Homage to Newsletters

The stapled sheets of paper contained everything from the puzzling to the profound.

“Help us find the ‘cow collar’…  During the Gay Pride Week rally Steve lent us a collar (or whatever it is called) to hold down the papers on the table,” the Association of Suburban People newsletter announced in September 1977.  Anyone with information on the object’s disappearance was urged to call Wes.

In its June 1971 newsletter, its second ever, the Detroit Daughters of Bilitis described itself as a “self-help” group.  It also published a 4-prong statement of purpose for the new chapter, aims that included: “Education of the lesbian enabling her to understand herself and to make her adjustment to society” and “Education of the public, developing an understanding and acceptance of the lesbian as an individual, leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices.”

In the days following my Origin Stories blog post about the founding of the Triangle Foundation, an extensive conversation took place on Facebook about its predecessor, the Michigan Organization for Human Rights and the need to preserve its history.  As several people sought to remember participants from different moments in time, I pulled out my batch of MOHR newsletters and offered names of presidents, board members, and staff noted in their pages.

I made good use of newsletters as I researched for my dissertation on gay and lesbian life and politics in postwar Metro Detroit, and have since been combing newsletters as a source for obituaries for Michigan LGBTQ Remember.  I have long touted the value newsletters, yet still feel their importance has remained largely unsung.

Newsletters have largely vanished but were once vital tools of networking and activism, a lifeline for queer people in Michigan and around the world.

For decades, long before the Internet, newsletters of LGBTQ groups were a key means for organizations to assert their objectives, express their ideals, seek new members, and share the month-to-month minutiae of collective involvement in community, however that community was defined.

Somewhat akin to church bulletins or school newspapers, newsletters contained upcoming functions and fundraisers, personal narratives, tidbits of interest, and even gossip.  They printed candidate biographies, reported on the election of officers, and listed relevant activities both within their respective organization and in the larger community.

Each newsletter reflects the technology of its particular time.  Early newsletters were typically typed on green stencils, often with hand-drawn images and reproduced on contraptions called mimeograph machines, usually printed in black ink.  In the late 1950s, members of the first homosexual group in Michigan, the Detroit chapter of the Mattachine Society, drove sixty miles on pre-Interstate roads to mimeograph their newsletters on a machine owned by a Flint travel agent.

Newsletters made on ditto machines, such as a newsletter distributed by the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s, had the familiar purple against white cast of elementary school worksheets.

Over time, many organizations turned to the venerable Xerox copier, laptop publishing, or professional printers.

Of course, newsletters have not been unique to LGBTQ activism.  Branches of the ACLU, NOW chapters, NAACP chapters, local garden clubs, county Republican and Democratic caucuses, and other organizations relied on newsletters to advance their mission.  Yet there is something distinctive about queer newsletters.

Monthly envelope stuffing parties became a longstanding aspect of queer organizational culture.  Producing a newsletter took a not insignificant part of an organization’s budget.  Even a modest newsletter of three or four pages could be labor intensive to write, type, reproduce, staple, and distribute.  Volunteers might swap stories and develop friendships as they sealed the mailing and sorted it my Zip Code to take advantage of non-profit bulk rate postage.

As a means of reaching far-flung membership, LGBTQ newsletters provided a perspective hard to come by in mainstream media.  In an age of secrecy, recipients made connections with others of their kind even if they felt it best to get gay mail in unmarked envelopes or addressed to occupant.

And the size of mailing list was frequently a matter of pride, a measure of the vital outreach of a group.

Newsletters collage
Newsletters of Michigan LGBTQ organizations span from the 1950s to the 2010s.

A search of the online library catalog for the University of Michigan, home to rich collections of LGBTQ materials in the Labadie Collection and the Bentley Historical Library, shows newsletters for nearly every type of queer group imaginable.

Holdings include Black and White Men Together of Detroit; Blue Water Pride in Port Huron; the Celery City Social Club of Kalamazoo; the early crossdressers organization Crossroads; a Detroit area gay scifi group called the Gaylaxians; ONE in Detroit; local chapters of PFLAG, Lutherans Concerned, and the Episcopal group Integrity; the Triangle Foundation; Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition of Michigan; Networking 45o North; the Michigan International Gay Rodeo Association; and dozens of others.

Steven Berg donated his extensive holdings of newsletters from chapters of the Catholic organization Dignity in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Flint, the Tri-Cities, and around the Midwest to Special Collections at the Michigan State University Libraries.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn has the only known run of newsletters for Moonrise, a group for Flint lesbians that met from 1977 to 1984.

Newsletters for an Upper Peninsula group of the 1990s called Aurora have been preserved in the Northern Michigan University Archives in Marquette.

Many collections are missing issues, however.

Meanwhile, newsletters of such groups as the Detroit Coalition of Black Gays, the BTI Bowling League, Lesbian Sisters Building a Network, and Men of Color are lost or in private hands.

(My thanks to Christopher James Cushman for providing the image of the Men of Color newsletter used in the collage.)

Because newsletters are ephemeral, collecting efforts need to be encouraged and celebrated.

A stack of newsletters can look much like a cliff that Neil de Grasse Tyson might point to in order to explain the fossilized evidence of different geological ages embedded in layers of rock.

Mining into newsletters piled up over time can yield much hidden queer history.

Though I’m still not quite sure what a cow collar is.

Tim Retzloff

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