Gay media comes of age
by Jim Van Buskirk
The 35th anniversary of the Bay Area Reporter offers an opportunity to look back at how news of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities has changed over the last 50 years. Until fairly recently, mainstream coverage of gay and lesbian issues was largely nonexistent or pejorative. Even New York's now-famous Stonewall riots in June 1969 received scant coverage in the San Francisco press. During a peaceful protest against the homophobic editorial policies of the San Francisco Examiner on Halloween 1969, Examiner employees dumped a bag of printers' ink from the second story window of the newspaper building onto the crowd. Angry activists used the ink to scrawl slogans on the building walls and slap purple handprints throughout downtown. "Friday of the Purple Hand" was remembered as one of the most visible demonstrations of gay power against an unsympathetic media establishment.
The West Coast was pivotal in the development of a gay and lesbian press. Vice Versa, subtitled "America's Gayest Magazine," is the first known lesbian publication in the United States. In 1947 and 1948, the pseudonymous Lisa Ben wrote, edited, and typed (five carbon copies at a time, twice) the nine editions, then distributed them without charge, primarily in lesbian bars, where readers, in turn, passed them around. One magazine (1953-1968), was published by a subgroup of the Mattachine Society and edited by Dale Jennings. Related San Francisco-based publications included the San Francisco Chapter Mattachine Newsletter (1953-1963) and the Mattachine Review (1955-1977). The Daughters of Bilitis launched The Ladder, a monthly magazine edited by Phyllis Lyon (1956-1972), the San Francisco Chapter DOB Newsletter (1959–1978), and Sisters, the second DOB national publication (1970-1975). Guy Strait published small newspapers with various names from 1961 through 1967, Hall Call published Town Talk (1964-1966), and the Society for Individual Rights published Vector (1964-1976). The first issue of the Los Angeles Advocate , published in the summer of 1967, was 12 pages and sold for 25 cents. While its original mission was to be a written record for the gay community, the following year the paper was groomed to become the first nationally distributed publication of the gay liberation era, and in April 1970 shortened its title to the Advocate to reflect the national focus. In 1970, Winston Leyland began publishing Gay Sunshine as a radical newspaper in Berkeley; by 1973 it had become a literary and cultural journal. ADZ Gayzette (1970-1972) and Kalender (1972-1978) were two of many biweeklies running San Francisco bar news.
The B.A.R., founded by Bob Ross and Paul Bentley in April 1971, centered primarily on events in the bars, and in the Imperial Court system, the formalized drag society. By the mid-1970s it had become a major local source of gay news with a biweekly circulation of several thousand, and one of the most widely read gay newspapers on the West Coast. In October 1981, the B.A.R. began publishing weekly and that same year became the first gay periodical to carry a regular AIDS obituary column, continuing for 17 years until in 1998, when the front page headline read: "No Obits." The B.A.R., the longest continuous San Francisco gay publication and among the oldest gay newspapers in the country, has reported on the achievements and setbacks, the collaborations and infighting in our communities. The publication has not been without controversy. For example, in 2002, the anti-assimilationist activist group, Gay Shame, singled out Bob Ross for, among other offenses, supporting the more conservative incumbent Willie Brown over progressive gay Supervisor Tom Ammiano in the city's mayoral race.
As important as seeing our contemporary lives reflected in B.A.R .'s weekly news and upcoming events, it and other LGBT news publications are also important as documentation of our past. In 1991 Bill Walker of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California (now the GLBT Historical Society) negotiated with the University of California at Berkeley to produce 96 reels of microfilm preserving the first 40 years of Northern California gay and lesbian publications, including the B.A.R. The San Francisco Public Library has annually microfilmed subsequent years of the B.A.R. to ensure the copies are preserved and accessible to historians, including this one who, with co-author Susan Stryker, used B.A.R. back issues extensively as we researched and wrote Gay by the Bay: a History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area . One frustration for researchers has long been the lack of indexing. The B.A.R., along with many other titles, is now indexed (from January 4, 2001 onward) in GLBT Life, an online indexing database (available free to San Francisco Public Library card holders at www.sfpl.org).
The world of LGBT journalism has continued to change radically. The National Gay Newspaper Guild, begun in 1988 has 13 member papers from across the country, including the B.A.R. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, founded in Oakland in 1990, currently boasts 1,300 members in 24 chapters. The B.A.R. , available online (www.ebar.com) since September 2005, has increased its potential readership globally. Commemorating the past 35 years of the B.A.R. 's weekly news and entertainment, inspires us to see where we are, how far we've come, and to consider what our future holds.
Jim Van Buskirk is the program manager of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Celluloid San Francisco: The Movie Lover's Guide to Bay Area Film Locations, co-authored with fellow B.A.R. journalist Will Shank, was just published by Chicago Review Press.