The Rise Of The Gay And Lesbian Press
April 26, 2000
Unspeakable: The Rise Of The Gay And Lesbian Press In America; Rodger Streitmatter (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995) 424 pp., $27.95 clothLisa Ben was a secretary who didn't have much to do, but her boss told her to look busy anyway. She decided to occupy herself by typing a newsletter called Vice Versa. The twelve copies she created with carbon paper were the beginning of the gay and lesbian press in the United States.Rodger Streitmatter, a professor of journalism at American University's School of Communication, composed a fascinating account of the history of gay and lesbian publications called Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America.In 1947, Vice Versa, subtitled "America's Gayest Magazine" was first distributed. Its creator's name never appeared on its pages. (Actually, Lisa Ben is a pseudonym the author made by rearranging the letters in "lesbian," but this pen name never appeared in the newsletter either.)Six copies of that ground-breaking publication were created at one time using carbon paper, then the pages were retyped to create another set. Most of the copies were handed out at the If Club in Los Angeles; three of the first issue were mailed to friends. The mailing stopped when someone alerted the author that what she was writing could be considered obscene and should not be mailed.It was 1958 before the U. S. Supreme Court decided that it was not illegal to mail gay and lesbian material. It took a four year legal battle to win this fight for something most groups took for granted.A lot happened in the time between the hand-typed pages of Vice Versa in the forties and the glossy magazine Out in the 1990s. This emerging media both reported happening and became an invaluable part of the rise of the gay and lesbian movement."Written and edited by the same women and men who organized and marched in the picket lines, the publications of the mid-1960s articulated the political philosophy that fueled the new defiance," Streitmatter wrote. "The publications of the era directed this dramatic change from conforming to the dictates of society to building a national gay community with values often in conflict with those of heterosexual America -- and proudly so."The evolution of the lesbian and gay media has not been a simple one nor has it been without obstacles. As Streitmatter writes, what was in the 1950s a "love that dare not speak its name" became militant in the Stonewall Rebellion of the 1960s. In the 1970s, the gay and lesbian press played a role in transforming the riot at the Stonewall Inn from a "moment," into a "movement"-- a movement toward gay and lesbian liberation.Beginning in the seventies, the religious and political right sprang up to derail the gay and lesbian movement but they were largely unsuccessful. The whole story comes to a screeching halt, though, in the early 1980s when a "cancer" is discover among gay men. What later became known as AIDS killed a generation of leaders and the women of the community came forward to lead the movement. In the 1990s, gay and lesbian issues come to the forefront and the gay and lesbian press moves toward the mainstream.It would make a good soap opera if it were not so real.Streitmatter has managed to create a work that is both easy to read and scholarly. It is extensively endnoted, yet readers can still follow the story as it unfold chronologically.This book will likely find its way into readers' hands to be read all the way through, then placed on a bookshelf to be held for reference. An extensive index makes finding specific topics or publications easy.With 347 pages of text, Streitmatter does not leave out a detail. His narrative style guides -- but not pulls -- the reader through a history that would be fascinating no matter how it were presented.The best part of the book, though, is the reward found in the last chapter. Streitmatter, whose expertise is evident from the earlier chapters, shares his personal observations and conclusions after research into this part of the American press."I have, throughout this book, attempted to separate my own feelings from my work," he writes, continuing that objectivity, he feels, is only a myth anyway. "Partaking of anonymous sex and losing friends to AIDS, for example, are not concepts I became familiar with through archival research."Through his honest observations and extensive, professional research, Rodger Streitmatter shows the impact that the gay and lesbian press has on the gay movement. He also shows that the movement is not in vain and that liberation is winning, perhaps in part because of the press that covers the movement and shapes it.