Many activist lesbians left the gay liberation movement in the 1970s because of the sexism of gay men and a difference in attitude between the sexual libertines who took an anything goes approach to sexual expression — usually the men — and the feminist perspective that saw sexual power as potentially exploitative.
Joining women’s liberation was an option but lesbians often faced anti-lesbian attitudes within the women’s movement.
Liz Ross was a key member of the collective that produced Lesbian Newsletter, which first appeared in 1975 as a four-page gestetnered insert in Women’s Liberation Newsletter. While not the first lesbian publication in Australia, it was certainly the most enduring from the era.
Ross was born in Sydney to an army father and moved home regularly as a child before her parents settled long enough in Canberra for her to complete the final years of school. She stayed on, gaining a science degree at ANU, then a library diploma, before working at the National Library.
Attending a CAE course on Women and Society, she met members of Women’s Liberation who inspired her to join. She became a volunteer and helped produce the Women’s Liberation Newsletter, a task she maintained until moving to Melbourne in 1975.
It was in Melbourne that she pushed successfully for the local Women’s Liberation group to start a lesbian newsletter. It aim was twofold: to put pressure on Women’s Liberation to cover lesbian issues, and to get information out to lesbians.
After two issues as an insert, Lesbian Newsletter was produced as a stand-alone publication, a decision Ross says today may have “let [Women’s Liberation] off the hook a bit” but it also reflected a broader push for lesbian-only organisations.
Lesbian Newsletter was largely subscriber-based, produced every two months with a limited print run, partly due to the labour-intensive means of production using manual typewriters and a gestetner machine, with flimsy waxed sheets of paper draped around an ink drum and a handle on the side to turn while feeding pages through.
“It was all very wet. Getting the sheet onto the drum without wrinkles was just a nightmare. You’d often tear the paper or it would get inked up too much. … very limited in what you could do visually [and] very labour-intensive,” Ross says.
Despite low overheads, commercial viability was a recurring problem. In 1978 Lesbian Newsletter had only 100 subscribers but needed 200 to cover costs. In 1983 it changed its name to Lesbian News and continued publishing until 1990 when it was absorbed into Labrys magazine. In 1992 Labrys was absorbed into Lesbiana magazine which continued publishing until 2004.
Ross left Lesbian Newsletter in 1978, and became involved with the Socialist Workers Party. She is currently writing a history of the Left’s involvement in the struggle for gay rights.
Next week: Rod Stringer – The venues’ magazine
INFO: Former editor and publisher Bill Calder is researching Australia’s gay and lesbian media history from 1969-2000. Follow his progress at www.gaymediahistory.wordpress.com