Special Extended Post: Exploring a key figure in the historic dissident press

In 1950s America, gay rights issues were hardly ever discussed in the mainstream media. Homosexuality was not viewed as a viable sexuality, and the organized LGBT rights movement was just beginning—the first major gay organization, the Mattachine Society, was only founded in 1950. But as the decade progressed, it became clear that each of the letters in the LGBT acronym was not being championed equally. Gay men were quicker to organize and far more vocal, promulgating their message more effectively and more widespread than gay women. Gay men had larger organizations and a larger chunk of the dissident press.  It sounds silly, but if lesbians wanted any media attention at all, they had to start their own dissident newspapers in order to dissent from the already-existing gay dissident press, whose emphasis was almost wholly on gay men.

One of the most important of these publications was The Ladder, a monthly magazine that openly discussed issues facing lesbians in the United States

The Ladder began as many dissident publications did; a group of people joined together, rallying behind a common cause that they were passionate about. That cause sparked the foundation of an organization, and that organization sparked the release of a publication so that the group could more effectively disseminate its message. (MORE)
In this case, the group of people was comprised of eight lesbian women in San Francisco, California. The common cause was the need for a social organization for lesbians that didn’t involve the bar and club culture that dominated LGBT society during that time. That small mission stimulated a broader one: to empower lesbian women to participate in society, to educate society about including lesbian women in the discussion without discrimination and to heighten awareness about inequalities related to non-straight sexual orientations. The organization that formed around these tent poles was the Daughters of Bilitis, which became the very first national lesbian organization in 1955. In October of the next year, the organization developed a publication, The Ladder, which initially served as a newsletter for the general membership of DOB.

The magazine derived its name from its desire to serve as a tool that women could use to escape their lonely existences. At the time, it was widely believed that the life of a lesbian was a life of loneliness. 

Two of the most important founders of DOB were Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, women with journalism education and reporting experience; in fact, they had met and taken up as lovers during their time working for a magazine in Seattle. They moved to San Francisco in 1953, entered into a partnership, and started publishing The Ladder as a newsletter to better connect with the membership of the DOB. In the first issue, published in October of 1956, Lyon wrote, “It is to be hoped that our venture will encourage women to take an ever-increasing part in the steadily-growing fight for understanding of the homophile majority,” choosing to use the word “homophile” instead of “homosexual” in order to emphasize the love aspect of the sexual orientation over the sex aspect. 

Throughout most of its early run, The Ladder ran conservative articles about lesbian life. They urged readers to be outspoken about their sexuality and romantic interests, but at the same time, they largely advocated conservative homosexuality. That is, Lyon and Martin wrote that women should conform to heterosexual fashion norms, making sure that they were not dressing too “butch.” Only a few years after the heyday of the McCarthy era and the Lavender Scare in the U.S., when gay people were being dismissed as emotionally unstable, morally corrupt, and threats to the security of the country, Lyon and Martin did not want the female gay community to assert themselves as a stereotype. They wanted straight people to see that they were not dramatically different from lesbians, writing in one edition of The Ladder that overly masculine lesbians were “the worst publicity we can get. Their attire should be that which society will accept. Contrary to belief, we have shown them that there is a place for them in society, but only if they wish to make it so.” The editors also were careful about making sure that their magazine did not follow the hyper-sexualized, gratuitously liberal trend of the masculine gay publications of the era. 

The Ladder also discussed how lesbians could avoid police arrest, encouraged them to accept themselves and tried to provide a positive image so that they could work against negative coverage in mainstream heterosexual media. The publication was largely inspired by Vice Versa, a privately-distributed Los Angeles-based magazine that ran from 1947 until 1948. Lyon and Martin borrowed several elements from Vice Versa for their own magazine, including the publication of letters from readers, personal essays, poetry and short fiction in order to create a creative forum in which lesbians could communicate with each other. 

In the beginning, DOB’s journalistic endeavor was solely subscriber-based, mailing 175 copies of its approximately 12-page, hand-stapled rag to a mailing list of subscribers, who reveled in the book reviews, short stories, news stories, letters and general updates from the DOB meetings. In this respect, according to historian Marcia Gallo, “The Ladder was a lifeline. It was a means of expressing and sharing otherwise private thoughts and feelings, of connecting across miles and disparate daily lives, of breaking through isolation and fear.”

 By October 1957, word of mouth had spread about The Ladder, stimulating its sale on newsstands in major cities and an uptick in the number of subscribers to 400.  The subscribers covered the production costs of the magazine, and none of the contributors or editors to the magazine received any payment. 

Lyon and Martin gave up the magazine in 1963, selecting Barbara Gittings as their successor. Gittings chose to diverge from The Ladder’s conservative, “conform with the straight people” message and infuse the magazine with some of the LGBT political radicalism that was dominant at the time. 

Gittings added a subhead—“A Lesbian Review—to the magazine’s title, increased the amount of content per issue, and advocated a more militant message, encouraging readers to think urgently about the political struggles facing them. During her time as editor, the publication stayed afloat thanks to anonymous monthly donations that the DOB received, which were to be put strictly toward the magazine. 

The DOB disagreed with Gittings’ more radical message, so they removed her from the post of editor and instated Barbara Grier in 1968. Grier tripled The Ladder’s subscription rate by removing the word “lesbian” from the cover and broadening the scope of the features, focusing on general feminist issues instead of specifically lesbian disputes. This topical refocus resulted in the doubling of the number of subscribers three times over, skyrocketing it from 1,200 to 3,800 over the course of Grier’s editorship. 

Despite the valiant efforts of Grier and the rest of the staff at The Ladder, and although subscription rates increased immensely, the publication, which constantly was on the brink of economic peril, needed to fold, and in 1972, the last issue of The Ladder ran. Several years later, Grier reflected on the economic model of the magazine, saying, “No woman ever made a dime for her work, and some worked themselves into a state of mental and physical decline on behalf of the magazine. I believe that most of them believed that they were moving the world with their labors, and I believe that they were right; they did indeed do that.”

In its 17 years of publication, The Ladder did much to progress LGBT rights simply by forcing the mainstream press to stop and pay attention to issues affecting homosexuals. The Ladder also ensured that the sole face of the LGBT movement was not that of gay men; women, the editors wanted to assert, were gay too, and they deserved the same rights. 

Today, the lesbian journalistic torch has not been extinguished. Curves magazine, AfterEllen.com and Pam’s House Blend are resources online and in print that have not let the market for lesbian-focused journalism go unsatisfied. Still, to many people, “LGBT” represents gay men and their individualized causes. So these publications still have their work cut out for them to promulgate the lesbian cause and decrease lesbian isolation. To quote Lyon again, they must “fight for understanding.” They must force the mainstream press to understand the cause, and to understand that they are still there striving for equality.

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