Like 'The New York Times' --with a Pink Boa and a Tiara

by Michael Abernethy

17 August 2009


Rough News, Daring Views

Rough News, Daring Views

The forefathers of the gay press were often made in someone’s living room or an office backroom, hand-cranked out of a mimeograph machine and covertly distributed among interested parties and mailed in plain wrappers to avoid detection.

Today’s LGBT papers are high-gloss, picture-filled odes to the glory of gay life—very different from early homosexual papers. These forefathers of the gay press were often made in someone’s living room or an office backroom, hand-cranked out of a mimeograph machine and covertly distributed among interested parties and mailed in plain wrappers to avoid detection. In an era when homosexuality was still a crime, the writers and publishers of these pamphlet-sized papers knew they risked jail time just for producing them.

Jim Kepner was one man willing to accept that risk, and his willingness helped lead to a landmark Supreme Court decision. Kepner was a writer for such early gay publications as Mattachine Review, One Magazine, and One Institute Quarterly Review. When the L.A. postmaster seized copies of One Magazine and refused to process it for mailing on the grounds that it was “lewd” and “filthy”, Kepner, a co-editor of the paper, and the magazine fought back. In the 1958 ruling in One Inc. v. Olesen , the Supreme Court upheld the magazine’s right to free and unencumbered distribution.

Yet Kepner’s contributions to LGBT history extend far beyond this one court case. A leader of the early rights movement, Kepner helped organize rallies and marches and realized the power of the press as a unifying force for the community. More importantly, he established what is now known as the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, which, among its two million items, includes many of the early newspapers and magazines of the gay rights movements. Kepner collected his own writings (along with a few others) in the books Rough News, Daring Views: Pioneer Gay Press Journalism in the 1950s and A Selection of Gay Liberation Essays 1953/1973.

Many of Kepner’s early writings were written under pseudonyms, not to hide his identity, but to give the appearance that the writing staffs of the papers he wrote for were larger than they actually were. Given the radical nature of much of this early writing (radical merely by its existence in its early years), it would be understandable had Kepner and other writers wanted to hide their identities from authorities, though. Consider this passage from the first issue of Come Out!, a New York based publication that began after the Stonewall riots:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We must not get into a bag of thinking we’re involved in a game—a revolution is not a game, it is a war. We’re involved in a war—a people’s war against those who oppress the people, and this is the war in the clearest sense of the word.

If the writing seems incendiary, it is with good reason. Inflammatory and harsh words are often needed to enrage people into action when they have so much to lose by taking a stand, specifically their homes, families, jobs, and personal freedom. You won’t find pictures of studs in 501s and leather harnesses drinking mojitos in these publications, just hard-core rhetoric.

Still, One Magazine, its lesbian counterpart The Ladder (founded by the late and great Del Martin and her wife Phyllis Lyons) and other gay papers founded in the ‘50s and ‘60s weren’t the first gay newspapers. Germany’s Jarhbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, first published in 1899, is credited with being the first journal examining homosexuality, while Germany’s Fruendin became one of the first lesbian publications. France produced Akademos in 1909. The first U. S. publication was Henry Garbler’s short-lived Friendship and Freedom, which only published two editions in 1925. However, the war and Depression diverted attention away from early efforts to unite the gay and lesbian communities, so that it wasn’t until the ‘50s that gay publications began to appear with consistency.

Today’s papers and local magazines still seek to unify the LGBT community, only not for revolution, but for Pride picnics and benefits. Their primary purpose is to inform, not incite. Readers can read about the local city council meeting where important LGBT issues will be discussed and decide for themselves whether to attend. Op/ed pages now assume the role that entire papers once had in stating positions and motivating readers to take action.

Unfortunately, though, LGBT rags face the same economic challenges that the rest of the newspaper industry faces. Because the majority of these papers are free—no longer mailed in brown wrapping paper, but available everywhere from grocery stores to college campuses—they don’t need to worry about declines in sales. They do, however, have to worry about declining ad revenue, their primary source of revenue.

This downturn has led two of L.A.‘s premiere gay publications, the news-oriented In and lifestyle-heavy Frontiers, to merge into one publication. Worldwide, LGBT papers are cutting back on staff, publication size, and features to stave-off having to cease publication of hard copies, although most have seen readership grow through the internet. Still, all hope is not lost: Russia just began publication of its first gay paper, Kvir, although the rag charges a small fee for copies.

Hopefully, LGBT businesses will continue to make advertising with LGBT papers a priority; after all, these papers have been supporting LGBT businesses for decades. And LGBT papers could increase interest in themselves, both in terms of readership and advertisers, by paying more attention to the L, B, and T parts of the community. When a paper has a ‘special section’ for lesbians, lesbians clearly aren’t being adequately represented in the rest of the publication.

Nonetheless, these LGBT rags are a vital part of our community. They bind us together, and they have played a major role in the development of that community. So next weekend, as you leave the bar in your Jaeger Bomb haze to call a cab, focus long enough to pick up a copy. You just might see a shirtless pic of yourself in there one day. And if you’re a woman and you see that, well—you go, girl.

Recommended resource: Kameny

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