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How gay rights got its start in science fiction

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Well before the Stonewall riots, Los Angeles was home to an early LGBT rights movement - birthed from science fiction.

It sounds like a dystopian science fiction novel: Writers in crowded basements, operating under pseudonyms and code words to build networks with the like-minded without attracting the ire of a watchful government.

But it’s true – gay and lesbian writers and activists who wanted to connect with others in the LGBT community in the 1940s could only do so with pseudonyms and double entendre. And they were able to do it with the help of another burgeoning movement with roots in Los Angeles – science fiction.

Jim Kepner's "Toward Tomorrow" magazine. Courtesy ONE Archives/USC.

“Everybody in this particular time is using a pseudonym to cover for their gay activities,” says Joseph Hawkins, professor at University of Southern California and director of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at USC. “So, if they openly go out and do gay activities, they get blacklisted by the American government.”

Deep within the ONE archives, Hawkins made a discovery. Jim Kepner is famous in LGBT history for co-founding the nation’s first gay magazine, as Lisa Ben (whose real name is Edythe Edye) is for founding the first lesbian magazine. But these two LGBT revolutionaries found an unlikely ally in the science fiction community, which not only allowed them to imagine a more equal future, but connect with others under their pseudonyms: Jyke (Kepner) and Tigrina the Devil Doll (Ben).

“I’ve always been completely obsessed with science fiction,” says Hawkins. “And then when I began to realize how much Kepner was and how much Lisa Ben was - they were actually using science fiction publications to figure out what they wanted to do with gay and lesbian magazines.”

Lisa Ben -- an anagram for “lesbian” -- would go on to found the nation’s first lesbian magazine, "Vice Versa," in 1947. Six years later, Jim Kepner would co-found "ONE Magazine," dubbed “the homosexual magazine,” which was in circulation for over a decade. Their revolutionary work would spur the early gay rights movement, as well as win the first Supreme Court cases for LGBT people.

A page from a science fiction fan zine from the 1940s, with Ray Bradbury and Tigrina (Lisa Ben). Courtesy ONE Archives/USC

“Each of them has these particular science fiction covers, so Lisa Ben writing as Tigrina or Kepner writing as Jyke will produce these incredible fan zines.” Hawkins said. Both Kepner and Ben were well-known science fiction writers in Los Angeles, writing in well-known magazines and members of fan clubs, along with Ray Bradbury and L. Ron Hubbard.

“This provides a sort of proving ground where they learn how to organize, how to create networks for publication,” Hawkins says. “If you think about it, Lisa Ben and "Vice Versa," and "ONE Magazine" owe, to some extent, their foundation to that early science fiction publication.”

But Ben and Kepner didn’t just save their activist writing for "Vice Versa" and "ONE." Their science fiction writing was full of their desires for a more equal world.

“It was all over the place,” Hawkins said. “Some of it is clouded, some of it’s not. Kepner and Lisa Ben weren’t just talking about gay rights, they were talking about feminism, racial equality – the thing is science fiction was a place they could do all that because they were imagining a new world.”

Courtesy ONE Archives/USC.

Kepner and Ben, as Jyke and Tigrina, were both devoted members of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, which met weekly in the basement of the Prince Rupert Arms near downtown Los Angeles to imagine a future of technological marvels and social equality.

The society still exists. Now in Van Nuys, it’s the oldest running science fiction society in the world, and holds members just as devoted as Kepner and Ben once were, like June Moffatt, who joined the society in August 1947 when she was a teenager. She says she “only met Tigrina once” but she knew Kepner quite well.

“He was good fun,” says Moffatt. Moffatt knew Kepner was gay and an activist, but he was still just “one of the gang. I remember once sitting down next to [Kepner] and telling him he was in danger,” Moffatt says, laughing. “I was flirting with him.”

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