The Daily Heller: Lesbo’s Battle for Gender Equality in Slovenia Was a Beacon

Posted inThe Daily Heller

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Lesbo, a Slovenian political, social and cultural magazine edited by Natasa Velikonja, published by Škuc-LL and designed by Irena Woelle, was part of wide resistance against homophobia and other forms of social exclusion. Lesbo is a successor to Lesbozine (1988–1989) and the Pandora Bulletin (1993–1996), and was published between 1997 and 2012. Despite its small print run, its influence went deep into the LBGTQ+ community. Former members of the editorial board are now renowned writers, poets, members of parliament and activists. “We never stopped being fierce defenders of a just society,” says Woelle, who designed Lesbo (1997-2000). Barbara Predan followed Woelle as designer (2000-2012).

At a moment when gender equality and safety are at risk elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Slovenian passing of an equal rights law is a beacon for the world (although there is still much more to do).

The printed version of Lesbo is no longer published, but there is a website featuring some English abstracts and the original site from 1998. I asked Woelle to reflect on the impact Lesbo had on LBGTQ+ politics, culture and society.

Although male same-sex relationships were decriminalized in 1977, Slovenia has just recently legalized same-sex marriages for the wider LGBTQ+ community.
On 31st of January, 2023, same-sex couples and families finally gained full equality in Slovenia. It took precisely 34 years and 23 days from the first formal initiative to get there.

Lesbo was quite strikingly and originally designed and produced. It was printed on excellent paper stocks and trimmed so that it was not a perfect rectangle, but a rather totally unconventional shape (when closed and opened). Tell me about  how the design decisions were made. What were your goals and influences?
In 1996, members of lesbian group ŠKUC-LL decided to upgrade their photocopied lesbian fanzine/bulletin into a printed magazine. At that time the lesbian community was not visible as it is today; they were easily ignored and important information about lesbian life censored.

I decided to help change that situation with the bold, large format of Lesbo—the magazine nobody would be able to ignore. Or hide. Or dismiss as unimportant. I wanted the design to be loud and inviting so people would read those important, smart articles.    

The production budget was very tight, so I volunteered some work in the printing house. When I also ditched the binding, we were able to print two colors and trim the format. The shape and background color were meant to ridicule the way women were presented in women’s magazines (covered in diamonds and colored peach).

My role was also to help with the visual materials from all sources possible: Californian and Canadian photographers, Parisian graffiti, German illustration, Slovenian art, global comics and record covers. All obtained from authors, without fees as support for the cause.  

The design was unconventional yet perfectly apt for the times. How often did you revamp the typographic and layout formats, if at all?
I was designing Lesbo from 1997–2000. After the first year’s surprise with the format and size, I decided to intensify the effect with voluminous paper and embossing, a logo redesign and different layout and fonts.

I would have added intensity and curiosity to the design in the following seasons, but at the same time I was entering mother mode and could not handle both tiers together. An arrangement was made with another designer, who chose a more conventional design.

On the content side, while I was working on Lesbo I could never use recognizable photos of Slovenian lesbians—it was too risky. Seven years later, when I was invited to design a new LGBTQ magazine, Narobe (Wrong), by another group, the situation for the LGBTQ community was already much better, so I was able to make a special double cover with photos of four people coming out in each of the 32 issues. The print run of this magazine was 800, and it ran from 2007–2016.

How did you distribute? Did your editorial material have any influence in countries like Hungary or Poland where LGBTQ+ rights are being challenged?
The print run was 300, copies were free and available on several social points. Each issue was also published online, and printed copies sent via snail mail to the subscribers. In spite of the apparently small print run, Lesbo was traveling far and wide and we established a lot of connections and exchanges of LGBTQ printed material. For this reason we soon added the English summary on the back page.

Slovenian LGBTQ activists were keeping personal and activist contacts both in Poland and Hungary throughout this whole period and Lesbo was one of the many parallel platforms or channels for creating this network.

What was the public response to the magazine?
The first (unexpected) response was within the lesbian community, when I proudly brought the first copies to a larger meeting. Quite a few people were very frustrated with the size of the magazine and complained that it would be impossible to hide it. Even though the basic idea of the entire endeavor was exactly the opposite—to not have to hide anymore. The realization that with my design I made life even harder for some people stuck with me to this day.

In the very beginning my personal email was the only connection with the readers of the magazine. I clearly remember a lady from a small village, who was 60 at the time and never came out to her family and friends. She expressed her gratitude for our work and wrote how we kept her sane.

People around the world were surprised, because Lesbo looked very different from the commercial LGBT magazines but also from the underground production.

Several times I got an angry response—how lesbians must be very rich if they can afford such a fancy magazine. They didn’t understand how many tricks I used to hack a tiny budget.

I am glad that the design of the magazine has provoked positive reactions. The design exhibitions and articles—including this pleasant dialogue—have positively contributed to the visibility of the LGBTQ community’s fight. This is what design is supposed to do.

What are the larger implications of Lesbo in Slovenian culture? Was it accepted as “underground” or mainstream, or somewhere in between?
With a surprising design, Lesbo was a vehicle for the lesbian cause and it also brought [the cause] to the straight population. 

One strange advantage of small countries is that there are unavoidable overlaps between all social strata and subcultures, so that in Slovenia, the mainstream is not an impenetrable bubble. Here you cannot live entirely marinated in the company of people exclusively like yourself, and that is a good thing.

With one big battle won, what’s next?
In general, human rights seem to be in bad shape, so we can’t put our guard down. Just like in so many places around the world, in our society we have shameless, opportunistic politicians offering simple and implicitly violent solutions to complex problems, generating hate against minorities and projecting medieval values in order to keep their tribal projects afloat.

Lesbo was a formative part of a decades-long struggle in Slovenia, but now we have one immediate and important task—to eliminate discrimination against single women’s right to medically assisted artificial insemination.

Irena Woelle harvesting reference material. Photo: Željko Stevanić