Lisa Ben, Lesbian: Queering Rhetorical Circulation
This article is authored by Kate Litterer, from the 2018-19 cohort of the LGBTQ Research Fellowship program at the ONE Archives Foundation.
I discovered Lisa Ben’s magazine Vice Versa (the first lesbian magazine in the U.S.!) in my graduate coursework. Since then, I’ve made it my scholarly and personal goal to learn everything I can about this fascinating, funny, talented creator. The more I study Ben, the more I learn about just how far her talents reached: she was a talented editor and writer, thoughtful musician, and cutting-edge sci-fi and poetry author. While my dissertation examines all three of these genres, my 2018 visit to ONE Archives as a ONE Archives Foundation LGBTQ Research Fellow focused explicitly on Ben’s involvement in science fiction.
As a scholar of Rhetoric and Composition, I am fascinated with the ways that Ben utilized multiple genres of writing to provide social commentary and communicate with the gay and lesbian community. Ben’s science fiction poses an interesting puzzle for my research: it is not written with explicit gay or lesbian characters and the audiences were not explicitly gay or lesbian readers, yet my research suggests that Ben’s science fiction affected her later, explicitly homosexual writing. As I worked my way through her papers in ONE Archives, I found myself blown away with all of the ways that she was involved in science fiction.
First, Ben never stopped loving sci-fi. I knew that she was a lifelong writer, but I was particularly intrigued with the way that she kept track of the science fiction books and films she consumed across her entire life. Ben wrote in plain view—publishing her poetry and science fiction in magazines—but she also wrote for smaller communities (Vice Versa circulated by hand between lesbians, for example) and even just for herself, in numerous notebooks. In her twenties, she noted which films she saw in the margins of her daily planners, and as an adult she typed them up and organized them chronologically. In her older age, Ben likely knew that her texts would find their ways into an archive, but as a young woman, her documenting purposes were for her exclusively. By reading these two texts against one another, we learn which written methods Ben practiced and honed across decades.
Second, Ben’s involvement with the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society was more complex than I could have known! Ben served as the secretary, but I learned in a set of minutes that she also almost won a vote to lead the Society. She wrote poetic, funny meeting minutes, which she signed off with her identifiable green pen as “Tigrinia,” her science fiction pseudonym. Through reading the LASFS papers and Ben’s personal letters, I learned that Ben’s relationship with Forrest J. Ackerman began in her twenties, and that the two stayed in correspondence through their lives.
Finally, I identified some specific formatting moves in her sci-fi writing and editing that I understand as influential to Vice Versa. Ben’s papers include a letter from someone who asked her if she had based Vice Versaon her science fiction practice. While she responded with “no,” she used similar page formatting in both sci-fi and Vice Versa.
While these three examples may seem unrelated at first glance, I am interested in reading them in conversation. Doing so may show us important connections in how Ben honed her creative practice across locations, decades, among different communities, and for multiple readerships.
If you’d like to contact me regarding my study of Lisa Ben, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also check out my article, “‘The Third Sex is Here to Stay’: Rhetorical Reconstructions of Lesbian Sexuality in Vice Versa” in the Journal of Lesbian Studies.
Top image: 2018 LGBTQ Research Fellow Kate Litterer looks at Lisa Ben’s collection at ONE Archives.
2018 LGBTQ Research Fellow, ONE Archives Foundation