Landing : Athabascau University

Manners are mad useful, and other lessons from Fall 1987

"No muss, no fuss, no getting out of bed, no boiling dildos in your spaghetti pot!" -- Susie Sexpert, Fall 1987


A lot of On Our Backs is about lesbians extolling the virtues of strange, kinky, resistant, troubling or superfun sexual practices, but Susie's comment here is actually about condoms, and why lesbians should use them. Put them over your toys, she advises, and share pleasure, not body fluids. (TRIP, a Toronto youth harm reduction project, advises using different colours of condoms for each person, so you don't get toys mixed up during group sex. Some things just never stop being useful.) In a cultural context where lesbian sexual health information was pretty much absent, this is really cool.

I'm quite surprised how early in the HIV/AIDS epidemic On Our Backs distributed HIV-focused sexual health information. In 1986, they had a feature article which contained information not only about safer sex, but also about safer drug use for lesbians who inject drugs. The acknowledgement that drug users are also queer populations is something very hard come by, even after decades of harm reduction research and advocacy. Fall 1987 includes 8 pages of updated information about HIV. While a lot of the magazine's content really is troubling, it's been pretty cool to see how consistently the commitment to making queer communities safer from HIV/AIDS is kept up, and how much evidence-based sexual health information made it into a porn rag. It's also pretty cool to learn that lesbian sexual health information was distributed in pornographic magazines, as it was for gay men, who being male had more access to pornography -- since it would all have been read as obscene or inappropriate for mainstream distribution anyway, it's a good match. And there's something to be said for keeping the customers alive.

Another cool entry from the Fall 1987 issue is a letter to the editor. I waffled about indexing letters -- because there is a lot of them, and people used a lot of fake or abbreviated names, and it's hard to say what the dominant theme of some letters is -- but then I decided that these are important testimony from the community the magazine was accessing and forming with its distribution.

Meanwhile, I'm not getting to see all the letters because the CLGA is missing some issues of the magazine, especially during the early years of its run. There are issues I'd like to see just for the letters -- if there is content I find interesting in one issue, I want to see what the letters say about it in the next. Cue frustration, anguish, whining, etc.

But then I found this in the Fall 1987 letters:

Thank you very much for your donation to the Tennessee Lesbian Archives. On Our Backs is definitely the most popular publication in the archives. It has been read, reread, and greatly appreciated. If you have any old back issues just laying around, the archives would be glad to take them off your hands. Women crave good sex fiction, how-to articles, erotic photos, and even sexual advertisements.

Teresa Hornsby


TN Lesbian Archives

Dr. Hornsby, says Google, still manages the TLA, and because she had the good manners to send OOB a thank you note, I learned about a lesbian archive I had no idea even existed, and I got to dash off an email inquiring about duplicate copies. Hornsby's wink and nudge about the magazine's popularity provides a bit of insight towards my research question about managing affect and arousal in the archive (or encouraging it, in this case) and -- because the letters are neat and because they are curated with the magazine's bottom line in mind -- the letter immediately following Horsnby's backs up her statement about how women value advertisements. "Thank you for carrying ads of lesbian sex phone lines," writes Ellen from Brooklyn, "Do you know of any in the New York area?"

I'll have to keep an eye on ads in the Winter 1988 issue, to see if any phone sex advertisers from New York made their way into the classifieds. (Indexing the ads is also tedious, but these little mysteries make the whole thing worthwhile.)


UPDATE: Teresa may still be the contact for the TLA listed on some websites, but the archive itself has been destroyed. Teresa passed it on to someone else in the early 90s, and I was able to track down the next person, but she had long since gotten rid of the collection and never looked back. This is the fate of a great many small community archives, so it's not a big surprise, and it is still neat to have the letter to the editor as evidence of an early moment in the publication's archivalization. Back to asking all of Toronto's dykes to dig through their closets and basements and attics and donate their old issues!