pervert colony uncovered, crackdown on deviate nests urged and growth of overt homosexuality in city provokes wide concern were the kinds of headlines used to discuss LGBT people in print in the middle half of the 20th century (and even beyond). You can almost imagine the exclamation points that might’ve accompanied each headline as ordinary Americans read with shocked horror about the rise of “sexual deviants” in their own neighborhoods. In Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Newspapers in America (CreateSpace, $25), editor Tracy Baim (Windy City Times) charts the historical rise of queer media from its earliest days, when we were defending ourselves against an ignorant public, to the mainstreaming of gay culture during the Clinton era. It’s a voluminous historical document, one that is often too list-like for its own good and leans heavily on previously-published material, but also a book that will excite LGBT history buffs and media nerds as it resurrects the voices that dragged our gay lives out of the closet and into the mainstream.
Its first chapter, “All the News That’s Not Fit to Print,” is among the book’s best. Here we see the earliest traces of the way the mainstream media covered LGBT issues including the trials of Oscar Wilde, a visiting lecture series from Gertrude Stein and the Kinsey Report. Coverage becomes increasingly bigoted as a so-called Lavender scare sweeps America and publications as prestigious as Time, Life and The New York Times report on the “homosexual trade” and claims the nation’s capital and other urban areas are “the haven of sexual perverts and criminals.”
The light in the dark is the emergence of homophile organizations in the 1950s including the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, to name a prominent few. These orgs hand-printed and distributed pamphlets that contained information and stories (mostly written using pseudonyms) that, above all, assured readers they weren’t alone while providing fuel to a budding movement. They also paved the way for an explosion of queer publications both regional and national (and painstakingly detailed in the book) following the Stonewall uprising and peaking in the 1990s when every national advertiser wanted a slice of the lucrative gay dollar.
Chicago-based Baim ensures that our city isn’t given short shrift and women’s contributions are likewise heard loud and clear. An entire section of the book is devoted to essays about gay journalists, many of whom are important activists, writers and academics. Archival interviews from Harry Hay, Jack Nichols and Daughters of Bilitis founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (who offer inspiring recollections) are reprinted alongside essays on lesser-known pioneers.
Yet in its desire to leave no stone unturned, the book is sometimes stuffy. General readers, for example, probably won’t care much that the Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter was distributed unstitched, on 11-by-14-inch, 20-pound white paper, but to historians these details matter. Likewise, some of the essays could use a little more fire. Marie J. Kuda’s “Queer Print in Chicago, 1965–1985: A Personal History” is a fine account of the city’s queer media past but doesn’t provide much in the way of personal reflection. Yasmin Nair’s spirited essay “Do We Still Need Gay Media?” is among the book’s most passionate and, in “The Long Haul,” Baim herself breaks from her role as historian to offer reflections on the death threats, thefts and arrests that are par for the course for an out publisher.
In its weaving together of queer history via the gay press coupled with accounts of an industry at a crossroads, Gay Press, Gay Power is both a worthwhile read and a wake-up call to anyone who thinks The New York Times is best suited to tell our stories.
Gay Press, Gay Power is available now.