The one time in my life I actually felt like I was part of my family was when I was maybe 7 or 8, at my uncle’s house for Christmas. I was opening up my presents in the corner of the room – my mom always said that I had “this really weird habit” of opening my presents by myself, away from other people, as if I was resource guarding or something – and looked around. There was my grandma (alive at the time), my parents (married at the time), my mom’s brothers and sisters, their children, and us. It hit me: I’m related to these people! My family has since scattered about, ties have been broken, relationships have been strained, but that satisfying feeling of understanding a part of me that I didn’t know needed to be understood is something I’ve rarely experienced again. Until Sunday.
Sunday was the official unveiling of the Lesbian Legacy Wall, a floor-to-ceiling compilation of magazine covers spanning over 50 years of lesbian ink, at the ONE Archives down by USC. The Lesbian Legacy Wall is the brainchild of LEX, the same group that brought us the GenderPlay exhibit in May. If GenderPlay served as an urban encyclopedia of lesbian identity, the Lesbian Legacy Wall is an anthology – history, notable milestones, definitions, individual stories, and shared recollections.
We were a little late – we’re always a little late – so by the time we headed in, the room was packed with lesbians from all generations. Everyone was paying strict attention to none other than Edith Eyde, aka Lisa Ben. Lisa Ben (an anagram for “lesbian”) (my girlfriend points out that “Able Sin” also would have been a good anagrammatic pen name, which I now am taking under consideration) published and distributed the first magazine for lesbians, Vice Versa, back in 1947 when she was a secretary at RKO. This being 1947, Edith could not very well walk down the street with a big “My Name is Lesbian” sticker badged on her ruffled blouse. To expand her circle of women who love women, she put together a little lezzie magazine, distributed it amongst her lezzie friends, and encouraged everyone to pay it forward. Her boss did not have a whole lot of work for her to do, but wanted her to appear busy, so she typed up Vice Versa during business hours, on the office typewriter. She looked busy because she was busy. Busy as a lezzi-bee.
“I didn’t dare be an activist,” she said at one point of her presentation (but you were! I think we all were thinking). As with many accidental parents, Lisa Ben didn’t plan to give birth to a movement: Vice Versa spawned a line of lesbian press publications. I, for one, am all the better for it. Information is only as good as its producers; if I had to rely on, say, Time and other relatively mainstream publications to tell me about me, I’d be far more confused about myself than I am now. More important, Vice Versa helped unite a family whose members were not aware of their kinship, and sparked a generation of activists who just needed a little reassurance that their journeys were not solitary ones.
Others paid tribute to the successful preservation of the lesbian press: Phranc; Jan Aura (who recounted the Great Yogurt Conspiracy of 1972 in which two women at the Los Angeles Self-Help clinic were arrested for unlawfully engaging in the practice of medicine when undercover police caught them using – gasp! – yogurt to treat a woman’s yeast infection), and Jeanne Cordova, a leading lesbian activist who co-founded LEX along with partner Lynn Ballen.
Triumphant speeches completed, the Legacy Wall was unveiled. Situated near the entrance of the ONE Archives, the wall is over 6 feet tall and features over 50 magazine covers from influential lesbian mags. Everyone Ooh-ed and Ahh-ed the same way players for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players did at the unveiling of the “Women in Baseball” exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in A League of Their Own. Vice Versa, of course, was featured prominently, as were a number of other Los Angeles-based publications, including Cordova’s own Lesbian Tide. Other publications caught my eye solely on the basis of their awesome titles: off our backs (lesbian feminist newsjournal) and the bratty rebellious response, On Our Backs (lesbian erotica); Dykes and Gorgons (not a MMORPG, but should be); The Leaping Lesbian (because we don’t jump, we leap); The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis (Bilitis sounds like, but is not, an affliction you don’t want in your nether regions); and Ain’t I A Woman (what Jenny Lewis might call her magazine, if she had one).
So here was my Christmas-at-the-uncle’s moment. Looking around at the cross-generational crowd, it hit me: I’m related to these people! It was an odd experience to walk into a room full of people you’ve never met, yet still know exactly what they are talking about as if the conversation had been going on for years, but that’s how I felt. Shared experiences apparently transcend time and space. From our grandma, Lisa Ben, to Jeanne and Lynn to Phranc’s two kids, the familial lines keeps going. The wall is a mere picture in time; there will be more rags, with even more creative names, with articles written by people like Able Sin (maybe).
A nice family gathering was had by all that Sunday. Maybe next year’s family reunion will have tshirts!
The Lesbian Legacy Wall is located in the ONE Archives, which itself is located innocuously in a brick building at 909 West Adams Boulevard. Come for the wall; stay to peruse rare and archival material documenting LGBT history and have ready material to talk about at the next marriage protest.