Early Organizing and Publications

Contrary to the labourious printing processes of the past, the mimeograph opened the door of publication to many groups on the fringe during the 1950s and 1960s. The early gay rights movement in North America is just one of many of the groups that fought to raise consciousness in what was often called "The Mimeograph Revolution." As emphasized in interview excerpts with lesbian poet and activist Judy Grahn,

The means of print production gradually came into people's hands, so it was possible for our little group of lesbians to buy... a mimeograph machine for two or three hundred dollars and be in business. As soon as we could learn how to use it, we could be publishers and that's what happened. The office equipment gave us accessibility to the media.

(Felstiner, J. 1983, 19)


I will highlight some of the earliest and most influential of these publications.


In the beginning...

One of the earliest known gay publications in North America was Vice Versa, first published by 'Lisa Ben' (an anagram for lesbian) in 1947. Limited in publishing resources, Ben was only able to type out a limited number of copies of each edition, using carbon paper and her office typewriter (Martin, Thomas & Marcus, 1995). In a 1988 interview with Ben (although her real name is Edythe Eyde, she still uses her pseudonym), she revealed some of the difficulties publishing Vice Versa:

I had an awful lot of fun putting it together... I would use carbon paper, because in those days we didn't have such things as (photocopy) or even a ditto machine. And I would put in the original and then seven copies, and that's all the typewriter would take legibly.

(Brandt, 1988, 9)

Ben never sold the newsletters; instead, she gave them to friends in the hope that they would be passed around.

The Mimeograph and the Early Gay Rights Movement

ASK Magazine 1964(courtesy the BC Gay & Lesbian Archives)

Vice Versa, "America's Gayest Magazine" 1947

Meanwhile up in Canada

Although perhaps slow to realize the possibilities of gay publications, Canada did launch its first homophile newsletters in 1964. The first appeared in Toronto in March, and the second debuted in April in Vancouver. Inspired by the work of the Mattachine Society, the founders of Vancouver's Association for Social Knowledge (ASK) used the mimeograph to launch its first edition of 75 copies (Harris, 2004). Borrowing a typewriter from a couple in the gay community, the founders created stencils, and printed out copies of ASK Newsletter on a mimeograph. They then decorated the newsletters with hand-drawings using felt markers and distributed the publication through a small number of available gay-friendly establishments.

In keeping with the rallying spirit of the Mattachine Society, ASK was not satisfied with simply reporting news; they wished to create it. For example, their readership was encouraged to write MPs to legalize homosexuality. As well, through the efforts of ASK and its readership, a small resource library was created and eventually members realized their dream by establishing Canada's first gay community centre in 1966.

Ben eventually had to give up publication as she had too many people interested and a new job, and she just could not keep up with the growing demand using the carbon copying method. Although she did not intend to start a social movement, she did prove that there was an interest and a 'market' for this type of communication (Whitt, 2001).


The Mattachine Society


In 1950, a small number of gay men in Los Angeles launched the Mattachine Society.1 Harry Hay, one of the leaders, is depicted in the SPARC mural. The Society is regarded as "the first to establish a legally incorporated and long-lasting organization" and is considered by some to be "the beginning of today's organized gay movement" (Witt, Thomas & Marcus, 1995, p. 199). As part of its goals as a "service and welfare organization," it was "devoted to the protection and improvement of society's androgynous minority" (Witt, Thomas & Marcus, 1995, p. 198). When the Society started a magazine called The Mattachine Review, they opted to typeset it so that it had a professional look. Typically more financially secure than their lesbian counterparts, publications aimed at gay males were often glossier (Whitt, 2001). They did, however, still contribute to the community at large.


The Daughters of Bilitis and The Ladder


One of the most famous of early gay rights groups was the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) organization which began in San Francisco in 1955. Initially a social club of 8 lesbians, the DOB was interested in educating not only the gay community, but also society in general on the rights and legitimacy of homosexuals (Martin & Lyon, 2001). In keeping with one of their primary goals, the DOB started publishing The Ladder in October 1956 in a time when homosexuals were particularly persecuted (Soares, 1998; Whitt, 2001).


Although the DOB were not financially able to copy the 'glossy print' method of the Mattachine Society, they were allowed to use the Society's mimeograph machine. They set up their publishing house with 'donated' office supplies (assumedly from members' places of employment) and began mailing out newsletters in plain envelopes to members (Whitt, 2001). The first issue included notes of upcoming meetings and articles regarding safety and the law.

The format of The Ladder, a 5 x 8 stapled booklet with a cover, made the newsletter more of a 'literary' periodical in nature lending itself to the inclusion of "fiction and poetry and longer nonfiction essays" (Soares, 1998, p. 32). Contributions were soon made by the readers. Described as a "beacon of hope" for many isolated lesbians in the United States, The Ladder "conveyed the message that being gay was sane and acceptable" (Soares, 1998, p. 32). Unfortunately, after three editions, the mimeograph could not keep up with the demands of the growing readership and it broke down. After almost getting caught 'borrowing' the off-set printing press owned by one member's employer, the DOB created stencils which were then copied by a printing company connected with the Mattachine Society. Funds raised by the $1 subscription rate helped to offset the printing costs.

The Ladder continued to publish until 1972. Its 14 year run "paralleled the emergence of an identity, a culture, and a movement" allowing a "hidden, marginalized group" to be "proud and vocal" (Soares, 1998, p. 32).


On the other side of the continent


The Washington Blade (first published as The Gay Blade) was a publication started by the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1969. In an effort to inform the community of their rights, the chapter mimeographed 500 copies of a one page monthly newsletter (Anderton, 2004). The first issue, hand-cranked on a mimeograph in the basement of the founder's house, warned the community of blackmail attempts and urged readers to participate in an upcoming blood drive.2 To this day, it is still in publication as a weekly newspaper and is available on-line.

The Advocate

Another publication still in press, first printed by mimeograph, is The Advocate. It was launched as a 12-page newsletter in 1967, however in its infancy "its content did not emphasize political/theoretical or lesbian issues" (Adams, 1998, p. 137).

DOB Branches Out

In February 1970, Focus: A Journal for Lesbians (originally titled Maiden Vogue) followed on the success of The Ladder, as a mimeographed publication (Whitt, 2001). Started in Boston by the local chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, Focus progressed from a magazine full of contributions written under pseudonyms, to have editors and readership who were "vocal gay rights advocates" (Whitt, 2001, p. 242). Focus continued to publish until 1983 when the cost of printing and unpredictable revenue forced it to shut down.


1 Mattachine means 'little fool,' and was named after the cross-dressing, masked court jesters of 13th and 14th century France and Spain, called Mattachine. The association was in part due to the 'masked' or 'closeted' reality of many of Mattachine Society's members.


2 It is interesting to note that while The Gay Blade was typed, a close look at the first edition suggests that either the title was artfully hand-drawn on stencil, or the print was done onto pre-printed letterhead.


"Writing is consciousness raising." (Ong, 2002, p.175)

In the early 1950s and 1960s, the accessibility, speed and low cost of the printing process provided by the mimeograph, allowed members of the gay and lesbian community a 'lifeline' of communication to its members. By daring to bring a 'voice' to the community, the gay rights movement began to take shape, break down walls and stand up for itself as a community to be heard and recognized.