Creating a Literary Culture: A Short, Selective, and Incomplete History of LGBT Publishing, Part I

June 5, 2021   •   By Michael Nava

IN LITERATURE, as in history, it is often the obscure stories, the ones that go unnoticed at the time and which are not inscribed in the Official Record that, years, decades, even centuries later, turn out to have been the true story of an age. Unsurprisingly, these are often the stories of the outcasts, the insignificant, and the despised of their era whose voices are not merely ignored but actively suppressed only to be reappraised and finally heard in a later, more evolved time. This is the case with LGBTQ literature, a sphere of aesthetic production which, even now, is often devalued as the special pleading of a minority community preoccupied with sex and of only passing, faddish interest to the Literary Establishment and society at large.


This devaluation is part of the larger fallacy of dismissing the struggle of the LGBTQ community as essentially a fight about sexual expression. It is not. For queer people, the movement has always been about uncovering and embracing the deepest sense of oneself; it is a movement of human liberation. That’s how its writers have understood and tried to express it for nearly a century only to be usually met by indifference, silence, condescension.


In this three-part series, I explore, admittedly imperfectly, how mostly gay and lesbian writers have struggled to be heard through an examination of how they were published, by whom, and under what circumstances. The emphasis on gay and lesbian writers reflects the fact that the period under examination mostly preceded the emergence of transgender, bisexual, and nonbinary communities as distinct and recognizable literary communities and publishing cohorts; it in no way devalues them.


I begin with the decades between 1940 and 1980. This era began as a wasteland for gay and lesbian writers who, when they were published, were often forced to write about homosexuality as pathology, and ended on a note of affirmation. I then examine the years between 1980 and 1996 when the mass movement for gay and lesbian equality (as it was then known) coupled with the AIDS epidemic briefly made gay and lesbian writers fashionable, only to see them dumped by an increasingly market-driven publishing industry. Finally, I look at the present which is both the best and worst time to be a queer writer, as opportunities for publication expand while the audience for queer books seems to be contracting.


I titled this essay creating a literary culture. By literary culture, I mean a community of writers, readers, publishers, critics, scholars, and all the other component parts who speak about, to, and from a specific vantage point — whether that position is racial, ethnic, gendered, geographic, or cultural — to describe their experience of the world and of human existence. By creating, I mean that this essay describes only the first steps that LGBTQ people took to articulate their experience and existence. The expansion of that community is ongoing and much broader than the gay and lesbian writers involved in its emergence. That story — of trans and nonbinary people, of bisexual people and the evolution of queer — is yet to be told, and I leave it to more informed voices than mine. This is only part of the story, the part of the story I lived through and participated in. A trail of breadcrumbs for future readers, writers, and scholars to follow to uncover one of the most important literary movements of the last century.


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Out from the Shadows: Beginning, 1940–1980


In 1987, Alyson Publications, the then-preeminent publisher of gay male literature published a novel called Better Angel by Richard Meeker. The novel was essentially a coming-out story that followed its protagonist Kurt Gray, a Midwestern boy, from ages 13 to 22 as he came to understand and ultimately embrace his homosexuality. Alyson had been founded in 1980 in Boston by 28-year-old Sasha Alyson, himself a gay Midwestern boy. Better Angel, a competently written story with a positive ending, was standard fare from Alyson except in two respects. First, Kurt Gray finds love not just with one but two men, simultaneously; they become what would now be called a throuple. Second, and even more striking, Better Angel was a reprint of a book originally published by Greenberg Press in 1933. (Greenberg, which folded in 1976, had been a major house with an eclectic list that included such established writers as Robert Graves [author of I, Claudius].)


In 1933, homosexuality was both a crime and classified as a mental illness, a state of affairs that did not begin to change until the 1970s. In its time, Better Angel was a revolutionary work that dared to suggest homosexuals could function as well-adjusted and happy human beings. But the revolution did not come. Even with the benefit of a respectable publisher like Greenberg, Meeker’s novel went unnoticed. The novel disappeared, resurfaced briefly in the 1950s when it was reprinted by a paperback publisher called Universal under the title Torment, and then again slipped into obscurity until Sasha Alyson found it and restored it to literary life.


The book was out of copyright, and Alyson assumed the author was long dead. He was not. A 1990 edition of the book revealed that its author, whose real name was Forman Brown, was alive and well in Los Angeles, living with one of his two partners, the other having died in 1985. Brown confirmed the book was largely autobiographical. Before he died six years later at the age 95, Brown was asked about his proudest accomplishment. He replied, “I think the most rewarding thing that has happened to me has been the rediscovery of Better Angel, and the realization that its message of hope, or the possibility of hope, is still pertinent and as warming as it proved sixty years ago.”


The “message of hope, or the possibility of hope.” Forman Brown’s words capture the raison d’être of gay and lesbian literature for many of its readers. But before the emergence of a mass gay and Civil Rights movement in the 1970s, that hope was a faint flicker in a fiercely hostile culture that viewed homosexuality, at best, with grudging and provisional tolerance and, at worst, as a social evil to be stamped out. Gay and lesbian fiction of that period mimicked those attitudes. Novels featuring gays and lesbians — even those by gay and lesbian writers — were steeped in that contempt and condemnation. They were also a minuscule segment of the literary marketplace, scarcely enough to constitute a genre much less a literary culture. Yet they were read and treasured by gay men and lesbian women because, if nothing else, they were proof that we were here and not alone. Throughout this period, and beyond, books remained the one cultural artefact that maintained and even promoted homosexual identity in a culture in which same-sex-interest people were actively persecuted and generally despised.


The most famous gay male novels published before 1960 remain Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948, E. P. Dutton) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956, Dial Press). Their authors’ later eminence kept the books in print and available to generations of gay boys furtively searching the stacks of their local libraries for anything about homosexuals. There were, however, a few other books by gay writers, albeit closeted, published between 1940 and 1950 in which homosexuality was either a central theme or which featured major homosexual characters. Most prominent were The Fall of Valor (Rhinehart, 1946) by Charles Jackson, best known as the author of The Lost Weekend; The Gallery (Harper & Brothers, 1947) and Lucifer with a Book (Harper & Brothers, 1949) by John Horne Burns; and James Barr’s Quatrefoil (Greenberg, 1950).


In these midcentury novels, the protagonist awakens to his homosexuality, engages in hopeless and/or unrequited love affairs that serve mostly to emphasize the depravity of his desire, and comes to a bitter end. In The Fall of Valor, the protagonist ends up drenched in his own blood and crawling across the floor after having been beaten by the straight man with whom he has fallen in love; in Quatrefoil, the protagonist survives but his lover dies in a plane crash. The Gallery is a collection of short stories, one of which is set in a gay bar in Italy during the American occupation after the war. The story is little more than a sympathetic vignette Burns snuck in perhaps to test the waters for his second novel, Lucifer with a Book, which catalogs the gay goings-on at a private boy’s school. It was roundly condemned; Catholic World alleged that it was “filled with cynical obscenities.” And, of course, famously the protagonist in The City and the Pillar ends up murdering his boyhood crush after being rejected by him, while the gay affair in Giovanni’s Room terminates with the eponymous Giovanni on the executioner’s scaffold.


What gay men related to in these depressing novels were the glimmers of humanity the gay writers were able to slip into their lead characters, whom they depicted as ordinary men rather than as stereotypes of either the screaming queen or sociopathic fag variety. Also, by identifying gay spaces in the books’ settings they signaled to a couple of generations of lonely, isolated men that such spaces existed. Finally, they recognized that gay men were driven not by simple or predatory lust but by the need to love and to be loved. That they were not allowed to find such fulfillment was, the books hinted, not entirely their fault; perhaps, they tentatively suggested, society, too, must bear some responsibility for these ruined lives because of its treatment of homosexuals.


More than a decade later, the publication of two important novels by gay writers showed marginal progress. The protagonist of John Rechy’s City of Night (Grove Press, 1963) was a moody hustler in the mold of James Dean who roamed the gay underworld of late ’50s and early ’60s America. The single man of Christopher Isherwood’s eponymous novel A Single Man (Simon & Schuster, 1964), was a middle-aged English teacher at a Southern California community college whose younger lover of many years has been killed in a car accident while visiting his family to whom he had remained closeted. Both novels were apparently based on autobiographical material, which seems to be a frequent occurrence in early gay literature as the writers were working in a literary void and so were compelled to draw heavily upon their own experiences.


Rechy’s nameless hustler suffered from existential dread — toward the end of the book he proclaims (in Rechy’s inimitable style), “Like you, like everyone else, I’m scared, cold, cold terrified” — but that dread seems more a product of the Age of Assured Mass Nuclear Destruction that had everyone on edge rather than internalized homophobia. Rechy’s book also paints a detailed, textured, and pretty compassionate (or at least non-moralizing) panorama of gay spaces that would undoubtedly serve as a road map for some gay men. And at the end of his novel, Rechy’s protagonist encounters Jeremy, “a well-built, masculine man in his early 30s, with uncannily dark eyes, light hair,” who is not only unapologetically gay but offers the protagonist the possibility of love. “When I first realized I was homosexual, I prayed to be changed. I felt guilty, as if I had committed a crime,” Jeremy tells the protagonist, “and the only crime had been in making me feel guilty.” Rechy’s hustler ultimately rejects Jeremy’s offer, but the long and moving section in which he and Jeremy discuss the need for and nature of love is a dialogue that would have been unimaginable in, say, The City and the Pillar.


Isherwood’s underrated novel even more militantly insists that the homosexual’s problem lies not within himself but with the society. For Isherwood’s protagonist, George, the personal was the political. As critic Claude Summers points out,


[B]y associating the mistreatment of homosexuals with the discrimination suffered by other minorities in America, Isherwood legitimizes the grievances of gay people at a time when homosexuals were not recognized either as a genuine minority or as valuable members of the human community.


He accomplishes this not polemically, though there is polemical language in the book, but by painting a picture of a happy marriage between two people, filled with the textures of daily domesticity, who both happen to be men.


Publication of these two books presaged a shift in attitude about homosexuality, if not by society, then by gay men themselves who would, within a decade, abandon the role of pathetic victim they played in midcentury gay novels and take up the banner of liberationists. This change would also change how they wrote about themselves.


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While there was but a trickle of gay novels in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a flood of fiction about lesbians and lesbian life, much of it available on paperback book racks in your local drugstore. In her introduction to the indispensable Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950–1965 (Cleis Press, 2005), editor Katherine V. Forrest writes,


A lesbian pulp fiction paperback first appeared before my disbelieving eyes in Detroit, Michigan in 1957. I did not need to look at the title for clues; the cover leaped out at me from the drugstore rack; a young woman with sensuous intent on her face seated on a bed, leaning over a prone woman, her hands on the other woman’s shoulders.


The book, Forrest writes, was Odd Girl Out, the first of the Beebo Brinker novels by the pseudonymous Ann Bannon, who would become one of the most celebrated of the pulp writers. (Decades later, the author revealed her true identity, Ann Weldy; and in the years after publication of her novels, Weldy had a distinguished career as an academic.)


Prior to the lesbian pulp boom, there was only a trickle of novels about lesbians by lesbian writers, beginning with Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) and including Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), Gale Wilhelm’s We Too Are Drifting (1935) and Torchlight to Valhalla (1938), and Claire Morgan’s The Price of Salt (1952). The last title is notable because Claire Morgan is the pseudonym of Patricia Highsmith, who achieved international fame as a suspense writer (Strangers on a Train; the Ripley novels).


Published in 1952 by Coward-McCann after Highsmith’s original publisher, Harper & Brothers, declined to publish it, The Price of Salt tells the story of Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Therese has a fiancé, and Carol has a child with a husband whom she is in the process of divorcing. The two women fall in love, and the book traces the obstacles in their path that include being spied on by a private investigator hired by Carol’s husband and her loss of custody of her child because of her relationship with Therese. Nonetheless, at the end of the novel the two women are united. In 1984, 32 years after its original publication, the novel was reprinted by Naiad Press, which was then the most prolific lesbian publisher, under Highsmith’s name and with an afterword written by the author. In 2015, it was adapted into the Academy Award–nominated movie Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s a rare instance — Tom Ford’s film of A Single Man is another — of an early queer novel having a robust afterlife.


The surge in lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950s was due, in part, to the paperback revolution in publishing following World War II. In her biography of pioneering lesbian publisher Barbara Grier, Indomitable (Bella Books, 2016), Joanne Passet notes that paperbacks were first introduced in 1939 as pocket-sized books that reprinted classic novels. After the war, however, a newsstand publisher, Fawcett, began a line of original paperback novels under the Gold Medal imprint. This began a flood of paperback publishers who made a mint publishing sensationalist genre fiction that included hard-boiled detective noir, sci-fi, and lesbian pulps. It was literature, critics complained, of the lowest common denominator. Certainly, socially redeeming value was not a priority for these publishers.


One of the first Fawcett Gold Medal originals was Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torrès, published in 1950. Torrès was a member of the French Resistance during World War II, serving in its London headquarters. Women’s Barracks was a fictionalized account of her experiences based on her diary and included accounts of lesbian relationships. Its lurid cover showed two half-dressed women while in the foreground a uniformed woman gazed at them with more than passing interest. The book sold four million copies and was condemned by a congressional committee investigating pornography.


The massive success of Women’s Barracks led the Gold Medal fiction editor, Dick Carroll, to commission Vin Packer (pseudonym of Marijane Meaker) to write Spring Fire (1952). Generally considered the first true lesbian pulp novel about a love affair between two college women, the book sold 1.5 million copies. Spring Fire in turn inspired Ann Weldy, a young, married woman who had written a novel about sorority women that included a love affair between two girls named Beth and Laura. Weldy wrote to Meaker soliciting advice on how get published. Meaker introduced her to Carroll. According to Weldy, Carroll, after reading the manuscript told her, “It’s pretty bad, but I think it’s fixable. Go home, put this manuscript on a diet, and tell the story of the two girls. Then, send it back to me.” Carroll published the resulting book as Odd Girl Out (1957). It became the second best-selling Gold Medal paperback of 1957, and so Ann Bannon was born.


Between 1950 and 1965, hundreds of these books were published not only by Fawcett Gold Medal but also such major players in the paperback publishing world as Avon, Bantam, and Beacon, as well as lesser-known and now-defunct publishers like Hillman, Monarch, and Midwood Tower. But the popularity of these books could hardly be ascribed to their positive depictions of lesbian life — nor were lesbians their intended audience. From the very outset, the authors of these books were told they had to conform to the popular view of lesbianism as a pathology, which eliminated the possibility of happy endings. In her introduction to the 2004 Cleis Press reprint of Spring Fire, Marijane Meaker recalled that her editor, Carroll, told her that because the book would be sent through the postal system it could not present a positive portrayal of homosexuality or postal inspectors would return it to the publisher. “You cannot make homosexuality attractive,” he warned. “No happy ending.” Specifically, he told her one of the characters had to conclude she wasn’t a lesbian after all; the other had to be “sick or crazy.” Meaker obliged by having one of the lovers, Leda, committed to a mental institution while the other, Susan, decides she was never in love with Leda.


While not all lesbian pulp novels ended with insanity or death — Bannon’s Beebo Brinker series was a notable exception — tragic endings were the convention. As Forrest writes in her introduction to Lesbian Pulp Fiction: “We despairingly hoped that stories in the original paperbacks would not end badly but realized in the larger society, ‘perversion’ could have no reward in novels about us, even those we ourselves wrote.” The “we” to whom she refers are lesbian readers, but they were not the intended audience for the books. In an email, she points out the “original intent” of these books “was the titillation of men.” Straight men, that is, for whom the girl-on-girl action in these books made them perfect one-hand material for their sexual fantasies. The lurid covers of many of these books were no doubt intended as masturbatory visual aids for their male consumers.


Nonetheless, like the handful of gay male novels published after World War II, these books reached lesbian readers for whom they were — despite the required unhappy endings — an important and unique lifeline. Forrest continues in her introduction:


The importance of all our pulp fiction novels cannot possibly be overstated. Whatever their negative images or messages, they told us we were not alone. Because they told us about each other, they led us to look for and find each other, they led us to the end of the isolation that had divided and conquered us. And once we found each other, once we began to question the judgments made of us, our civil rights movement was born.


She concludes that these books “saved my life.”


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The 1970s witnessed the emergence of a militant movement for lesbian and gay rights that would, among other things, persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illness in its diagnostic manual and lobby for the repeal of state sodomy statutes. As long as homosexuals could be dismissed as crazy or criminal, the very idea of equal rights and social acceptance was absurd. Thus, the de-pathologizing and decriminalization of homosexuality were absolute prerequisites for everything that followed in the LGBTQ rights’ movement. Throughout that decade, the gay and lesbian community began to emerge as a political force in locales, mostly big cities, urban cultural centers that we would now identify as “blue.” Still, the political and legal gains were extremely modest, affecting only small numbers of gays and lesbians and having no effect at all on transgender people. A few localities enacted anti-discrimination ordinances, and there were a handful of gay or lesbian elected officials — Kathy Kozachenko elected to the Ann Arbor City Council in 1972, Elaine Noble elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1975, Harvey Milk elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978.


Recognition of gay and lesbian unions in any legal form and comprehensive protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and service in the military were still pipe dreams. By the end of the decade, even the community’s scattered victories had inspired a massive blowback led by religious bigots and right-wing politicians. Those efforts culminated in Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save the Children” campaign to repeal a Miami gay anti-discrimination ordinance and the murder of Harvey Milk.


Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that there was no great outpouring of gay and lesbian literature in this transitional period. The most consequential literary developments of the era took place on the coasts. In San Francisco, Armistead Maupin launched a serialized novel published as Tales of the City (1978, Harper & Row), the first of an enormously popular series that chronicled gay and straight San Francisco with equal sympathy and cheerfulness. A little later in the decade, a group of New York writers that dubbed itself the Violet Quill was much more strenuously literary than Maupin. Its members included Edmund White and Andrew Holleran who achieved mainstream publication of novels, including White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978, St. Martin’s Press) and Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978, William Morrow & Co.). The house organ of the New York gay writers was Christopher Street (1976–1995), a magazine that covered both politics and culture and featured both nonfiction and fiction. Its co-founder, Michael Denneny, would become the best-known and perhaps most influential gay editor of the 1980s and 1990s. That era would become the Golden Age of gay and lesbian publishing was on the horizon. And the terrible and awesome fuse that lit that fire was AIDS, which left, amid losses we still feel acutely today in the absence of nearly an entire generation of gay men, a wealth of fiction, poetry, and prose that made possible the many forking paths through which we would come to contemporary queer literature.


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Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.