Is Published as First Lesbian Periodical Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Two years after the end of World War II, a young writer, Lisa Ben, created the first known lesbian publication in the United States, a newsletter by and for lesbians called Vice Versa.

Summary of Event

While working as a typist for the Hollywood movie studio RKO in 1947, the twenty-six-year-old Lisa Ben (anagram of “lesbian”) had discovered the lesbian bar scene in postwar Los Angeles and recognized her own attraction to women. Told by her boss that the important thing was to “look busy” on the job despite slow periods, she decided to create a newsletter. Ben noticed that while there were many different kinds of magazines available for all sorts of people, there was nothing for lesbians. A budding poet and writer, she knew she could include some of her own work as well as solicit pieces written by friends. [kw]Vice Versa Is Published as First Lesbian Periodical (June, 1947-Feb., 1948) [kw]Published as First Lesbian Periodical, Vice Versa Is (June, 1947-Feb., 1948) [kw]Lesbian Periodical, Vice Versa Is Published as First (June, 1947-Feb., 1948) [kw]Periodical, Vice Versa Is Published as First Lesbian (June, 1947-Feb., 1948) Vice Versa (periodical) Publications;Vice Versa Media;Vice Versa [c]Publications;June, 1947-Feb., 1948: Vice Versa Is Published as First Lesbian Periodical[0380] [c]Civil rights;June, 1947-Feb., 1948: Vice Versa Is Published as First Lesbian Periodical[0380] Ben, Lisa

Ben named her new effort Vice Versa and subtitled it America’s Gayest Magazine because, as she said in interviews conducted many years later, at the time she started, homosexuality was considered a vice. She wanted to challenge that concept and instead celebrate “the gay life.” Appealing to “nonconformists,” she promised her readers spontaneity and entertainment.

Secrecy also was an all-important concern for the creator of Vice Versa. Ben’s fears of being found out were so great that not only did she write and publish Vice Versa anonymously but she also typed originals—two sets at a time, with five carbon copies of each, making a total of twelve copies. She would then type two more sets of originals. She could have used the still-laborious but much faster mimeographing process, but that would have left evidence of her magazine and its contents. Not trusting the mail, she handed out copies to friends and friends of friends that she met at the bars or through the small lesbian social circles in the Los Angeles area.

Ben worked on Vice Versa from June, 1947, to February, 1948, writing most of the copy herself or retyping and republishing material she found elsewhere. Issues contained everything from show business reviews to poems and political commentary. Despite a positive response from the women who received it, the Valentine’s Day, 1948, issue would be the last one she would produce.

Most accounts of Ben’s life attribute the demise of Vice Versa to the tediousness and isolation of the work. However, one account complicates that picture, quoting Ben as saying that the real reason she stopped producing the newsletter was that she had lost her job at RKO and lost access to the resources and privacy it had provided her.

In addition to creating the newsletter, Ben had been one of the earliest lesbian celebrities in the 1960’s. As the “first gay folk singer,” she reworked popular songs, giving them overtly same-gender meanings (“the girl that I marry will probably be/ As butch as a hunk of machinery . . .”). Ben’s songs were recorded and, through the homophile groups that had formed in the 1950’s, they were sold to lesbians and gays around the country. She also performed at functions and parties, and she had a regular show at a Los Angeles club, the Flamingo, which featured gay events on Sunday afternoons in the early 1960’s.

Significance

In 1958, ten years after Lisa Ben stopped publishing Vice Versa, the San Francisco-based lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), founded by Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, and six other lesbians as a “secret” social club, formed a chapter in Los Angeles. Ben was one of its original members. She served as a local officer, taking on the position of secretary for the first few years of the chapter’s existence. Ben also contributed her poetry and fiction to the DOB newsletter, The Ladder, which was started in 1956 as a way to encourage women to join the organization. From the beginning, the women of DOB and the staff of The Ladder recognized their debt to Ben, and they paid tribute to her in its pages. They knew that Ben had provided an important foundation for their later efforts.

Most women (and some men) who wrote for The Ladder used the protection of a pseudonym or pen name. Ben adopted her unique pseudonym at the urging of The Ladder’s first editor, Phyllis Lyon. Ben still prefers the pseudonym in accounts of her lesbian activism. Her initial choice for her pen name, she said, was “Ima Spinster,” but, she added, her DOB colleagues did not appreciate the joke.

Lesbians and gays in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s had known that most people in the United States—including important opinion makers such as religious and political leaders, psychiatrists, judges, and ordinary women and men—considered them sick and immoral, and their behavior illegal. Lesbians and gays feared, correctly, that the discovery of their homosexuality could cost them their families, jobs, and friends. It was difficult enough to attend a meeting of lesbians and gays or a public forum on the issue of homosexuality; many people were too afraid to risk being identified publicly in a magazine for lesbians or gays.

Ben’s efforts in 1947 and 1948 to provide a written source of information for lesbians helped launch a revolution in not only the lesbian and gay movement but also the larger world of publishing and public opinion. For the next three decades, Ben continued to be part of the lesbian and gay movement at the local and national level, even after she stopped performing and writing regularly. Ben and her story are included in the award-winning documentary Before Stonewall and in other works featuring early pioneers of the movements for lesbian and gay rights. Vice Versa (periodical) Publications;Vice Versa Media;Vice Versa

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cain, Paul. “Lisa Ben.” In Leading the Parade: Conversations with America’s Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleischman, Florine, with Susan Bullough. “Lisa Ben.” In Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, edited by Vern L. Bullough. Binghamton, N.Y.: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Streitmatter, Rodger. Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America. Winchester, Mass.: Faber and Faber, 1995.

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