Rainbow Rant: Seeking community through writing

A history of love letters, personal ads, and queer and trans magazines prove the power of our pens

By Joy Ellison
Issues of The Ladder

“Your precious letter, Susie, it sits here now, and smiles so kindly at me, and gives me such sweet thoughts of the dear writer. When you come home, darling, I shan’t have your letters, shall I, but I shall have yourself, which is more — Oh more, and better, than I can even think!” –Emily Dickinson to her lover Susie Gilbert

There may be no pastime more queer and trans than letter writing. Emily Dickinson wrote letters and poems to Susie Gilbert. James Baldwin wrote Lucien Happersberger, whom he once called “the one true love story of my life.” Eleanor Roosevelt kept up a funny, steamy correspondence with Lorena Hickok. Oscar Wilde and Allen Ginsberg penned sweet nothings to their beloveds, too. In fact, countless queer and transgender people have used their pens to write themselves out of isolation and into companionship and love. 

To be queer or trans is often to be lonely, or at least to be alone. Ours is a community that has often been separated from each other. While the pandemic might make us feel especially isolated, the truth is, most of us know this feeling well. 

If you have often found yourself maintaining a community of far-flung friends and lovers, don’t feel ashamed. You’re a part of a long history of long-distance queer and transgender connections. 

“The majority of the so-called ‘normals’ will not accept us on any basis and so we live in a sort of make-believe world, a secret, exciting world, but a bit frightening too. When The Ladder comes to my door once a month I live in that secret world for approximately 20 or 25 minutes while I read each and every word...” –“Niki” of Minnesota in 1960

Before we could search for the name of a gay bar on the internet, queer and transgender magazines helped us find each other. The earliest in the United States were simple, mimeographed pages that were lovingly passed hand to hand. 

The first regularly published lesbian periodical was called The Ladder. It began as the newsletter of the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. In it, readers could find the addresses of other queer organizations, as well as fiction, poetry and, best of all, letters from other lesbians. Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun, was an early subscriber to The Ladder and she wrote several letters to the magazine signed “L.H.N.” 

“[I]t seems that a magazine basically by and for others in the same group as I am would be even more helpful in overcoming the lost and lonesome feelings I seem prey to at times,” wrote one Ladder reader in 1956. 

The Ladder helped to lessen the loneliness of lesbians, while the Mattachine Society newsletter, and later ONE magazine facilitated connections among gay men. Transgender people also published a variety of magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, the largest of which was Virginia Prince’s Transvestia

Through these magazines, queer and transgender people wrote each other letter after letter, even after theirs publishers were targeted under obscenity laws. Virginia Prince, for example, was prosecuted after exchanging racy letters with another transgender woman. Nevertheless, the needs of queer and transgender people for connection and affection continued to drive them to write to each other. 

Slowly, queer and transgender people developed a rich culture of print media. By the 1970s, queer and trans people could choose between any number of small, self-published community rags. They could even pick up guide books like the Lavender Baedeker with lists of bars across the country. It became easier than ever before to search out in-person relationships, but still, queer and transgender people wrote into magazines hoping to find pen-pals. 

In 1976, Drag Magazine published a personal ad reading, in part, “Seek[ing] contact and meetings with [trans people] in or around Sacramento. Letters with photos will be answered very quickly. It is lonely here. JOAN.” Another read, “Am lonely and presently incarcerated in the California prison system.” When face-to-face relationships were dangerous or impossible, we sustained ourselves and each other through our pens. 

Nowadays we tweet, Zoom, and tumble our way into each other’s lives. We are often apart, but we are a people that can’t be kept alone. Write on, friends. Write on.