Review of Unspeakable

Appx 500 words

Spotlighting the Queer Press
Review of Rodger Streitmatter's Unspeakable: The Rise of the
Gay and Lesbian Press in America
(Faber and Faber, 1995)
Ed Jackson
Centre/Fold, (Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies), # 10, Spring 1996

This is the first comprehensive scholarly look at the role of the lesbian and gay community press. Focusing exclusively on the history of American newspapers and magazines, Rodger Streitmatter, a journalism professor at American University, traces the genre's evolution from Vice Versa, Lisa Ben's pioneering but short-lived carbon-copied 1947 magazine, to the entrepreneurial lifestyle glossies of today, such as Out and The Advocate.

Interestingly, Streitmatter reveals in an introduction that the groundwork for his own study was laid by a publication called Our Own Voices: A Directory of Lesbian and Gay Periodicals, compiled by Alan V Miller in 1990 for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (it takes a sharp-eyed search through footnotes to reveal the Canadian origins of this source).

That directory listed 7,200 titles worldwide, of which only 2,600 were American, yet Streitmatter's focus for understanding this international phenomenon remains myopically American.

Streitmatter includes significant reference to only one non-American paper -- The Toronto- based newspaper The Body Politic, which began in 1971 and ceased publication in 1987. He fails completely to analyze the way in which the Canadian context might have contributed to TBP's political perspective and its unique role among the gay magazines of the time.

He treats TBP primarily as an American paper that just happened to be published in another country. For example, he blithely uses a quote from Canadian writer Gerald Hannon to illustrate the special kind of energy he feels enabled the genre to have "taken its place at the table of American journalism."

His sole source of information about The Body Politic appears to have been the 1982 anthology Flaunting It!. This means, for example, that, although he discusses the importance of the paper's prolonged court battles, he misses TBP's important early writing on AIDS. The articles by Michael Lynch and Bill Lewis, which reflected a level-headed and prescient analysis of the political impact of AIDS on the community, were distinctly different from most opinion being published by the American gay press at the time.

Now, even after more than a decade of the ravages of HIV / AIDS on the community, that analysis of caution has weathered the test of time rather well. Streitmatter's failure of research is unfortunate, given that he appears to adopt the widely held -- and largely inaccurate -- view espoused by Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On, that head-in-the-sand gay political leaders deliberately impeded public health action in the early 1980s.

Despite the perhaps predictable American insularity of Streitmatter's perspective, Unspeakable brings welcome exposure to the hitherto unexamined history of the crucial role played by the gay and lesbian press over the years. The specific and unique history of The Body Politic remains to be written.

Ed Jackson, a member of The Body Politic editorial collective from 1971 to 1983, is now the editor of Centre/Fold.

[List of online documents] [TBP / PTP Inventory: Published sources]