Back in the Day: The Ladder, America’s First National Lesbian Magazine

 
 

In 1963, as the lesbian and gay rights movement became more militant — along with the rise of the feminist movement — Barbara Gittings became the new editor of The Ladder, and immediately took actions that adapted the previously conservative magazine to the growing radicalism of the time.

In
1964 she added “A Lesbian Review” to the front cover of the magazine, thereby proclaiming that the word “lesbian” was no longer unspeakable, and declared that women could wear the pants if they wanted to, abandoning the Daughters of Bilitis’s conservative stance on butch fashions.

Gittings and her partner, Kay Lahusen, who also acted as The Ladder’s assistant editor, replaced the line drawings that had illustrated the front cover with photos of actual lesbians.“It definitely was a political statement,” she told Streitmatter. “Every one of those women was saying, ‘We’re here, we’re proud, and we’re beautiful!’"

Much more radical in her politics than Martin and Lyon, Gittings wanted The Ladder to advocate for gay rights, but after a series of disputes — including an incident in which Gittings removed the statement “For Adults
Only” from the cover without consulting the Daughters of Bilitis — Gittings was ousted from the magazine in 1966. Martin took over temporarily until Barbara Grier became the editor in 1968.

Initially aiming to turn The Ladder into a high-quality literary journal, Grier too developed political differences with the founders, and after two short years she and the magazine split off from the Daughters of Bilitis. Grier took the mailing list and what submissions she had from the magazine’s office and moved to Reno, Nevada, where she removed the word “lesbian” from the cover and, with its broader focus on women’s issues and feminism, tripled the subscription rate.

The Ladder One
of the main issues that faced The Ladder — and other lesbian publications that followed — was the financial
stress involved in running a magazine that had a low subscription
rate. During the 1950s,
The Ladder had about 700 subscribers (though
its readership was substantially higher), and it faced initial
difficulties in getting the magazine onto newsstands. Though it reached print runs of around 3,800
when it folded in 1972, The
Ladder
was always on the brink of disaster, and depended
on the generosity of anonymous benefactors and passion of its
editors — who often worked for free — to keep it alive.

In
the introduction to an anthology of essays from The Ladder published in 1976, Grier wrote,
“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.”

The
1970s saw the rise of a number of lesbian publications in the
wake of the end of The
Ladder
, many of them reflecting the lesbian feminist movement.

The
Furies
, founded by a collective of lesbians in Washington,
D.C., including Rita Mae
Brown
(Rubyfruit Jungle), was one of the most
well-known and politically radical of these magazines. Though only ten issues were published from 1972-73,
members of the collective went on to found the Diana Press,
one of the major lesbian publishers of the time, and Olivia
Records, which eventually became Olivia Cruises and Resorts.

But
the major lesbian news magazine to follow directly after The
Ladder
was the Lesbian Tide, which began its life as the
newsletter of the Los Angeles
chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1971. In
January 1972 the magazine became an independent monthly and
was the first lesbian magazine to publish all news.

Other
lesbian magazines that erupted during the 1970s included
the suggestively titled Amazon Quarterly, Dyke, Sinister
Wisdom, Sisters, Tribad, and the evocatively named
So’s Your Old Lady. Lesbian Connection, founded in 1974 and still
active today, became one of the major sources of lesbian networking
in the
U.S.; its lists of “contact dykes”
gave traveling lesbians someone to look up when they were in
a new, unfamiliar city.

Fifty
years after the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis and nearly
50 years after the first issue of The Ladder was published, lesbian publishing has arguably gone mainstream. Lesbian celebrities
grace the covers of mainstream magazines such as Vanity Fair and People, and heterosexual celebrities cross over onto the covers of
lesbian magazines like Curve.

The
internet has also provided a new forum for lesbian connections — sites like AfterEllen.com are simply high-tech extensions of those carbon-copied issues
of Vice Versa that
Lisa Ben used to pass out at the local lesbian bar.

In
addition to playing a major role in building the political
consciousness of lesbians and bisexual women in the U.S., lesbian
magazines such as The
Ladder
provided support in extremely homophobic times, always
encouraging lesbians to accept themselves and each other, to
come out, and to connect with each other.

Without
those connections, we’d all still be, to some degree, wearing
paper bags over our heads.

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