Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 30 June, 1997

UNSPEAKABLE:

The Rise of the Gay & Lesbian Press In America

By Rodger Streitmatter, Ph.D.

Book Review by Jack Nichols


UNSPEAKABLE: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America, by Rodger Streitmatter, Faber & Faber: Boston & London, 424 pp. hardback, $27.95

In the recent past, HARPER'S magazine featured a rip-snorting critique of slick new glossies like OUT, Genre, Poz, and the now-defunct 10 Percent. Author Daniel Harris said these publications are "not like the old gay magazines--edgy, alternative publications that focused primarily on political rights. In the new glossies, he complained, such concerns are lost amid fashion spreads, hair-care products, and Club Med packages."

Gay and lesbian glossies, said Harris, give readers little about the reality of their lives, presenting instead endless images of well-adjusted gay bohemians "frolicking in a utopian never-never land where homosexuals are no longer persecuted or self-loathing." Harris was worried about this trend because, as he put it, in state after state there are referendums and propositions opposing equal rights for gay men and lesbians reaffirming old sodomy statutes, while courts still damn lesbian mothers as "unfit" parents.

AIDS still decimates gay communities from coast to coast, and government inaction is more the rule than the exception. All the while the new ad-gobbling glossies (this month's OUT contains approximately 64 full-page ads, over half the contents) provide little more than "mood enhancers," becoming "market penetration devices" that are eager to suck up revenue from "image conscious," "health-conscious" hedonists often called "DINKS" (dual income, no kids) and who are said to enjoy above-average incomes, much of it disposable. Harris' article was aptly titled Out of the Closets and Into Never-Never Land. The picture of gay life given in the glossies, he writes, "is a sanitized one, scrubbed clean of overt sexuality and unseemly images."

A recently published book (UNSPEAKABLE: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America by Rodger Streitmatter, professor of journalism at American University, Washington, D.C.) critiques the glossies for similar reasons but in a more balanced way and in greater detail. Professor Streitmatter wisely allows for the existence of publishing motives other than the political, including entertainment. A half-century of publishing growth unfolds in his gripping book, giving aspiring gay journalists close-ups of what is probably the major branch of the alternative press. UNSPEAKABLE inspires them to focus on meeting the demons of organized prejudice head on, initiating progressive moves or reporting on them, all the while helping translate information into much-needed social activism. The professor finds mere profiteering a bore, and while he understands the need for ad revenue, its clear he doesn't favor subordinating or sacrificing editorial content.

UNSPEAKABLE begins its story at RKO Pictures. The year is 1947, and a young secretary has been hired, her boss explaining that though he has no work for her, he wants her, nevertheless, to look busy. To improve her social life she begins typing her own idea of a lesbian magazine which she calls Vice Versa. Taking copies of the magazine to a women's bar, the secretary--who is shy and who uses a pseudonym--gives herself an excuse to chat with others, suggesting they write for her, or that may want to subscribe. By journalistic standards--in design and content--her pioneering publication paved the way for over 2,600 homosexual magazines and newspapers which have since mushroomed nationwide, serving vast audiences.

Surprisingly, the first "letter to the editor" in Vice Versa came not from a lesbian, but from an international celebrity, the originator of the term "Sci Fi," Forrest J. Ackerman. Clearly, Ackerman was on the side of liberation for same-sex lovers because he suggested that those attracted to their own genders substitute the phrase "Nature's tragic mistakes" with "Nature's interesting experiments." He believed that we same-sexers would be best served if we refused to consider ourselves as among "the Legion of the Damned."

The next phase in gay and lesbian publishing occurred in the 1950's, originating under the auspices of organizations like ONE, The Daughters of Bilitis and The Mattachine Society. These publications struggled in the shadow of McCarthyism. Their editors were continuously hounded by FBI investigators and some lost their jobs. In 1954 the national-political police collaborated with the post office and copies of ONE were confiscated. ONE took its case to the Supreme Court, winning for future generations the right to publish gay-themed materials. Though such gay magazines of the 1950's were bold steps in their time, the approaches they took--particularly The Mattachine Review's--were short of outright militancy, sometimes reflecting an accommodationists approach to the social arena. Proper dress, the importance of psychological research, and reminders to "behave" were among the Review's concerns.

The 1960's, says UNSPEAKABLE, introduced a new dimension: the emergence of an unapologetic militancy that reflected in the controversial takeover by uncloseted militants at The Ladder (published by The Daughters of Bilitis) and, on the East Coast, with the appearance of DRUM, published in Philadelphia, and (in the nation's capital) with the publication of The Homosexual Citizen. In 1966 The Mattachine Society of Florida, Inc. shared half the space in this latter magazine.

UNSPEAKABLE, because of its focus on published (and therefore primary-text) material, creates a new advance in access to gay and lesbian history, surpassing that of recent oral histories with their tales that too often rely on inaccurate personal memories. The lesbian and gay press provides a printed record that historians, with recent exceptions like Edward Alwood, James Sears, and Charles Kaiser, have too much neglected. Donn Teal's excellent 1971 text, The Gay Militants, is once again available through St. Martin's Press. Teal draws heavily on the few gay and lesbian newspapers of his time.

The Advocate and GAY, two major papers which emerged in the late 1960's, built fast-growing readerships on both sides of the continent and in-between. They crusaded against police harassment and gave support to activist organizations that emerged at the time. GAY reflected Manhattan and the values of the counterculture, while The Advocate was seen by readers as having--in Los Angeles--a mainstream bent.

In the aftermath of the Stonewall era, hundreds of new publications emerged. Some survived and others, while leaving an important record, folded. These included Gay Community News (Boston), Philadelphia Gay News, Windy City Times, The Washington Blade, TWN (Miami), The Lesbian Tide, The Furies, Lavender Woman, Seattle Gay News, Gaysweek (Manhattan), Fag Rag (Boston), and many others.

Editorial discord soared in 1974 when a new owner of The Advocate, David B. Goodstein, transformed the newspaper into an upscale lifestyles magazine. Goodstein received threats and was forced to hire a bodyguard. He introduced a publishing era emphasizing what UNSPEAKABLE calls "the commitment to amusing readers," speaking not so much in the language of the gay lexicon but in tongues of "the young and the beautiful of mainstream society."

UNSPEAKABLE steps provocatively through the 1970's and into the 1980's, reporting on a variety of heated controversies. It critiques newspapers such as the Bay Area Reporter and San Francisco's Sentinel (and even The Advocate) for having dropped the ball when AIDS emerged. These West Coast papers turned their back on bad news, not wanting to admit that "the party" was in need of some pointed cultural revamping. The nadir of gay press reporting, says Professor Streitmatter, took place in the early 80's under the direction of Paul Lorch, editor of San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.) a gay man who crusaded against people with AIDS. When twenty-two persons infected with the virus begged his removal, he refused to print their request, instead placing their letter in his drawer where, as each signer died, he drew a line through the signer's name.

The second worst offender was The Sentinel which, on April 1, 1982, ran a foolish headline: "GAY CANCER CAUSED BY BRUNCH." The Sentinel's publisher, William E. Beardemphl, editorialized that there was nothing to fear, and that gay men were 99/100's percent pure.

It was the now defunct New York Native which first alerted readers to AIDS dangers. Professor Streitmatter lavishes praise on the Native for its foresight. Unfortunately, with the resignation of its medical reporter, the Native, he says, wandered far afield, thereafter promoting a variety of strange and unsubstantiated theories about the disease. Even so, explains UNSPEAKABLE, a large Manhattan audience--though aware that the Native's AIDS reporting was askew--continued to read the paper because of its comprehensive cultural coverage.

Dr. Streitmatter's book provides an interesting look at OUTWEEK, a short-lived magazine that reveled in zealous tirades of militant advocacy journalism, spawning such controversies as "outing" and shaking up--mostly through revelations signed by Michelangelo Signorile- the nation's elites. The controversy began in earnest with OUTWEEK's post-mortum outing of financial tycoon, Malcolm Forbes. The Advocate took an editorial stand against outing, but then changed its mind, printing Signorile's expose of Pete Williams, the closeted and hypocritical gay Pentagon spokesman whose job meant mouthing Pentagon opposition to gays in the military.

Finally, UNSPEAKABLE turns to the plethora of present-day publications, confident that in spite of the spate of aforementioned apolitical glossies, "Gay and Lesbian America will win," its struggle for equality. "Tiny magazines," says the last chapter, "that began as fragile lifelines to frightened and isolated individuals have evolved into a powerful force that has played a vital role in constructing a strong, viable, politically enfranchised national gay and lesbian community. Fifty years ago, topics of fundamental interest to gay people were unspeakable."

Ironically, says Professor Streitmatter, the gay press will benefit from the hard times now facing general interest news outlets. Our genre "continues to grow both in number of publications and total circulation." As the captains of the American media shift "from appealing to the masses to appealing to specialized audiences, affluent gay people will clearly be very desirable." What is not so clear, laments the professor, "is to what degree this phenomeon will benefit the movement. How much are gay civil rights hastened by gay people learning to bleach their teeth and decorate their homes? Such material is not likely to persuade Congress to create federal protection for lesbians and gay men who have been fired from their jobs." What's more, complains UNSPEAKABLE, "as the lifestyle magazines lure major advertisers to their pages, they make life more difficult for local news-oriented publications that provide high-quality news content, as the big companies prefer to place their ads on slick paper than on newsprint.....The competitive media of today continues to be defined by survival of the fattest." Readers, hopefully, will see where their best long-range interests lie, rethinking their reading and advertising loyalties accordingly.

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