In the summer of 1947, Edythe Eyde, a secretarial assistant at RKO Pictures in Los Angeles, started covertly publishing a tiny journal she called Vice Versa, subtitled “America’s Gayest Magazine.”

Now recognized as the first lesbian magazine in the United States, Vice Versa appeared at a time when sodomy laws banning “unnatural sexual acts” criminalized same-sex activity across much of the country. To protect her safety and livelihood, Eyde—who later adopted the pen name Lisa Ben, which doubled as an anagram for “lesbian”—published her magazine anonymously.

“In those days, our kind of life was considered a vice,” she said in a 1992 interview. “It was the opposite of the lives that were being lived—supposedly—and understood and approved of by society. And Vice Versa means the opposite.”

A circa 1940s photo of Eyde eating an ice cream bar
A circa 1940s photo of Eyde eating an ice cream bar ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Library

The project was very risky, says Lillian Faderman, an emeritus scholar at California State University, Fresno, who is often called the “mother of lesbian history.”

“[Sexuality] was always a secret from people who were not gay, and the reason it was a secret is because you would get in trouble if straight people knew you were a homosexual,” Faderman adds. A lesbian herself, she recalls knowing women caught when police raided gay bars and gay people who feared arrest in the mid-20th century.

“There was nowhere you could turn for safe harbor,” says Faderman, whose books include The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th-Century America.

Eyde, a 26-year-old lesbian who had recently moved from Northern California to L.A. to escape her oppressive family, spent her downtime at work typing up issues of Vice Versa. Using carbon paper to create duplicates of typed pages, she produced a total of just 12 copies per issue.

Pages from the August 1947 issue of Vice Versa ​​​​​​​magazine
Pages from the August 1947 issue of Vice Versa magazine Queer Music Heritage

The free, rather plain publication featured no bylines, no photos, no ads and no masthead. It had a blue cover and consisted of typed pages stapled together. Eyde passed it around to friends, who then passed the copies on to other friends. She also mailed copies to a small number of people and gave out issues at gay bars. Overall, Vice Versa probably had no more than 100 readers, Faderman says.

The magazine’s articles ranged from book and film reviews to poetry to reader commentary. Eyde sometimes adopted a protofeminist tone, praising “time-saving innovations such as frozen foods and electrical appliances as making it easier for women to live independently of men,” wrote cultural historian Rodger Streitmatter in a 1998 journal article.

Besides the occasional help of an anonymous straight male friend, Eyde was responsible for putting out all nine issues of Vice Versa single-handedly.

“What [Eyde] did was unique: No other publication attempted to write about lesbians,” says Faderman. “She did it all herself, except for a few articles.”

Julie R. Enszer, a poet and gender studies scholar at the University of Mississippi, emphasizes Eyde’s great initiative. Society was much less open-minded than it is today, but after World War II ended in 1945, the feeling that a new, modern era was dawning swept across the nation.

A 1945 photo of Eyde reading outside
A 1945 photo of Eyde reading outside ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Library
A circa 1950 photo of Eyde in a leopard print outfit
A circa 1950 photo of Eyde in a leopard print outfit ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Library

“At a time incredibly different from the current moment we’re in, she just felt so powerfully about being a lesbian and wanting to connect with other women,” says Enszer. “That’s really how I think about Vice Versa: a way to write things down, share with people, and make connections with other women and build a community.”

The scholar adds, “What [Eyde] did with that publication, really—it took a while, but it inspired a lot of what happened in the women’s liberation movement.”

In Vice Versa’s inaugural issue, published in June 1947, Eyde wrote an introduction to readers on a page titled “In Explanation.” She argued that newsstands held many publications but nothing like hers, because society would deem it too vulgar.

“Hence the appearance of Vice Versa, a magazine dedicated, in all seriousness, to those of us who will never quite be able to adapt ourselves to the iron-bound rules of convention,” Eyde wrote. “This is your magazine.”

Eyde stopped mailing copies of Vice Versa after someone warned her that doing so violated the Comstock Act, an 1873 law that forbade sending “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials through the postal service.

“She very naively said, ‘Why? There’s nothing about sex in here,’” Faderman explains. “But it’s about homosexuality, and that’s against the law, and you could get arrested for it.”

Eyde published the last issue of the magazine in February 1948, after aviator and business tycoon Howard Hughes bought out RKO and she lost her job. No longer a private secretary in a private office, she worked in a typing pool with many other people, making it difficult for her to produce a clandestine publication.

It wasn’t until 1956 that the Ladder, the next-oldest American publication specifically for lesbians, debuted. The Daughters of Bilitis, a pioneering lesbian organization based in San Francisco, published the underground magazine, which used pseudonyms and ran until 1972. One of the Ladder’s contributors was Eyde, who started writing under the pen name Lisa Ben after an editor rejected her first choice, Ima Spinster.

Pages from the October 1960 issue of the Ladder
Pages from the October 1960 issue of the Ladder University of California, Berkeley

In the years following Vice Versa, Eyde continued working as a secretary and started singing in lesbian bars and clubs. Her identity as the person behind both Lisa Ben and Vice Versa surfaced sometime after the 1950s, according to Faderman, but Eyde later distanced herself from the lesbian community.

“She sort of put it behind her,” Faderman says.

In 2002, J.D. Doyle, then-host of the “Queer Music Heritage” radio show, reached out to Eyde to request an interview. He published her response, which contained a polite but firm refusal, on his website of the same name.

“I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have gone into seclusion and no longer desire any publicity,” Eyde wrote.

Bonus: Edythe Eyde's Gay Gal's Mixtape

The previous year, someone had discovered the Eyde-Lisa Ben connection and circulated a photo of her at a gay festival to many newsletters, she explained. The incident rattled her.

“As many of us approach our declining years, it is not unusual to regret unwise behavior in days gone past,” Eyde added. “No, I have not ‘gone over to the other side,’ but I no longer actively participate in the gay lifestyle. To do so at this stage of my life would be inappropriate.”

Eyde died in 2015 at age 94 and was buried in California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park alongside such notables as Humphrey Bogart and Carrie Fisher.

Eyde playing the guitar, circa 1960s
Eyde playing the guitar, circa 1960s ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Library

Enszer says that Eyde showed great fortitude during an era when society was so hostile to gay people.

“She had extraordinary courage and bravery,” the scholar says. “But I also think there are people that just have a deep understanding of and commitment to who they are, and [they] just do not feel the same type of societal pressure to be silent.”

Faderman, who was a child during the Vice Versa era, wishes she’d had a publication like Eyde’s when she “started going to [gay] bars in 1956.” She adds, “It would have been so important to me, just to know someone could be brave enough to write about lesbians and not say that we were doomed to drown in a well of loneliness … or be converted to heterosexuality.”

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