“Get I. T. at home”; “Bi-coastal tours with Global Travel”; “Come spend an evening with hot men at Coral Sands in Hollywood”: just a few tantalizing slogans from ads featured in the 1983 edition of the Gay Areas Telephone Directory, a phonebook targeted at a queer population and published by Gay International Inc. in America for more than a decade.
A new facsimile edition of the directory, released by painter Matt Connors’ publishing imprint Pre-Echo with a run of 1,000 copies, presents this artefact from another time to a contemporary audience. The queer directory, which at its peak had a distribution of 150,000 nationwide, featured listings and advertisements for businesses friendly towards or catering specifically to lesbian women and gay men during a time when such visibility was rare and potentially dangerous. Inside, you’ll discover adverts for anything you could ever need: services for gay roommate matchers, men’s dance bars in L.A., computer specialists, wallpaper dealers, food suppliers, cat clinics, print facilities, restaurant guides, gay hospitality teams, doctors, and much, much more. It’s an incredibly detailed portrait of a community spread across an entire country, one told through and privileging the everyday, and overlooked.
The facsimile reproduces the 7th edition of the phonebook, the first national version with Boston, New York, Houston, Denver, Chicago, and more represented. In the opening letter, the company’s President Kenneth Partin wrote fervently about the venture’s future: “In keeping with the fact that ‘WE ARE EVERYWHERE’, look for us to grow internationally”.
As well as being an important moment for Gay International Inc., the facsimile’s publisher Connors chose to reprint this seventh edition because 1983 marks a critical year for the LGBTQ community, given that the first HIV/AIDS cases had begun to be reported two years prior. It was the beginning of a crisis that would go on to kill more than half a million (primarily LGBTQ) people within the next ten years, so as well as serving as a portrait of a community at a crucial stage in its development, the Gay Areas Telephone Directory acts partly as a time capsule for a generation who lost so many of its number.
Graphic designer Joe Gilmore, based in York, UK and specializing in art book design, is behind the slipcase of the facsimile, a sturdy cardboard with vibrant pink typography spread across the front. For Gilmore, the notion of the copy or the facsimile in the field of book arts spurred the concept for a robust, almost overly precious slipcase: “It’s a humble telephone directory—which is arguably the lowest quality form of publication, cheap to produce, and with a short life span—but it’s been reproduced as an edition… It forces us to reconsider the telephone directory as a signifier of something wholly more important than was perhaps originally intended.” Instead of drawing on the distinctly 80s Gay International Inc. branding that repeats throughout the directory, Gilmore drew from Pre-Echo’s identity in order to emphasize a distinction between the original and its re-release.
As well as encouraging a more thoughtful interaction with the information and hidden stories inside, the edition’s life-as-facsimile inspires a new appreciation of the otherwise overlooked graphic design. Business names are rendered in metallic chrome text with feathery pen illustrations possibly inspired by Tom of Finland, and you’ll find plenty of that special blend of 80s typography where pixelated styles collide with flashy neon-tube typefaces. The type treatments might even make you forget about your enthusiasm for the Stranger Things opening-title sequence.
“The abundance of naively designed ads is really interesting,” says Gilmore. “It’s fascinating to see all these graphic styles combined together in such an un-self-conscious way and it forces us to consider how a telephone directory is created—not by one person or studio, but by a community of professional designers and amateurs.”
As with recent facsimile editions of the Whole Earth Catalogue, the Gay Areas Telephone Book is yet another example of the contemporary interest in ephemeral publications from that past that, through carefully packaged exteriors adrift from historical context, change status from functional matter to cultural artefact. “There are so many examples of graphic design ephemera that have been overlooked. Yes, Yes, Yes: Alternative Press from Provo to Punk (a+m Bookstore) and Under the Radar (Spector Books) are two recent publications which comprise a visual portrait of DIY underground graphic design (and publishing) from the 60s and 70s,” says Gilmore.
“The Gay Areas Telephone Directory is a less obvious example, but is nevertheless just as interesting. It may be time to put together a book about telephone directories…”
The phonebook is now becoming an entirely obsolete format, yet the brave spirit of Gay Areas Telephone Book feels very ahead of its time. Today there are sites that highlight LGBT friendly businesses—just this June for example, an app geo-locating businesses that hire LGBT workers was launched by a Columbus entrepreneur—and the directory’s communal vetting process chimes with our wider review culture. Yet the facsimile not only highlights an important, energetic communal tool from the past, it maps a series of lost stories, lost designs, and lost lives, and brings to the surface an unconsciously, and collectively created portrait of the American LGBTQ community in the early 80s, prior to the height of the AIDS epidemic.