On Our Backs publisher Debi Sundahl always liked to say, “What would Steve Jobs do?”
I had no idea who, or what, she was talking about.
This “Steve Jobs” was her number-one favorite man in the whole world. I had the impression she must know him personally; she quoted him so extensively I presumed they'd met where she worked, in the Copenhagen Room at the O’Farrell Theatre, some extraordinary lap dance customer.
“We’re not going to pay for typesetting anymore,” Debi announced one day. “It’s too expensive, and it’s irrelevant. Steve Jobs has a computer for us that’s going to change all that; we’ll do it right here in the house.”
She said this as she pointed at our living room, which had been transformed into our paste-up and layout den.
I imagined "Hal" in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Impossible! I couldn’t program a rocket ship; I only knew how to write, edit, wax down copy, and use a proportion wheel.
Debi came home one day with an enormous, beautiful white box that looked like it belonged on a Milan runway. It was the 1984 Macintosh desktop computer.
I started whimpering. “I can’t do it. You don’t understand... I barely passed ninth-grade algebra.”
She took a cassette tape out of the package and loaded it into her boom box. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Flute music started up on the tape, as if we were about to attend a New Age seminar. I felt as though someone had placed either an egg or a bomb over my head, but I couldn’t tell which.
A woman’s voice came over the speaker; she sounded beatific. “Take the monitor out of the box,” she said. She patiently explained how to insert the power cord on both ends. Debi rolled her eyes.
The disembodied Apple Voice said, “Press the power button on.” It was like a priest declaring, “Body of Christ.”
A heavenly tone came out of the computer, as if something were being born.
The screen flickered and a smiling little “box face” appeared on-screen. It twinkled at me. It said, I don’t care if you didn’t understand ninth-grade algebra.
I blew my nose into my wet Kleenex one last time, and Debi said, “So, how fast can you type?”
Debi wanted everything Steve Jobs had. —Like investors. Giant loans. People clamoring for our innovation. I felt she was ignoring political reality.
“People don’t think Steve Jobs is a pervert! We're lesbian sex publishers!” I said. “No one’s trying to take him away in leg irons for frightening the horses.”
“He is frightening the horses,” Debi said. She cupped her face in her palm like she and Steve had just spent all last night having pillow talk...
Deb was absolutely right. Within a year, our "entertainment for the adventurous lesbian" magazine took PageMaker 1.0 software, tossed out the typesetter, and published On Our Backs completely on Mac software.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were the first magazine to do so. We printed our 13,000 copies, and sent them all over the country.
Our On Our Backs Winter 1986 edition was what the first magazine— on any subject, anywhere— looked like, built on a 1984 Apple machine with Pagemaker.
The kerning is atrocious. You could only choose from Helvetica or Palatino fonts. I remember crying about that, too. But we could afford it; it was the only thing we could afford. And considering our content, which no one else in the printing industry would touch, that was saying something.
I look at our first Mac-built issue now, and some of it still seems avant-garde. If you read the “Letters to the Editor” page, you’ll get an idea of how our readers' stunned reactions.
I love the note that says: "Enclosed is $15 for your magazine. Thank you! I have been a lesbian for all of my 76 years."
Inside our landmark "Mac" issue, you'll find:
Announcement of the first feature film based on a lesbian-written novel: Desert Hearts, by Jane Rule, directed by another dyke, Donna Deitch. No one ever came out of the closet to do such a thing before, and few have since.
First lesbian genital piercing article and photos with pioneer Raelynn Gallina.
First lesbian foto-funny, by Honey Lee Cottrell.
Sarah Schulman's Dyke-Kafkaesque prose, “a short story about a penis”— which was refused by every other feminist press she approached.
The first feature on lesbians' relationship with AIDS, again, from an author who could not find another feminist publisher who would publish this information or statistics.
Advertising-wise: the first dildo harness designed for a woman’s figure, from Kathy Andrew’s Stormy Leather studio, and the first-ever advertising for dildos, based on Bruce Springsteen’s BORN IN THE USA album cover. Our advertiser invented the silicon dildo, and we ran with it.
I am very sad today about Steve Job's passing. I know many of us are thinking about how his life touched ours, through good times and bad. For authors, artists, and publishing outlaws of every description, the Mac revolution was the puzzle piece we had pressed for, longed for, and finally achieved.
Some of my friends went to work at Apple, it was their dream come true, and I know they must be devastated by this loss. My heart goes out to them.
It's rare that a man "you never met" feels like part of your coming of age, your extended family. It's raining hard outside tonight in Santa Cruz, and that voice is calling out again from my illuminated screen.
I can hear it . . .
Illustration: Kim Larson, On Our Backs Winter 1986 Cover
The whole 48 page issue of OOB, Winter 86 is here. I made a quick scan, so the photo quality suffered— but I thought you'd like to see it. One of these days we'll have to make a digital archive.
My memory of Debi and our first Mac is from my memoir, Big Sex Little Death.