Queer People Have Always Found a Way to Tell Their Own Stories

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Queer and trans media flourished throughout the 20th century, even as obscenity laws forced publishers underground. These self-published newsletters and magazines shared resources, built solidarity, allowed people to discuss their lives away from the straight world’s pathologizing eye. The oldest LGBTQ archive in the United States grew out of one 1950s publication. You don’t need to publish such writing anonymously anymore, or unwrap its plain brown wrapper with halting hands—so how to preserve that liberating sense of autonomy? What does self-representation mean to us, in the wake of these DIY accounts of who queers were, and who we would become?

Let’s go back: In 1924, a group cautiously named the Society for Human Rights began meeting around Chicago. It was America’s first public gay organization, its newsletter Friendship and Freedom the earliest perodical about that same audience. When local police dismantled the Society by force a few months later, they confiscated and destroyed the group’s papers.

We only know that Friendship and Freedom existed because one issue later appeared in a German homophile magazine, photographed by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld—who was gay himself, and almost alone among researchers of his day for treating queer people with sympathy rather than clinical distaste. Some of Hirschfeld’s acquaintances probably found their way into The Third Sex, a Weimar-era magazine aimed at trans readers, or recognized themselves for the first time in its personal essays and candid portraits. After the Nazis seized power, they burned Hirschfeld’s library and shut down The Third Sex, trying to scour their enemies from history.

The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, post-war successors to the Society for Human Rights, each published their own magazines too ( Mattachine Review and The Ladder). Born from radical-left politics, their activism grew more conservative as the government sought out queers to purge and persecute. When the Mattachine Society staged its brave pickets, members were urged to observe gender conformity. That tension between acceptance and defiance remains visible, even at the margins of the archive. The Ladder’s contributors included Edythe Eyde, a major figure of early science fiction fandom who worked in Hollywood and dabbled in Satanism. Her pseudonym “Ima Spinster” got rejected by editors, so Eyde settled on the unsubtle anagram Lisa Ben instead.

As polite dissent turned into an uprising, the trans liberation movement announced itself through self-publishing. Writing in the 2017 essay anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Abram J. Lewis revisited various organizing groups that emerged after the Stonewall riots, including New York’s Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, founded by Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and others, alongside lesser-known formations such as Philadelphia’s Radical Queens, and the Transsexual Action Organization (TAO) in Los Angeles. The Radical Queens newsletter declared it would be “the magazine of the non-man,” anticipating modern discussions of transphobia and heterosexism: “Gender is the caste system by which male-dominated society designates Women and effeminates as inferior.” TAO’s newsletters, Mirage and Moonshadow, also drew on the militant rhetoric of the New Left, albeit with a distinctly psychedelic flavor: One contributor invited aliens to invade Earth, pledging, in that 1960s mode of the earnestly impossible, “to protect and assist extraterrestrials, UFO crews and their vehicles should the situation arise.”

“You know how I LOVE to put little newsletters together!” the diarist-activist Lou Sullivan wrote to himself 35 years ago. “I’ve been Xeroxing old 1980 issues of The Gateway I did for Golden Gate Girls/Guys and I must pin roses on myself + say they were great little publications!” After moving from Milwaukee to San Francisco in 1975, Sullivan organized support groups for other trans men and challenged the medical prejudice that withheld hormones or surgery based on sexuality: Clinical associations finally recognized that he was gay. The Golden Gate Girls, a social group for Bay Area trans people, added “Guys” to their name when Sullivan joined; his editing of their newsletter The Gateway likewise added a transmasculine perspective it had previously lacked. Sullivan, a self-taught self-publisher, eventually started his own newsletter FTM: “It’s getting so good that I’m thinking of charging for it!” He received curious, grateful letters from Holland, New Zealand, and beyond.

“[ The Gateway_] is extremely intimate and personal: reports on members’ travels, what you missed at the latest meeting,” said Isaac Fellman, an archivist at San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. “I would classify small local organizations’ newsletters as proto-social-media (or else social media as post-newsletter—I’d hate to describe social media as the apotheosis or final form of anything).” Lou Sullivan co-founded what is now known as the GLBT Historical Society; when he died of AIDS in 1991, his papers became part of its collection. “Lou was our first trans collection, so he wasn’t placed in a context—he _was the context,” Fellman went on.

Printing off newsletters like Tapestry, Adam’s Word, and Gender Euphoria, the titles alternatively abstract and direct, trans people, too, described their experiences in a place where they could not be reduced to spectacle. Alongside lists of social contacts—the letters striking up conversation between reader and editor—a typical issue might feature ancestral history, guides to hormone therapy, or a review of Victor/Victoria—elaborating on the writing found in The Third Sex decades before. During the 1980s and 90s, readers all over the world used these pamphlets as inky semaphore. A few, like Rupert Raj’s Metamorphosis, garnered an international following, but often the main audience lay closer to home. If you couldn’t meet in person, or didn’t realize that was possible, newsletters offered a community.

“There are more of us out there than we may well have imagined,” an editor wrote in the debut issue of Boys Will Be Boys, perhaps Australia’s first newsletter for trans men. “Naturally, this is only the tip of a very isolated iceberg … It’s important that we share our thoughts, insecurities, excitement, fears, and knowledge.”

At certain intersections of history, the distinction between everyday life and revolutionary consciousness begins to collapse. Several years ago, Cooper Union hosted a group show called Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics. Viewers moved backwards chronologically from trans artists like Mark Aguhar and Greer Lankton to archival material, often reclaimed from voyeuristic sources (sensational tabloids, medical journals). The ‘90s zine gendertrash from hell seemed to hang outside of time near the end, poised between those earlier newsletters and contemporary artworks. The title alone had a lopsided grin; not even a glass vitrine could contain it.

gendertrash was published in Toronto by Mirha Soleil-Ross, an artist, sex worker, and animal-rights activist, and her then-partner Xanthra MacKay. It included both literary submissions and practical advice, but the editorial line emphasized political resistance. Issue #2 demolished a series of transphobic “gender myths” (“no one is born a woman,” it clarified), while the third edition reported on six trans women attending the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival that had previously excluded them, as Leslie Feinberg gave a speech in their support. gendertrash was read across the queer underground; Larry-Bob Roberts, who published the enduring homocore series Holy Titclamps and later donated his collection of vintage LGBTQ zines, told me it was one of his favorites.

MacKay and Soleil-Ross also gave their work a visual force unlike older newsletters; the cover of gendertrash #3 features a Jamaican-Canadian poet named Linda Taylor, smiling from trellises of flowers. You could order dozens of buttons along with the zines: WHINING WORKS!!!, OUR LIVES UNDER OUR CONTROL, SELF-ORGANIZE! CHANGE YOUR SEX AND YOUR WORKPLACE. When I posted that last one on Twitter as an example of Soleil-Ross’s work, several thousand people passed it around excitedly, many of them probably younger than the button itself.

To see a small thing resonate so widely in the present was no shock: Zines and diaries make the momentous intimate with the mundane. Despite gulfs of language and experience (as Soleil-Ross and MacKay once wrote, “the notion of gender and what it means to be a woman or a man differs not only from one individual to another, but also across time and culture.”), you can find the traces of a longer struggle. gendertrash #3 surveyed crisis shelters to see which ones welcomed trans women. Many still do not. At such moments, the past meets present with a flash.

“When someone connects with an object that they recognize—not to be cutesy, but when someone cruises the past—there’s often an ecstatic moment,” the GLBTHS archivist Isaac Fellman told VICE. “One of my own favorite sparks of connection came soon after I started work at the Society, and I found this issue of Metamorphosis—its headline is about the bluehead wrasse, a fish that can change from female to male over the course of its life. At the time, Trans Twitter had just been sharing around a meme about that fish (pointing out that it’s also the colors of the trans flag), and it was delightful to see that trans people had been independently getting excited about the bluehead wrasse since at least 1982—and probably sooner.” An heirloom gains new meaning with each rediscovery.

Cultural institutions have routinely consigned trans creators to muse or image, leaving gaps in the record that threaten to vanish that resonance. For instance, discussing the late Argentinian artist Effy Beth in another Trap Door essay, Bring Your Own Body curators Stamatina Gregory and Jeanne Vaccaro noted that her works remain uncollected by archives: “Art history’s methods and disciplinary norms too rarely account for truncated forms of cultural production by artists like Effy. Transgender art is vulnerable; Effy’s work is singular, extraordinary, and also symbolic of the precarity of trans practices and the imminent loss of its histories.” One of Beth’s pieces inscribed a canon of female artists (Barbara Kruger, Ana Mendieta) over her own back, as if to give arbitrary hierarchy a physical weight.

The lineage of queer self-publishing is also a record of historical traumas, from Nazi brutality to a neglected plague. “I think [Lou] was really afraid that he would be forgotten, both as an individual and an example of a type of person,” Zach Ozma said last year, after publishing a collection of Sullivan’s diaries. “That’s part of why he’s so good at self-documentation … My fantasy now is that Lou gets to become a style model figure, for some kiddo who’s piecing together the things.”

“I’d love to see more contemporary, community-generated content in archives,” Ozma’s co-editor Ellis Martin told me. “The John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archive at William Way [an LGBTQ community center in Philadelphia] does amazing community digitization days where queer folks bring their important objects, photographs, documents, etc. to be imaged, but not physically entered into the archives. Models like this reduce the space issue with archival acquisitions to just digital storage space, allowing for more voices to enter the archives. For example, if Lou had been able to attend a community digitization day, maybe we would have a photograph of his prized opal ring.” Martin adores the image of a ritual hormone vessel, donated by filmmaker Noemi Charlotte Thieves: Donor’s pill box, to remind her to take her estradiol, spiro, and antidepressant. Donor takes them and then kisses the vessel. She imagines her whole body turning into gold amber and fully femme.

Self-documentation too often dies with its author. The descendants who cherish that work have to rescue it from the gutter, or from a stranger’s garage sale. One of Lou Sullivan’s last diary entries described bequeathing his newsletters to the GLBT Historical Society: “I’m feeling very at peace and reassured that my work will be preserved.” If those boxes of journals and postcards had been pulped instead, abandoned to some attic, the exclusion he faced down could’ve become permanent. Newsletters are an artifact of the late 20th century, but the mutual aid and emancipation they represent remain urgent, memories of what might be.

Follow Chris Randle on Twitter.

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