Historical essay
Queer Teenage Feminists on the Printed Page, 1973 to 2023

Queer Teenage Feminists on the Printed Page, 1973 to 2023

Kera Lovell

When sixteen-year-old Jane wrote into Ms. Magazine in the mid-1970s, she did so in a desperate search for hope. As a queer teenager, she had torn through adult feminist publications, particularly soaking up now-classic texts on lesbianism like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s Lesbian/Woman (1972) and Sappho Was a Right On Woman (1972) by Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love. The fear and shame expressed by these authors shook Jane, who now wrote to Ms. out of fear: “How can a young woman even think about being gay in this society and still be happy? I really need someone to tell me ‘It’s okay,’ but that, I think, is an impossibility….”

Adult LGBTQ+ organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis often banned members under ages 18-21, leaving many young queer people searching for validation, camaraderie, and consciousness-raising through the pages of the feminist press. Although author-activists published texts to challenge the oppressive silence surrounding queer adulthood, these accounts of systemic homophobia frightened LGBTQ+ teenagers like Jane whose fears of retribution forced her into secrecy: “I really do need someone to tell me it’s going to be ok [sic]! I can’t even have my name printed, of course, because I sure will be in trouble if I do. (Had I not read all those things, I’d be having my name printed, but now I’m too scared to.)”[1]

Book cover with bright orange and yellow flower design.
First edition cover of Lesbian/Woman. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Numerous queer teenagers wrote to adult feminist publications in the 1970s in search of queer community, particularly looking for queer adult mentors. As shown through the pages of the underground feminist press, teenage lesbians were often marginalized from gay bars, LGBTQ+ groups, and gay coffee houses that pushed them to the periphery as protection from unfounded accusations of pedophilia. As Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon argued in their article “The Realities of Lesbianism,” without the ability to socialize within a queer-supportive community, young lesbians would be forced to turn to “unsavory areas of a city” where prostitution and drug addiction thrived.[2] While it is difficult to find statistics that document queerness as a source of teenage runaways in this era, the national Runaway and Homeless Youth Act was established in 1974 to address growing rates of runaways that were represented in the media as rooted in “juvenile delinquency.” Recent studies have found that LGBTQ young adults ages 18 to 25 have more than twice the risk of being homeless than their heterosexual peers, amounting to 20% of the young adult homeless population.[3] These statistics were likely comparable if not worse in this early era of gay liberation when corporal punishment and forcible conversion were far more common. Teens’ letters written to feminist newspapers in search of queer mentors convey the precariousness and loneliness of their problematic home situations.

Queer teenage girls existed in a liminal space between youth and adulthood, and between feminist and LGBTQ+ movements—their accounts often describe being treated as too transient, too female, too young, or too dangerous for their issues to be taken seriously within queer collectives. As captured in writings by teenage lesbian feminists Lee Schwing and Helaine Harris, without political experiences through organizing or direct action, or “middle-class status experiences” like marriage and college, teenage runaways were often treated as lower-ranking than their older middle-class peers.[4] Running away from home in search of queer mentors, teen lesbians sometimes struggled to find their roots at the crossroads of gay liberation, women’s liberation, and youth liberation.

Those who fled to larger cities with lesbian separatist groups sometimes struggled due to ageist power structures embedded within feminism. Teenage runaways at times felt ostracized by the white, middle-class, college-dominated base of feminist organizing who they felt not only discounted their perspectives but ridiculed them for their lack of experience. One teenager, signed “POWER to UNVOCABULARIED WOMEN,” wrote to Rat about the alienation she experienced at her first women’s liberation meeting when she failed to comprehend feminist theoretical jargon. The writer argued that college-educated adult feminists “unknowingly intimidate[d] and oppress[ed] other women…who have been tracked and maybe dropped out of high school,” and situated this treatment within institutionalized discrimination against girls and women.[5]

Engaging in long-term sexual relationships with older and higher-ranking women within the separatist group could help teens earn what they felt was a type of respect by proxy. Schwing wrote, “Here again I fell into and the other women perpetuated the assumption that the older and more experienced you are, the better your ideas are.”[6] The experience had all but turned Schwing and Harris away from the women’s liberation movement before they co-founded the lesbian feminist collective The Furies as young adults. Queer youths began forming their own autonomous activist organizations between 1968 and 1970, with teen girls like Sylvia Rivera speaking publicly about the struggles queer teenage runaways faced.[7] Poverty, homelessness, survival sex work, and violent assaults in and out of jail—these adultifying issues distinguished working-class queer youths from their middle-class peers.[8]

Despite fears of being outed, queer teenage girls bravely wrote to adult publications to censure adult feminists about the mistreatment of their young queer counterparts. A young queer teenager named “Sue” wrote to the feminist rag It Ain’t Me Babe to describe the unique experience of teenage girls trapped within high schools—what she described as “foul breeding place[s] for a woman’s self-hatred and fear of other [seemingly more privileged] women.” Feeling that she and her queer youth peers had been forgotten by adult feminists, Sue asked adult readers, “How can you, who are already organized and finding each other, ignore the isolation of your younger sisters…?”[9] Sue reminded adults that being young, queer, and assigned female at birth can feel insurmountable. How could teenage girls think about the gender dynamics of marriage—a subject Sue felt dominated (white, middle-class) collegiate feminist organizing—when, she argued, LGBTQ+ teenagers have to live under their parents’ roofs pretending they are straight for fear of being houseless?

A cartoon drawing of a woman at a secretary desk.
Cover page of feminist newspaper It Ain’t Me Babe, dated March 15, 1970. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Taking up the mic, queer teenage girls began writing about their own experiences with coming out, surviving in the closet, and finding new family. Their accounts evidence deep loneliness in this era.[10] Seventeen-year-old Linda Bieritz wrote, “Very rarely will you get support from another gay person or gay sympathizer. But if you do, hang on to that person for dear life, for they will be a big help in your struggle for survival. Being gay in high school is not easy, but it is well worth it.”[11]

The legacy of this print movement lives on in queer teen community-building today. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, LGBT organizations began forming youth task forces as contingents of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) increasingly began addressing issues particular to queer runaways. At the same time, adult feminist organizations began targeting gender roles and heteronormativity in the education system. Now, in an era in which queer teens can seemingly more easily build community through digital spaces, the CDC reports that nearly 60% of AFAB (assigned female at birth) students and nearly 70% of LGBTQ+ students have experienced extensive depression, with girls and queer kids twice as likely as their opposite sex or heterosexual counterparts to do so.[12]

While underground press rags have been replaced by Tumblrs and Tik Toks, writing by and for queer teen girls’ experiences remains important for intergenerational bonding. Much more detailed than its 1976 equivalent Growing Up Gay, queer activist and YouTuber Rowan Ellis’s Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life offers a collection of essays along with a gender studies primer.[13] Although written for young women, customer reviews reveal how many adults are taking advantage of publications like these to “re-parent their younger selves” by finding joy in queerness that they did not have access to as teens. Reviewer Nala writes that some parts of the book were hard to read: “I end up feeling sad, and crying sometimes, for past me. But the author includes a note in the beginning with a similar story (the book that we needed but didn’t have, growing up), and so I feel less alone, too, reading it.” Ultimately, the writings of queer teen girls from 1973 to 2023 evidence how although the context has vastly changed, the need for self-love, building queer communities, and an intersectional analysis of how poverty impacts queer girlhood has not.


  1. Jane Doe (pseudonym), “Dear Sisters,” Letter to Ms. Magazine. Call no. MC 568, Box 2, Folder 2, “High School Kids’ Letters, 1972-1974, n.d.” (Undated), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  2. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, “The Realities of Lesbianism,” Motive vol. 29, no. 6 & 7 (March-April 1969): p. 67.
  3. Matthew Morton, et. al., Missed Opportunities: LGBTQ Youth Homeless in America (University of Chicago, 2018); Congressional Research Service, Runaway and Homeless Youth: Demographics and Programs (Congress, RL33785, April 26, 2018).
  4. Lee Schwing and Helaine Harris, “I Was a Teenage Lesbian (Article 2),” The Furies vol. 1, no. 6 (August 1972): p. 2-4; these sentiments are echoed in Amanda Littauer, “Queer Girls and Intergenerational Lesbian Sexuality in the 1970s,” Historical Reflections vol. 46, no. 1 (2020): p. 95-108; Littauer, “Your Young Lesbian Sisters: Queer Girls’ Voices in the Liberation Era,” Girlhood Studies vol. 12, no. 1 (2019): p. 17-32.
  5. “Letter to Editor: Dear Rat,” The Rat (December 17, 1970): 24; see Kera Lovell, “Girls Are Equal Too: Education, Body Politics, and the Making of Teenage Feminism,” Gender Issues no. 33 (2016): p. 71-95.
  6. Schwing, “I Was a Teenage Lesbian” p. 2.
  7. Sylvia Rivera was forced to turn to survival sex work as a pre-teen and as a young teenager in NYC, began organizing as an early teenager while hustling, and was first arrested for participating in a protest as part of the Gay Activists Alliance when she was eighteen. See Stephan Cohen, The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: “An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail,” (Routledge, 2007).
  8. Sylvia Rivera, “Y’all Better Quiet Down,” Speech, Christopher Street Gay Liberation Parade (1973): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mprUOGBWCvY; Rachel Schmitz and Kimberly Tyler, “Growing Up Before their Time: The Early Adultification Experiences of Homeless Young People,” Child Youth Service Review no. 64 (May 1, 2016): pp. 15-22.
  9. Sue, “The Peculiar Alienation of the High School Women,” It Ain’t Me Babe vol. 1, no. 13 (Sept 4-17, 1970): p. 12, 18.
  10. Allyson, “Struggling with Myself and a Repressive Society,” Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): p. 6-8; Shelley Ettinger, “The Bottom Rung,” Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): 8-9; Mary Anne Deutschmann, “Loving Women,” Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): 11-13; Irene Nodel, “Thoughts of a Young Lesbian Worker,” Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): 17-18; Helaine Harris, “I Was a Teenage Lesbian,” Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): p. 2-4; Sky, “Only a Kid,” Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): p. 27-29.
  11. Linda Bieritz, “I Came Out in Class! Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): 16-17.
  12. (The study is not an intersectional analysis) CDC, Youth Risk Behavior Data Survey Summary and Trends Report, 2011-2021:https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/YRBS_Data-Summary-Trends_Report2023_508.pdf.
  13. Growing Up Gay (Youth Liberation Press, 1976): https://bcrw.barnard.edu/archive/lesbian/Growing_Up_Gay.pdf; Rowan Ellis, Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life (Francis Lincoln Children’s Books, 2022).

Featured image caption: A pile of zines. (Courtesy Liz Henry)

Dr. Kera Lovell (any pronouns) is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah, Asia Campus where they teach courses on US history, women’s history, and global citizenship. Lovell earned their PhD in American Studies at Purdue University in 2017 and is currently working on a book project that traces an undocumented method of postwar urban protest in which activists challenged police brutality and urban renewal by insurgently converting vacant lots into parks. This research has been recognized with numerous awards including the Dumbarton Oaks Research Fellowship, a Graham Foundation research fellowship, a Hoover Institution research fellowship, and Purdue University’s Research Grant Foundation fellowship. You can find their research in a variety of outlets, including Women’s Studies Quarterly, American Studies Journal, Black Perspectives, and Gender Issues.