(Photo by Christopher Street, Women in the Life, Drag, LadyLike, and Internet Archive)
In honor of Pride, Rotten Tomatoes is highlighting LGBTQIA+ voices under our Rainbow Tomatoes banner. As part of the celebration, we’re spotlighting some of the work our archival curation team has been doing to bring more LGBTQIA+ publications onto the Tomatometer.
It’s not uncommon for LGBTQIA+ people to go searching for ourselves in the archives. When we find Marsha P. Johnson, Leslie Feinberg, and Larry Kramer, we learn that there have always been people like us – not just looking for us, too, but looking out for us.
When we see ourselves throughout history, imagining the future becomes more hopeful – something to fight for.
Rotten Tomatoes’ Archival Curation, a branch of the team that gathers the film and TV reviews that make up Tomatometer scores, has been working for the last several years to bolster our historic records. You can now find contemporary reviews for early Oscar winners such as Gone with the Wind alongside recent retrospectives on the Tomatometer.
To celebrate Pride in 2020, the Archival team spotlighted a list of seven pioneering LGBTQIA+ publications, many of which were branches of grassroots organizations, including: ONE, a gay magazine in the 1950s and ‘60s that survived raids and obscenity bans; The Lesbian Tide, spawned from a lesbian civil rights group; and Transgender Tapestry, published from the 1970s to 2006, which reviewed titles like Tootsie and Dressed to Kill.
This year, we’re adding 10 more outlets to our archives. Among these new additions are magazines centering trans, lesbian, and gay experiences. Some began as early as the 1940s and ‘50s, while others are still in print today.
Whether they’re opining on canonical or underseen titles, these critics are part of a collective queer legacy. Their work provides evidence that LGBTQIA+ people have always been everywhere, cultivating and evolving language to describe and share our experiences. These reviews signify our right to weigh in on culture – to see ourselves reflected on that great big silver screen, and love or hate (or neither, or both!) how we are portrayed.
(Photo by Vice Versa)
Vice Versa is the first known lesbian publication in the United States. Edythe Eyde, a writer, musician, and science fiction fan, started the magazine during her time as a secretary for RKO Pictures. She came out shortly after moving to Los Angeles and created Vice Versa as a way to meet fellow lesbians. (Lex of the ‘40s, anyone?) Writing under the pen name “Lisa Ben,” an anagram for “lesbian,” Eyde authored reviews, poems, essays, and short fiction. She printed everything herself and distributed 10 copies of each issue by hand, saying: “When you’re through, please pass on to another lesbian.”
In founding Vice Versa, Eyde created a legacy and a network in an era when “obscene” content – anything involving sex or queerness, the latter of which is too often conflated with the former – was outlawed. She made only 10 copies of each issue, but it’s suspected that Eyde’s work reached hundreds of readers, a testament to how deeply it was needed.
Fresh: “Highly recommended for all who enjoy reading Vice Versa, if only because the presence of a lesbian in the film is handled in a sane, intelligent manner rather than furnishing the usual subject for harmful propaganda or mere sensationalism.” – Lisa Ben (Edythe Eyde), July 1947
Rotten: “[The film] could have been made a poignant, tender story of various loves. Instead, it is a vicious piece of propaganda. Homosexuals are shown in a most unfavorable light, and in the café scenes are depicted as a depraved, fiendish and drunken lot.” – Lisa Ben (Edythe Eyde), July 1947
Fresh: “A hilarious comedy, dealing with a most amusing and fantastic theme… Turnabout is fraught with amusing innuendos and ambiguous significance.” – Lisa Ben (Edythe Eyde), August 1947
(Photo by The Ladder)
Following in Vice Versa’s footsteps, The Ladder was the first nationally-circulated lesbian publication in the United States. From its founding in 1956 to its shuttering in 1972, The Ladder’s readership exploded from 175 “friends” to nearly 4,000 subscribers.
The Ladder was a project of a grassroots organization called The Daughters of Bilitis, formed in San Francisco in 1955 as a lesbian social and political advocacy group. Its contributors (among them Eyde and literary icon Barbara Grier) often wrote under pseudonyms to protect their safety, as queer bars and gathering spaces were regularly raided by police.
Film critics at The Ladder often called for authentic lesbian storytelling, be it in thrilling horrors or arthouse dramas. The Ladder was often a printed space for conversations about representation, assimilation, and gender performance amongst lesbians and queer women; its archive presents an essential record of lesbian life.
Fresh: “Any picture dealing with lesbianism is, of course, of special interest to us; but aside from that, this is such an excellent adult picture you shouldn’t miss it. The Broadway actress, Kim Stanley, gives a performance that is great.” – Zee Newell, April 1960
Rotten: “[It’s] time to get fussy about how much crowing we do over just having movies with homosexual themes, and start demanding that the Lesbians and homosexuals portrayed have some resemblance to the real item.” – Barbara Grier, December 1968/January 1969
Fresh: “The film presents not only a more realistic but a more sympathetic portrait of a lesbian. Many thanks indeed to a skillful Candice Bergen for her tender, human interpretation of Lakey.” – Leo Ebreo (Leo Skir), April 1966
(Photo by The Advocate)
The Advocate began as a newsletter from Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE), a Los Angeles gay activist group, following a 1967 police raid on The Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake. It’s the oldest LGBTQIA+ publication that’s still active, and the only one to be in print before and after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.
Fresh: “Haynes demonstrates an understanding of Genet’s centrality to gay culture while suggesting ways that Genet’s works can be used as a tool for exploring personal and political awareness.” – David Ehrenstein, March 1991
Rotten: “The Killing of Sister George… has almost as much relationship to the life of the ordinary Lesbian, as Donald Duck has to the ordinary man.” – Barbara Greer (under the pseudonym Gene Damon; this review was originally printed in The Advocate and reprinted in The Ladder), February-March 1969
Fresh: “That’s why Born in Flames is inspiring: A film from the past that takes place in the future, it speaks volumes about the present.” – Guinevere Turner, July 1997
(Photo by The Washington Blade)
Based in Washington, D.C., The Washington Blade is the longest-running LGBTQIA+ newspaper in the United States (not to be confused with The Advocate’s run as a magazine, which began two years earlier). Originally called The Gay Blade, early editions of the Blade were distributed by hand at gay bars in the D.C. metro area. It became a means of connecting the community, not unlike Vice Versa before it. As the Blade’s readership expanded, so did its coverage – it’s been called the country’s LGBTQIA+ paper-of-record for its national reporting (and they even reviewed Star Wars!). A Los Angeles branch of the paper, The Los Angeles Blade, was launched in 2017.
Fresh: “The film’s effect is that of a fleeting glimpse into the past and future on the cusp of a long night. The moods and images Parting Glances projects, firmly fixed in their period, will nevertheless resonate for a long time to come.” – Joe Bittmann, March 1986
Rotten: “Desert Hearts is a classic coming out story. But it cannot be excused for dullness on the grounds that it’s a pioneering Lesbian feature.” – Peg Byron, April 1986
Fresh: “Sure, Masters of the Universe is a movie based on a TV series that was developed to sell war toys to children, but it’s a whole lot more: This is pyro-technical submerged sexuality at its intergalactic best.” – Betsy Pisik, August 1987
(Photo by Drag)
Each of Drag’s 29 issues covered drag ball culture and civil rights for trans and queer people. It was founded in 1971 by Lee Greer Brewster, an organizer within the Queens Liberation Front, a transgender advocacy group based in New York City that worked alongside Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera) and the Gay Activist Alliance.
Brewster moved to New York in the 1960s after being fired from the FBI for being gay. After the Stonewall Riots in 1969, Brewster fundraised for early iterations of what we now call “Pride,” then called Christopher Street Liberation Day. He also successfully challenged a city ordinance that allowed people to be removed from spaces simply for being gay.
At a time when even some gay spaces were skeptical or critical of gender nonconformity and drag, Brewster was an advocate and a proud queen.
Fresh: “All in all this film is great fun. It presents a lively (and probably accurate) picture of Victorian society and gives us a chance to see a fine actress portraying feelings that most of us have had as our feminine sides were released.” – Linda Lee, 1972
Rotten: “Fortune and Men’s Eyes cuts like a bull-dozer, but I left doubting that its ultimate purpose, that of prison reform, is left with the audience.” – Tony Valponi, 1971
Fresh: “It finally happened. Someone set out to make an entertaining movie, and ended up with the most fantastic pro-drag propaganda filmed to date.” – Drag Staff, 1978
(Photo by Christopher Street)
Named for the street that’s home to the Stonewall Inn in New York City, Christopher Street magazine covered gay politics and culture for 20 years, publishing over 200 issues in that time. Its primary film critic was writer and actor Quentin Crisp, seen in movies like Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! (which Crisp also reviewed) and Orlando.
Crisp was known as prickly and effervescent, and regularly experienced violence because of “his effeminate manner and dressing in women’s clothing,” according to this 1999 obituary in The New York Times. Crisp published several books, including How To Go to the Movies in 1988, and two posthumous memoirs – in one such memoir, Crisp wrote: “At the age of ninety, it has finally been explained to me that I am not really homosexual, I’m transgender.” Icons like Boy George, Andy Warhol, and Sting have cited Crisp as influential for their work.
Fresh: “What makes this film so extraordinary is that, though the two principal characters become criminals with very little provocation, we are, against our will, caught up in their fate and find ourselves cheering them on to further lawlessness.” – Quentin Crisp, May 1991
Rotten: “It is the most dreadful movie ever made or, at least, ever given a general release. By this I do not mean that it is dreadfully bad or, even dreadfully sad. I wish to signify that it is evil.” – Quentin Crisp, January 1993
Fresh: “[Showgirls], which the world condemned utterly, I enjoyed. It moved fast, it looked glossy, and it had a plot. What more can one ask?” – Quentin Crisp, October 1995
(Photo by LadyLike)
Throughout its 30 years in print, LadyLike magazine featured photos and stories from readers, makeup and clothing advice, film reviews, essays about gender identity, and profiles of transgender people – in particular, it centered trans femme experiences. JoAnn Roberts began publishing the magazine in the 1980s and later founded TG Forum, an online community and resource hub for trans people. Roberts’ work and each of LadyLike’s 70-plus issues are statements on trans visibility and normalcy, by and for the trans femme community.
Fresh: “I Want What I Want is a remarkable effort given the time in which it was filmed. And it is still a powerful, emotional film.” – Laurie Ann, 1997
Rotten: “The film did convey the important idea that being transgendered does not mean that one is mentally ill. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stress this idea sufficiently.” – Laurie Ann, 1998
Fresh: “Woman Inside is a transitional film from the earlier educational-plea for acceptance films. It begins to explore relationships in greater detail, and as we shall see, raises some interesting philosophical and ethical questions.” – Laurie Ann, 1999
(Photo by Curve)
Curve was a lesbian magazine created by Franco Stevens in 1991 and originally called Deneuve. Its first issue sold out in just six days, evidence of the need for and lack of lesbian media in the ‘90s. Curve covered everything in pop culture and lesbian life, from politics and civil rights to music, books, movies, television, and style. Its publication pre-dated Lea DeLaria’s appearance as the first openly gay comic on television (in 1993 on The Arsenio Hall Show) and Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out on her self-titled sitcom in 1997.
Stevens launched the magazine using money she’d bet on horse races – enough to fund the first three issues. As Curve’s founding publisher, she appeared on television to talk about the diversity of lesbian experiences; gender performance (stating that one’s butch, femme, or other presentation didn’t influence how queer they are); stigmas and sexualization projected onto lesbian identity; and intersections of race, gender, sexual identity, and class.
“I wanted it to be a resource for women in the community, and I wanted it to be a place where we could feel proud to represent all of us,” Stevens has said of Curve’s enduring purpose.
To learn more about Curve and Stevens, check out the 2020 documentary Ahead of the Curve.
Fresh: “The movie is sensually evocative, full of dreamy music and soft camera angles that capture the romantic atmosphere of Paris in the Thirties.” – Kelly Allgaier, June 1991
Rotten: “Why is this film important to know about? Because we all may need the heads-up for our more Sapphically challenged friends and family who will (I promise) try to bond with us over this film.” – Samiya A. Bashir, April 2002
Fresh: “It is a new kind of Asian-American film, one that doesn’t deal with immigrant identity issues but focuses instead on how these damaged individuals come to terms with each other and their imperfect, but loving, family.” – Malinda Lo, September 2006
(Photo by Out)
Founded in 1992, Out Magazine became the largest-circulation LGBTQIA+ magazine by the end of the 1990s as a lifestyle magazine primarily for gay men. Queer stars such as David Bowie, Margaret Cho, RuPaul, Pedro Almodóvar, k.d. lang, Nathan Lane (twice!), Ian McKellen (also twice!), and Lea Delaria have appeared on the cover of Out over the years.
Out is perhaps best known for its yearly “Out100” list of LGBTQIA+ culture-makers, including activists, policy-makers, artists, style icons, and athletes. Recent featurees include Sara Ramirez, Ariana DeBose, and Elliot Page.
Fresh: “Beautifully animated, with a gorgeous, mature score… this is a perfect adult alternative to standard Disney fare.” – Cary Wong, 1999
Rotten: “This movie tries to walk the line between darkness and humor, like such gems as Heathers and Election, but it leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable and unsympathetic.” – Bob Merrick, August 2005
Fresh: “As Arthur Goring — ‘the idlest man in London’ — Rupert Everett sparkles brightest in the diamond necklace of Hollywood Brits adorning An Ideal Husband.” – James Hannaham, July 1999
(Photo by Women in the Life)
As with many of the publications we’ve featured here, Women in the Life emerged out of community organization: Its creators met at dance parties, concerts, and poetry nights for Black lesbians in Washington, D.C. before forming a newsletter in 1993. After becoming a formal magazine, it was free and distributed by hand, then in bookstores all over the country, eventually reaching hundreds of thousands of readers in over 40 cities.
Women in the Life carved space for queer people, particularly women, of color. In its pages, readers found stories about Black LGBTQIA+ media and art; politics and history; family, relationships, and sexuality.
Fresh: “In one fell swoop, Dunye has managed to entertain, educate, and make a political statement.” – Sheila Reid, May 1997
Rotten: “This should be called ‘What in the World.’” – Sheila Reid, August 1995
Fresh: “I have not seen such a realistic portrayal of African American drag queens since Paris is Burning.” – Sheila Reid, October 2000
Archival curation and research for this feature was lead by Tim Ryan. Additional review curation by Rob Fowler, Jeff Giles, and Dom Pembleton.
For more Pride content, visit our Rainbow Tomatoes hub, where you’ll find lists of LGBTQIA+ TV Shows, the Best LGBTQIA+ Movies of All Time, and Essential LGBTQIA+ Horror, as well as essays on movies in the queer canon: The Birdcage, Pariah, and A Fantastic Woman.