Telling Our Stories: Gay Newspapers and Gay Liberation

Telling Our Stories: Gay Newspapers and Gay Liberation

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In the decade before the Stonewall, queer underground newsletters and small ’zine-style publications began to proliferate across the country, especially in cities with large gay and lesbian populations like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

In 1953, Los Angeles’s ONE magazine, published by the Mattachine Society, became the first gay publication in the U.S. It was followed by the lesbian publication The Ladder, the magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis, published out of San Francisco in 1956 and New York in 1958. The Ladder published writers pseudonymously who were famous, like Valerie Taylor, Barbara Grier and Lorraine Hansberry.

In Philadelphia, DRUM magazine came about in 1964 and published through 1969. It differed from ONE and The Ladder, which were both focused on breaking down the perceived social barriers between heterosexuals and homosexuals. ONE and The Ladder were seeking lesbian and gay assimilation and acceptance. DRUM, published by the Janus Society, was focused on “homophile” (the term that pre-dated gay) culture — the focus was sexual liberation, not assimilation. The publication emphasized acceptance of gay sexuality and contained erotic as well as news content.

In 1967, The Advocate, now the longest-publishing LGBTQ publication, began as a newsletter in Los Angeles and then a newspaper called The Los Angeles Advocate, which sold for 25 cents in bars and nightclubs. In 1969 the paper was renamed The Advocate and began national distribution thanks to the publishers, Richard Mitch and Bill Rau.

After Stonewall, the gay press was born in earnest. Not only had Stonewall heralded a new era of out gay and lesbian activists, it also birthed the gay press. In addition to the underground movement of small publications, and the Advocate, which would become a national bi-weekly news and culture magazine in 1974, under the new ownership of David Goldstein, other newspapers were becoming established on both coasts.

In October 1969, the Gay Blade — now the Washington Blade — became the first gay newspaper in the country. Founded by D.C. Mattachine Society member Lilli Vincenz with Nancy Tucker, the paper began as a single-page broadsheet distributed in the bars. Editor Bart Wenger said at the paper’s 35thanniversary that the paper was founded to “engender a sense of community” and that it was “very important for gays to become acquainted with one another.”

    Published monthly, the newspaper evolved from its original single sheet to a multi-page edition in June 1972, for Pride month. The now-four-page paper expanded to eight pages and was printed on legal sized paper sheets, stapled in the middle and folded in 1973.

The Washington Blade would evolve into the most news-driven of the national gay newspapers, taking its cue from the politics of Washington itself. The publication’s writers were mostly professional journalists writing under pseudonyms. 

The Blade ceased publication for a period of time in 2009 after problems with the paper’s parent company.

Gay activists Bob Ross and Paul Bentley were living in the heart of America’s gayest city, San Francisco, when they founded the Bay Area Reporter (known locally for years as B.A.R.) in April 1971. Now the nation’s oldest continuously publishing gay paper, the Bay Area Reporter found its initial distribution throughout the gay scene in the city, notably in the gay bars South of Market, the Castro District and Polk Gultch. Bay Area Reporter is the country’s oldest continually published LGBT paper. Ross died in 2003 but was inducted into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame in 2013.

Bay Area Reporter would become one of the most vital of America’s LGBT newspapers as gay men started to fall victim to AIDS in the 1980s. The paper published more than 10,000 obituaries during the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Where it had begun as a nexus for gay men and lesbians to read about each other’s lives, it was soon the focal point for San Francisco’s gay men to record the devastation of the epidemic.

“We needed to write about ourselves — no one else was doing it,” said PGN publisher Mark Segal when he was inducted by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame in 2013, joining Ross.

Segal began publishing Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) in 1976. At 25, Segal was the youngest of all the gay and lesbian publishers and had been one of the original Stonewall Rebellion combatants. Segal was also known for his “zaps” as a Gay Raider, an activist group he founded in Philadelphia. Zaps were hit-an-run political actions infiltrating mainstream media —notably TV — and demanding attention for gay rights. Segal did the first of these in 1972, after being ejected from a dance competition for dancing with his male lover when he crashed the evening news broadcast of WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.

Segal repeated such activism again and again during other television broadcasts, including, most famously, the national evening news with Walter Cronkite.

On January 3, 1976, Segal published the first issue of the Philadelphia Gay News, which was also the first gay newspaper in the country to have honor boxes on street corners alongside other mainstream newspapers. The paper began as a monthly, then went bi-weekly, then weekly.

PGN is the second longest continuously publishing LGBTQ newspaper in the country.

Off Our Backs, a lesbian feminist newspaper began publishing on February 27, 1970, with a twelve-page tabloid-style issue. The paper, which published continuously through 2008, was run by a collective. Marilyn Salzman Webb, Heidi Steffens, Marlene Wicks, Colette Reid and Norma Lesser formed the original collective. Off Our Backs published news as well as culture pieces and focused on feminist liberation as much as lesbian liberation.

Lesbian Connection began publishing in 1974 as a news forum “by, for and about lesbians.” The publication differed from the other LGB newspapers in that the content was written in part by subscribers. News and announcements of interest to the lesbian community included current affairs, places to live, travel lesbian arts and culture stories and obituaries. Lesbian Connection was instrumental in the building of national spiritual, political and social networks for lesbians

The importance of an emerging gay media post-Stonewall cannot be overstated. The publications pre-Stonewall were hidden and difficult to access. While each had private mailing lists and some had significant print runs, most weren’t sold on newsstands or drug stores — where newspapers and magazines were available in the 1950s and 1960s.

Newspapers dedicated solely to issues and concerns about the LGBT community were an essential tool in spreading the gay liberation message and keeping the activism borne out of Stonewall in the forefront of the budding community’s consciousness. These papers were the place to explore issues related to the community, from problems with police to how to build social networks. BAR and PGN had large arts sections which highlighted the gay scene in their respective cities.

In the days post-Stonewall, as the queer community was beginning to come out and shed the plain brown wrappers of the 1950s and 1960s, gay newspapers reached closeted gay men and lesbians nationwide who had no other access to gay community.

Stories on gay issues focused attention on the breadth of the LGBT community as well as the deep need for connection between and among people who were living in a kind of hidden diaspora. In the early days, personal ads in these papers linked men and women with each other in a world where the closet was the norm. But more than anything, the rise of the gay and lesbian press heralded the existence of an LGBT community that was intent on becoming a political and social force.

From the early days of ONE to now, the queer press has told LGBTQ stories and in the height of the AIDS epidemic, saved lives by driving the dialogue on the crisis. In recent years it has been the LGBTQ press that has drawn attention to critical issues for the community from epidemic of corrective rapes of lesbians and murders of transwomen of color, to the continuing threats of hate crimes and housing and employment discrimination.

At Stonewall 50, the queer press is aging, but is still essential to building and connecting community and telling the stories of LGBTQ lives. n

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