Counterfeit Lesbian, DSM, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Katherine V. Forrest, Krysten Ritter, L is for Lesbian, Lesbian Gym, Lesbian Pulp Fiction, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Lesbians in White, Nautipuss, pulp, Satan Was a Lesbian, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The Delicate Vice, The Lavender Runaway, Unnatural Wife
Being a man often time comes with its own little embarrassments, one of which of course is the distracting nature of sexuality. You tell yourself you’re going to be working on a term paper that’s due in two weeks, but after writing three sentences that get you into the rhythms you decide to look up a photo of (*insert female celebrity name here*) because you remember a line she said in an episode of Breaking Bad and yes I’m talking about Krysten Ritter, and eventually during your scrolling you find a photo of her in her underwear. The next half hour is a blur and the next thing you know you find yourself with a folder of covers of pulp fiction lesbian novels from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Don’t judge. Seriously before you ever judge someone read your internet browsing history and then decide whether you’re a champion of virtue. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
That’s what I thought.
Like all exercises in my life however I will not perform such an activity unless I learn something from it, the first lesson is of course to never write on a computer that has internet (I should have listened to you Jonathan Franzen instead of mailing you those photos of overweight Armenian men’s butts), and the second is that there was something a little off about these books of supposed “romance” that took place between women.
If you have no idea what I’m actually talking about let me clarify. You see during the late 1950s there was an explosion in the publishing industry of small, mass produced books that actually tackled the issue of romance/sex that took place between women. These books were often printed on cheap paper and sold in gas stations and convenience stores for next to nothing. What is most obvious about them immediately were the covers, for often the women printed on them were buxom babes blessed with bounding bosoms…I think that worked. The women are always portrayed as alluring, enticing, and if not scantily clad then at least possessed by lust for the woman eating up her body with her eyes. Along with the provocative art, which was one of the ways the books became so popular in the first place, were the titles which ranged from obscure, veiled, to outright ridiculous.
Honesty time: the reason I wrote this article was so that I could list out some of the titles so the reader could see for themselves how outlandish these could actually be.
Take for instance: Nautipuss, Counterfeit Lesbian, Art Colony Perverts, L is for Lesbian, The Hard Sell Girls, The Unashamed, Strange Thirsts, Diana: The Story of a Strange Love, The Delicate Vice, Odd Girl Out, Nurse’s Quarters, From Other Women, Executive Lesbian, Lesbian Captive, Sex Week, Anybody’s Girl, Dormitory Women, The Lash, The Third Street, Unnatural Wife, The Leather Girls, Satan Was a Lesbian, Lesbian Jungle, Strange Embrace, Her Private Hell, The Lavender Runaway, Latent Lesbian, I Am a Lesbian, The Demon Dyke, Dyke Call Girl, Lesbians in White, Butch, Babes Behind Bars, Women’s Barrack’s, Pagan Lesbians, All the Gay Girls, Two Reel Gay Girls, Lesbian Gym, Part Time Lesbian, and finally The Bashful Lesbian.
If your head is spinning draw a butterfly in the air with your finger and then remember Satan Was a Lesbian and be free to ask out loud, WHAT, THE, FUCK?
Some of the more outlandish of these titles would come alone, and while many of them may at first appear to be simple or even innocent it was often the subtitles or side printings that would reveal a larger and darker rhetoric at play. Looking at The Bashful Lesbian for instance, the cover is accompanied with a small message that reads: She wanted to save herself for a man, but she was too desperate to wait! That one isn’t too bad however it does denote that her lesbianism is out of some kind of hedonistic desperation rather than a legitimate sexual drive. Looking at the cover of Lesbian Gym one gets another idea of where the message is going: The story of a virgin who was seduced into the wrong kind of loving. Before that sinks in try Never Love a Man: What twist of fate sends a normal woman along the unnatural paths of lesbian passion? The words normal and unnatural really do all my work for me. At this point it’s not necessary to continue since it’s clear many of these titles work to demonstrate lesbianism as some kind of unnatural vice and I can get to the point. It’s not necessary to continue, however it is incredibly fun.
How about Lesbians in White: Beneath their crisp white uniforms burn secret passions that can only be whispered about.
The Lavender Runaway: She was caught in a torrid backstage triangle—a slave to the demands of a matinee idol—and a dominating lesbian.
Satan was a Lesbian: Alas there actually isn’t a subtitle for this, just a picture of Satan in the background and a Lesbian holding riding whip while her lover cowers behind her husband.
The Leather Girls: She had the face of an angel, the body of a devil,–and the passions of a lesbian!
Unnatural Wife: Actually has two 1)She cheated on her husband—with other women!, and 2) Janice abided by all the rules of the marriage game, until the day Harry caught her—in another woman’s arms…
How Dark My Love: Their affair was doubly forgiven—but they couldn’t give it up!
Anybody’s Girl: Addie was man crazy until Margo showed her that man-woman love isn’t everything.
Executive Lesbian: She burned for the forbidden touches of other women’s bodies, for their tender caresses, for the soaring delights of the gay world—and as madam of the top callgirl ring, she took her pick of the very choicest dolls.
Nurses Quarters: outside so white and pure, inside so depraved!
The Delicate Vice: Men had hurt her, so she embraced what she thought was a safer kind of love.
L is for Lesbian: The Dean used the helpless faculty to satisfy her own abnormal cravings for love.
Counterfeit Lesbian: She was a slave to love and she led her clients to the alter of passion.
Allright, says my regular reader, we get it, a lot of these books have covers with big boobed bimbos and portray a negative attitude about lesbianism, why is this important to me living today? By the sounds of it these were just a bunch of sexist, homophobic books nobody cares about anymore.
Alas dear reader this is not the case. Despite the fact the covers of these books portray the stories as homophobic garbage or else cheap mass produced pornography, the reality is actually far different which of course leads me to the real issues at hand. While these covers are fun to laugh at or gaze at, the rhetoric on the covers continues to point to the idea that lesbianism was a dangerous illness that would infect the sweet, gentle white women of American into leaving their husbands and thus jeopardizing the military industrial complex of American society with their fruitless lovemaking which would provide, rather than children and responsibility, only enjoyment. Enjoyment and orgasms….and possibly Satan.
This of course is bullshit and most people, sane people, would agree, however the conflict is we agree now. At the time these books were written this wasn’t the case. Rather than elaborate on this point myself however I’ve found an author who could more from experience.
Katherine V. Forrest is a novelist, an academic, and most important, at least for this study, a lesbian who grew up during the time when it was better not to be one. Not long after discovering the gems of these covers I found a book compiled by her on Amazon entitled Lesbian Pulp Fiction and once you get past the cover and actually read her testimony you’ll probably be struck as I was. She describes the social environment of her life when she first discovered these books:
I grew up in the post-war 1950s, an idyllic world if you were a straight white male or if you were naïve enough to believe TV’s idealistic “Leave it to beaver” image of the average American family. It was 1960 when I discovered the seedy lesbian bars of Detroit, when I found my community and came of age. […] According to the American Psychological Society, I was sick. According to law, I was a criminal. (x).
Few people outside of the homosexual community really recognize how damned difficult it was to be gay before the 1970s, not that it became sunshine and sprinkles after that, but the last comment may fall upon ignorant ears. Up until 1974 homosexuality was listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, basically the big book of mental disorders psychiatrists use to determine what’s wrong with your mind) as a mental disorder. What does that mean? What it meant was if your family, spouse, neighbor, or friends discovered that you were a homosexual you could actually be committed to a mental institution for insane or perverse psychological habits. If that doesn’t sound so harsh you obviously have either not watched American Horror Story Asylum or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While those are two severe examples, horror stories do abound from survivors who suffered anything from chemical castration to electroshock treatment for the purpose of “curing” their disease. Homosexual people were closeted for a reason, not just because their parents were jerks, or because the jocks in high school were going to call them fags or dykes, their lives were literally at stake.
The end result of this was a cultural erasure (where people like you are said not to exist) which left many homosexual women feeling isolated. Forrest describes this isolation and self erasure as a result of the public perception:
Back in those days, when the vast majority of lesbians were like isolated islands with no territory other than risky lesbian bars to call our own, and no way of finding more than a few of one another, we were in every way susceptible to accepting and even agreeing with the larger culture’s condemnation of us. (xiv)
I wish I could say it ended there, but remember those subtitles on the books when you read this next passage:
We despairingly hoped that stories in the original paperbacks would not end badly but realized that in the view of the larger society, “perversion” could have no reward in novels about us, even those we ourselves wrote. For unrepentant lesbian characters who did not convert to heterosexuality, madness, suicide, homicide awaited, or, at best, “noble” self-sacrificing, such as Stephen Gordon surrendering Mary Llewellyn to Martin Hallam in The Well of Loneliness (xiv).
Forrest speaks honestly about where she and many lesbians like her, were left in society in terms of the narratives of characters like her. It may not seem important right away that every story about lesbians who accept who they are end badly, but that’s only because the reader may not appreciate how important narratives are outside of academia. Our lives are constructed through personal, social, religious, and philosophical narratives and many of the great debates in our society are ultimately debates about our narratives. Between politicians it’s often whether the country needs to be fixed or if it needs to move forward, if it’s between races it tends to deal with who has oppressed who and how does that privilege work against the other’s advantage. With religion the narrative is often about this life being a pre-cursor to the next world and so behavior becomes the force that needs to be changed, modified, or ended to satisfy the narrative. Finally when we talk about ourselves the narrative becomes tricky because every choice is ultimately part of the large narrative. The clothes we wear, the way we talk, the schools we attend, the religions we practice (or don’t practice if you’re me), the books we read or don’t read, the politics we choose, the philosophy we ascribe to, and, in every case, who we sleep with and who we love, all of these work together to construct a personal narrative. That’s why the sad endings and subtitles on the covers of these books begin to matter.
If you’re a woman, and a lesbian, and the only narratives of lesbians you find are of homicidal or suicidal fuck-ups, it affects the way you view yourself as a person. You might feel broken and Forrest explains going back to the covers:
An inverse law seems to be at work on pulp fiction novels: the better and more honest the book, the more the jacket copy must moralize against it. For lesbian readers, mixed messages indeed. There is real, honest, and painful truth in Twilight Girl, and it raises important questions about the nature of what it is to be a lesbian. Its author without doubt knew whereof she was writing. The viciousness of the jacket copy is designed not only to hold off censors but to short circuit any insights by lesbian readers who might add up the truths in this book and begin to question the inimical judgments made of them. (xvi).
Forrest’s anthology of selections from the canonical pulp fiction books may not appear to make much sense, but looking back to the covers provides a clue to her motivations. Lesbian pulp fiction speaks to a period in American history, when Americans were concerned with infiltration and moral fortitude in the face utter calamity. Heteronormativity (the idea that there is only the gender binary and that heterosexuality is the “norm” sexuality) dominated leaving many lesbian women in a state in which they felt there was no one else like them in the world, or else the only options available to them as women, and as human beings, were “the bars” that provided little if any comfort or else mass produced narratives that showed them as perverts and criminals. Despite this many lesbian women still managed to find some sort of solace in these strange books. Forrest concludes:
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 we began to question the judgements made of us, and our civil rights movement was born.
The writers of these books laid bare an intimate, hidden part of themselves and they did it under siege, in the dark depths of a more than metaphorical wartime, because there was desperate urgency inside of them to reach out, to put words on the page for women like themselves to read. Their words reached us, they touched us in different ways, and they helped us all. (xix).
There’s nothing wrong with laughing at the covers of these books, or with being turned-on by them, they exist for these reasons, but should someone take the time to pause and then begin to dig into the history of them, they are sure to find a of history of cultural sensibilities that, in many ways, is still being fought today.
The narratives we write of people matter, even if it’s just one or two sentences on the cover of a book.