Often scraping by on shoestring budgets and volunteer labor, periodicals by, for, and about lesbians—lesbian being a capacious term that increasingly embraces queer, trans, and nonbinary positionalities—have always been world-building projects. Put into dialogue, three generations of feminist and lesbian magazines founded by New York City artists—Heresies (1977–93), LTTR (2001–6), and WMN (2019–ongoing)—open an aperture onto a self-determined, living, and utterly vibrant archive of lesbian art. Within and across their pages, critical questions of lesbian identity unfold: Who or what does this provisional, slippery “we” want to be? What kind of art do “we” make, and what sort of world do our creations imagine, anticipate, or hasten?
In the United States, these publications have existed since the mid-twentieth century, persisting against the odds in heterosexist environments in which the amount of meaningful discursive and public space devoted to lesbians is consistently incommensurate with our value and presence. This lack of parity has lent itself to the invisibilization of lesbians on one hand (sometimes, as a matter of survival), and lesbians’ problematic visibilizing through a cishet or otherwise lesbophobic lens as a condemned or fetishized identity category on the other. Against this uninspired backdrop, grassroots publications that assert lesbian existence on their own terms are all the more critical. They have activated latent lesbian networks through their contributors and readership—including individuals who otherwise may not have had access to lesbian culture or community, particularly prior to the advent of the internet—while fostering important debates and dialogues (many of which have unfolded in “Letters to the Editor” sections) on local, national, and international levels. Through their content, organization, and infrastructural effects, these journals have served to map and remap the contours of sapphic social imaginaries, articulating sets of possibilities for a lesbian public’s interests, values, and beliefs.
From the outset, many of these magazines affirmed the prominent place of cultural production in lesbian identity. Underscoring the importance of visual representation, lesbian periodicals devoted to art, as well as feminist art periodicals ceding space or autonomy to sapphics, began to germinate in the 1970s on the heels of more literary-oriented predecessors like The Ladder (1956–70). These new magazines presented reproductions of lesbian artists’ work (drawings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and film stills) as well as essays and interviews pertaining to that visual production, in stark contrast to the dearth of lesbian-identified art and art history in institutional settings. For example, when photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB) was putting together Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present (1979–84), a now-legendary traveling slideshow and lecture intended to educate viewers on lesbian photographic history, she was stymied by the same institutional voids that her project sought to counteract. As she researched at the Library of Congress for what would become known as The Dyke Show, she found that the card catalogue for Lesbian was empty: the culminating effect of lesbians needing to hide their sexuality, next of kin destroying evidence of lesbianism in the archival material with which they had been entrusted, and hegemonic institutions deeming that lesbian history is not worthy of contemplation or preservation. Across the decades, as lesbian art has gradually wended its way into US museums and official archives, lesbian-feminist magazines have continued to play a singularly important role. Acting as alternative spaces devoted to fostering, recording, and circulating visual culture informed by the desires and concerns of their evolving constituencies, these journals proffer images that endeavor to articulate a lesbian erotics; map new forms of family and kinship; and construct, deconstruct, and apply pressure to definitions of the lesbian subject.
The second-wave feminist movement, like the contemporaneous gay liberation and Black Power movements, countered mainstream-media landscapes with an efflorescence of alternative print media including broadsides, pamphlets, and journals. Launched in New York City in 1977, Heresies emerged from this milieu. Devoted to the intersection of the arts and feminism, Heresies was the eponymous magazine of a collective of twenty women artists and writers that had been formed the year prior. The publication’s goal, as stated in its first issue, was to “stimulate dialogue around radical political and aesthetic theory, encourage the writing of the history of femina sapiens, and generate new creative energies among women.” Heresies published themed issues, each of which was overseen by an independent editorial board selected by the “mother collective,” a core group whose members cycled in and out over the course of the magazine’s sixteen-year run. This group, which expressed a desire to “try to be accountable to and in touch with the international feminist community” through the magazine’s editorial structure and open-evaluation meetings, was initially composed of white women; its makeup gradually became more diverse.
In the years leading up to the magazine’s founding, prominent feminist organizers such as Betty Friedan, then president of the National Organization for Women, were publicly characterizing lesbians as a “lavender menace” and a threat to second-wave feminism. In response, the Lavender Menace, a group of lesbians who were frustrated at homophobia in the feminist movement as well as sexism in the Gay Liberation Front, hijacked the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. Their intervention, which involved the distribution of a manifesto that framed lesbianism as an embodied rejection of the patriarchy and even a political choice, introduced radical lesbian feminism to mainstream feminist audiences and proposed an alliance. The terms feminist and lesbian never became synonymous amid enduring tensions and differences, but they did become blurry in radical or separatist contexts, resulting in a number of lesbian projects taking place under the auspices of feminism; such was the case with Heresies.
At the urging of painter and sculptor Harmony Hammond and performance artist Marty Pottenger, who were the lesbian-identified members of the founding collective, the feminist magazine devoted its third issue, published in the fall of 1977, to “Lesbian Art and Artists.” The issue opened with letters from the members of its all-lesbian editorial board, which had been selected by the mother collective and included Hammond, Pottenger, Betsy Damon, and Louise Fishman. These artists relayed their own relationships with lesbian identity (“I am not a lesbian. I make love only with women,” Pottenger wrote); the impetus behind the issue (“The presence of lesbians and lesbian artists must be affirmed,” said Rose Fichtenholtz); and their anxieties around the undertaking (“I … feared being viewed through society’s homophobic lenses yet I will not obscure the importance of lesbianism to my life and art,” said Damon). It included reader responses to the question “What does being a lesbian artist mean to you?” as well as a compilation of insights from ten lesbian artists that Fishman, a painter, organized under themes like “Community” and “Anger.” Some of the works featured in the issue, such as photographs by Alice Austen, were archival, reaching backward in an effort to write a revisionist lesbian history. Most were contemporary, spanning E. K. Waller’s photographic portraits of lesbians’ “fantasy versus reality,” film stills by Barbara Hammer accompanying her essay on cinematic time, Fran Winant’s painting of a dog amid mysterious glyphs, and a subtly yonic woven-jute-and-wool wall sculpture by Leora Stewart. As the magazine made space for a variety of media, aesthetics, and subject matters, lesbian art was presented as an open field. Still, in her introductory note, Hammond asserted that, while the panoply of work selected for inclusion was strong, the “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue had failed to adequately couch the work in a sociopolitical context. “I am disappointed that this issue has avoided controversial material and has continued the artistic fear of conscious political discussion … We need to push further and analyze all patriarchal institutions which control our lives,” she wrote.
In light of the magazine’s emphasis on consensus-based decision-making, other board members’ views as to what kind of work should be featured—or their beliefs that, under the homophobic circumstances, it was sufficient to simply show art by lesbians—proved to be a limiting factor. The issue’s collective also described the “unique constraints” posed by “the unavailability of material by lesbians not ready to come out, or not willing to participate in a heterosexual journal.” Hammond, who came from a lower-middle-class background, contributed an essay on the importance of class consciousness in discussions about art, particularly considering art’s historical ties to upper-class interests and values. In her piece, she advocated for the demystification of the creative process, the refusal of the notion of apolitical art, and acknowledgment of the relationship between one’s class position and the degree of ease or difficulty one experienced in pursuing a career in art. While the issue’s many contributors often touched on class or race, typically to acknowledge that they were upper-middle class, middle class, or working class, and white, Hammond’s article represented the most sustained engagement with intersectional oppressions beyond gender and sexuality.
Having noted her disappointment with the issue’s limitations, Hammond decided to organize A Lesbian Show at the alternative art space 112 Workshop in 1978 as a response. The exhibition featured work by eighteen artists, including a gridded Op-art painting by Gloria Klein, costuming from Damon’s performance piece 7000 Year Old Woman (1977–78), and painted love poems by Kate Millett. Programming co-organized by Hammond with Damon and Janey Washburn included discussions on topics such as “Being a Lesbian in Art School” and “Racism and Classism,” an “evening by Black women artists,” and a slideshow on crimes against women: efforts to delve into subjects that the “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue under-addressed. The bulk of the write-ups on this landmark exhibition acknowledged its cultural importance. In a review for The Village Voice, Kay Larson wrote: “What is a lesbian art? How would you recognize it? I’m not quite sure, but recent events have at least given a chance to confront the possibilities.” Hammond noted, however, that some of the artists whom she invited to participate declined due to fears of repercussions; artist Jody Pinto’s dealer reportedly threatened to drop her if she took part. “As lesbians we have no history, or even a contemporary community of lesbian artists,” Hammond wrote in the press release. “Until we have visibility, we cannot begin to explore the issues of lesbian sensibility in art, nor the roll [sic] and implications of lesbian culture in a larger social and political context.” The show was accompanied by a book that compiled statements from participating artists, in an effort to provide context on their practices as well as their relationships to lesbianism.
Heresies’ “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue didn’t so much prescribe or assert a lesbian aesthetic as enable the question of whether there might be one to be posed in the first place by occasioning the gathering of work and ideas by lesbian-identified artists in one location. It claimed space for lesbians in the feminist art discourse and laid groundwork for an incipient lesbian art history before lesbian-identified exhibitions existed in physical space. Yet it must also be asked: space for whom, and on whose terms? What had been glaringly left out—a problem also present in A Lesbian Show, as Hammond lamented in an exhibition text, and strove to address in the show’s programming—were contributions by lesbian artists of color, whose inclusion would have given a fuller picture of the lived experiences and sociopolitical concerns that lesbian artists addressed in their work. This violent omission, made by an all-white editorial board, underlined the problem of the dominance of a white, middle-class positionality within feminism that often failed to acknowledge the existence of intersectional oppressions. Black feminist collectives such as the National Black Feminist Organization, founded in New York City in 1973, and the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian group formed in Boston the following year, strove to address interlocking systems of oppression along lines of sex, race, class, and sexuality. “A combined anti-racist and anti-sexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism,” the Combahee River Collective’s mission statement reads.
In the long-planned “Women’s Traditional Arts” issue that immediately followed “Lesbian Art and Artists,” Heresies published a critical letter from the Collective saying that, while they appreciated the work behind the issue, they were appalled “that a hundred years from now it will be possible for women to conclude that in 1977 there were no practicing Black and other Third World lesbian artists.” Two years later, Heresies published the issue “Third World Women,” whose editorial board included the lesbian artists of color Naeemah Shabazz and Lula Mae Blocton. Blocton’s pencil drawing of ribbons at close range was included in the “Portfolio” section, while Shabazz contributed an essay on homophobia. The issue theme seems to have emerged, at least in part, in response to the Combahee River Collective’s critique; of the three Heresies collective members appointed to advise the “Third World Women” group, two—Hammond and the film director Su Friedrich—were members of the “Lesbian Art and Artists” group. Still, in an editorial statement, the board characterized Heresies as insensitive to Third World women’s issues, and noted that, because of concerns around tokenization and racism, some artists and writers of color refused to submit content. The fact of the gross exclusion and subsequent, somewhat fraught attempt at repair, both of which unfolded in living, labile editorial space, is as integral to lesbian art history as anything portrayed in the lesbian issue itself.
Although the lesbian-art issue of Heresies garnered more attention than other efforts of the period to platform and publicize lesbian art, it certainly wasn’t the first periodical to delve into the topic. The Oakland, California–based Amazon Quarterly, which billed itself as a “Lesbian-Feminist Arts Journal,” was published from 1972 to 1975 and run by Gina Covina and Laurel Galana. The magazine’s sundry offerings included photographs of nude women in nature by Carol Newhouse, the founder of a separatist woman’s land in Oregon; Leonor Fini’s painting of a goddess figure surrounded by cats, titled The Ideal Life (1950); and Covina’s own work, which ranged from absurdist cartoons of hybrid women-animals enjoying domestic coupledom to an open knit “cellular self-portrait.” In 1977, the same year that Heresies released its lesbian issue, the Los Angeles–based Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture (1977–80) published a conversation between art historians Ruth Iskin and Arlene Raven, the latter of whom cofounded the influential Lesbian Art Project (1977–79), which helped to spur the second major sapphic exhibition in the US, The Great American Lesbian Art Show, in 1980. Titled “Through the Peephole: Toward a Lesbian Sensibility of Art,” their conversation was accompanied by artworks whose heterogeneity in medium and subject matter gestured to the breadth of lesbian interests, such as censorship (Dara Robinson’s photographic sequence of a same-sex smooch interrupted by a black censor bar), the lack of imagery of everyday lesbian experience (Nancy Fried’s idealizing dough-based representations of lesbian domestic life), and critiques of patriarchal family structures (parodic family portraits with a human-size doll by Marcie Baer, Diane Devine, and Marguerite Elliot). More than any singular aesthetic, the article tied “lesbian sensibility” to “an active manifestation of the transformation of personal identity, social relations, political analysis, and creative thought.” It noted that lesbianism was in the process of developing a “public context” via the women’s movement, or looking to contemporaneous feminist practices and concerns as it sketched its own contours and asserted itself within that larger discourse.
The public context, of course, soon shifted. In 1981, the first cases of what would become known as HIV were reported in the United States. As a public health crisis wracked the nation, ignorance and fear around the transmission of the disease, and its association with male homosexuality, fomented extreme homophobia. For far too long, President Ronald Reagan, who was set on keeping his conservative Christian base, stayed silent on the topic of HIV/AIDS; he didn’t mention the disease publicly until 1985. (By the year’s end, reported deaths from AIDS in the US numbered over 12,500.) In the face of inadequate state support and rampant stigmatization, gay men, lesbian women, and folks of other sexualities joined together in direct-action groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP (est. 1987), and Queer Nation (est. 1990) to fight for the well-being, dignity, and basic rights of those affected by the disease. Artists, many of whom were involved with AIDS activism and personally dealing with the loss of loved ones to the disease or their own diagnosis, produced works that functioned as powerful registers of grief, urgent calls to action, or defiant celebrations of same-sex desire.
Works made in response to the AIDS crisis were first aggregated in an arts context in the 1989 to 1990 exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing at Artists Space in New York, curated by the photographer Nan Goldin. The show—which famously lost government funding over David Wojnarowicz’s catalogue essay taking conservative politicians and the Catholic church to task over their responses to the epidemic—featured photography, drawings, paintings, and sculptures by twenty-two local artists of various sexual and gender identities. The struggle against AIDS stimulated the emergence of such new coalitional relations, as the disease and the stigma around it affected the entire LGBTQIA+ community. Around the same time, the popularization of Michel Foucault’s notion of sexuality as a discursive construction and Judith Butler’s characterization of gender as a repeated performance contributed to the advent of queer theory, a term coined by scholar Teresa de Lauretis in 1990, which challenged normative assumptions about sexuality, framing it as potentially slippery, relational, multiple, and constructed. “Queer,” an open-ended, shared identity under which sexuality and politics were linked, became a new rallying cry, to the tune of Queer Nation’s popular protest chant: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
As categories, “queer” and “lesbian,” not so unlike “feminist” and “lesbian,” had their tensions as well as their overlaps. The lesbian artist collective fierce pussy (est. 1991), which arose from the participants’ involvement with ACT UP and shared interest in lesbian visibility, distributed simple photocopied posters that fluidly collated and reclaimed an array of identifiers: “I AM A mannish muffdiver amazon feminist queer lesbian femme AND PROUD!” The slapped-together, DIY aesthetic of fierce pussy’s posters—such as the aforementioned example from List Posters (1991) or the No Special Rights series (1994), which appropriated the Christian right’s slogan “No Special Rights for Homosexuals”—chimed with zines of the period. Self-published, small-circulation magazines, zines were (and are), as artist AA Bronson has noted, visually indebted to the cut-up method, or the practice of constructing a new text by rearranging fragments of an existing one, popularized by the gay Beat writer William S. Burroughs in the late 1950s. The zine’s distinctive form was also influenced by Situationist magazines from the ’50s and ’60s, whose meandering compositions and surprising juxtapositions reflected the avant-garde group’s belief in the power of the dérive (“drifting,” or experimental movement through space). Bolstered by the ready availability of copy shops and the spread of desktop publishing, zines flourished in the US in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of antiestablishment punk subcultures and the queercore and riot grrrl (feminist punk) subcultures that branched off from them. People whose interests and views were not represented by or were actively maligned by the mainstream media—among them, anarchists, punks, feminists, and queers—turned to homemade zines as an accessible and affordable mode to celebrate passions, build community, and articulate various counterpublics. Queer zines, whose content was wide-ranging, might share critical information on subjects like AIDS activism and safe sex; disseminate proscribed erotic imagery, including pictures that catered to fetish subcultures; promote queercore music and cultural production; or levy critiques against homonormativity as well as homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism. Feminist zines were likewise not monolithic. Coalescing in response to riot grrrl subculture, third-wave feminism’s advent, and long histories of feminist publishing, such publications became meaningful venues for self-expression on a number of topics including reproductive rights, race, ecology, body image, and sexual assault.
Growing out of lesbian-feminist magazines, on the one hand, and queer and feminist zines, on the other, LTTR was the eponymous journal of art and writing from a self-identified “feminist genderqueer artist collective with a flexible project-oriented practice.” LTTR was founded in 2001 by New York–based artists K8 Hardy, Every Ocean Hughes, and Ginger Brooks Takahashi, with Ulrike Müller joining in 2005; it lasted until 2006. “We are interested in poetics and language, action in lieu of protest, and the ability of sexuality to unsettle the subject,” wrote Hughes in LTTR’s final issue. The journal’s commitment to queer fluidity—to a vision of feminist lesbianism that encompassed a shifting mosaic of gender identities and sexualities—manifested in a variety of ways. LTTR’s titular acronym stood for “Lesbians to the Rescue”; yet even that title was slippery and manifold, underscoring the sly mutability or multiplicity of lesbian as a term. It also stood for “Listen Translate Translate Record,” “Lacan Teaches to Repeat,” and “Lesbians Tend to Read,” among other names. In addition to producing five small-run print issues, one of which was made in collaboration with current Museum of Modern Art curator Lanka Tattersall, LTTR also organized performances (including a program cocurated by Tattersall at the Kitchen in New York), workshops, read-ins, screenings, and exhibitions.
Like Heresies, LTTR was edited through consensus, relied on open calls, and was organized around (loosely) themed issues. The publication was distinctly prone to shapeshifting, expressing its queerness in formal or material terms. The second issue, for example, was designed to resemble an LP and was accompanied by an audio CD among other items, including an antiwar tampon by Fereshteh Toosi and a blue examination book filled in by Astria Suparak. The fifth issue instead adopted the form of a spiral-bound calendar. LTTR presented, as reproductions or discrete multiples, work in media as varied as text (e.g., Zoe Leonard’s iconic missive “I Want a Dyke for President”), drawings (Tara Mateik’s sketch of half a bare chest with spindly top-surgery scars), sculpture (Anna Sew Hoy’s knotted red cord tied to a cervical ceramic), photography (Klara Liden’s self-portrait flaunting the “keys to the city,” i.e. a cable cutter and pliers), and textiles (Liz Collins’s red glove, its three fingers suggesting an awkward, snug coming-together).
“I consider LTTR to be a descendent of Heresies,” Hammond told artist Carlos Motta in a 2011 interview for his project We Who Feel Differently. “These are smart women that understand and embrace the many histories that came before them, feminism being one. At the same time they do it in their own way. I am very interested in their individual and collective practices where there is a slippage around sexuality, gender, and gender self-determinacy.” In LTTR’s pages, feminist histories were referenced, remixed, and challenged, as in Rhani Lee Remedes’s text-based The SCUB Manifesto, which stood for “Society for Cutting Up Boxes” and cheekily riffed on radical lesbian feminist Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto (“Society for Cutting Up Men”), and Nicole Eisenman and A. L. Steiner (Ridykeulous)’s DIY update to the Guerilla Girls’ poster The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988), titled The Advantages of Being a Lesbian Woman Artist (2006). Beyond amplifying the voices of lesbian, queer, nonbinary, and trans folks, LTTR’s content also evinced and proposed intimate kinship with or identification with gay men, featuring, for example, Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of sun-drenched men cruising New York City’s waterfront in the 1970s and 1980s. Such inclusions suggested that the artistic contributions of various sexualities and gender expressions were imbricated and that the work of crafting a fulsome lesbian art history would necessarily involve such an orientation.
One of the publications taking up this torch today, WMN was founded in 2019 by three New York–based artists: photographers Jeanette Spicer and Florencia Alvarado and graphic designer Sara Duell. The nascent zine is committed to featuring the art and poetry of “lesbians who historically do not get much representation within LGBTQIA+ media.” Like Heresies and LTTR, it garners its content through open calls. Thus far, the themed issues have centered lesbians who inhabit rural areas; identify as trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming; live with disabilities; have experiences of migration; or are 55 years of age or older. (The latter issue includes several photographic portraits of lesbians by The Dyke Show creator JEB, who in 1971 also cofounded the lesbian separatist collective the Furies, which had its own eponymous magazine.) Each edition comprises a brief editorial followed by poems as well as generously sized reproductions of art as varied as a biomorphic painting by Deborah Bright; blue-toned nude photographic self-portraits by Aurora Berger; Elisa Quero’s collage of family photographs, official documents, and jewelry; and an anti-ableism cartoon by Rizzo Boring that asserts, “If I can’t sit, I can’t be part of your revolution.” WMN, like LTTR before it, also holds events, facilitating in-person interactions among community members. While LTTR’s events often took place at arts venues such as Printed Matter and the Kitchen, WMN has chosen to partner with LGBTQIA+ spaces that range from the Alice Austen House—the home museum of the same photographer who served as a historical counterpoint in Heresies’ “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue—to Dave’s Lesbian Bar, an Astoria pop-up founded two years ago that gathers queers around live music and mutual-aid efforts.
Forged for or claimed for lesbian creative production, the alternative publications traced here—namely, Heresies, LTTR, and WMN, three generations of magazines by New York artists—are largely oriented toward visual art, a powerful gesture in a society in which lesbians are often culturally invisible or visible in the context of someone else’s limited imaginary. Instead of dictating a singular lesbian aesthetic, these magazines have platformed lesbians’ robust and varied artistic production. Couching that display in an attunement to the broader social and political implications of lesbian artmaking, they have underscored that pleasure is political. Heresies, informed by feminism’s consciousness-raising practices, asked lesbian artists to share their work and experiences before there were public platforms to do so. It also provided a forum for vigorous and necessary debate, as lesbians of color and their allies flagged, in its pages, its myopic omissions. LTTR, emerging against a newly queer backdrop, declared lesbianism’s right to fluidity, multiplicity, and even incoherence, and tied art by lesbians to that of other folks of differing sexualities and gender expressions. And WMN, which insists on existing on paper and in person in a digital-first age, highlights visual production by lesbians who are often marginalized within lesbian media. At a moment when some mischaracterize lesbian as an anachronistic or circumscribed term, WMN’s work demonstrates an active commitment to lesbianism as an expansive and evolving category fundamentally invested in its own potentiality as well as its own history.
In a country that has always lacked lesbian public space (in 2023, the US has a mere 27 bars, down from a peak of about two hundred in the 1980s, according to the Lesbian Bar Project), these accessible, affordable publications have played an important role as commons or gathering places, fostering discussion and debate as they bring lesbians together on and off the page. Emerging in dialogue with not only their historical moments but also predecessor publications, these journals generate intergenerational connections, forming an expansive mesh where lesbian histories take shape and reside. They have done so as little room has been made for lesbian history in official institutions like archives, museums, and libraries—although in the twenty-first century, there has been movement on this front, as such institutions (taking a hint from longstanding queer community organizations like the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, established in 1974) grow increasingly amenable to serious consideration of queer history and its ephemera, typically saved and safeguarded by the queers who have always known its value. In the face of a culture in which, as Catherine Lord writes, “lesbian visibility is an ontological impossibility,” lesbian print media offers—in our own words, images, and editorial structures—invaluable records of where we’ve been, sketching out the kinds of art and society that lesbianism has imagined. What is imagined, of course, keeps on expanding.