As an undergraduate at Wellesley College, I clearly remember one of my first encounters with the college’s student organization for lesbians and bisexuals, in the pages of a college yearbook dating from the 1980s. In a photo in the clubs sectionwere about half a dozen students wearing paper bags over their heads, with their group identified as “Wellesley Lesbians and Friends.”
By the time I was an undergraduate in the early to mid-1990s, the paper bags had been removed, and Wellesley Lesbians, Bisexuals and Friends (the name would, of course, later be modified to include transgender students) was sponsoring “Straight Talks” across campus to bring lesbian and bisexual students into the open.
For many lesbians coming out these days, their first source of community and support is from a similar organization at their college, in their communities, or even in their high schools.
But these kinds of organizations are a relatively recent phenomena dating back only to the mid-1950s, when four lesbian couples in San Francisco gathered together to form a social group that they saw as an alternative to the bar scene. In 1955, these women formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization, and a year afterward began publishing the first nationally distributed lesbian magazine, The Ladder.
Until it ceased publication in 1972, The Ladder was the preeminent source of information for lesbians across the U.S., teaching them how to dress to avoid police arrest, encouraging them to accept themselves, and providing a positive message to counter the overwhelmingly negative coverage in the mainstream heterosexual media.
Indeed, the magazine was titled The Ladder to symbolize a means to escape from the “well of loneliness” (popularized by Radclyffe Hall’s famous novel) that was largely understood to be the life of a lesbian.
Before The Ladder was published, the only previous lesbian magazine was the short-lived Vice Versa, published in Los Angeles from 1947-48 by an anonymous woman who later identified herself only as Lisa Ben, an anagram for the word “lesbian.”
The product of a lesbian who found herself with too much time on her hands during her secretarial job at RKO Studios, Vice Versa was typed up during her work hours on the company typewriter, and reproduced using carbon paper. The magazine’s print run totaled a tiny 12 copies each, but each copy — which Lisa Ben handed out at local bars — was passed on to dozens of additional readers.
In the nine issues of Vice Versa, Lisa Ben created a forum for lesbians to communicate with each other by printing letters from readers, personal essays, short fiction and poetry. It was a format that would be copied by The Ladder and many other lesbian publications that followed. Lisa Ben went on to write a couple of stories for The Ladder, but after publication of Vice Versa ceased (she was transferred to a different job that did not give her the time to pound away at the typewriter during work hours), she mostly vanished from the lesbian media.
It wasn’t until Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 that another lesbian publication was launched. Martin and Lyon both had backgrounds in journalism — they had both studied journalism and worked as reporters — and they founded The Ladder to provide a “feminine viewpoint” to counter the predominantly masculine one in the other gay publications of the time (ONE and The Mattachine Review were both focused on gay men).
In the first issue, published in October 1956, Lyon wrote, “It is to be hoped that our venture will encourage women to take an ever-increasing part in the steadily-growing fight for understanding of the homophile minority.”
Early issues of The Ladder published personal essays, fiction, editorials, reports of research on homosexuality, lists of books and publications about homosexuality, and letters to the editor. It avoided publishing anything that was sexual in content, advocated a relatively conservative tone — advising women to conform to heterosexual fashion norms, for example — and soon began to publish news about lesbians and the homophile movement.
It took a leadership role in progressing the issue of gay and lesbian rights in 1959, when San Francisco Mayor George Christopher was accused of turning the city into “the national headquarters for sex deviants,” and the Daughters of Bilitis was singled out as a menace to young heterosexual women.
In reaction, Lyon and Martin published a special edition of The Ladder to counter these arguments with a reasoned analysis of the situation that compelled the straight press to look more closely into Mayor Christopher’s actions.
It was discovered that his opponent had planted someone within the local Mattachine Society to praise Mayor Christopher and then leak the society’s supposed support for mayor to the public. In the end, Mayor Christopher won re-election, and, as Rodger Streitmatter noted in Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America, “The Ladder could rightly take credit for making homosexuality — for the first time — a political issue.”