[24 November 2008]
Gay novels. The ones with pictures of a leather-wearing biker leaning against a lamppost, one foot propped up, while a sailor in full uniform looks on hungrily from the street corner. If the cover wasn’t enough to cue potential readers to the salacious material waiting to titillate just past the cover art, the titles did: Gay on the Range (“Back when men were men…more or less), (“Rod was every wino’s”) Skid Row Sweetie, Hot Pants Homo (“Women lusted after this handsome, virile jazzman…It took him years of agony to realize he wanted a man”).
The stories were boringly familiar, college jocks discover teamwork off the field, cattle hands share more than just a tent, farmer boy learns a new kind of breeding in the big city, or beat cop does a thorough search of some rough thug. The stories were propelled with often-corny dialogue like “I didn’t realize a kiss could feel like this” and “This couldn’t be love; Billy was so confused”.
For many gay youth in the ‘40s through the ‘70s, these novels served an important function, pulled from under mattresses or the back of sock drawers and read late at night by flashlight. They showed a generation of young gay men that they weren’t alone in those strange feelings and awkward encounters. More importantly, these novels, along with similar novels for lesbians, transgenders, and bisexuals, radically altered the fiber of society.
Lesbians had their own pulp fiction as well: Unnatural Wife (“She cheated on her husband—with other women!”), Private School (“The girls taught each other about love!”), and the infamous Dykes on Bikes. Lonely housewives, wayward teen girls, and, well, dykes on bikes filled the pages of these novels.
Unlike their gay counterparts, these novels weren’t just the reading pleasure of lesbians-at-heart, they were also enjoyed by straight men who interjected themselves uninvited into the lurid love scenes. As straight men are apt to do. Thanks to the expanded audience, lesbian novels enjoyed more popularity than their male counterparts, and far more of these books were published.
Today, gay and lesbian pulp fiction is a matter of academia. Brown University has a collection of over 4,600 men’s titles, while another collection is housed in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, which also holds a collection of lesbian pulp fiction. These books have been the subject of books themselves: Michael Bronski’s look at Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay, Katherine V. Forrest’s overview of Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965, and Susan Stryker’s study of Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback, to name a few.
Despite the renewed interest in the genre, gay and lesbian pulp fiction was hardly revolutionary in tackling homosexual subject matter. From Sappho’s lamentations for a dear companion departed to E. M. Forster’s Maurice taking up with the groundskeeper, gay and lesbian relationships have populated world literature for millennia. Still, writings dealing with same sex lovers are sparse in number. Even writers whose homosexuality was a secret to few, if any, such as Oscar Wilde, wrote largely heterosexual tales.
All of that changed with the rising sales of the cheap, throwaway novels that began to be mass-produced in the middle of the 20th century. According to Stryker in Queer Pulp, the “dimestore” or “pulp” novel owes its popularity to the Army’s attempts to keep the troops occupied by printing and distributing cheap, thin editions of popular and classic novels. Soldiers spread their love of the books, allowing the pulp industry new-found clout by the late ‘40s.
Stryker goes on to note that the advent of the gay and lesbian novels of the ‘50s and ‘60s also owes a debt to the rise of the sci-fi novel. Like homosexual literature, tales of intergalactic travel and ghostly apparitions had been around for quite some time, but advancing technology and the prospect of real space travel propelled the genre. As more sci-fi novels featured aliens who enjoyed alternative sexual practices or genders foreign to our two-gender system, audiences become more comfortable with reading about alien love and intercourse, allowing them to view differently sexual relationships outside of the heterosexual norm of procreative sex.
Straight readers wishing to explore the life of the gay man or woman didn’t have to settle for the more titillating tales; many novels were less scandalous, featuring coming of age tales or stories of men or women struggling with hidden passion. In examining the history of the gay pulp novel, Michael Bronski concluded that there existed “a wide-ranging, extraordinarily rich and extensive body of literature”, which could be categorized into two groups: the porn novel and the literary novel (“Back to the Future”, James White Review, Winter/Spring 2003). It was the latter that mainstream audiences were more likely to purchase.
The “literary” novel was much more likely to adhere to dominant social norms. Often, these tales ended tragically, with death or ostracism for the protagonist. This woeful ending served to reinforce the public’s perception of homosexuality as wasteful and sinful. John D’Emilio, in his article “Pulp Madness”, points out that contemporary readers of lesbian pulp novels may be disappointed to find out that they are not “tales of a lesbian-feminist utopia”. A look at the adjectives used in the titles of these novels provides a strong clue as to the prevalent view of lesbianism: “warped, tormented, unnatural, twisted”. (Windy City Times, 23 July 2008, www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php?AID=18962) While lesbianism has been more socially accepted than male homosexuality, as it plays into heterosexual male fantasies, the protagonists of lesbian pulps often faced the same unhappy ends as their male counterparts.
Nonetheless, the popularity of these novels allowed homosexual themes to be introduced in other genres. Tennessee Williams enjoyed immense success in the ‘50s with plays that featured gay characters (Suddenly, Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), although the gay storylines were often weakened or deleted when filmed, which was also the case when Hollywood tackled Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy and Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Poetry of the era also displayed a new liberation in discussion same-sex relationships, although audiences for these works were slim. Nonetheless, the fact that the issue of homosexuality was being exposed in popular entertainment generated growing awareness of and tolerance for gay men and women.
In addition to bringing gay and lesbian stories to the public’s attention, the pulp novels also allowed gay and lesbian writers to work, writing about a subject matter relevant to their own lives. Often, these writers worked at their own peril, subjected to government harassment and charges of distributing pornography. Yet, they persevered. Among those that D’Emilio cites as influential is Valerie Taylor, lesbian activist and inductee into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. Her novels include Whisper Their Love, Stranger on Lesbos, and World without Men. Bronski notes the contributions of Victor J. Banis, whose ten volume series The Man from C.A.M.P. mixed the gay novel with the spy thriller. These gay novelists paved the way for contemporary gay and lesbian writers such as Rita Mae Brown, Armistead Maupin, and Adrienne Rich.
Today, gay and lesbian fiction is a part of mainstream fiction, with its own section in the bookstores and new releases featured in the display window. Novels with gay characters and themes have claimed the Pulitzer Prize (The Color Purple, The Hours), and Hollywood has stopped sanitizing their stories (for the most part). The pulp novel largely disappeared in the ‘70s, as more explicit and fetish specific material began popping up in popular films, television shows, magazines, and, of course, adult bookstores.
Still, the impact of this genre cannot be underestimated. Its publication throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s heralded the first time that a product had been marketed specifically to a LGBT audience. Never before had any industry recognized the buying power of the gay and lesbian demographic. Certainly, businesses had catered to these groups, but never with the openness and success that the publishing industry enjoyed. The presence of these novels in bookstores, drugstores, libraries, and corner markets, in small towns and large cities, sent a definitive message that gays and lesbians were present in all corners of the world, and that our buying dollars were as valuable as any others.
While most other industries lagged behind, not courting the LGBT market until social stigmas had eroded further, the publishing industry profited from an emerging culture. In turn, this wobbling infant of a social movement profited, through the creation of a sense of camaraderie established among the men and women who identified with the novel’s protagonists.
As more gay and lesbian (as well as bisexual and transgendered) individuals came to see that their personal struggles were not unique, more began to stand up for their inclusion in society. They sought to insure, as many still are, that the tragic endings of the pulp fiction became just that—a fiction—and that no more individuals need feel shame or confusion over their lives. That no one would have to share the experiences of Hot Pants Homo, enduring “years of agony” before realizing his or her true nature.
Undoubtedly, the authors of the LGBT dimestore novels of yore never foresaw their tawdry tales and their struggles with the police as helping to lay the groundwork for a social movement that would insert gay marriage and homosexuals in the military into the public discourse. Whether sexual or sensitive in nature, the books were designed to be throw-aways, discarded and forgotten in the same manner that many of their main characters were. Yet, they have survived, and they are a vital part of LGBT history. It should make the dykes on bikes proud.