and lesbians. Because they functioned to inform readers of the nascent political stirrings among gays and lesbians, these publications are widely credited with making possible the birth of the gay and lesbian movement that was to follow.

A Move to Militancy in the 1960s

Reflecting social upheavals taking place throughout the United States in the 1960s, gay and lesbian publications began to exhibit a more activist and militant stance. Inspired by the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s movements, many called for their readers to demand their civil rights. The content of publications in the 1960s shifted away from fiction and poetry and began to place greater emphasis on politics and news.

The 1960s spawned the first publications outside of the West Coast. Drum was founded in Philadelphia in 1964 by a gay rights organization called the Janus Society. Subtitled Sex in Perspective, the magazine aimed to entertain as well as inform its readers. The magazine took a militant stance, soon to be seen in other publications of the 1960s, arguing against the sort of homophile accommodationism that was typical of the publications of the 1950s. Drum was also the first gay publication to turn a significant profit. The magazine was the first news publication to include homoerotica in its pages, in the form of photographs of handsome, scantily clad men. Circulation of the magazine soared, reaching ten thousand within two years, more than all other existing gay and lesbian publications combined.

In 1966 Frank Kameny, an activist who had written for the Ladder, launched Homosexual Citizen, the first gay and lesbian magazine in Washington, D.C. The publication carried the subtitle News of Civil Liberties and Social Rights for Homosexuals, an indicator of its goal to fight aggressively for homosexual rights. One of the most activist and militant publications of the time, it had a small circulation of four hundred, but it explicitly aimed to influence public policy rather than simply inform its readers. Kameny had the publication mailed to Washington decision makers, including President Lyndon Johnson, members of the U.S. Congress, and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

The Ladder, still published by the Daughters of Bilitis, also took a more militant stance in the 1960s. In 1963 Barbara Gittings of Philadelphia became the Ladder’s editor. She added the subtitle A Lesbian Review to the publication and began calling for its readers to engage in political activism.

Editors of these East Coast publications were not above making news themselves. In addition to urging readers to fight for their rights, most also engaged directly in political activism, carrying picket signs in protests and extensively covering the demonstrations in their publications. Such coverage informed readers nationwide about the gay and lesbian movement and helped to expand its message beyond the East Coast.

The Los Angeles Advocate, which was to become the largest gay and lesbian publication in history, was launched in 1967 in Los Angeles. It developed from PRIDE Newsletter, the publication of the gay rights organization Personal Rights in Defense and Education. Under the leadership of its first editor, Richard T. Mitch, it was renamed the Advocate and became an independent newspaper when the gay rights organization disbanded in 1968.

The Advocate was the first gay newspaper in the United States, and it was the first publication to operate as a business with a paid staff and revenues solely from advertising, subscriptions, and newsstand sales. The publication was wildly successful, with its circulation quickly skyrocketing in two years to 23,000 and distribution expanding to East Coast cities.

Another publication that had an impact on the gay and lesbian community in the 1960s was Al Goldstein’s sex tabloid Screw, launched in 1968 in New York City. Although it was not a gay publication, it carried a column, Homosexual Citizen, written by gay activists Jack Nichols and Lige Clark, who borrowed the name from the by-then defunct magazine. The column educated countless people, gay and heterosexual alike, and had a far greater reach than the gay and lesbian publications of the time, with the circulation of Screw reaching 150,000.

After Stonewall

By mid-1969 the combined circulation of all lesbian and gay publications was 55,000, and gay men and lesbians were learning from these publications about the growing movement for civil rights. The militant stance of the lesbian and gay press during the mid-to-late 1960s is widely credited with setting the stage for what came later.

In June 1969 vice officers raiding the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village were met with resistance from hundreds of gays and lesbians, leading to riots that lasted for four nights. Mainstream media coverage of the event focused on its criminal nature, with no mention of the political dimension of the riots. Members of the gay and lesbian press, however, were present to chronicle the developments that would eventually come to be regarded as the beginning of the gay and lesbian liberation movement. Publications such as the Advocate and the Homosexual Citizen column in Screw devoted extensive space to the Stonewall rebellion, and gays and lesbians throughout the country, many for the first time, were inspired to speak out and demand their civil rights.

The activism inspired by Stonewall led to an explosion of lesbian and gay publications, among them a number of street newspapers that took a radical stance, calling for gay nationalism, socialism, anarchy, and revolution. This radical burst of publications inflamed an ongoing debate in the lesbian and gay press as to whether the movement should take a moderate approach to politics or whether it should follow the example of groups such as the Black Panthers and call for an overthrow of the U.S. government.

A number of publications called for the gay and lesbian movement to join forces and form coalitions with other revolutionary groups. Among them were Come Out!, a Greenwich Village publication founded in November 1969 that was affiliated with the Gay Liberation Front. Gay Sunshine, Gay Times, and Gay Flames, all launched in 1970, also called for a revolutionary approach to gay rights. A number of the radical political publications of the early 1970s also took an extreme approach to sexual liberation. Among the most prominent was Fag Rag, founded by a Boston collective in 1971. The sensationalistic tabloid published graphic articles and explicit sexual images and defined gay sex as a political statement. The burst of radical publications had subsided by 1973, and more moderate voices soon won out. Among the best known were the Advocate and GAY, founded by Nichols and Clarke of the Homosexual Citizen column, both of which argued against coalitions with radical groups.

The early 1970s also saw the birth of a number of regional weekly newspapers. The most prominent included Gay Community News in Boston, the Washington Blade, the Philadelphia Gay News, the Bay Area Reporter for San Francisco and vicinity, and the DRUMMER of San Francisco. Christopher Street, an upscale monthly magazine, was launched in New York City in 1976 with the aim of attracting a sophisticated audience with extensive coverage of the arts.

The Lesbian Feminist 1970s

Inspired by the reemergence of the feminist movement in the 1970s, a variety of lesbian feminist publications were launched. With the exception of Boston’s Gay Community News, which included both men and women on its staff and strove for equal coverage, most of the post-Stonewall publications were aimed primarily at men. Feeling that the gay press was not meeting their needs, lesbians created a press of their own. These lesbian newspapers and magazines were generally published by collectives. Adhering to feminist principles, they often operated on a pay-if-you-can basis. Because their publications were free of charge, many were quickly in financial trouble and most were short-lived.

Amazon Quarterly, which published from 1973 to 1975, boasted a circulation of nine thousand, the largest of the lesbian publications at the time. The magazine focused on literature, art, and culture. Lesbian Connection, a publication written by its readers, is the longestrunning lesbian publication. It was launched in 1974 and was still being published in 2003. The magazine began with a circulation of 400, which had increased to 25,000 in the latter year.

A number of publications identified themselves as lesbian feminist and espoused a separatist philosophy. Lesbian Tide, launched in Los Angeles in 1971 by Jeanne Córdova, was the first all-news lesbian publication. Before its demise in 1980, the magazine reached a circulation of three thousand.

The Furies was founded by a Washington, D.C., collective in 1972, and while lasting for only a year, it inspired countless individual lesbians and many other publications as well with its cogent rendition of a lesbian feminist ideology and its advocacy of class consciousness. Members of the founding collective included writers Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch and photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB). After the magazine folded, former collective members went on to found the lesbian publishing house Diana Press and Olivia Records.

By 1975 there were some fifty lesbian publications in existence, with a combined circulation of fifty thousand. Among the most influential were Sinister Wisdom, off our backs, Lavender Woman, Ain’t I a Woman, Dyke, Sisters, Tribad, and Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians.

AIDS in the 1980s

The first article on the disease that would soon be known as AIDS ran in May 1981 in the New York Native, a biweekly tabloid launched two years earlier. Dr. Lawrence Mass, an unpaid contributor to the Native, broke the story and tried in vain to get the information out quickly to the rest of the gay press. With the exception of the Washington Blade, however, most other gay publications were reluctant to pick up the story. Like the mainstream press, many in the gay press ignored the threat of AIDS, and some even trivialized its importance. Critics have charged that the refusal of gay publications to cover the crisis in its early years was due to a combination of their reluctance to question the freewheeling gay sexual revolution that many had championed in their pages and their dependence on bathhouses and clubs for advertising revenue.

By the late 1980s, the AIDS crisis had spawned a resurgence of militancy in the lesbian and gay community, represented by organizations such as ACT UP and Queer Nation. OutWeek, launched in New York in 1989, reflected the radical politics of these organizations. Hearkening back to the militant press of the early 1970s, OutWeek vociferously criticized those it deemed to be enemies of the LGBT community‚ÄĒpharmaceutical companies, the advertising industry, Congress, organized religion, and even the LGBTQ press itself. The magazine made its biggest splash, however, with its relentless outing of celebrities and public figures such as publisher Malcolm Forbes.

The majority of 1980s publications were targeted to men, although a few, such as Gay Community News, OutWeek, and The News in Los Angeles gave an equal voice to men and women. A number of lesbian publications arose during the decade, among them Big Apple Dyke News, Conditions, and Lesbian Ethics. As the decade drew to a close, new lesbian publications reflected the militant shift in the movement. Lesbian Contradiction served as the radical political voice of lesbians. And a new genre of lesbian erotica appeared, with sexually explicit publications such as On Our Backs, Yoni, and Bad Attitude. By the end of the decade there were more than eight hundred lesbian and gay publications in circulation, reaching more than one million readers.

Specialty Publications

In the 1990s a number of specialty magazines joined the ranks of the LGBTQ press. POZ magazine is targeted to the HIV/AIDS community. BLK offers content specifically targeted to African American lesbians and gay men. XY is aimed at gay and lesbian teens.

Members of the transgender, bisexual, and queer communities, who have experienced mixed coverage in lesbian and gay publications, have created magazines of their own. Anything That Moves, a bisexual magazine with a radical perspective, began publishing in San Francisco in 1991. Transgender Community News and Transgender Tapestry offers news and support not found in most LGBTQ publications.

As the needs of LGBTQ communities change, publications arose to meet specific needs. In The Family is a magazine for LGBTQ families, written primarily by family therapists, and Alternative Family Magazine is a publication for LGBTQ parents and their children.

Lifestyle Magazines

From its very beginning, the gay press has struggled with the complications associated with paid advertising. Gay men’s magazines and newspapers have historically been supported in large part by sex-oriented ads, while lesbian publications, particularly in the 1970s, have found it difficult to drum up sufficient advertising revenue in the lesbian business community. The centrality of advertising for LGBTQ publications grew substantially in the 1990s, with a greater presence of advertisements for mainstream consumer products. During that decade the first national advertisements began to appear in their pages. Drawn to the allure of DINKS (double incomes, no kids), companies bought ad space in LGBTQ magazines for such products as Absolut vodka and Miller beer, and other companies soon followed. The financial windfall provided by these advertisers gave birth to a new type of LGBTQ publication: glossy lifestyle magazines that focused on culture, fashion, and celebrity. Out, Genre, and Frontiers targeted gay men, and Curve, GirlFriends, and Lesbian News in Los Angeles targeted lesbians. Square Peg and 10 Percent were aimed at both men and women.

These lifestyle publications are often criticized for shunning politics and avoiding content that might lower circulation or offend advertisers. Their publishers, however, argue that they provide a service to the LGBTQ community and are driven by more than the profit motive. While publications with a more radical voice find it difficult to attract national advertising, the popularity of lifestyle magazines is undeniable. The number of LGBTQ publications has grown only slightly since the 1980s, but circulation has skyrocketed to more than two million, led by Out, with 100,000 readers.

Nationally distributed lifestyle magazines are the most visible and have by far the widest circulation of LGBT periodicals. But hundreds of LGBTQ newspapers and magazines continue to provide news to their local and regional communities.