March is Women's History Month, and with Donald Trump and his administration in power, there's never been a better time to honor all women. Throughout the month The Advocate will feature queer pioneers whose strength, resilience, and ingenuity paved the way for others. Today we honor Edythe Eyde, a.k.a. Lisa Ben, founded the first lesbian publication in the U.S., Vice Versa.
What she accomplished: Before there was Autostraddle, before there was Curve, even before there was The Ladder, there was Vice Versa. Edythe Eyde was a young secretary at RKO Studios in Los Angeles in 1947 when she started Vice Versa, a publication she produced clandestinely in her office. She was a fast typist who got through her work quickly, and her boss didn’t care how she used her spare time as long as she looked busy. Her production method sounds primitive today: She would make several carbon copies while typing the original, then repeat the process until she had as many copies as she needed. She initially distributed them through the mail, but when she found out that it was against the law to use the mail to circulate information about lesbians, she delivered them by hand.
“I had a lot of fun putting it together,” Eyde recalled in a 1990 interview with Visibilities. “I would use carbon paper, because in those days we didn’t have such things as a Xerox or even a ditto machine.” She charged nothing for Vice Versa, saying it was a labor of love. And she urged readers to share their copies with friends. It didn’t contain news or other material that would date quickly, instead offering fiction, poetry, and arts reviews. Vice Versa was also, she noted, a way for her to meet other women. “During those days I didn’t really know many girls,” she told Visibilities. “But I thought, well, I’ll just keep turning out these magazines and maybe I’ll meet some! … And I did! When I turned out my first copy I probably knew about four people. And the next month, they introduced me to some more, and I knew, like, 10 people. And so on and so on and so on.”
She produced only nine issues, from June 1947 through February 1948, as the demand grew to the point where she couldn’t put out enough copies. Another reason for discontinuing the publication was that RKO was sold, and she had to find another job. But she kept up her activism and creative work. She got involved with the early lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis and contributed to its publication, The Ladder, under the name Lisa Ben. She also wrote gay-centric lyrics to of popular songs and performed her work gay and lesbian clubs and at Daughters of Bilitis events. Some examples: “I’m a Boy Being a Girl,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write My Butch a Letter (And Ask Her Won’t She Please Turn Femme),” “The Vice Squad Keeps Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine,” and a version of the folk song “Frankie and Johnnie” in which the title characters were gay men. In 1960 the Daughters of Bilitis released a 45 rpm record of Ben singing “Frankie and Johnnie,” backed with a song called “Cruising Down the Boulevard.” The 1984 documentary Before Stonewall features Ben singing some of her songs. She also sings in the 1974 short film Dyketactics and the 2000 doc History Lessons.
In her later years, Eyde lived a quiet life in Los Angeles, but her contributions have not been forgotten. She was inducted into the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Hall of Fame in 2010, and in 2015, well into her 90s, she was the recipient of the NLGJA’s first Lisa Ben Award for Achievement in Features Coverage. She died in December of that year.
Choice quote: “I never sold it, I just gave it to my friends, because I felt that it was a labor from the heart, and I shouldn’t get any money for it.” — Eyde to Visibilities, on Vice Versa