LGBT press was born this way: 4 seminal publications celebrate historic milestone anniversaries

Chuck ColbertThis year marks significant milestones for four LGBT publications – all celebrating noteworthy 40th or 35th anniversaries.

 

In 1971, for example, the Bay Area Reporter [BAR) hit the streets of San Francisco and is still going strong. Five years later, Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia saw the birth of gay media outlets, with Gay Chicago, Out Front Colorado and Philadelphia Gay News [PGN) still publishing and informing their local communities 35 years later.

 

Obviously, these anniversary celebrations raise a question: What was it about gay media taking hold in the 1970s?

 

Of course, publications such as the Washington Blade [1969), based in the nation’s capital, and The Advocate [1967), based in Los Angeles, are older than the group of four. And it’s not as if even older gay or lesbian publications had not sprung up as early as the 1920s. In fact, the first known gay publication in the U.S. hales from Chicago – the Friendship and Freedom newsletter. And the periodical Vice Versa [1947-1948), written under the pseudonymous Lisa Ben from Los Angeles, is the first known lesbian publication.

 

From the middle 1950s through the early 1970s, homophile organizations – the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis – produced periodicals and newsletters providing information to members.

 

One Magazine (1953 to 1968), the nation’s first pro-gay publication, grew out of Mattachine.

 

Then along came the Stonewall Rebellion, a spontaneous uprising on June 28, 1969, at a New York City gay bar between police and patrons that propelled the growth of the modern LGBT civil rights and liberation movement.

 

Stonewall indeed infused a budding gay-rights movement with energy and excitement. By the mid 1970s, “there was a feeling that anything could be done,” said Mark Segal, founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. Yet, “Many of us believed we needed to have our own community newspapers, forums where we could discuss important issues and get out information.”

 

“Newsletters from the various organizations that only went to their memberships weren’t enough,” Segal explained. “We needed to reach the entire community, not just the activists, but those people who went to bars and those who were closeted. We wanted our own media. So in the 1970s, that’s when local gay media was founded.”

 

Another reason for gay media was that the mainstream media didn’t cover the community. “If they did, it was something horrible,” Segal said. Coverage was either pejorative or focused on pathology.

 

Also keep in mind, said Thomas Horn, publisher of BAR, “There was nothing, no community organizing tool, no communications device.” In San Francisco, he explained, “There were various segments of the gay community that were quite large at this point. We had the Imperial Court community and drag queens on one side, the political gays on the other, and the leather community, various communities that had no way to get in touch with each other.”

 

Even before Stonewall, Horn said, “Gays were finding themselves in tense situations with local authorities.”

 

The late Bob Ross, BAR’s founder, “felt we needed a way to get the word out, to find out what was happening and to let people know what was happening,” Horn explained. “Bob could do that through the paper. It was a way to organize and to mobilize the community.”

 

The 1973 founding of the now-defunct Gay Community News [GCN), which is believed to be the first LGBT weekly newspaper in the country, had a similar effect in Boston.

 

“[GCN] was the end of the information desert, one of the seminal events in our community” said longtime Boston area community leader Barbara Hoffman. “You can’t imagine what it was like to live in the desert with no books, newspapers, magazines, movies, TV and no way to communicate to any numbers of us.

Along came GCN, and we stopped being invisible. Suddenly, there was information and a way to connect. It was a monumental breakthrough.”

 

Founders of early gay publications approached the enterprise from three primary perspectives – activism, business and journalism. Often activists wrote about events that they themselves had organized.

 

“There is tremendous, first-person, frontline reporting on the movement. The journalism was excellent,” said Tracy Baim, executive editor and publisher of Windy City Times, citing the now-defunct Chicago Gay Crusader. Some of the city’s early publications, she added, “are treasure troves of information.”

 

The editorial mix from locality to locality differed across the country. Political and gossip columnists and letters sections provided robust content, along with hard news reporting as well as nightlife and entertainment coverage.

 

Early on, the business side was often a struggle because advertisers other than bars, bathhouses and escort services were often reluctant to buy display ads.

 

Back in the day, classified ads far outpaced display advertising – and they were moneymakers.

 

Without Craig’s list and Manhunt, pages and pages of classifieds enabled people to connect. Gay men, for example, could cruise without going to a bar, find a compatible roommate or date, look for an apartment, and sell a car, among other options.

 

Beyond the need to connect, organize and mobilize, what else accounts for the birth of local gay media at the time?

 

Perhaps the most important impetus was economics. “The means of producing publications became economically viable, kind of like now with the Internet and music downloads," said publisher Baim.

 

When the means of production were no longer cost prohibitive in the mid-1960s and 1970s, she explained, “That led to a rise in alternative press,” including all kinds of publications, not just LGBT ones.

 

Nationwide, a lesbian feminist print movement arose in which women bought offset printing presses and published books, pamphlets and newsletters, Baim added.

 

Certainly, Stonewall caused a rise in gay activism, which went into higher gear and was undoubtedly a force in the founding of local gay media.

 

“But the rise in activism was not only because of Stonewall,” Baim said, noting that gay activism was very much a part of and outgrowth of youth activism from the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements.

 

“Those movements led to Stonewall and cannot be taken out of the equation,” Baim added. “All across the country, LGBT people were empowered by those two movements. Those folks naturally gravitated to issues that were closer to home.”

 

White people who went to Selma and Birmingham from Chicago learned a lot of community organizing tools, including how to communicate, she said. “The LGBT community here in the early 1970s was very much fed from civil rights activism, almost in a larger scale than Stonewall, meaning people were more affected by their civil rights and anti-war movement work,” Baim explained.

 

Rick Garcia, a longtime Chicago area activist agrees. “Chicago's gay community has always been vibrant, but on the heels of the anti-war and the women's movements, more gay people were coming out,” he said. “I think that was a major turning point. In

 

Chicago, we had gay businesses, people were increasingly out, and they were proud. It was a perfect environment for Gay Chicago to flourish.”

From the mainstream media, he continued, “We would see bits and pieces of our news, not usually in the way we wanted it. We wanted more but from our point of view.”

 

In a way, observed publisher Baim, “Early LGBT media is the forgotten tool of our movement that helped us communicate with one another before the Internet in ways that were just critical when nobody was covering our issues.”

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By Chuck Colbert

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert, based in Cambridge, Mass, has been a longtime contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and covered the crisis of clerical sex-abuse in the Boston archdiocese. Previously a senior reporter and columnist for the former In Newsweekly, he is a contributor to Keen News Service, Boston Spirit Magazine and Northampton, Mass.-based The Rainbow Times, Bay Area Reporter, Windy City Times, and Press Pass Q. Also, he has written for major mainstream daily newspapers and magazines, including the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review. 

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