Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2015-11-25
About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage



by John D'Emilio

facebook twitter stumble upon digg google +1 reddit email

Of all the topics I cover in my gay-studies classes, a candidate for favorite is the lesbian pulp novel. In the 1950s and 1960s, publishers released them by the hundreds. The name stems from the low-grade paper stock on which they were printed, but 'pulp' came to symbolize something else as well: the cheap and tawdry. Pulp novels carried the scent of shame and scandal. On one hand, they were very visible in this era of the closet. You could find them at drugstores and newsstands across the country. On the other hand, you wouldn't want to be seen reading one.

Part of what attracts me to the pulp novel is that it lets students see that things aren't just one thing or the other, good or bad, anti-gay or pro-gay. Instead, the past—like the present—is complicated and contradictory. We spend time looking at a Power Point presentation of lots of these paperback covers. The titles seem to say it all: By Love Depraved; Degraded Women; Forbidden; The Damned One; Satan's Daughter; The Evil Friendship. 'Strange' is used as a modifier for every possible noun: Strange Passions, Strange Seduction, Strange Lust, Strange Thirsts. Copywriters seemed to work from a very abridged dictionary. Warped, tormented, unnatural, twisted: the words all make the same point. Lesbian is bad, bad, bad.

Of course, these novels weren't primarily meant for lesbians. The intended buyers were all those so-called 'one-handed' readers—heterosexual men turned on by the thought of lesbians making love. Their numbers were large enough to propel skyward the sales figures for many pulps. Indeed, lots of these books were written by heterosexual men who knew that the readers were likely to be other heterosexual men.

So what's to study here? Isn't the lesbian pulp craze just another example of how the 1950s were the worst time to be queer? Well, not entirely. The pulp genre also opened an opportunity for lesbian writers. Pulp publishing was like a small crack in the wall of oppression, and some lesbians found a way to slip through. Writers like Ann Bannon, Marion Zimmer Bradley ( writing under the pseudonym 'Miriam Gardner' ) , Paula Christian and March Hastings were able to manipulate the genre and win the loyalty of lesbian readers.

Leaving behind sensationalism and refusing to pander to male sensibilities, they worked to create believable scenarios populated by characters that a female reader might identify with. Sometimes, the publisher cooperated. A novel by March Hastings, published in 1960, had the title 'The Unashamed,' revealing a bit of pride and self-respect. The cover illustration showed two women in a pose and with facial expressions that suggested tenderness and love.

Still, lesbian authors couldn't entirely abandon the formulaic plots, especially in the more repressive 1950s. They worked within constraints and, as a reader today will quickly discover, these are not tales of a lesbian-feminist utopia.

One of the most important of these lesbian writers of pulp fiction was Valerie Taylor, who lived here in Chicago for more than two decades and, in the 1960s and 1970s, was quite an 'out and proud' activist. Taylor wrote almost a dozen novels in the course of her career. Two of them, published in the 1950s, are very revealing of both the limits and the possibilities of the pulp genre.

Whisper Their Love, Taylor's first novel with lesbian content, was published in 1957. It tells the story of Joyce, a working-class girl from small-town Illinois who has just arrived at a college for white women in North Carolina. Family dysfunction trails her: Joyce was illegitimate, never knew her father, and was raised by a puritanical aunt while her mother, Mimi, was a traveling sales woman. At college, her roommate Mary Jean, who goes all the way with a boyfriend, sets Joyce up on a date, but Joyce rebuffs the young man's aggressive advances. On a visit to Chicago to attend Mimi's wedding to her boss, Joyce loses her virginity to her mother's fiancé the night before the wedding. Traumatized, she returns to school where the dean, Edith Bannister, comforts her ... and takes her to bed.

Edith is a lesbian. She has a circle of lesbian and gay friends in town, takes Joyce to parties and clubs, and introduces her to the grim realities of gay life at the time. Secrecy is imperative, because society does bad things to queers. Tell no one, she warns, or else jobs will be lost and lives ruined. Edith herself had had an affair with a teacher when she was in high school, told a friend, and the result was expulsion from school and suicide for the teacher.

Meanwhile ( there are always meanwhiles in these novels ) , Mary Jean has gotten pregnant, and Joyce helps her procure an abortion from a kindly old doctor in town. But then Mary Jean gets pregnant again, and this time commits suicide. Joyce breaks up with Edith, and is rescued from a life of both lesbianism and mean heterosexual men by John, the nephew of the abortionist, who is a Korean war vet, intends to become a doctor, knows psychology, is understanding of Joyce's lesbian interlude, and promises not to have sex with Joyce until she wants to. Presumably they live happily ever after.

Okay, I know this plot summary is not making you rush to your computer to buy a used copy online. And lesbians at the time were probably not too thrilled at the plot's final destination either. But, really, it's a pretty absorbing read, and I was struck by the implied feminism of much of the plot. Girls on the edge of womanhood in the 1950s had it hard. Life could be treacherous. Men were not women's best friends.

Taylor's next novel was The Girls in 3-B. It tells the story of Annice, Pat and Barby, three high school graduates from downstate Illinois, as they come to Chicago together to make their way in the world. Even more than Whisper Their Love, this book charts the path of young white women in the 1950s; one could easily assign it in a women's history or social history course. Annice, an aspiring poet, hooks up with a heartless young beatnik who gets her pregnant and abandons her; Pat has an unrequited crush on her handsome boss, who takes women to bed and then moves on; Barby, who was raped at age 13 by the banker in her small town, is forced into bed by the superintendent of their Hyde Park apartment building.

But all turns out well for each of them. Annice is rescued by a nice young man who will marry her despite the pregnancy. Pat is courted by a Polish Catholic office boy, who respects her when she says no and takes her to Sunday mass with his parents. And Barby meets Ilene, a supervisor at work who has recently broken up with her female lover of several years. Barby doesn't know what a lesbian is, but she knows she's attracted to Ilene and curious about her. Their courtship starts with lunch dates and moves on to an affair that is sweet and tender and without emotional upheaval, and the reader knows that Barby has found a relationship that will be good for her. It's hard to imagine that there were many such portraits in the 1950s of a young woman's introduction to lesbian love.

If the truth be told, I read these two novels less because of a fascination with the pulp genre ( it's the covers that grab me ) , and more because I started to become fascinated by Valerie Taylor. She's an extraordinarily interesting figure, a woman who deserves a biographer. But more on Taylor next time.

Copyright 2008 John D'Emilio

facebook twitter stumble upon digg google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


Legacy Wall Traveling LGBT History Exhibit part of Youth Summit 2015-11-25
Northwestern professor on the making of LGBTQ history 2015-11-25
Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame induction held 2015-11-11
National roundup: Kameny honored; military rape; anti-gay attacks 2015-11-10
Hall of Fame looks to its future 2015-11-02
Hall of Fame display at library, includes new name 2015-10-31
Attorney who helped defeat DOMA talks about Edie Windsor 2015-10-26
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Dick Leitsch: History is unavoidable 2015-10-25
Legacy Project concludes Phase IV celebration 2015-10-21
David Mixner to tell LGBTQ history on stage to benefit Point Foundation 2015-10-20
LGBT HISTORY MONTH From Stonewall to the White House, activist to author 2015-10-19
LGBT HISTORY MONTH 'Women of San Quentin' comes amid historic changes 2015-10-19
Launch party held for LGBT history book for kids 2015-10-19
Chicago monument to honor Ida B. Wells wins fundraising support 2015-10-16
Oct. 15 is Nat'l Latino AIDS Awareness Day 2015-10-14
History is for kids 2015-10-14
LGBT HISTORY MONTH Transgender forward 2015-10-14
Legacy Walk unveils five new bronze memorial plaques 2015-10-14
BOOK REVIEW Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights 2015-10-14
BOOKS Gloria Steinem recounts 'Life on the Road,' legacy 2015-10-14
Upcoming: For women; LGBT history; trans forum; art auction; Halloween 2015-10-13
Phase IV Legacy Walk Induction ceremony Oct. 10. 2015-10-09
Books events: LGBT history; violence against queer people; Black gay identity 2015-10-07
LGBT HISTORY MONTH P.L. Travers: A spoonful of speculation 2015-10-07
GLSEN lauds progress since LGBT History Month first launched 2015-10-01
Faderman puts history in its place in 'The Gay Revolution' 2015-09-30
Columbia College alumni give art history a gender-identity makeover 2015-09-29
BOOK REVIEW The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle 2015-09-29
Windy City Times celebrates 30th anniversary 2015-09-28
MOVIES Stonewall: Brick layers 2015-09-23
Windy City Times: The team 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photo page 4 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photo page 3 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photo page 2 2015-09-23
VIEWS The first draft of history 2015-09-23
Gay Press: The Long Haul 2015-09-23
Windy City Times, The Early Years: A personal perspective 2015-09-23
Windy City Times at 30 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Photos 2015-09-23
Windy City Times 30th anniversary issue: Coverage 2015-09-23

Copyright © 2015 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.








About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Post an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group produces Windy City Queercast, & publishes Windy City Times,
The Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community,
Nightspots, Out! Resource Guide, and Identity.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.