When Vice Versa was published in 1947, founder Lisa Ben wanted a place for lesbians to “through which we may express our thoughts, our emotions, our opinions.” Sent in secret through the mail, the monthly newsletter is credited as the first-ever LGBT publication in the United States. Although it only lasted for nine issues, it inspired The Ladder, the most famous lesbian magazine, as well as several other influential guides to our lives, including The Lesbian Tide, Heresies, and in more recent years, Curve.
Sixty-seven years after Vice Versa‘s first issue, the worlds of publishing and queer acceptance have changed radically. Only a handful of lesbian-focused media are published regularly, and most of the content has moved to to the web. And because our community has grown larger and we’ve felt more comfortable coming out within our own cities and regions, we are looking for representation within our local media. Unfortunately, our issues and voices aren’t always as prominent in the more general gay newspapers, which have tended to focus more on men, and often run by them, too.
While not always the case, queer women have often sought a space dedicated to themselves—ourselves—and in the last decade, more cities have been finding their own local lesbian/bi publications and websites necessary. California’s Lesbian News, founded in 1975, is the longest running that is still in circulation, while Florida’s SHE magazine has served the areas of Miami-Dade, Broward, West Palm Beach, Tampa and Orlando since 1999. GO magazine is based out of New York City, but editor Shannon O’Neil said they don’t consider themselves a local magazine as their distribute their free magazine in 10 other cities.
Ebone Bell founded Tagg Magazine in the fall of 2012. A print and online publication, Tagg serves the areas of D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Tagg has regular sections called Out at Work, Wedding Announcements, and comics from Blaire Miltenberger.
“I felt there was a void that needed to be filled in the LGBTQ community in the DC Metropolitan area,” Ebone said. “I wasn’t seeing our stories, images, and events in the local mainstream and LGBT media. We also needed a ‘one-stop shop’ for queer women to find one another, find our stories, and find our local events.”
Sarah Toce founded The Seattle Lesbian in 2010 with a similar goal in mind.
“It was needed,” she said. “The Seattle gay community already had a print publication, but the ladies in the area were severely underserved and needed a voice. The Seattle Lesbian became that voice.”
The Seattle Lesbian is also home to national LGBT news stories and entertainment pieces.
In Chicago, The L Stop has become the place for the city’s women-identified queers. Popular blogger Effing Dykes has her own section and every year readers can nominate the top 10 local lesbians to watch.
“We’ve been told that its really helpful to keep up with what’s been going on in the community,” says co-founder Lisa Martinez. “We live in a big city and there is a ton of stuff that is always going on in the LGBT community. Chicago constantly has lesbian-related fundraisers, concerts, sporting events, dance parties, and so on. I think it’s helpful to have one publication that focuses on trying to feature everything that is going on in our vibrant community.”
“It was my belief before starting Phillesbian that women who love women in this city needed better visibility, and that kind of an editorial change by a major publication backed by big corporation ad dollars just further confirmed it, “she said.
In February, Phillesbian featured “Fascinating Female Couples” and has a regular feature called “Singles Spotlight.”
While all of these publishers have similar goals in mind, TAGG is the only one in print.
“I felt our readership would not only appreciate, but also respond to us in print,” Ebone Bell said. It’s nice to have something that speaks to you on your coffee table.”
But it’s financial for the other women, who stick to online-only.
“We have considered print over the years, but it simply isn’t cost effective or probable for us at this time,” Sarah Toce said. We have a small, dedicated staff and they are new media journalists by trade. All of our ad revenue comes from online, and it’s consistent month-to-month so we have a good thing going…why fix what isn’t broken?”
For Lauren, Phillesbian finds most of their audience looks toward the internet: “Our target demographic of women are younger and tend to go online to get most of their news and events anyway, so it makes sense to be online only for our audience.”
Most of the outlets have relationships with other sites (Tagg with lesbian.com, The Seattle Lesbian with The Seattle Times, The L Stop with Windy City Times), which helps share content and readership.
“There are so many amazing lesbian/queer writers in Chicago that have their own blogs,” Lisa Martinez said. “We promote as many local writers as possible on our social media outlets.”
The challenges for local lesbian sites differ from time, to money, to access. As more relevant events and stories unfold in our communities, finding the ability to cover them all in the manner they deserve can be difficult.
“The biggest challenge is not being able to hire a full-time staff of writers and editors,” Sarah Toce said. “That would make things so much more effective and we’d be able to cover stories on the ground more often at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, this is a common conundrum in small businesses, especially in the media. We’re slowly getting to the point where I think it might be possible in the foreseeable future.”
“I think we experienced what a lot of start-up businesses experience in their first year…and that was getting to know our audience and making sure we stayed committed to serving them, while still upholding our mission,” Ebone Bell said. “With some trial and error, I think we’ve been able to produce a stellar print publication and also grow our readership online and in print. I notice that I’m always learning, but it’s quite exciting.”
Lisa Martinez said that it’s been a learning experience for her, too. “There have been so many challenges that have popped up that I never really expected. Not having enough hours in the day to get our work done has been a pretty consistent challenge though.”
Lauren works full-time at an interactive marketing agency, so dedicating her nights and weekends to Phillesbian.com can be a challenge.
“It’s truly a labor of love! And to piggyback off of that, finding a way to generate revenue has also been difficult due to lack of time,” she said. “Any money we make comes either from occasional ads, or donations, and it’s just enough for us to cover our website hosting as well as business cards and some other cheap marketing materials. In an ideal world, we’d have a dedicated sales person to really ramp up the advertising dollars so we can do things like afford to have tables at pride events, pay our freelancers, invest money back into the infrastructure of the site to make it better, market the brand, etc.”
Despite any obstacles, the need and want for local and regional lesbian-focused content is apparent to each of the editors on a regular basis. A bonus of being the authority on a larger city’s lesbian scene is helping gay women traveling to the area.
“I’ve heard several people say that they visited other major cities and were disappointing because they didn’t know where the lesbian events where when they got there,” Lisa Martinez said. “They always say, “I wish there was an L Stop there so I knew where to go!”
Sarah Toce said a proud moment for her was when The Seattle Lesbian was selected as a Grand Marshal for Seattle Pride in 2013.
“Behind our car was Gautam Raghavan from the White House; ahead of us was Washington United for Marriage; and all around us were our readers, fans, loyalists, and new friends,” she said. “It was a magical momentous occasion, and one that I will personally never forget being a part of.”
“The first time I mentioned the website to a stranger in conversation, and the reply was, “Oh, you run Phillesbian? I love that website!’ Every time someone tells my partner and I that they love the website and appreciate what we’re trying to do with it, there’s always a sense of validation in that,” Lauren said.
Ebone Bell found personal victory with the new spring issue of TAGG, which features “12 inspiring women making moves in their fields and industries.”
“We had a very successful cocktail reception on March 11 that honored these women on our cover, brought out our writers, photographers, designers, and supporters,” she said. “It was an amazing experience to be surrounded by all of these individuals. That’s what Tagg is all about, bringing the community together. This recent issue and these fabulous women allowed us to do that. I’m definitely looking forward to more opportunities like this in the future.”
It’s also noteworthy that both Bell and Martinez are queer women of color, and their content is very reflective of all facets of the community.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to have publications for any marginalized community,” Lisa said. “It’s so important for us to have a place to share our stories, to celebrate our accomplishments, and to talk about our struggles and hardships so that we can work together to overcome them. There are just so many people doing amazing things with their voices and with their lives.”
Besides being a guide to the goings-on in DC and outside areas, Tagg is creating opportunities to come together. Two upcoming events include TaggFest and Masquerade Gala on Saturday, April 26. TaggFest is “a day of breakout sessions and workshops specifically made for our community, from craft beer tastings to self-defense classes to sex and relationship workshops.” And that night’s gala will be a fundraiser for the Wanda Alston Foundation, “the only local organization dedicated to serving and housing LGBTQ youth.”
Local events benefitting local organizations are one other huge reason that cities like Chicago, Seattle, D.C. and Philly are profiting from lesbian-specific sites.
“There is power in visibility, and there is something to be said about visibility within your own community, in the streets you live and work and eat and play in,” Lauren said. “I think local/regional publications are in a unique position to provide that level of micro-visibility in a way that resonates really well with their audience that larger, national outlets simply cannot provide.”