Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 08 September 1997

LISA BEN
"Gay Gal"

By Eric Marcus

 

IN 1945, Lisa Ben,* a young secretary from northern California, set out for Los Angeles to escape her overbearing parents. It was there that she first met other women like her, and it was there that she first put her ideas about homosexuality down on paper in her own "magazine" for lesbians, which she produced using sheets of carbon paper on her office typewriter. Beginning in mid-1947, Lisa produced nine editions of Vice Versa, which she distributed to her friends, who, in turn, passed them on to their friends. Although Lisa was able to produce only ten copies of each edition, her publication was almost certainly read by dozens, if not hundreds before it disappeared into history.

Lisa lives in a modest bungalow in a residential neighborhood in Burbank, California. She has shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, which frames a pretty, almost girlish, round face. Her eyes, set off by a colorful blouse and coordinated slacks, sparkle. The small front room of her house, where she spends most of her time, was tidy, a condition that Lisa explained was not its usual state. An upright piano was on one wall, and a sofa on the opposite wall. Lisa noted that she owns her home, paid for by a life's work as a secretary.

Lisa Ben was born in 1921 and grew up in a rural northern California town, where as a young woman of fourteen, she fell in love for the first time.

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*Lisa Ben is a pseudonym. She chose not to use her real name because she is concerned that she would upset elderly relatives who "might not take it well if they find out I'm gay."

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My first real lesbian love was in high school I was very much taken with her She was fifteen. Of course, we did nothing below the waist, if you'll pardon my being so frank I loved her dearly, and we would hug each other and that sort of thing she was so spontaneous in her hugs and kisses. We were so innocent about it and so joyous.

One time after she left me for another girl at high school, I was crestfallen. My mother said to me, "You never did anything wrong with her, did you?" I never thought that my love for this girl was weird or strange, but when my mother asked me that, I suddenly realized that there was something not quite right. I immediately turned to her and said, "Well, no, Mother, what do you mean?" I was quite serious, because by wrong I thought she meant playing doctor when you're five or six years old. Or maybe stealing something or smoking cigarettes. And we hadn't done any of those things. Up until that time I would talk to my mother and say, "Oh, she's left me, and I'm so blue," but after that, I didn't mention the girl to her very much, and my mother and I just grew apart.

Later on, when I was living in the town where this girl lived, I ran into her on a rainy night. I remember I was hungry and I had holes in the bottoms of my shoes. I was walking to this man's place where I did secretarial work, and out from this hotel doorway came my friend. "Oh," she said, "How are you? I thought that was you. You know, I'm married now and you should see Junior. I have the cutest little boy." She had grabbed hold of my arm, and before I could think, I said, "Don't touch me!" I reacted that way because all through those years I had never resolved my love for her. Grabbing my arm the way she did was just like sticking me with a knife. She let go and said, "Well, if that's the way you feel about it." And I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. I'm not feeling well tonight, and I'm late to go to a job. Please excuse my saying that. I think that's very nice that you're married. Well, I've got to go now. Bye, bye." I went home and I was just crushed, although, since she was married, I wouldn't have taken her back. I didn't want her. She was tainted.

A FEW years later, in 1945, I moved down here to Los Angeles to get away from my mother, who was always coming by and going through my things. I didn't know any gay people when I moved here. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know the word lesbian. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know how to go about finding someone else who was like me, and there was just no way to find out in those days. Everything was pretty closed about things like that.

So it was a while before I knew other gay gals and learned from them what gay meant. I found out one day when I was sunning myself up on the top of the garage of the place where I had a room. Some other girls that lived in the building came up and spread out their towels and started to talk among themselves. I noticed that although there was plenty of talk, they never mentioned boys' names. I thought, Well, gee, that's refreshing to hear some people talk who aren't always talking about their boyfriends and breakups. I got started talking to them just out of friendliness.

I DON'T know what brought up the subject, but one of the girls turned to me and said, "Are you gay?" And I said, "I try to be as happy as I can under the circumstances." They all laughed. Then they said, "No, no," and told me what it meant. And I said, "Well, yes, I guess I am because I don't really go out and search for boyfriends. I don't care for that." So they said, "You must come with us to a girl's softball game." I went with them, but I didn't tell them that softball bored the tar out of me. I just don't care for sports. I know that's very funny for a lesbian to say. But it's true, I never have cared for sports. I went along to be with the crowd.

The next week or so they took me down to a gay bar called the If Club. When we all walked in there, why, someone was bringing a birthday cake to one of the booths. There were some girls sitting there, and they were all singing happy birthday. I looked around me, and tears came to my eyes--partly because of the cigarette smoke and I thought, How wonderful that all these girls can be together. Of course, we called them girls at that time.

The girls could dance together there. I started dancing with one or the other of them who would come over and ask me. I never asked them. They asked me because I was obviously feminine. I had my hair long and I wore jewelry. I didn't look like a gay gal. I didn't have the close-cropped hair and the tailored look that was so prevalent in those days. I didn't do any of that jazz because I just didn't feel like it. And I was darned if I was going to do it just because everybody else did. I'm a girl and I've always been a girl. The only difference is I like girls.

So I danced quite a few dances. On the other side of this If Club was a bar, and men could come in off the street and they could sit at the bar and watch the girls dance. They were straight, as far as I knew. They would look, but they never talked to us or anything. The proprietor never let the men over where the girls were. That was forbidden.

After I got to the If Club and danced there with different people, I got invitations out to here and there, and I found out about a few more gay bars. I was always afraid that the police would come, although they didn't seem to bother the girls' clubs much. But I was afraid, and for that reason I never drank any strong liquor at any of the clubs. I would always have a Coke or a 7-Up or something like that so I'd have my wits about me if anything like that did happen. I didn't want to be so addled that they would take me off in the paddy wagon and put me in the pokey.

I was in a club down at the beach one time when the police came in. It wasn't a raid or anything; they just swaggered around. They were very unpleasant. They zeroed in on one boy in a bright red shirt. He had slightly long hair for that time. Today you wouldn't look at him twice. The police gathered around him in a circle, and I think they made him prove that he was a boy, but you couldn't see. I thought, What a horrible thing to do to the poor fellow. And then they came around to the tables. I was sitting with a couple of women who I didn't know too well. The policemen came over to our table. They had their notebooks out with pencils and asked us, "What are your names, please?" When they got to me I said, "My name is Wlmdommennn...." And one of the policemen said, "What was that?" With my real name, if you slur it together you wouldn't know exactly what you said. And at that moment, the music was playing real loud. So the policeman made a pretense of taking down my name and walked off. I don't think he thought I was gay because I had on little bright red earrings and long hair and all. After that. the police left. They didn't take anyone with them. They were just intimidating people.

Well, I was frightened. I said, "I think I'll leave." The two women at the table said, "Don't leave yet. Wait a half hour because sometimes they lurk outside and then as you leave they'll take you in." So I waited for half an hour and then I got in the car and drove home. I never went back to that place again.

So I was never in a real raid, but I read about them. In those days, every once in a while there would be an article in the newspapers like, "Party of Perverts Broken Up at Such and Such," and there would be a list of names. Or else, you would hear third hand about a raid down at some boy's club, and they took in a certain amount of--they didn't say gay people, they would say perverts or some unpleasant name.

I didn't think I was a pervert or sick. Why would I be sick? I never ever wanted to be like everyone else and raise a family or have babies. In fact, the mere idea of having a baby in the physical sense appalled me. I would not have gone through that for anything in the world. I never was interested in that. On the other hand, I never wanted to go stomping around in boots either or be in the business world. I was a misfit all the way around I guess.

AROUND THIS time, I started writing Vice Versa, a magazine for gay gals. I published the first issue in June 1947. I wrote Vice Versa mainly to keep myself company. I called it Vice Versa because in those days our kind of life was considered a vice. It was the opposite of the lives that were being lived--supposedly--and understood and approved of by society. And vice versa means the opposite. I thought it was very apropos. What else could I have called it?

I handed out the magazine for free. I never charged for it. I felt that that would be wrong. It was just some writing that I wanted to get off my chest. There was never anything in the magazine that was sexy or suggestive. I purposely kept it that way in case I got caught. They couldn't say that Vice Versa was dirty or naughty or against the law.

I typed the magazines at work. I had a boss who said, "You won't have a heck of a lot to do here, but I don't want you to knit or read a book. I want you always to look busy." He didn't care what I did as long as I got his work done first.

I put in five copies at a time with carbon paper, and typed it through twice and ended up with ten copies of Vice Versa. That's all I could manage There were no duplicating machines in those days, and, of course, I couldn't go to a printer. I learned to be a very fast typist that way.

Then I would say to the girls as I passed the magazine out, "When you get through with this, don't throw it away, pass it on to another gay gal." We didn't use the term lesbian so much then. We just said gay gal. In that way Vice Versa would pass from friend to friend.

I wrote almost everything in the magazine, although once in a while I would get a contribution. I wrote book reviews, although there were very few books around at the time that said anything about lesbians.

Even though it had been around since 1978. I wrote a book review on The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel. If there were any movies around that had the slightest tinge of two girls being interested in one another, I would take that story within the movie and play it up and say, "Such and such a movie has a scene in it with two young ladies and they seem to be interested in one another." And then I wrote poetry. Not a great deal of it, but a few things.

I was never afraid of being caught. That's the funny part about it. I never realized how serious it was. I blithely mailed these things out from the office with no return address, until one of my friends phoned me and said, "You know, you really shouldn't be doing that. It is against the law and it could land you in trouble." And I said, "Why? I don't mention the city it's from. I don't mention anybody's name. And it's not a dirty magazine by any stretch of the imagination." And she said, "Well, it would be dirty to the straight people because it's about girls, even though you have no cuss words or anything like that in it." So I decided I wouldn't mail it from the office anymore. But can you imagine the naivete of me? Oh dear!

THERE'S AN essay I wrote for Vice Versa that I wanted to read to you. I haven't looked at it in a long time. It's one of my favorites, and I think it will give you some idea of the kinds of things I was thinking about back then. I'm not sure what issue it's in. Let me see. Oh, here it is, Vice Versa--"America's Gayest Magazine," Volume 1, Number 4, September 1947. The essay is called "Here to Stay."

Whether the unsympathetic majority approves or not, it looks as though the third sex is here to stay. With the advancement of psychiatry and related subjects, the world is becoming more and more aware that there are those in our midst who feel no attraction for the opposite sex.

It is not an uncommon sight to observe mannishly attired women or even those dressed in more feminine garb strolling along the street hand-in-hand or even arm-in-arm, in an attitude which certainly would seem to indicate far more than mere friendliness. And bright colored shirts, chain bracelets, loud socks, and ornate sandals are increasingly in evidence on many of the fellows passing by. The war had a great deal to do with influencing the male to wear jewelry, I believe, with the introduction of dog tags, identification bracelets, etc. Whether the war by automatically causing segregation of men from female company for long periods of time has influenced fellows to become more aware of their own kind is a moot question. It is interesting to note, however, that for quite some time the majority of teenage girls seem to prefer jeans and boy's shirts to neat, feminine attire. It is doubtful that this has any vast social significance yet might not the masculine garb influence them toward adopting boyish mannerisms more than if they had adhered to typical girlish fashions?

Nightclubs featuring male and female impersonators are becoming increasingly prevalent. Even cafes and drive-ins intended for the average customer when repeatedly patronized by inverts tend to reflect a gay atmosphere. Such places are ever the center of attraction for a ' gay crowd" and become known as a likely rendezvous in which to meet those of similar inclinations. Books such as Dianna and The Well of Loneliness are available in inexpensive editions at book marts and even the corner drugstores. With such knowledge being disseminated through fact and fiction to the public in general homosexuality is becoming less and less a taboo subject and although still considered by the general public as contemptible or treated with derision I venture to predict that there will be a time in the future when gay folk will be accepted as part of regular society.

Just as certain subjects once considered unfit for discussion now are used as themes in many of our motion pictures. I believe that the time will come when say Stephen Gordon w ill step unrestrained from the pages of Radclyffe Hall's admirable novel The Well of Loneliness onto the silver screen. And once precedent has been broken by one such motion picture others will be sure to follow.

Perhaps even Vice Versa might be the forerunner of better magazines dedicated to the third sex which in some future time might take their rightful place on the newsstands beside other publications to be available openly and without restriction to those who wish to read them.

Currently appearing in many popular magazines are comprehensive articles on psychological differences between the two sexes which are enlightening many women as to the unbridgeable gaps between the opposite sexes and why most of them in this rapidly changing world are unable to come to terms with each other on a mental and emotional basis.

In days gone by when woman's domain was restricted to the fireside marriage and a family was her only prospect the home was the little world around which life revolved and in which unless wives were fortunate enough to have help they had to perform innumerable household chores besides assuming the responsibility of bearing children. But in these days of frozen foods motion picture palaces compact apartments modern innovations and female independence there is no reason why a woman should have to look to a man for food and shelter in return for raising his children and keeping his house in order unless she really wants to.

Today a woman may live independently from man if she so chooses and carve out her own career. Never before have circumstances and conditions been so suitable for those of lesbian tendencies.

It surprises me now, reading this, because I haven't read it for so long. I had to stop and think, "Did I write that?" But I wrote it. I never thought of it as being bold at the time. I was just sort of fantasizing. It all has come to pass: the magazines, the movies, women that choose to live by themselves if they so wish, even if they aren't gay. Makes me feel like a fortuneteller. Yes, that's me in there. Although, I didn't sign my name to it.

I used no names in Vice Versa because that was back in 1947. I assured the few people who wrote articles and poems and things that I wouldn't use their names. I never used my own name in it either and never even thought of using the pseudonym "Lisa Ben" in those days. I first started using Lisa Ben in the 1950s when I wrote a story for The Ladder, the Daughters of Bilitis (an organization for lesbians founded in San Francisco in 1955) magazine. I was a member of Daughters of Bilitis down here in L.A. Nobody used their names in that publication. So I signed my story, "Ima Spinster." I thought that was funny, but they didn't. They put up a big argument. I don't know whether they thought it was too undignified or what, but they objected strongly. If I had been as sure of myself as I am these days, I would have said, "All right, take it or leave it." But I wasn't. So I invented the name Lisa Ben. If you've ever played anagrams you know what it turns around into.

I PUBLISHED nine issues of Vice Versa before the job where I could do a lot of personal typing on my own came to an abrupt halt. Someone else bought the company, and almost everyone was let go--bosses, secretaries, errand boys, everybody. It was a mass exodus. Out we went. At the next job, I did not have an opportunity to do the magazine because the work load was heavier and there was no privacy. I didn't have a private office as I did in the first job. I thought, "Well I'll just have to give it up, that's all. I can't attempt to do the same here, or there would be repercussions." So the magazine folded.

I always hoped that I would stay in that one job and that I could turn out one of these a month and that I would be able to meet more and more girls this way, by handing out the magazine, and that I would become known among the group. You see, I was very lonely.

I didn't suppose anything could come of Vice Versa because I knew that in those days such magazines could not be sent to the printers and published. So it was just a sort of a gesture of love--of women loving women, and the whole idea of it. It was an enthusiasm that boiled over into these printed pages, and I wanted to give them to as many people as possible. It was a way of dividing myself into little bits and pieces ant saying, 'Here you are, take me! I love you all!"

AFTER I stopped publishing Vice Versa, I began writing gay parodies of popular songs and singing them in the clubs. I'll tell you how that came about. One of the clubs I went to was the Flamingo. They used to have Sunday afternoon dances there just for the gay kids.

Beverly Shaw, the well-known gay singer, used to perform there. They would put on a little show for us during the afternoon, and as evening wore on, the straight people would wander in just to see how the other half lived. The fellows would get up there on the stage and do their female-impersonation acts and they would tell the most atrocious dirty jokes, which dismayed me because I was such an idealist at the time and, in a way, such a little prude. One of them got up and made a terrible remark about Beverly Shaw and her being a butch or something. It was a very offensive joke, and all the straight people laughed at it. It burned me up that these guys would come up and tell dirty stories demeaning the gay people so that they could earn a buck by amusing these straights sitting out there.

I got disgusted so I never went back. At the time I thought, What a stupid thing to do, to play into the hands of these outsiders by demeaning themselves in this way. It offended me and it also made me very angry at the gay entertainers, because they weren't doing themselves any good by doing this. Sure they were making a little money, but look what they did to earn it.

That's when I started writing gay parodies of popular songs. I thought, Well, I'm going to write some gay parodies, and they're going to be gay, but they are not going to be demeaning or filthy. After I got two or three of them written, I went up in front of the microphone--they'd let a lot of us sing in front of the microphone in the afternoons, not in the evenings--and I sang a couple of these ditties. And boy, they went over.

My parodies were about gay life, with lyrics set to popular songs like "I'm going to sit right down and write my butch a letter and ask her won't she please turn femme for me." I didn't do a heck of a lot of singing, but once in a while if I had a new parody, I'd get up and sing it.

Some people might have thought my songs were political, but I w as not politically active. Even today I'm not one to march in a parade or something. But I guess I did react to the female impersonators. I did not get up and tell them who I was writing parodies and performing them. I did not tell the gay entertainers, "'You're doing yourselves a disfavor by doing such and such." I wouldn't have had the nerve to. I just presented something else instead, hoping that people would latch onto it and realize they didn't have to talk themselves down to be accepted.

I sang my songs at various clubs, but I never sang my gay parodies for straight people. I was very much what I would call a separatist. Now, the other day, somebody said a separatist is a lesbian who doesn't like gay men. Is that true? Well, that's not me. I had many gay men friends. not boyfriends, you understand, but like brothers or cousins.

Anyway, I want to sing one of my songs for you. This song isn't a parody; it's one of my own compositions, my favorite. It's called "A Fairer Tomorrow." It echoes what I wrote in Vice Versa. I wrote it in the 1950s, I think.

Scattered are we over land, over sea.

How many we number will never be known.

Each one must learn from the stars.

She must wear a mask on her heart.

And live In a world set apart.

A shy secret world of her own.

Here's to the days that we yearn for.

To give of our hearts as we may.

Love's always locked in sincerity given, despite what the others may say.

The world cannot dare to deny us.

We've been here since centuries past.

And you can be sure our ranks will endure as long as this old world will last.

So here's to a fairer tomorrow, when we'll face the world with a smile.

The right one beside us to cherish and guide us.

This is what makes life worthwhile.

The right one beside us to cherish and guide us.

This is what makes life worthwhile.

I was recently asked to come up to San Francisco to do another "Evening with Lisa Ben" with my music. I'm tempted to do that, but I have to find somebody to take care of all my pussies. I have fifteen of them. I can't leave them for more than a day. That's a big question. That will give me something to do with my birthday. Usually, when my birthday comes, I go out to dinner by myself, and that's it for a celebration. Because when you get old, nobody thinks of you anymore. I don't feel particularly bad for myself. I love to go out to dinner. If I could afford to, I'd go out to dinner every night. But I can't, so I go once a year on my birthday. I choose a certain restaurant that I want to go to and then I go there and eat a good meal and enjoy it. I think if I went up to San Francisco, I'd probably enjoy my birthday a lot more. It'd be kind of fun. They want me up there, and I'm thrilled that they- do. It's very flattering to me.

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Excerpted from Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990, An Oral History by Eric Marcus,HarperCollins, 1992. Eric Marcus' most recent book is Icebreaker: The Autobiography of Rudy Galindo, Pocket Books, 1997. Information about Eric Marcus' works can be found on his Web page: www.EricMarcus.com

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