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Gay Rights Movement: Series 10: Lesbian Herstory Archives Newsletter Collection


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About this Collection

Introduction: Gay Rights Movement: Series 10: Lesbian Herstory ArchivesNewsletter Collection

Introduction: Gay Rights Movement: Series 10: LesbianHerstory Archives Newsletter Collection

 

The Lesbian Herstory Archives was conceived in 1974 indiscussions with members of a womens Gay Academic Union consciousness-raisinggroup, women such as Deborah Edel, a lesbian feminist from the 1970s; myself, a1950s fem; Julia Penelope Stanley, a staunch lesbian-separatist with her rootsin the 1950s; and Pamela, a political lesbian (Deborah and I were to go on tomake the archives a life-long commitment). Here in embryonic form were the1970s streams of consciousness, ranging from pre-Stonewall to gay liberation tolesbian separatism to lesbian as a political identification without sexualsignificance. Here also was the beginning of the discourse about memory,history, gender, and sexuality that would inform the Archives for the nextthirty years of its existence.

 

From the Archives Newsletter, no. 1, 1975:

 

The Lesbian Herstory Archives exists to gather and preserverecords of lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will haveready access to materials relevant to their lives. The process of gatheringthis material will also serve to uncover and collect our herstory denied to uspreviously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which theyserve. The existence of these archives will enable us to analyze and reevaluatethe lesbian experience; we also anticipate that the existence of these archiveswill encourage lesbians to record their experiences in order to formulate our livingherstory.

 

We will collect and preserve any materials that are relevantto the lives and experiences of lesbians: books, magazines, journals, newsclippings (from establishment, feminist or lesbian media), bibliographies,photos, historical information, tapes, films, diaries, oral histories, poetryand prose, biographies, autobiographies, notices of events, posters, graphicsand other memorabilia.

 

With its collection of lesbians speaking for themselves inmyriad ways, the archives were intended to be our answer to the medical, legal,and religious colonization of our lives. Since we had not been trained asarchivists, we were free to invent archives that reflected our political nearpast. Thus many of the archives principles are a radical departure fromconventional archival practices as they existed in the early 1970s.

 

All lesbian women must have access to the archives; noacademic, political, or sexual credentials may be required for usage of thecollection; race and class must be no barrier for use or inclusion.

The archives shall be housed within the community, not on an academic campusthat is by definition closed to many women.

The archives shall be involved in the political struggles of all lesbians.

Archival skills shall be taught, one generation of lesbians to another,breaking the elitism of traditional archives.

The community should share in the work of the archives.

The archives will collect the prints of all our lives, not just preserve therecords of the famous or the published.

Funding shall be sought from within the communities the archives serve, ratherthan from outside sources.

 

In 1975, the growing collection was housed in the largeUpper West Side New York apartment I shared with Deborah Edel. In the earlyyears we built the collection by scouring small-town library and churchbook-sale tables, often finding a rare lesbian novel that had been selected forthrowaway. In the mail, we would frequently get hand-made posters and othermemorabilia that had been saved from trash heaps. So many times did thisreversal of cultural fortune happen that we spoke publicly about transformingwhat this society considered garbage into a peoples history.

 

In 1978, Judith Schwartz, the pioneering grassroots lesbianhistorian, joined Deborah and me as coordinators of the archives, which by thenwere filling most of the apartment. Since 1976, Deborah and I had been touringthe country with the Archives slide show, in an attempt to spread the wordabout this new project. We presented the show anywhere we were asked to speak:in private homes; in bars; in churches and synagogues; and in community meetingplaces. For most lesbians, the thought that their lives were of historicalsignificance was a new idea. Our message was that every lesbian life was afamous one. Soon women were waiting for us with their photograph albums, orpoetry manuscripts or softball caps. As of 2004, the Archives housed over20,000 volumes, 12,000 photographs, 400 special collections, 2,000 periodicaltitles, 3,000 organizational and subject files, thousands of feet of film andvideo footage, art and artifacts, musical records and tapes, posters andt-shirts, buttons, and personal memorabilia such as the uniform a lesbian medicwore in the Vietnam War and the famous yellow skates Maxine Feldman, thepioneering lesbian comic performer, wore in the photograph on her first album.

 

The collection displays hard hats and hobnail boots of alesbian steel worker from the 1960s next to pasties and glossy prints of afamous lesbian stripper of the 1940s. They, in turn, are joined by the LavenderMenace t-shirt of the NOW rebellion in the early 1970s. Photographs of barpatrons of the 1930s are in the same room as images from the Michigan WomynsMusic Festival. A Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) certificate of organization, anartifact from the late 1950s, shares a shelf with a Lesbian Avengers poster, anartifact from the American urban 1990s. A copy of Women-Identified Women, themanifesto of the early days of lesbian feminism, lies next to an album coverfeaturing the smiling boyish face of Billy Tipton, the jazz musician who wasborn a woman but passed as a man for most of his life.

 

In 1980, the Archives was incorporated as the LesbianEducational Herstory Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit foundation, and in1992, after a national grassroots fund-raising campaign, the collection movedto its present home in Park Slope, Brooklyn - a four-story limestone building,the culmination of the dreams of communal liberation fostered by the social changemovements of the 1960s.

 

Joan Nestle
Co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives

 

Overview

 

It took women with foresight and determination to attainthis heritage which is now ours. Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in adark corner. Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits anyred-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?

Del Martin, The Ladder1

 

The development of lesbian organizations in the UnitedStates in the second half of the twentieth century was made possible in largepart by the sacrifices and social changes demanded during World War II. YoungAmerican women and men mobilized for the war effort; their mobilizations meantdislocations of all sorts, especially for women, who ventured forth to join themilitary or take wartime jobs previously unavailable to them. Postwar, some didnot return to their hometowns. Instead, thousands of women created new livesand loves in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, andPhiladelphia.2

 

Some women left home in search of all-female settings,hoping to explore and fulfill lifelong but forbidden desires. Others learned totheir surprise that, unmoored from traditional locations and expectations, theyfound other women attractive. The ability to follow ones heart and earn atleast a basic living, independent of men and free of conventional female socialroles, opened up new worlds for many women - exciting worlds that had beenglimpsed previously only in the pages of sensational books like RadclyffeHalls The Well of Loneliness.3

 

One woman whose well-known pseudonym is an anagram oflesbian left her familys farm outside the San Francisco Bay area in 1945 andfled to Los Angeles. There she found both a slow-paced secretarial job at oneof the largest movie studios in Hollywood and the gay LA scene. An avid readerand aspiring writer, she decided to take advantage of the resources and timeavailable to her at work and start a newsletter for gay women. By June 1947,she produced the first issue of Vice Versa, which she meticulously typedon her Underwood manual, creating eleven carbon copies for each original. Soon,Lisa Ben was distributing her newsletter to the women she met at the If Cluband other gay bars. Copying information she found in entertainment industrydailies and other sources, then adding some of her own poetry and shortstories, the new editor kept the publication going for eight issues but soontired of the work involved. The loss of her job at RKO, plus the addition ofscores of new lesbian friends in her life, spelled the end of Vice Versa.She had found an effective way to make new friends and she was enjoying them somuch that she didnt need to keep the newsletter going.

 

Unbeknownst to Lisa Ben in 1947, however, she had madehistory: Vice Versa is the first known newsletter published by and forlesbians in the United States. It started a long and proud tradition oflesbians offering social services, sharing political and cultural commentary,and creating community through the print media.4

 

The Rise of Lesbian Rights Organizing

 

For San Franciscans Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin eight yearslater, the desire to meet other women also was the motivation for takingaction. They had met at work in Seattle in 1950, fallen in love, and startedliving together in San Francisco on Valentines Day, 1953. They found jobs andjointly purchased a small house perched on a hillside overlooking EurekaValley. They also eagerly sampled the gay social scene in the City. But aftertwo years, they had not made many lesbian friends. When in September 1955 a newacquaintance invited them to join a small group of women to discuss theformation of a club, We said YES! Immediately! Lyon remembers. At the leastit meant we would know six other lesbians.5

 

Small, secret groups of gay women who gathered in oneanothers homes were a natural outgrowth of the same-sex social networks thathad been developing since the 1920s in urban areas and college towns. Duringand especially after World War II, however, gay socializing was given a boostby the growth of public sites - clubs and restaurants - that welcomedhomosexuals, although not without irritating restrictions (no dancing) andserious risk. Police raids - often timed to coincide with local elections andrecycled promises by politicians to clean up their cities - trapped gay menand women in a web of shame and fear. Getting caught at the wrong place on thewrong night could mean unwanted exposure on the front pages of the localnewspaper; repercussions often ranged from loss of employment to loss offamily, including ones children.6

 

The creation of lesbian clubs offered freedom from raids andrepression; as importantly, members promised to protect one anothersidentities. Sorority-styled groups flourished in the 1950s as tolerance for anysort of deviance or unconventionality waned in the first chilly years of theCold War against communism. Most of the clubs operated for a short time andthen dissolved, but in San Francisco in 1955, one such club evolved into the firstknown lesbian organization in America, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB).

 

DOB officially began in October 1955 after a month ofdiscussion and debate. From the beginning, the four founding couples, includingLyon and Martin, were intent on insuring that their club was above reproach;they quickly put in place policies and procedures more appropriate for aprofessional organization than a social group. The first eight members rangedin age from early twenties to early thirties; two of them had been married andhad children, and two of the couples were interracial. About half of the grouphad gone to college and held professional positions; the others were employedin the skilled trades or as clerical workers. All of them wanted a place wherethey could comfortably socialize and enjoy parties, picnics, and other outings.7

 

But larger social and political forces soon altered theirinitial decisions. The rhetoric of freedom so vital to fighting the war onfascism abroad had translated into renewed efforts to establish equality forminority groups at home. Taking their cue from African Americans, who demandedthat their wartime heroism be rewarded with a long-overdue end to segregationin all its forms and locales, gay men like the radical activist Harry Hay and thepseudonymous Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin) began to apply the minoritylabel to sexual nonconformists. Their path was paved by the publication in 1948of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the groundbreaking study conductedby Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey and his research team, whichshocked the public with its revelation of the extent of same-sex practicesamong average American men. Hay put the concept of gays as a minority groupinto practice when he and a small group of Los Angeles men started theMattachine Society in 1950. Corys book, The Homosexual in America: ASubjective Approach, was published in 1951; it was among the firstpublications to argue that homosexuals, like blacks, constituted a despisedsubgroup badly in need of fair treatment. Slowly the idea spread, and in 1953 asecond homophile group in Los Angeles started to publish a newsletter titled ONE.When DOB was formed in 1955, specifically and only for women, it brought tothree the number of gay groups advocating for understanding of the homosexualminority.

 

All three homophile groups developed newsletters andorganized conferences and public events. They called for an end to persecutionof homosexual men and women by the major institutions of society, be theyreligious, medical, or legal, and they sought out and formed relationships withsupportive professionals. Like the dignified, determined black women and menwho marched in Montgomery and organized throughout the United States in the1950s, the handful of gay men and lesbian homophile activists presentedthemselves as respectable, average American citizens.

 

For DOB, however, an added awareness of the discriminationfaced by women always informed their efforts. Although the explicit language offeminism was not used initially at their meetings or in their publication TheLadder, which they began as an organizational newsletter in 1956, apractical feminist ideology was ever-present. They utilized socializing, suchas the Gab n Java discussion groups held at members homes, to exorcise theself-hatred and fear that many lesbians expressed; they provided informal peercounseling to women who needed someone to talk to; they focused onbread-and-butter issues so important to working women in their public forumsand conferences; and they insisted that women who loved women were just asdeserving of respect and equal rights as anyone else.

 

Feminism and Lesbianism

 

The fact that DOB had organized chapters throughout thecountry in the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s meant that there were alreadyactivist lesbian groups in place when the second wave of the Americanfeminist movement unleashed the energies of hundreds of thousands of women. DOBchapters, their local newsletters, and the organizations by now well-regardednational magazine, all of which increasingly included news and views aboutwomens liberation, provided some women with a springboard into feminism. Soon,experienced lesbian activists joined with new recruits to the cause to createfeminist organizations.

 

But despite the early involvement of women like Phyllis Lyonand Del Martin, who left DOB in the mid 1960s to make their new political homein the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), aninitial distrust of lesbian involvement by some leaders of the mainstreamwomens rights organization encouraged the formation of small grassrootslesbian-feminist groups. In the infamous words of NOW founder Betty Friedan,they feared that the Lavender Menace would harm their legislative efforts tosecure equality. Differences in political theories and practices betweenreform-minded womens rights advocates and those calling for a morecomprehensive revolution in both sexual roles and social expectations alsoinspired locally organized feminist collectives, which were started bycollege-educated young women in 1967 in Chicago and New York and soon spread toother U.S. cities. For many lesbians, however, whether they were purged fromliberal feminist groups or frustrated at the inability of their straightradical sisters to understand their view that a total withdrawal frompatriarchy was necessary for womens complete liberation, organizing speciallylesbian-feminist groups became their priority.

 

By the mid-1970s, hundreds of small clusters of lesbianfeminists could be found, in cities, towns, and out on the land - from Albany,New York and East Lansing, Michigan to Riverside, California and Anchorage,Alaska. Their passionate politics filled the pages of homespun, and historic,newsletters, which served then and remain today as visual witnesses to thesocial and political changes of the times. The microfilm publication of the LesbianHerstory Archives Newsletter Collection insures that these vital visualwitnesses to modern womens and gay history now can be easily accessible toscholars, students, and activists.

 

From The Ladder to The OLOC Reporter: FiftyYears of Lesbian, Feminist, and Lesbian Feminist Newsletters

 

The Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) itself is a primeexample of a lesbian feminist organization, albeit one of the rare ones withstaying power. Begun in 1973 by women who had been part of a lesbianconsciousness-raising group of the Gay Academic Union in New York, the LHA isthe oldest and largest lesbian archives in the world. LHA has always believedin grassroots community control and involvement, and it relies on lesbiansworldwide for donations of materials. It is no accident that its NewsletterCollection is one of the most extensive anywhere. Reflecting its roots, itincludes an impressive assortment of Gay Academic Union chapter newslettersfrom California, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Texas.

 

As activists and archivists, LHAs founders and currentvolunteers understand that newsletters are among the most important products oflesbian feminist organizing. Indeed, the movement cannot be understood withoutreference to them. In addition to the hours of woman-power they consumed,newsletters are vital tools of communication as well as the birthplaces of then-revolutionary,now-accepted political and social concepts. The fifty issues of the New YorkRadical Feminists Newsletter, covering the six years of 1971 to 1977, arein and of themselves a tremendous resource in comprehending the ideas andactivism of the new movement. But the Collection contains much more. Thethousands of newsletters collected by LHA provide us with virtual roadmaps ofthe evolution of twentieth-century lesbian feminism throughout the UnitedStates, and the cultural, geographic, political, and social breadth and scopeare especially striking.

 

For example, the Collection helps bridge the gaps amonghomophile, lesbian/gay rights, and early lesbian feminist organizing inparticular regions. There are the 1967 newsletters of DOBs Philadelphiachapter as well as the publications of its successor group, the HomophileAction League, from 1968 to 1971. These early newsletters can be read asprelude to Getting It Together, the newsletter of the Radicalesbians ofPhiladelphia, which dates from 1971. The DOB newsletters are filled withannouncements of local social events as well as talks, business meetings, andnational DOB news; the Homophile Action League advertises its interest inorganizing against police harassment of lesbian and gay bars in Philadelphia.Radicalesbians uses its newsletters primarily to advance the ideas of lesbianfeminism and the growing popularity of lesbian separatism.

 

There is a run of newsletters (Lazette) from theDOBs chapter in New Jersey from 1971 to 1975, when activists who had been partof the New York Chapter split off to create their own group, frustrated by whatthey saw as the New York groups increasing feminist militancy. These can becontrasted with the two years of publications of the Gay Activists Alliance ofNew Jersey from 1976 to 1978. An early and hard-to-find newsletter of the GayWomens Liberation Front in New York stands in bold relief to the extensive runof newsletters produced by the New York-based West Side Discussion Group, whichincludes The West Sider from 1968 until 1987. An avowedly apoliticalgroup, it is also one of the longest lasting in the New York area.

 

The newsletters created by women of color will be of greatvalue to activists and researchers. The Collection includes nine years (1976-1985)of the Salsa Soul Gayzette (also titled Third World Womens Gayzettefor a time), produced by the legendary Salsa Soul Sisters, of Brooklyn, NewYork, and a few scarce issues of Las Buenas Amigas, the newsletter ofLesbianas Latinas en Nueva York, from 1989 to 1999. There is also the LosAngeles-based newsletter ULOAH: United Lesbians for African Heritagefrom 1993 to 2002 and a twelve-year run (1985-1997) of Unidad, thenewsletter of the Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos/GLLU, also of Los Angeles.

 

The Collection is particularly strong in newsletters fromgroups beyond the New York area, which will help researchers trace thecontinuities and discontinuities of social movement organizing. Thankfully -because too often lesbian and feminist history is written mostly from theperspective of the coasts - evidenceof lively Midwestern activism is strong. Early, limited issues of the AmazonNation Newsletter from Chicago in 1972 are complemented by a set, rangingfrom 1974 to 1975, of the LFC News of the Lesbian Feminist Center ofChicago; they are followed by publications, from 1979 to 1983, of the LCCNewsletter of Chicagos Lesbian Community Center. There is also atwenty-two year run of the Lavender Prairie News, from Champaign,Illinois from 1977 to 1998. Publications of the Lesbian Alliance, issuedby the Greater Lansing Womens Association/Lesbian Alliance, in East Lansing,Michigan, also cover over two decades of lesbian feminist ideas and organizing,from 1974 to 1995. The Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee newsletter,from Minneapolis, Minnesota, covers the period from 1979 to 1981. In addition,we find newsletters from groups in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii,Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire,North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Washington DC, andWisconsin.

 

The range of what constituted womens issues as reflectedby coverage in the Lesbian Herstory Archives Newsletters Collection isanother area of interest to scholars. In addition to the larger social andpolitical concerns of the day, the Collection features newsletters on debatesof lesbian separatism and exposs of supremacist thought and behavior; callsfor action on abortion, lesbian adoption and child custody, and sterilizationabuse; peace activism; updates on local legal battles, usually centering onan accused womans sexuality; nationalnews clips; and reviews of feminist and lesbian art, books, music, and otherforms of entertainment, as well as ads for person and professional services(from aromatherapy to real estate). A strong sense of internationalism - wellbefore globalization became a buzzword - and commitment to the well-being ofwomen throughout the world is readily apparent. Increasingly, issues of health,age - at both ends of spectrum, youth and elders - and ability are prevalent.The Collections inclusion of The OLOC Reporter, the newsletter of theOld Lesbians Organizing Committee, is especially noteworthy.

 

Conclusion

 

For university teachers and postsecondary studentsinterested in the creation and growth of lesbian feminism - one of the latetwentieth centurys least examined and most stereotyped social justicemovements - the microfilm publication of the Lesbian Herstory ArchivesNewsletter Collection is an extremely valuable resource. The newslettersprovide us with primary source materials difficult to find elsewhere. Spanningfour decades of womens activism, the volumes of significant organizationalpublications represent groups throughout the United States. Researchers in thearts, humanities, and social sciences will find a wealth of material waiting tobe explored.

 

Marcia M. Gallo
Assistant Professor of History
Lehman College, Bronx, New York

 

Footnotes

 

1 Del Martin, Presidents Message, The Ladder, Vol. 1, No. 1:October 1956.

 

2 John DEmlio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of aHomosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago; University ofChicago Press, 1983.

 

3 Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness. Garden City, NY: BlueRibbon Books, 1928.

 

4 Florine Fleischman with Susan Bullough, Lisa Ben, in Vern L.Bullough, ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights inHistorical Context. New York: Haworth Press, 2002. All issues of ViceVersa are available in microfilm in Gay and Lesbian Politics and SocialActivism: Selected Newsletters and Periodicals from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,Transgender Historical Society (Gay Rights Movement Series 8), Woodbridge,CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2004.

 

5 Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Lesbian/Woman. Volcano, CA: VolcanoPress, 1972, 1991.

 

6 Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Franciscoto 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

 

7 Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters ofBilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll& Graf, 2006.

 

 

Editorial Note

 

The Lesbian Herstory Archives Newsletter Collectionoffers a comprehensive collection of newsletters of aspects of gay and lesbianlife, communities, and activism from the 1950s through the present. Thiscollection represents a wide range of gay, lesbian, and bisexual experience andthought. Holdings range from historical newsletters of the 1960s to currentnewsletters and periodicals. The collection is strong in rare materials,especially newsletters from defunct organizations from the formative years ofthe gay and lesbian movement.

 

This microfilm collection includes a selection of thenewsletters held by the LHA. All the issues available at LHA for each of theselected titles were filmed. Additional issues of a particular newsletter maybe found in other PSM Gay Rights Movement series.

 

Series 6: Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance Archives,ca. 1972-1994 (Part 4: Periodical Collections)

 

Series 8: Gay and LesbianPolitics and Social Activism: Selected Periodicals and Newsletters from theholdings of the GLBT Historical Society

 

Series 9: Gay and LesbianCommunity, Support, and Spirit: Selected Newspapers and Periodicals from theGay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society

 

 

SELECTION PROCESS

 

The selection of materials for the microform edition of the LesbianHerstory Archives Newsletter Collection was based on several criteria:

 

Relevancy
This microfilm collection comprises selectednewsletters from the holdings of the Lesbian Herstory Archives/Lesbian HerstoryEducational Foundation Inc. Selections emphasize the relevance of the materialto the history of gay and lesbian political and social activism in America.

 

Rarity
Some newsletters were excluded because they can be found in many librariesor have appeared in other Primary Source Microfilm publications of gay andlesbian publications. Materials available without charge to the public on anorganizations website were also excluded.

 

Research Need
Certain materials were not microfilmed largely because of their relativelylow priority with respect to research needs. Examples of such materials includenewsletters devoted primarily to commercial advertisements.

 

Privacy
Some materials could not be microfilmed for reasons of confidentiality. Inthe interest of protecting the privacy of individuals, a concerted effort wasmade to exclude newsletters that contained peoples home addresses, phonenumbers, Social Security numbers, or personal financial information. Examplesof such materials include newsletters devoted primarily to contact clubinformation.

 

 

Notice of Unfilmed Materials

 

Newsletters excluded in their entirety are not listed inthis collection guide. These materials are available to researchers who use thecollection on site at the Lesbian Herstory Archives/Lesbian HerstoryEducational Foundation, Inc.