In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Normalizing the “Variant” in The Ladder, America’s Second Lesbian Magazine, 1956–1963
  • Elyse Vigiletti (bio)

The Ladder (1956–72) was the second lesbian magazine to circulate in the United States—though, admittedly, this statistic uses the term circulate rather loosely. Vice Versa, its sole predecessor, which was executed from start to finish by the pseudonymous “Lisa Ben,” enjoyed but a brief nine-issue run; its subscribers consisted of whomever Ben happened to encounter when she entered the Los Angeles gay bars with a half-dozen copies in her fist.1 The Ladder, founded by the fifteen women who made up the Daughters of Bilitis (dob) with a subscribership of four hundred by its first anniversary and a fifteen-year run, was massive by comparison.2 It emerged amid several other publications targeted at midcentury gay Americans, including one, of One, Inc., and the Mattachine Review, of the Mattachine Society. Like these other journals, The Ladder’s mission was to allow its parent organization to locate (or, if there was none to locate, create) a broader gay community that extended beyond coastal urban centers. Close fbi surveillance of the dobs activities, McCarthy-era censorship, and general postwar homophobia meant that developing, circulating, and reading the journal carried serious risks, but The Ladder’s creators remained stubbornly optimistic about a literary magazine’s potential to bring about social change by fostering a supportive community of readers in the fragmented American lesbian population via a print discourse about gender, sexuality, and identity. Perhaps the most important intervention of The Ladder in gay and lesbian print history was making this discourse accessible nationwide in a moment of particularly high suspicion of nonconformity, networking a national lesbian community that linked isolated, closeted individuals with small, vibrant communities such as those in Greenwich Village and San Francisco.

Despite its unapologetic focus on living as what it often called “the variant,” and the ways it anticipated the radical feminism of the second wave, in its early years The Ladder remained deeply committed to many of the values [End Page 47] of normality that dominated postwar American public discourse, especially under its first two editors, partners Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. The Ladder between the years 1956 and 1963 is, paradoxically, an archive of both early gay rights agitation and postwar normality discourse. Collectively a feminist proto-manifesto of gay rights, The Ladder’s first seventy-six issues promoted education and literature as the bedrock of community building and the tools by which repressed identities resist marginalization, carefully measuring the journal’s radical foundation against the anxieties surrounding normality and stability so characteristic of its postwar moment. As Anna Creadick, Julian Carter, and others have argued, midcentury American culture was saturated with the ideal of the “normal”; never had middle-class economic stability, the nuclear family model, and heterosexuality had stronger currency as signifiers of one’s civic or domestic worth. In this context, The Ladder’s call for its readers to embrace rather than suppress their stigmatized sexuality and, in so doing, change the culture was radical yet remained couched in these same terms and part of this same conversation. Many critics of The Ladder—contemporary readers and activists as well as some current, even ultimately sympathetic scholars—find this an insurmountable obstacle to the dobs purported mission, arguing that the journal was ultimately not very radical or resistant at all; rather, as part of the early homophile movement it reified a limiting white, middle-class notion of respectability and good citizenship. Sociologist Marianne Cutler details this argument in an article that takes exception to the gender essentializing that The Ladder was frequently guilty of, with its constant insistence that lesbians should embrace their “femininity” and its prudish championing of lesbian monogamy and economic stability over sexual freedom. She attributes this impulse to what Erving Goffman’s Stigma found to be a strategic minimizing of one’s stigmatized traits in order to engage with dominant culture; her article outlines how these strategies could be oppressive and risked rendering The Ladder’s contributions to its movement counterproductive.3 To be sure, the journal’s own readership had similar concerns: The Ladder occasionally published lengthy letters...


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pp. 47-71
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