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A Thousand Stories

Letters, diaries, magazines and artwork share space at L.A.'s new ONE Institute and Archives, a massive repository of gay historical material.

April 29, 2001|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting at her Royal typewriter in 1947, Lisa Ben secretly created "Vice Versa," the first known American magazine for lesbians. No one at the Hollywood movie studio where the 26-year-old secretary worked knew she was a lesbian; Ben, now 80, cleverly invented her name, an anagram of "lesbian" that she has kept to this day. But the women at two North Hollywood lesbian bars--If Club and Joanie Presents--eagerly read and passed around Ben's free publication, all 10 copies typed on carbon paper.

Nine issues later, the magazine of essays, poems and book reviews folded when Ben changed jobs. In those days, Ben couldn't very well take her magazine to a printer without getting arrested, says the cat-loving San Fernando Valley recluse, who doesn't leave her home or receive visitors much these days because of a neurological muscular disorder that makes her shake. She is hard of hearing and enjoys--make that demands--her privacy. But through a friend, Flo Fleischman, 71, also a gay rights pioneer, Ben relays, "I've done my part and I did it with pride, not fear."

Now, 54 years later, Ben's proud story is publicly displayed at ONE Institute and Archives, a vast collection of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender historical material that opens next Sunday. Organizers describe the new Los Angeles library, museum and art gallery as the world's largest gay archive among some 103 collections known to exist primarily in New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Philadelphia and parts of the Southwest.

Literally thousands of stories like Ben's--of courage and celebration, of pain and panic--can be found in the files, diaries, letters, books, periodicals, photographs, artwork and memorabilia in a building USC provides along with utilities and security. The institute owns the contents.

Located just two blocks from the campus, the two-story building is a former Delta Tau Delta fraternity house built in the 1950s by Wa Smith, himself a gay Long Beach architect, now 96. To many, it may seem paradoxical that USC, with its conservative reputation, agreed to house such a liberal archive; its staff is all volunteer except for two librarians funded by the institute through grants.

But Walter Williams, USC professor of anthropology and gender studies, says the university is positioning itself as a leading academic research center through its "affiliation with a real cutting-edge academic library that the institute represents."

The author and activist says the institute's opening comes at a time when gay and lesbian studies--which slowly began drawing interest in the 1970s, a time when civil rights, feminism and ethnic studies also became research topics--are becoming increasingly popular in academia. Today, students at universities such as USC, Yale and San Francisco State have extensive gay and lesbian study programs.

"We have so many 'out' students on campus that want these classes, and the other big thing is the great demand for books on gay and lesbian studies that lots of scholars have published," explains Williams, who has taught at USC for 17 years.

Lisa Ben's experience may not be as widely known to a younger generation as the Stonewall riot of 1969 in New York, considered the flash point for gay militancy. In fact, the gay rights movement was spearheaded in Los Angeles two decades earlier.

L.A. has had a powerful and momentous role in the struggle for gay rights. The Mattachine Society, considered the first major gay men's group in the country, began in Silver Lake in 1950 under the guidance of Harry Hay. With the help of Mattachine members in 1952, author Dale Jennings (who wrote "The Cowboys," later made into a movie with John Wayne) won the first court battle against a California law that police used to harass and entrap gays. That same year, a group of Mattachine members formed a gay education and research group called ONE Inc. and immediately began publishing ONE magazine. The publication won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1958 that ordered the Postal Service to send the magazine through the mail and opened the way for a flourishing gay and lesbian press. In 1968, Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in Huntington Park to cater to a largely gay congregation.

One of Perry's religious robes is on display at the institute, which is designed as a resource center for students, lawyers, artists, writers and thinkers, and family members of gay sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.

Student Troy Morgan, who will graduate from USC on May 11 with a degree in psychology, is "surprised, almost shocked" by the scope of the collections he has seen. A few hours a week he helps out with the institute's online Gay and Lesbian Review of literature. He's also amazed that "there is so much about the gay and lesbian history of Los Angeles. People of my generation don't know this. They look at the gay movement in the context of the late '60s and '70s, in terms of San Francisco and New York."

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