From 1940s zines to modern glossy magazines

DANA PICCOLI  |  News Is Out Editor


Since the 1940s, lesbians have created a vibrant history of publications. From the exploration of daily lesbian life to literary and feminist pursuits, to the modern age of glossy magazines, for over 70 years, lesbians have been finding a way to connect and share their stories in periodicals, newsletters and beyond.

The very beginnings

Edythe Eyde was a secretary at RKO Studios in 1947 when she found she had time on her hands and made a groundbreaking decision. While at work, she started writing what is considered the country’s first lesbian periodical, Vice Versa. The magazine, which she called “America’s Gayest Magazine,” featured editorials, film reviews (it was the Golden Age of Hollywood, after all), book reviews, short stories and letters to the editor. Only nine issues of Vice Versa were produced, but Edythe, who went by the pen name of Lisa Ben, created a spark that ignited a rich cultural history. Since then, over 150 lesbian periodicals and magazines have been published, and those are just the ones we know about.

The Ladder was the official publication of the first U.S. lesbian advocacy group, Daughters of Bilitis. DOB was started in 1955 by LGBTQ+ rights icons Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and a year later, The Ladder was born. The Ladder was initially sent through the mail to members of DOB but was eventually available to purchase at newsstands in San Francisco and other major cities. Initially, the writers and editors of The Ladder used pseudonyms but dropped the practice after a few issues. The first few years of issues contained hand-drawn images, stories about the community’s pressing issues, event calendars, letters to the editor and a DOB membership sign-up. The Ladder went through a series of editorial shifts, turning more politically minded when run by activist Barbara Gittings (whose partner Kay Tobin Lahusen was the first photojournalist of the LGBTQ+ press in the 1960s), then longer and more literary when run by Naiad Press co-founder Barbara Grier. The Ladder was published for 16 years, including two years after DOB disbanded. Lahusen’s photos graced the cover of The Ladder, and an image of hers became the first to grace a lesbian magazine, which prior to that used artwork, not photos.

Inspired by The Ladder, the Boston chapter of DOB came out with its own publication in 1970 called Focus: A Journal for Lesbians. Focus featured essays, stories and poetry and unlike its predecessor, pseudonyms were heavily used by writers and editors. The journal went through its own tumult, changing focus a few times, running with an entirely volunteer team and finally folding in 1983.

The intersection of lesbianism and feminism

In the 1970s, as the women’s rights movement gained momentum, the focus of lesbian periodicals turned to issues of feminism and lesbians’ place in the movement.

In 1970, radical lesbian feminist periodical off our backs was started by a collective of queer women where all decisions in the group were made by consensus. The periodical was based in Washington, D.C., but covered issues affecting lesbians nationwide. According to the University of Maryland Library, where the collection of issues is housed, off our backs was “the longest continuously published surviving feminist newspaper in the United States.”

In 1974, Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove founded WomanSpirit, a quarterly publication focused on feminism and spirituality based out of Southern Oregon. Unlike the black and white periodicals before it, WomenSpirit has brightly colored covers emblazoned with lesbian feminist-inspired art. The Mountaingroves were dedicated to the Womyn’s land, part of the lesbian separatist movement to establish women-centric spaces. Issues from 1978 to the last issues in 1984 were produced on their land.

The first issue of Dyke: A Quarterly was published in 1975 by Penny House and Liza Cowen, self-described dyke separatists who had been friends since they were four. The quarterly, which ran for four years, contained similar types of content as its predecessors, like reviews, political commentary, essays and stories. Articles like “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear” and “Lesbo Laffs” were counterbalanced with articles about serious issues like the struggles incarcerated lesbians faced and the connection between patriarchy and climate change.

Lavender Woman has its roots in Chicago, Ill., where it was written collectively by the Women’s Caucus of Chicago Gay Alliance. For five years, the collective tackled subjects like the lack of unity in the Chicago LGBTQ+ community, working in predatory professional environments and the struggles of being closeted, all through a feminist lens. Readers were encouraged to send in their stories and thoughts for the “Sisters Speak” section. At one point during its publication, Lavender Woman refused to publish a cartoon by Chicago Lesbian Liberation it deemed controversial. CLL pushed back by producing a short two issue publication called The Original Lavender Woman.

Carol Sejay founded Feminist Bookstore News in 1976 as a trade publication for lesbian and feminist bookstores and publishers. For 24 years, the publication was a vital tool in connecting this network of business owners.

While little is available online about Tribad: A Lesbian Separatist Newsjournal, which ran from 1977 to 1979, the publishers’ intention was clear: “To be sold to and shared by lesbians only.”

A shift to local

As queer publications grew, local leaders were spurred to launch publications in cities across the U.S. These publications allowed for a tighter focus and the promotion of local events and activities, bringing lesbians and queer women together. From rural spaces to thriving metropolitan areas, lesbians created magazines and periodicals for their communities.

Maize: A Lesbian Country Magazine was started in 1982 in Minneapolis, Minn., and still produces issues today. Like WomanSpirit, Maize is focused on the lesbian land movement.

Published by Intergalactic Lesbian Feminist Press, Hag Rag ran from 1986 to 1993 and called itself “Wisconsin’s lesbian-feminist newspaper.” The contents included many local events and issues, from dealing with racism and homophobia to lesbian-focused vacation trips.

Big Apple Dyke News (also known as B.A.D. News) ran from 1980 to 1988 and focused on issues important to lesbians living in New York City, while Klondyke Kontact’s three-year run from 1977 to 1980 gave voice to lesbians residing in Anchorage, Alaska. The long-running Atalanta, which started in 1977 and ended in 1994, was the official newsletter of the Atlanta Lesbian/Feminist Alliance (ALFA), which was born out of a lack of coverage of lesbian issues in mainstream and local Georgia press. “Better Homes and Dykes” was the newsletter of the Lesbian Alliance of Iowa City, Iowa, and ran from 1974 to the mid ’80s.

She Magazine ran from 1999 to 2015 and was Florida’s longest-running lesbian magazine. She went the glossy route similar to magazines like Out and The Advocate with dynamic covers featuring famous celebrities like Laurel Holloman, Indigo Girls and Lily Tomlin. Due to its work in the Miami-Dade area with a large population of Spanish speakers, the magazine featured a section of Spanish language content.

The daily lives of lesbians

Not all lesbian publications had a focus on feminism. Some wanted to provide a space for lesbians to share space and talk about their day-to-day lives and struggles, such as employment and raising families.

In 1974, Mom’s Apple Pie: Newsletter of the Lesbian Mother’s National Defense Fund was established to address the issues faced by lesbian mothers, who often faced custody battles and legal issues due to their sexual orientation. At the time, very few openly lesbian mothers had been granted custody of their children and the Lesbian Mother’s National Defense Fund worked with hundreds of lesbians and bisexual women in their legal defenses. Mom’s Apple Pie addressed these issues and provided a way for mothers to connect and share their experiences until 2000.

Lesbian Connection was also founded in 1974 and is still in print today. Initially founded by the Ambitious Amazons collective and now owned by the nonprofit Elsie Publishing Institute, the Michigan-based periodical is published bimonthly. “The free worldwide forum of news, ideas and information for, by and about lesbians” is written by contributing readers and features information valuable to lesbians, like safe places to travel, welcoming places to live and timely issues facing the queer community. Readers have also used Lesbian Connection for decades to make friendship and romantic connections. (This reporter once used Lesbian Connection in 2003 to find accommodations within Portland, Oregon, during an extended visit.) Readers can receive Lesbian Connection through the mail and donate to cover shipping and production costs.

Lesbian News came along in 1975 and like Lesbian Connection, is still in publication. Also called LN, it has been a “vehicle for the experience of women’s art, music, literature, films and history” for nearly 50 years. Founded by Air Force veteran Jinx Beers and now run by Ella Matthes, LN no longer publishes a print edition but has issues available for PDF download for a small fee and posts digital articles.

BIPOC women take center stage

From the early 1970s through the mid-aughts, BIPOC lesbians created a rich history of periodicals and newsletters that addressed the intersection of race and sexuality and amplified the voices of Black and Brown lesbians and queer women.

Conditions, also known as Conditions: a feminist magazine of writing by women with a particular emphasis on writing by lesbians, was a biannual lesbian literary publication started in 1976 by writers Elly Bulkin, Jan Clausen, Irena Klepfisz and Rima Shore. While not exclusively for women of color, the magazine placed significant emphasis on the stories and writings of Black women and lesbians of color. In 1979, Conditions put out The Black Women’s Issue, exclusively featuring contributions by Black writers. Writer and activist Cheryl L. Clarke took leadership reigns of the magazine in the early ’80s and Conditions remained dedicated to prioritizing Black voices until it ceased operations in 1990.

Salsa Soul Sisters, Third World Wimmin Inc Collective created Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians in 1977 to fill a much-needed space for Black lesbian voices in the queer rights and equality movements. In a 2012 interview with ACT UP, one of Azalea’s founders, Joan Gibbs, said, “I should say Azalea was started because at the time people were constantly complaining about how the, quote, unquote, white feminist and lesbian publications weren’t publishing writings by black and Latina women principally. So then I decided, well, why don’t we just start our own magazine and stop complaining? There’s no point in complaining constantly. You just do it yourself.”

In addition to its U.S.-based writers, Azalea featured contributions from writers from South America, Asia and Africa. In an effort not to restrict opportunities and respect individual voices, Azalea decided not to edit the submissions they received. Contributors over the publication’s six-year history include acclaimed writers Sapphire, Audre Lorde and Michelle Cliff.

While only lasting a year, the Pearl Diver out of Portland Magazine was one of the first Black queer publications. Founded in 1977 and lasting until 1978, little is known online about Pearl Diver and it does not appear to be available in any archive.

In 1989, Pippa Fleming and Lisbet Tellefsen founded Aché: A (Free) Publication for Black Lesbians focusing on the Bay Area. However, it didn’t take long for the publication to expand its scope. Aché included everything from personal poetry to interviews with changemakers in the community. Aché had an extensive calendar of events, including those hosted by the publication itself, which cemented it as a community leader. The events, which inspired the community, also helped keep the lights on at Aché until it ceased publication in 1993.

Onyx: Black Lesbian Newsletter was a bimonthly publication based out of San Francisco from 1982 to 1984. With a focus on Black lesbians in the Bay Area, Onyx included local listings for events and activities, in addition to film and book reviews, original artwork and photography.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

In a satirical riff on off our backs, On Our Backs was the first erotica magazine that specifically catered to lesbians in the U.S. and ran from 1984 to 2006. Created by Debi Sundahl and Myrna Elana, the magazine featured erotic pictorials of lesbians and queer women and contributions by esteemed writers like Jewelle Gomez, Joan Nestle and Susie Bright. Bright would go on to become an editor. On Our Backs explored queer desire, fetishes, kinks and gender identity at a time when it was rare to see such depictions in pop culture.

The last of the modern mags

After growing up in a world with little to no lesbian representation, Franco Stevens wanted to create a space where lesbian and queer women could be celebrated. In 1990, Stevens launched Deneuve magazine, which would become Curve Magazine in 1996. Curve was the premiere lesbian glossy at the time, with in-depth features of celebrities and queer icons, music recommendations and articles that explored issues like lesbians in political office, queer parenting and mental health. In 2010, Curve was sold to Australia-based Avalon Media and reacquired by Stevens in 2021. After ceasing publication of the physical magazine, Curve has evolved into the Curve Foundation, which “champions lesbian, queer women, transgender and nonbinary people’s stories and culture through intergenerational programming and community building.

Founded in 1990 and edited by Roxxie (no last name), Girljock focused on lesbian and queer women in sports and was the first and only magazine to do so. Little information about Girljock is available online, but shortly before the magazine folded in 1999, a book featuring articles and essays from its collection came out.

Girlfriends was a sister magazine to On Our Backs, sharing the same publisher. This glossy monthly magazine ran from 1993 to 2006 and was led by Jacob and Diane Anderson-Minshall and Heather Findlay. Like Curve, Girlfriends included articles about lifestyle, travel and features of lesbian, bisexual and ally celebrities like Melissa Etheridge, Gina Gershon and Michelle Yeoh. The magazine was most well-known for its yearly pieces on the best cities to live in for lesbians.

The case of Venus Magazine is one of the more unusual stories of the modern magazines. Started in 1994 by Charlene Cothran to be a voice and platform for Black LGBTQ+ voices, the magazine’s focus pivoted significantly in 2007 when Cothran renounced her homosexuality. Venus went from covering stories about and for the Black queer community to an ex-gay mission meant to “encourage, educate and assist those who desire to leave a life of homosexuality.”

Founded in 2001 by Amy Lesser as a “cultural roadmap for the city girl, Go Magazine was originally more New York City-focused but has expanded reach in its 20+ year tenure. Go Magazine features an extensive events calendar plus articles about lifestyle, travel and the latest queer gossip. Diane Anderson-Minshall is editor-in-chief and Dayna Troisi is executive editor of the weekly magazine, which is currently available for free in 25 cities around the U.S. and online.

Velvetpark Magazine was founded in New York City by Grace Moon in 2002 as a tri-yearly glossy publication. With a focus on “culture and arts of lesbian, dyke, butch, femme, and women identified queer and transpeople” Velvetpark ceased print publication in 2007 but came back as a digital site in 2009 and is still in operation. It began offering a six-month residency project in 2021, which includes a live-work studio in Brooklyn.

Tagg Magazine  celebrated its 10th anniversary in September 2022. Founded by Eboné Bell in Washington D.C., Tagg offers local and national event coverage, interviews with celebrities, news and stories that center the experience of queer women. With the tagline “everything lesbian, queer, and under the rainbow,” Bell has said the magazine’s intention is “to uplift the voices of LGBTQ women by telling our stories, providing valuable resources, and creating events that bring our community together.” Bell recently announced in an email to readers that Tagg would be moving to an exclusively digital platform.

“While it’s a difficult decision to go fully digital,” said Bell, “it’s ultimately a proactive choice and exciting opportunity to engage with our readers even more.” But don’t worry about the future of Tagg, Bell shared. “We’re grateful to be financially stable and not going anywhere.”

Much of this and other overall LGBTQ+ media history can be found in the book Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America by Tracy Baim. Also see Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement by Marcia M Gallo.