When we opened in 1982, one person asked shyly, ‘Are there were really enough lesbian and gay books to fill an entire shop?’.
Today, there are enough queer books (as we would call them now) to fill an enormous library. Small presses such as Onlywomen, Gay Men’s Press, and Brilliance Books opened the door. Larger publishers followed and created such classic bestsellers as Rubyfruit Jungle and A Boy’s Own Story.
Forty years on the queer library has so many floors, attics, cellars, corners, and balconies, that some of them are hard to find. The rise of the internet and changing fashions in publishing have meant that the original presses have closed – of all of them, only Virago Press still exists. Many of their books are now out of print and unknown.
But at the same time there are new queer writers and new shops and publishers. After 20 years which saw independent bookshops in decline, two queer booksellers have set up business in the UK since 2018 – Category IS Bookshop in Glasgow and Portal Bookshop in York. We don’t seem to have to worry about having enough books or readers.
This blog will wander through the queer library, climb the ladders to some of the inaccessible shelves, try the keys to rooms which aren’t usually visited, and help visitors make their own maps. We’ll call on guest bloggers to take us where we haven’t been before. We want to use our knowledge of the start of queer bookselling to connect the older books and writers with the new ones – it’s all one story.
We’ve already started blogging about the books in our growing archive – found in our own and friends’ collections and secondhand shops. And we invite you to comment – tell us about your part of the queer library and take part in readers’ conversations which wouldn’t have been possible when we opened the shop in the 1980s.
Our second online event Conversations with Writers took place on Thursday 2 September. Playwright Jo Clifford and novelist and short story writer Ely Percy were in conversation with Eris Young about writing perspectives from different generations – over a lifetime.
These three writers have done so much in their careers that the short introductions in online notices, and the mentions on social media or websites don’t give the reader an idea of the scope of their work or the experience behind it.
So (even though we haven’t covered everything) this blog post will give us a chance to tell a longer story – and thank all of them for sharing what they’ve done and lived as queer writers.
Jo Clifford describes her early play, Losing Venice, as ‘a mad historical fantasy’. It was performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1985. She was also a supporter of Lavender Menace Bookshop and seeing the play was exciting for all of us who knew her. She went on to write over 100 plays, including Every One (a reworking of Everyman), The Tree of Knowledge, Playing with Fire (a powerful play also produced at the Traverse), Faust Parts One and Two, Ines de Castro (she also wrote the libretto of James MacMillan’s opera), Light in the Village and Great Expectations.
She also translated Yerma, Blood Wedding, and The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca – among others.
Losing Venice was revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2019. Jo’s recent works include Eve, the story of her transition, and The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven, which she first performed at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 2009. It was later performed all around Brazil and at the Traverse Theatre, stirring up controversy and attracting opposition from some church groups and the law.
More recently she’s written The Covid Requiem, commissioned by Pitlochry Festival Theatre, A Space to Bless (put on by Queen Jesus Productions at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh) and Slug Love (Tron Theatre and Trans Vegas).
Ely Percy grew up in Renfrew. They are a fiction writer who has published 50 short stories in magazines such as New Writing Scotland, The Scotsman, Orange, Causeway and The Edinburgh Review.
‘I started sending my stuff out when I was just 15, because I felt angry and misunderstood and rejected by the world – during a time, they told The Ampersand Project, that they were in psychiatric care.
Their memoir, Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury was published by JKP in 2002. They describe it as a memoir ‘about not being able to remember who I was’ – and about relearning to read and write. They then graduated with distinction from Glasgow University’s MPhil programme in Creative Writing in 2004.
In the early 2000s they began writing Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz, which they describe as ‘a butch-meets-femme lesbian rom-com’ and also as a historical novel, since it was published in 2019 (by Knight Errant Press).
Monstrous Regiment in Edinburgh published Ely’s second novel, Duck Feet, based on short stories about teenage life they had written in the Renfrewshire dialect. They recently read from it at Edinburgh International Book Festival and have appeared at many other readings and gatherings. Monstrous Regiment published one of the stories, ‘Nae Shame’, and decided to publish the book – they were taken with its ‘skilful balance of sharp humour and huge heart’.
Eris Young published They/Them/Their: A Guide to Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities with JKP in 2019. It’s based on their own experience as well as research and interviews and covers common experience, language, law, healthcare, history of nonbinary identities and what friends and family and others can do to support nonbinary people.
They have also appeared in anthologies such as F, M or Other and We Were Always Here.
In 2020, they won the New Writer Award from the Scottish Book Trust.
They’re a short story critic for Carve literary magazine, which specialises in fiction in the tradition of Raymond Carver. They are Associate Editor of Shoreline of Infinity science fiction magazine, based in Scotland, and have appeared in Shoreline of Infinity 14 and in Astral Waters, Expanded Horizons and The Selkie.
And they’re Writer-in-Residence for Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh and chaired Lavender Menace Archive’s first queer writing event in 22 years, Pride in Print in June 2019.
What advice would they give anyone who’s working on being a writer? ‘Tend your own garden’, they told The Ampersand Project.
‘When you’re feeling lost, turn your attention back to your work and just, work…your work can be an anchor for you when the whole hustle feels like way too much to deal with.’
Tending your own garden could sound like a narrow focus, but clearly – given enough time – it can lead you right over the horizon.
The early 20th century celebrated homophobic writers of high reputation. We were taught their work in school. They were reviewed in quality publications. And they were looked up to as wise men.
What is homophobia?
Most of us think of homophobia as if it were something toxic in the air or the water. Equal marriage laws and visible queer people make us feel it’s getting better. Homophobic laws like the ‘LGBT-free’ zones in Poland make us feel less hopeful.
Davies’ series is set in gay London in the 1980s. At the end of the story his hero, Ritchie, is dying of AIDS. Ritchie’s mother looks after him in his last days but refuses to believe he is gay.
Why are people homophobic?
Davies said that attitudes like hers can’t be blamed on culture or religion: ‘God isn’t enough.’ He felt that every person’s homophobia is an individual response – unique to them – woven out of the traumas and secrets in their lives.
In the case of Ritchie’s mother, she hints that her father ‘was a terrible man.’ Was she abused? She doesn’t explain. Davies said that the truth might have come out later, if he had had more time to tell the story. But the bare mention, offering no further understanding, seems typical of homophobia – understanding is not what it is about.
Everyone knows a homophobe
Everyone knows a homophobe, or knows of one. Many queer people keep difficult conversations with family members in our memories, whether we want to remember or not. The controversy about trans people taking place today is bringing this kind of impasse back into focus when many of us thought it was receding into the past.
If Davies is right, and homophobia is a kind of vulnerability, we’re not likely to hear more about it from homophobes in real life. Like Ritchie’s mother, they are unwilling to say more. But just as knowledge of queer lives came first of all through books, despite the worst censorship could do, it’s also possible to look at writers – traditionally, people who can’t stop talking about themselves – for a clue to homophobia.
6 homophobic writers
And unfortunately, the early 20th century had some homophobic writers of high reputation, who were taught in school, reviewed in quality publications, and looked up to as wise men.
(At least, the ones I’m going to mention are all men. There are certainly homophobic women writers. One possible candidate is Enid Blyton, creator of the Famous Five and now considered to have had racist attitudes. But she sometimes produced 50 books a year and searching her entire output for homophobic content would not be easy or congenial.)
One cautionary note: looking at homophobic content in novels is not the same as saying that a writer’s work is worthless. People are mosaics, and prejudice can exist side by side with courage and creativity. But we can learn something from scrutinising the attitudes in these books, and perhaps it’s long past time – queer writers had to suffer sceptical, sometimes patronising reviews for generations.
1. D H Lawrence
The most famous homophobic writer in English is probably D H Lawrence. He is best known for his last novel, Lady Chattlerley’s Lover, and for his hero’s speech denouncing every kind of sex except the missionary position.
Lawrence’s earlier novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, were banned, because they had bisexual characters, but also because they were sexually explicit. (Senator Reed Smoot of the US approved of the ban and said that Lawrence was ‘a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that it would obscure even the darkness of hell.’)
Lawrence’s letters do reveal a darkness in his mind which his novels only suggest – that he was literally homophobic, frightened and repelled by gay men. After a visit by David ‘Bunny’ Garnett and his lover Francis Birrell, Lawrence wrote about ‘the horror of little swarming selves’. ‘We must fight this Baal,’ he wrote in another letter, ‘and keep the other flag flying.’
There are shelves of books, articles and theses about Lawrence’s life and possible gay encounters. He hinted at a great deal and admitted very little.
2. C S Lewis
A writer of Christian sci-fi (as well as many religious books which were said ‘make righteousness readable’), C S Lewis may be a somewhat clearer case. In That Hideous Strength, the story of a Satanic foundation which takes over an English university, he created Miss Hardcastle. She is the foundation’s head of security, a tall and strapping character in her uniform, who wears lipstick and waves an unlit cheroot about.
She only lights the cheroot when she arrests and tortures Jane, the story’s heroine. It’s astonishing that an Oxford don and religious writer felt free to publish this scene. He had already established Miss Hardcastle as a figure of scary fun, and probably would have said, like some people who post threatening messages on Twitter, that it was all just a joke.
After Lewis’ death in 1962, it came out that he had had an affair with a much older woman. She probably did not smoke cheroots, but she did make Lewis do housework regularly. There is no evidence that she was a lesbian, but perhaps he found it easy to seize on homophobia as a way to represent his guilt about the relationship (which he always regretted) and his fear of strong women.
3. Anthony Burgess
Born a generation after Lawrence and Lewis, in 1917, Anthony Burgess. Most people remember him now for his novel A Clockwork Orange, especially the film made by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, which features one woman being raped and another being murdered.
But Burgess also wrote a dystopian fantasy, The Wanting Seed, about a future in which England is threatened by overpopulation. The government tries to force everyone to become queer (one of the characters affects a limp wrist and sissified speech in order to rise in the Ministry of Infertility.) There are other ridiculous lesbian stereotypes. Of course, the country soon falls into anarchy and the natural order is restored.
Burgess had one of the more adventurous and difficult lives of any 20th century novelist. His mother and sister died in the 1918 flu and he always felt that his father resented him for surviving. He became a teacher, a soldier, a speaker of several languages, and a prolific composer. And he said to have been dismissed from a job because his wife said ‘something obscene’ to Prince Philip.
Burgess moved in sophisticated circles and must have known many queer people. He did not have to reach for the low-humour cliché portrayals he uses in The Wanting Seed. Perhaps they were simply the easiest. Or perhaps Burgess, the defiant survivor, enjoyed putting two fingers up whenever he could.
4. Raymond Chandler
Unlike Lawrence, Lewis and Burgess, Raymond Chandler was not a literary writer, but after his death he became one. He is the creator of the tough detective Philip Marlowe, hero of The Big Sleep – a vividly written description of a world of crime and perversity.
Of course, this world is queer, and we first see Marlowe surveilling a an underground porn library run by a gay man. He watches the customers pull up on a normal Los Angeles street and is surprised to observe that some of them are women.
What kind of porn are the women of Los Angeles secretly borrowing? We never find out. Whatever these books are, they make a grown man blanch when Marlowe shows him a page.
Marlowe himself blanches when he visits Geiger, the porn librarian, and not just because he finds him dead. Worse still, the librarian’s bedroom turns out to be ‘neat, fussy, womanish’ with a flounced bedspread.
All this is just scene-setting and the real story turns out to be about a straight criminal, a gangster, and a wealthy and beautiful heroine. But the early episode has done its work, setting the atmosphere and highlighting the depravity of Marlowe’s enemies and his cool, unflappable character.
Like the three authors we’ve seen so far, Raymond Chandler had a hardworking and adventurous life, complicated by early poverty and family breakup. He was a teacher, journalist, scriptwriter, would-be poet and essayist, and a First World War soldier. He suffered all his life from alcoholism and depression. ‘There is no trap so deadly,’ he wrote, ‘as the trap you set for yourself.’
5. Norman Mailer
All these writers were partly British or Irish, but Norman Mailer was an American. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948 after he served in the Second World War and has never gone out of print. His reputation was bound up with male violence and misogyny, both in fiction and real life, and he cheerfully fought feminists such as Kate Millett and Germaine Greer on television.
Many of his villains were gay men, and in a 1955 article for One Magazine, a publication of the homophile movement, he admitted that this was due to laziness and lack of any experience of queer people. He had nothing to gain from making this admission – almost fifteen years before Stonewall – and why he made it remains a mystery. But it’s a rare example of a homophobe looking honestly at himself.
6. F Scott Fitzgerald
Of all these writers, the one who may have given most insight into himself is F Scott Fitzgerald, now best known as the author of the American classic, The Great Gatsby. A prolific writer in a circle of prolific writers, he described his life constantly. His may be the strangest of these stories of homophobic writing.
In his early, successful days, Fitzgerald does not seem to have had much interest in queer people. He was a success as a drag artiste at one memorable party at Princeton, just before the First World War, but there is no evidence he had any gay relationships.
In the early 1920s he became the novelist of privileged youth. He was said to have defined ‘the jazz age’. His sudden fame led to his marriage to the southern belle, Zelda Sayre, the model of many of his fictional heroines. They became a celebrity couple and moved to Paris, where he wrote The Great Gatsby.
But then things began to go wrong. Gatsby was a financial failure. It was a novel about class, not about privileged youth. The wealthy characters were brutal and the hero, Jay Gatsby, was brave, naive and doomed.
It was about this time that Fitzgerald seems to have discovered homophobia. One of his Paris circle, a publisher, called him a queer. Fitzgerald claims that Zelda began to accuse him as well, but there is apparently nothing from her in writing, only from Fitzgerald himself and his friend, the writer Ernest Hemingway.
As in so many of these writers’ stories, depression and alcoholism began to take their toll. Zelda had an affair and a nervous breakdown, and Fitzgerald committed her to mental health clinics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Homosexuality became an obsession with Fitzgerald. He talked of going to a prostitute to prove himself, even though there had never been any lack of women in his life. Then he began to believe that Zelda was a lesbian. He wrote that she was getting up to strange things with the nurses in her clinic. He put a lesbian character, Miss Taube, into his next novel, Tender Is The Night.
Eventually Fitzgerald and Zelda separated. She spent the rest of her life in and out of clinics. Fitzgerald found a new lover, the Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. By then he had much more to worry about than his theoretical masculinity, and apparently said no more, good or bad, about queer people.
Is homophobia just a phase?
There are few homophobes for whom homophobia is just a phase. As someone who seems to have been homophobic in one situation lasting a few years, Fitzgerald might correspond most closely to Russell T Davies’ view – that homophobia is not a given in our culture, but a response to grief and trauma, an easy outlet for the unmentionable.
Though writers have more to say about themselves than most people, creating art is a risky lifestyle and writers may not be the best illustrations of typical homophobes. But there is another reason to examine the lives and prejudices of these classic writers. They were once icons of what was considered the best in our civilisation. Millions of young people read their books and remembered them for a lifetime. In their stories, they projected fear and humiliation onto queer people. We need to question those stories, no matter how brilliantly written, and keep pursuing the insights of openly queer art and queer lives.
We’re delighted to be able to publish this blog raising awareness of homophobia in English and American literature as part of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, 17 May 2021. What are your thoughts on our take on these iconic writers? Please feel free to comment.
In the Royal Mile, former police inspector James McLevy is walking his dog, Jeanie, named for one the city’s notorious thieves.
At Waverley Station, the Empress Eugenie of France is arriving. Two demonstrators leap from the crowd, but the Empress and her ladies escape to Douglas Hotel in St Andrew Square. There they unpack a glittering diadem – made, not of diamonds, but of paste. Though the jewels are false, they are about to lead to theft and sudden death.
A short distance away at Moray Place, at the Scottish Institute for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, the scheming headmistress, Lady Superintendent Margaret Napier, is writing up her secret dossier. In the students’ quarters, Christabel MacKenzie, handsome, clever and rebellious, is composing a sonnet about her lover, Eleanor.
This is the opening sequence of Iona McGregor’s historical novel, Death Wore a Diadem, a mystery published by The Women’s Press and launched in 1989 at West & Wilde Bookshop.
For the purposes of the launch, we called it ‘a lesbian mystery’, and Iona herself calls it a lesbian novel in an interview. But even this brief outline shows that it was more besides – a portrait of many characters, from an empress to a detective to a madam, with a lesbian heroine at the centre.
Many lives in one frame
Describing Iona’s career gives a similar impression: many lives in one frame.
She told us the launch of Death Wore A Diadem represented an important moment for her – the first lesbian novel she had been free to write. She was animated as she spoke about her central character, Christabel MacKenzie.
The novel opens on Christabel’s 17th birthday. Like many fairytale heroines she is an orphan. She loves rambling over the countryside, shooting guns, and spending the day in bed with her lover. Left to educate herself in her radical grandfather’s library, she is a free spirit who does not fit well into the life of a Scottish lady. But is confident she can live as she pleases. In the story, despite the machinations of her nemesis, Lady Superintendent Napier – she succeeds.
For Iona, however, life was not often like this. (She certainly did not intend Christabel as a self-portrait, but as a lesbian who could have been, one dealt a run of cards for peril but also for good fortune and courage.)
Iona was born in 1929 – in England rather than Scotland, but she explained that she would have been born here if she hadn’t been premature. Her father was a teacher in a military school. She had a rough and physically active childhood with his male pupils for friends. She was a Catholic (though as an adult she had no religion) and ‘a great tomboy,’ and prayed to be transformed into a boy every night. (If God could move mountains, why couldn’t he do this?)
Later she said she was not sure whether she had been transgender or simply determined not to accept the feminine role.
Sent to a convent school, she argued with the nuns about Darwin. Moved to a school in Monmouthshire, she took well to the classics, especially when she discovered ‘Sappho et cetera’. She told Bob Cant, in his book about Scottish queer lives, Footsteps and Witnesses, that she had known from age eight that she was different.
As a young woman she settled in Edinburgh, a city she had always loved. But she found it impossible to meet partners or even lesbian friends, and so she moved to London. She found a job as a grammar school teacher, and quietly explored the fringes of the lesbian scene.
Once, she told the Remember When Project, she met a woman who had been an ex-girlfriend of Prince Ranier of Monaco. They went to the Gateways lesbian pub together and had a brief relationship.
Then she met the woman her friend Marsaili Cameron describes as ‘the love of Iona’s life’. They were together for 12 years and moved to Edinburgh. A few years later her partner left, swayed by family pressure and the sheer pain of a life in which everything had to be kept secret.
Her activist years and early writing
It was then that Iona became what we would now describe as an activist.
Why did she do it? The risk in those days was enormous. She was teaching at an exclusive school. Any exposure of her real life would have ended her career. But she may have decided she had had enough of secrecy.
At the same time, she also began to write her young adult historical novels. They were influenced by the prolific children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliffe. They had no queer content, she said, because the publisher made it clear to her that that would never be allowed.
Two of the novels, the ones she felt were the best, were set in Edinburgh: An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty. The latter deals with the effect of the French Revolution in Edinburgh, where there were (mostly now forgotten) radical agitators and violent riots, and the book may have a clue to her life after her relationship ended.
Being a rebel is dangerous, but it can also be necessary for survival. The sister and brother in The Tree of Liberty are on opposite sides of the question. Caroline keeps her head down but reads, thinks and looks outward as hopefully as she can. Sandy, her brother, takes part in rebellion and barely escapes with his life – and doesn’t learn his lesson. As the story ends, he is on his way to revolutionary France.
Like Caroline, Iona was a survivor and believed in careful effort rather than impulsive action. The Scottish Minorities Group, which worked for legal reform, also created safe meeting spaces and started a women’s group in Glasgow. Iona became part of it. Making contact with the meeting was complicated, and Iona used the name ‘Chris Campbell’. But despite – or possibly because of? – the elaborate secrecy, she made friends at this time who were still close to her years later.
In Edinburgh, she worked in another SMG women’s group, founded by Ruth Schröck. She also worked as a Befriender on the Gay Centre Switchboard in Broughton Street, listening to queer people talk about the choices and dangers everyone faced in those days.
She did shifts in person at the Gay Centre, introducing women to the group and the scene in the city. She used her own name, met dozens of people week after week and could easily have been outed at work. But it must have made a difference to lesbians who arrived at the centre to meet a woman who was hospitable, well-read, funny, a cat lover, a traveller, a walker and a writer.
Free to write
She left the centre in 1980 and in 1985 she finally gave up her teaching job. She was not outed, but apparently small things built up and the time came to leave. So she was finally free to write the fiction she had always wanted to write, and Death Wore A Diadem was the result.
The novel was based on a long trawl through libraries and manuscripts – in the 1980s, a far greater task than it would be today. Recent scholarship by Rosy Mack has uncovered Iona’s correspondence with her editor at The Women’s Press, Jen Green, which shows that her research included a tremendous amount of detail and speculation about lesbian relationships in 1860. The letters even include diagrams of the school and the characters’ movements within it.
Iona apparently planned a sequel, or many sequels. The stories of Christabel and her lover, Eleanor, seem to be at their very beginning as the novel ends. James McLevy, a real life Edinburgh detective and crime writer, probably had a further part to play as Christabel’s friend and fellow sleuth.
But Iona discovered that she could write study guides which paid far better than detective fiction. And there had always been much more to her life than writing.
She travelled and had a large circle of friends she entertained regularly. She learned DIY and was never without an elaborate project. She acquired so many books that, when she moved into a care home later, they were removed by the vanload. ‘There are real gems in these boxes,’ said the librarians at Glasgow Women’s Library, who received the feminist and lesbian books. ‘Some of them are amazing.’
Iona probably also liked the variety of the better-paid writing she was doing, in addition to the study guides: it ranged over many subjects and required much research. As a writer, she was an adventurer.
She also returned to teaching with the University of the Third Age and was a founding member of the AD Group – which had two names for different occasions, Anno Domini and Aged Dykes. She had always been her own kind of lesbian, and she lived her own kind of old age.
This was a not always straightforward. She said that the struggles of her early life had given her ‘a weight, a social guilt’. ‘As she got older,’ said her friend Marsaili, ‘the physical, mental and emotional consequences of living with high levels of anxiety became harder and harder to manage.’
Nevertheless she lived to be 92 and passed away earlier this year at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, to the sadness of her friends and her readers.
At her funeral in Edinburgh, Marsaili spoke about her and thanked her for her kindness to young newcomers at SMG, her intelligence and courage, and for ‘showing that another life could be lived.’
That life carries on in her novels.
Please feel free to leave a comment about your memories of Iona and the books you’ve read.
[Iona’s Death Wore a Diadem, An Edinburgh Reel and The Tree of Liberty and Bob Cant’s Footsteps and Witness are all part of the Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive. Iona’s work also features in our video Unsung: the queer books that tell our lives.]
‘LGBT+ archives,’ says Gerard Koskovich of the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco, ‘are your queer grandma’s attic’. They are the place where younger generations will find our legacy.
News from our lavender attic
This spring our own archive – our own lavender attic – is getting started. We’re clearing out the cobwebs in the attic and making space for almost 800 books. They’ve been generously donated by groups and individuals. We’re reaching out to find support to help us preserve the books which meant most to LGBT+ people in the thirty years after Stonewall. The years they were coming out of hiding, visualising, and demanding equality.
Because of lockdown, we haven’t been able to access our book collection (housed by Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh). Instead, we’ve spent the winter finding out about queer archives around the world. They specialise in conserving documents created by LGBT+ people – pamphlets, posters, flyers. Lesbian and gay groups used them to publicise themselves before the internet turned it all into digits and pixels.
The GLBT Historical Society decided in 1985 that this material should be preserved for future generations. 36 years later, that means you and me. They called a community meeting to see who was interested. And the 65 who attended set them on the road to today’s extensive collection, exhibitions and museum in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, in London in 1984, the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre was set up and initially funded by the Greater London Council. They collected journals, pamphlets, oral history and books. Today the collection is at Glasgow Women’s Library.
Their theme was Unorthodox: What are the missing voices? Their network includes queer archives all over the UK. Some not only preserve books and papers but research the pubs and other spaces where LGBT+ people met in secret, help refurbish buildings where queer people lived. Or collect clothing such as Ann Walker’s wedding dress, which she wore to say her vows to Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) in 1834.
LGBT History Month
But research wasn’t all we did – in February, Edinburgh City Libraries invited us to make a film for LGBT History Month Scotland. The 2021 theme was ‘Unsung’ and we chose three queer writers whose archive books are either out of print or were dismissed as ‘too queer’ for many years. ‘Unsung’ was released on 15 February and on 24 February Chris Creegan chaired a Q&A session on the film. It attracted participants from Scotland, England and the USA. They expressed strong interest in more material about Scottish queer writers. And more ways of making the books better known and available. You can view the film and Q&A here.
We’re grateful to Grainne Crawford, Lifelong Learning Libraries Development Officer, and Howard Elwyn-Jones of Pretty Bright who produced the film and the Q&A broadcast. We were delighted to participate in LGBT History Month with LGBT Youth Scotland, who sponsored our first appearance as a queer books group in 22 years.
On 11 March, Lighthouse Bookshop invited Bob to appear at an online event with Jeremy Atherton Lin. His new book, Gay Bar, is a memoir of his life in bars of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. Bob talked about his days running Taste, an Edinburgh house music dance club. Straights and queer people danced together in a friendly and inclusive atmosphere in the 1990s and the early aughties.
Pride Month 2021
We aim is to take part in events about LGBT+ writing, publishing and history to promote the archive and encourage donations. The thrilling thing about this collection of books is that it shines a light on authors and titles from the past. Some of whom have been forgotten and remain unrecognised. Pride Month is coming soon. And we’ll be announcing our next events and further news from our efforts to establish our archive and celebrate queer writing history.
Let us know your thoughts
Thank you for following us on our social media. We love your feedback. And please feel free to leave your thoughts here on the work we’re doing.
Meggie’s Journeys by Margaret D’Ambrosio Polygon, 1987
A few days ago, #ReclaimTheseStreetsPorty, one of the groups formed after the abduction and presumed murder of Sarah Everard in London, attached a series of posters and banners to a fence at Portobello Beach in Edinburgh.
‘Our Bodies Our Minds Our Power’, said one. Others said, ‘Educate your sons.’ ‘Strong women stay strong.’ ‘Good men challenge violence in word and deed.’ ‘Be a radical dreamer.’
Many people stopped to look more closely and read a list of victims of violence against women in 2021 and 2020. Some passers-by were disturbed or confused. Others were moved by the signs.
It’s possible that no one who saw them knew the name of Margaret D’Ambrosio. She was a writer who was killed by her partner 21 years ago in Port Seton, along the coast from Portobello.
D’Ambrosio’s book, Meggie’s Journeys, has been out of print for many years (it apparently went into a second edition with a new publisher in 1988). It once sold well at the First of May Bookshop and West & Wilde. It is women’s writing rather than queer writing, except in the sense that it describes a wisdom which accepts many ways of love and of life. It is a Celtic fantasy novel of legendary times on the land which would one day be called Edinburgh. The dedication reads: To the Old Ones: Nothing is ever forgotten. We’re delighted to have a copy in our archive.
But nearly everything about D’Ambrosio’s writing seems to have been forgotten.
A search on the internet reveals much more about her death than her life. She and her partner were found in their flat on 23 January 2000: she had been murdered; he had committed suicide.
The Herald reported that she had been interested in New Age beliefs, sang in folk clubs, and had worked at the Bull and Bush pub in Lothian Road around the time her novel was published. Did she publish anything else? The paper didn’t say.
Polygon, her publisher, was the literary imprint of Edinburgh University Press at the time Meggie’s Journey first appeared. And it seems unlikely that they would have accepted D’Ambrosio’s novel unless she had a history as a writer – possibly under a different name. In 2002, Polygon became an imprint of Birlinn an independent publisher based in Edinburgh. Today, it continues to publish literary fiction and poetry by such well-known Scottish writers as Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.
In 1987 Polygon had an imaginative list. Its books were sometimes found in the First of May and Lavender Menace. The cover Polygon gave D’Ambrosio’s book was beautiful and unusual, different from the primary colours usually found on radical books. It featured old-fashioned, softly coloured pen-and-ink drawings by Hazel McGlashan of Celtic symbols such as plants and animals, and at the bottom of the cover, waves on the sea.
The cover represents the book well. It is a picture of what Iron Age culture may have been like, similar to the Boudicca series by lesbian writer Manda Scott. Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scott said she wanted to portray a society where the sexes were equal and nature was not exploited as in modern times but considered a source of wisdom and spiritual power. D’Ambrosio’s vision seems to have been similar, but while Scott’s novels are stories of conflict, Meggie’s Journey is closer to poetry. It is meant to take us into the state of mind of her Celtic characters.
The novel explains that Celts believed in the Otherworld, similar to the Christian Heaven – but instead of being remote, it existed within nature and the world we know. In certain places and times, human beings could slip through the barriers into a truer world than our own.
In the novel, Meggie is questing for the Well at the World’s End, which will show her the face of the Goddess. On the four seasonal Celtic festivals (which include Beltane, still celebrated in Edinburgh), she journeys to the Otherworld. Her companion is Annis, sometimes an old woman, sometimes a young maiden.
Meggie meets the Sidhe, a race of spiritual beings well-known in Celtic legend. White ravens and beautiful spirits speak to her. She survives the realm of the Barrowbane and the River of Lamentation. She makes a reconciliation with Death and comes to the Well at the World’s End. But while she has been on her quest, time has passed, and the Celtic world has faded away.
At the end of the book a young woman from modern Edinburgh meets Meggie by St Margaret’s Loch, under Arthur’s Seat, and the doors to the Otherworld reopen for both of them.
The book itself is more like a vision than a 20th century novel. Plot and character are less important than the vision of the Otherworld and its realisation within ourselves.
The vision is composed with care and in detail. D’Ambrosio even composed music to go with the poems in the book. The story of 175 pages seems to contain a lifetime’s imagination.
There is no hint as to how or why D’Ambrosio came to write the story. She cites only a few sources. She may have explained more when she gave a reading from the book, and some people must still remember it. It’s to be hoped that more about her life and her other writing will emerge. The novel seems to address the pain of bereavement, and as she reaches the World’s End, Meggie says, ‘Between death and love, life dances forever.’ The work she might have done if she had lived is lost, but we still have her novel and perhaps, a quest of our own – to speak out together and protect women – and to remember her as a radical dreamer, part of Edinburgh’s creative history.
Mortimer’s Deep by Simon Taylor Balnain Books, 1992
Translated into German by Rainer Schmidt. Published as Der Mönch by four German publishers including Weltbild (Augsburg, 2004).
Mortimer’s Deep – It’s Origins
Off the Fife coast, near the village of Aberdour, lies the island of Inchcolm, where the stark ruins of a monastery are visible across the water.
The channel between the village and the island is known as Mortimer’s Deep. It’s a dangerous stretch of water. One story says that around 800 years ago a group of monks were taking the body of a nobleman named De Mortimer to the island for burial. A storm blew up, the boat began to sink. And the monks threw the body into the Forth to save their lives.
The name of the channel is the only suggestion that this really happened. But Simon Taylor, a medieval scholar, takes the legend as the starting point of his vision of queer and Scottish medieval history.
The novel begins in 1224 as Martin de Dunfermline, a young church clerk, travels to Inchcolm Priory. He is on a mission he conceals from everyone. To learn the truth about the proud, brilliant and cruel Prior Simon de Quincy, his former mentor.
As Martin crosses the Forth, the water, and the stone of the priory change colour as the clouds come and go. There are many journeys to Inchcolm in the novel. And everything shifts and transforms for the characters as they leave the ordinary world.
The changing light on Inchcolm is a warning for the reader as well as for Martin. We can look into the queer past, but we can’t be sure what we are seeing. Taylor builds the vision of Scottish and queer history in his novel on a structure of fact.
Mortimer’s Deep takes place mainly at the end of the 12th century, during the reign of William the Lion in Scotland and (among others) Richard the Lionhearted in England. There was no shortage of lions, wolves, foxes and other predators in politics or the church. Joining a monastery was a retreat from the world, but it was a life of hardship and, for queers, condemnation by the church.
However, when Mortimer’s Deep was written in the 1980s, perceptions of queer history were in flux. The American historian John Boswell had just published his controversial book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Boswell found evidence of tolerance of same-sex relationships in early Christian writings – and in some cases, support.
In the novel, Simon Taylor acknowledges his debt to Boswell. As punitive as the church was, especially after the 12th century, Boswell believed there were also long-lasting traditions of same-sex ‘spiritual friendship.’
On Inchcolm, Martin de Dunfermline meets an old monk who speaks for those traditions. Once handsome, now old and blind, Brother Michael has been forgotten by most of the monastery. But it turns out he was once Prior Simon’s lover.
Martin eagerly begins talking to him. Brother Michael agrees to tell him what he knows about the mysterious Simon. But in exchange, he asks that Martin hear his own story, from the early days when he fled to Inchcolm to escape Sir William de Mortimer, his sexually abusive master, and found refuge on the island. He speaks for the life of the monastery – the harsh conditions, the trivial quarrels – and the attempt to reconcile monastic ideals with the love for other men which sustains Michael’s sanity.
Making the past speak
Michael’s story deals with Scots royal quarrels, intrigues among cardinals, false miracles, mysterious deaths, and the corrupt papal court in Rome. His own good looks, he says, have been his curse. But his conscience and honesty have brought him nearly as much trouble. A complex character, he makes the past speak, for Martin – and for us.
The novel works on several levels. It is a mystery story, which follows Martin’s quest to unravel the life of Simon de Quincy and his own past. It is a story of the friendship between Brother Michael and Martin. But it is also a gothic novel, sometimes a horror story, and the multilayered story of a same-sex community.
Simon Taylor researched his story closely. The church intrigues of the time and Scotland’s tangled relationship with England and the Papacy are woven into the plot. At the end is a unique feature – a catalogue of characters with the known facts about them in ordinary type and the novel’s inventions in italics.
Mortimer’s Deep – It’s Legacy
Mortimer’s Deep was published in 1992 in an edition with a coppery, textured cover by the small Scottish publisher Balnain. But, like its hero, it also travelled on the continent. Mortimer’s Deep was featured on the continent at European bookfairs, thanks to the Scottish Publishers Association (now Publishing Scotland). It was translated by the German publisher Schneekluth. Promoted with a tv appearance and a CD featuring monastic chants, it went through four German editions as Der Mönch – The Monk. Like many queer novels, it found more than one home and survived.
As part of this year’s LGBT History Month, Bob and Sigrid took part in a live webinar conversation on 24 February with Chris Creegan about how queer books tell our story. The conversation ran long over time with thought-provoking questions and comments from those who attended virtually – and their enthusiasm for the books, writers and publishers of the 1980s and 90s who made so much possible today. Thanks especially to writer and mental health campaigner Chris Creegan, Cleo Jones of Edinburgh City Libraries who introduced us, and Pretty Bright who produced our video on unsung queer writers and the webinar. If you missed the conversation or the video, now’s you chance to catch up.
Feel free to leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you.
Why has Rebecca always had a reputation as a queer novel?
Generations of gay men have declaimed the first line, spoken by Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’. But for most of its 82 years in print, critics dismissed it as an ordinary gothic romance.
It has a mysterious mansion, an innocent heroine, an enigmatic hero, a beautiful dead first wife, a sinister housekeeper, and a faithful dog. The heroine is haunted by the first wife and nearly kills herself. But she and the hero end up together.
Still, there was something more going on.
I know when I decided that Rebecca was a queer novel. It was in 1977, when I heard Antonia Fraser (biographer of Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell) and writer Daphne du Maurier go head to head about Rebecca on Radio 3. I remember the programme because I had just come to the UK and discovered Radio 3, and found it fascinating.
Fraser took part in the programme because she found Rebecca fascinating. She had named her eldest daughter for the beautiful and compelling title character. She had become so involved with the story that she decided to rewrite it from Rebecca’s point of view.
In the original story, Rebecca, mistress of Manderley, dies one night in a sailing accident. Everyone (it seems) mourns the loss of such a graceful, spirited, kindly person. Maxim, her widower, marries a naïve young woman, a heroine whose name we are never told. One of life’s lurkers, shy and undistinguished, she wonders endlessly about Rebecca.
Halfway through the action, Maxim reveals that Rebecca’s good qualities were a sham. In reality she was a manipulator and a liar. She enjoyed acting the part of the lady of Manderley while pursuing a hedonistic life in London. She was incapable of love, he insists: ‘she was not even normal’. When she threatened him in her cottage on the beach, he killed her and sank her boat to make it look like an accident.
Fraser wanted to believe that Rebecca was ‘really’ kind and lovely, and that Maxim was the liar. She was reading the novel as young people and fans sometimes do: as a participant, not a spectator.
Du Maurier listened politely to Fraser’s rewritten version of her story. Then she said that, yes, she had to wonder if she had gotten Rebecca completely wrong. But she felt that meddling in other writers’ work could lead in strange directions. As it so happened, she had been doing research into the life of Charles the First, and discovered a manuscript describing his affair with Oliver Cromwell. She said she had no plans to publish this startling revelation, but hoped Fraser would take it as a friendly warning.
Many people must have listened to this talk, and some of them may have wondered about it afterwards. Du Maurier had warned Fraser off elegantly and made her look a bit naïve. (Fraser didn’t seem offended. Her alternative Rebecca story and du Maurier’s riposte were later republished together.) But why had du Maurier used such a daring fantasy to make her point – a fantasy which was a bit beyond the pale? In the 1970s, talking about queer kings at all was pushing the boundaries.
I wondered if there was a covert message in du Maurier’s talk and remembered the line about Rebecca as a woman who could not love; ‘she was not evennormal.’ Not even normal? Were her lovers not normal, or was her attraction to them not normal – because some of them were women?
Maxim also says that Rebecca told him terrible things about herself, things he would never repeat to anyone. What could they have been? Rebecca probably had not told him she was the leader of a Satanic cult or a serial murderer. The phrase was much more likely to mean that she boasted of her sordid affairs with both sexes and that he realised she was one of those ‘reptile women’ who could not feel love, only unnatural lust.
The idea that a book as famous as Rebecca, which had been in print for 39 years at that point, could be ‘a gay novel’ was tremendously exciting. Just four years earlier, Vita Sackville-West’s autobiography had been published. It revealed that Orlando was Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita. Little by little, queer dimensions in writing were emerging. (These days, we even hear that Charles the First may have been attracted to his father’s lover, the Duke of Buckingham.)
Du Maurier herself insisted that Rebecca was not a romance. She called it ‘a study in jealousy’. The most overtly jealous character is the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. She is ‘devoted’ to Rebecca, who called her ‘Danny’. She tells anyone who will listen about Rebecca’s courage, distinction, riding skills, taste in clothes. In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, brilliantly translated to the screen in Hitchcock’s film, she shows the heroine Rebecca’s evening clothes, her nightdress and her bed, encouraging her to touch the satin and put her face against the furs. She is a camp figure, exaggeratedly grim and stark, but for most readers, just a sinister sideline in a story of jealousy in marriage.
But after du Maurier died in 1989, her biographers were able to be truthful about her life. It emerged that she was bisexual and had fallen in love with her publisher’s elegant wife, Ellen Doubleday. She had also had an affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence (though Lawrence’s family deny the idea to this day).
In letters, du Maurier compared Doubleday to Rebecca, seemingly embracing her vision of Rebecca’s beauty and charisma and discarding the dark side. Perhaps du Maurier herself, through her passion for Doubleday, had come to see Rebecca differently.
Du Maurier’s death left other writers free to ignore the warning she gave to Fraser. (In modern publishing, with its publisher-commissioned prequels and sequels, being involved with other writers’ works is not just a temptation, it’s good business.) Sally Beauman, journalist and critic, published Rebecca’s Tale in 2001. It portrays Rebecca as adventurous, romantic, ruthless – and, marginally, bisexual. Meanwhile, one of the characters, her brother, turns out to be gay.
The character of Mrs Danvers – rarely explored in writing – has grown and changed in film and on the stage. Portrayed by powerful actresses such as Judith Anderson, Diana Rigg and Anna Massey, she is no longer the grotesque figure in the novel. In Rebecca, Das Musical, Susan Rigava-Dumas portrays her as darkly beautiful and vital, almost an avatar of Rebecca herself.
This comes closest, perhaps, to a queer reading of du Maurier’s novel. Mrs Danvers, who loved Rebecca, becomes her voice in the world of the living and holds onto her claim to Manderley. But all the major characters, not just Rebecca or Mrs Danvers, could be described as misfits in the world of patriarchy. They are people who don’t belong, sexually and in other ways. It is a novel about three women fighting over a house (and over a man because he brings them a place in that house). Manderley is more than just a mansion – it is the characters’ only chance at a life or a home.
Our views of Rebecca will keep unfolding as queer culture becomes more insightful, as boundaries are rethought, challenged and broken down.
Lavender Menace’s queer books archive is growing. We are cataloguing several recent donations, including one from LGBT Health and Wellbeing, and making some exciting finds.
We’re always looking for out of print and hard-to-find queer books. As everyone who loves books knows, collections can outgrow the space available. If you’ve been thinking that some of yours need a new home, we’re here to help! We can collect donations from your door with all safeguards in place.
We want to keep queer books safe and make a record of them. This image of a sculpture in Berlin shows why. Babelplatz is the square where the Nazis came to celebrate their takeover in 1933 – by burning books. LGBT+ communities suffered terribly under the Nazi regime and afterwards. The Babelplatz sculpture reminds us to safeguard and treasure the books and other materials which trace our history.
If your collection is manageable for now, you can still help us – by using our app, Libib, to make a digital record of your books, and share it with our queer books archive. Some of these books changed lives and we want to make sure they are all remembered.
You may be young, or older, but you could also think about leaving books in your will – many archives are built on this kind of generous bequest.
If you want to know more about donating books, or making a digital record of your collection, you can find out more at our How To Get Involved page.
The collection and the amount of work are growing, and if you are interested in helping us as a volunteer, we’d love to hear from you.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Gollancz, 1938; Virago (present publisher).
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s best known novel, has never been out of print in 82 years. It’s generated sequels, retellings, films, tv series, an internationally staged musical, fanfiction, and a system of codes used by a Nazi spy. Some are better than others – but they keep coming.
Only one character in the novel – the villain – is openly lesbian. But to those in the know, the novel was probably always part of queer culture.
It’s a novel of two women who fight for a beautiful, ancient house. The male character, Maxim, wears the trappings of a gothic hero. But the story is about the power of Manderley and the war between the female characters: the 21 year old second wife and the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who claims the house for the dead first wife, Rebecca.
The story works on many levels and there is something in it for everyone. But gradually the queer content has emerged and, if anything, increased the novel’s appeal.
After du Maurier’s death in 1989, biographies revealed her bisexuality. She saw her creative side as ‘the boy in the box’. He escaped in fantasy and sometimes, in reality. Married with children, she quietly had affairs with women.
Meanwhile, the book, once viewed as a superficial gothic romance, is now seen as a classic – a brilliantly plotted mystery whose characters, like Rebecca herself, have survived – and deepened – long after their time.
The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs: A Revolution in Palaeontology by Adrian Desmond Blond & Briggs, 1975.
QUEER DINOSAUR DISCOVERED! Some people may remember the ITV series based on this illustrated science book, now found mainly in charity shops. The queer dinosaur in the story of this book wasn’t a reptile, he was a human being – an eccentric from another time, who loved publishing, art, boyish girls and girlish boys.
Anthony Blond who founded Blond & Briggs in 1960 was born into a wealthy family who didn’t like him much. His company published everything from classics to trash and liked giving new writers their start. He rescued Simon Raven from drink and debauchery by paying him a salary to write and stay away from London. Raven had earlier written the classic The Feathers of Death, about gay obsession in the military, which was republished by Gay Men’s Press in 1998.
Blond’s autobiography, Jew Made in England (2004), also in the archive, tells the story of his hot-blooded life honestly.
This is a summary of a much longer blog which is in preparation on Anthony Blond and his queer publishing career.
Mortimer’s Deep by Simon Taylor Balnain Books, 1992.
A house of men on an island at the end of the world…
Mortimer’s Deep is a dangerous stretch of water in Fife. It lies between the village of Aberdour and the medieval monastery of Inchcolm on a stark, rocky island. Storms blow up quickly and, even on what starts as a calm day, lives can be lost.
The characters in Simon Taylor’s medieval novel survive the crossing, but they lose their old lives.
How did gay men live in the Middle Ages? Kings and nobles had male lovers or victimised their servants. In monasteries, same-sex relations were probably as common as they are in all-male settings today. There was severe punishment, but also close friendship and loyalty. For some, like Simon Taylor’s characters, the monastery was a home they could not find anywhere else.
Brother Michael flees to Inchcolm to escape his abusive master, Sir William de Mortimer. Michael’s good looks, he tells us, are his curse. His honesty and conscience bring him almost as much trouble.
Brother Simon has a brilliant career in the church in Rome. He is clever, strikingly handsome and ruthless, but his rise to power ends in disaster. In exile on Inchcolm, he is still scheming and involves Michael, his lover, in his web. Royal intrigues, false visions and mysterious deaths unfold – and Michael realises that someone must stop Simon. But it may mean the sacrifice of Michael’s hard-won peace on Inchcolm – or even his life.
The nineties were the age of ‘crossover’ novels and Mortimer’s Deep, a mystery one reviewer called ‘taut as a coiled spring’, is also a gothic novel – centred on the dark island and the monastery, still visible from the Fife coast today. It also has elements of horror and, most of all, a vision of queer history, woven from many sources by Simon Taylor – a medieval scholar and a native of Aberdour.
This is a summary of a longer blog which is in preparation and will appear here soon.
You’ve got your own collection of queer LGBT+ books at home, right? We are encouraging you to create your own queer LGBT+ digital books library and then share it with us. Our long term aim is to create a digital archive of queer LGBT+ out of print and hard to find books which will be interactive and accessible on our website.
Here are a few simple steps to set you on your way.
A love story between a man from earth and a double-sexed alien? This was a genuine case of going where no man had gone before, as Star Trek described it at the time. But The Left Hand’s fine writing and intensely real portrait of another world made it a classic. Now somewhat overshadowed by LeGuin’s Earthsea series, which became a film, The Left Hand remains a powerful story on many levels.
Its hero Genly Ai is sent by a future galactic community as the first to tell the androgynous natives of Winter that they are not alone. He gathers their legends, discovers their culture, and makes his case to kings and politicians. Most on Winter believe him but are puzzled. Why they should care about strange creatures from other planets. While others are put off by his distrust and awkwardness. But when his life is threatened, he has to learn to understand that he and the natives of Winter are not so different.
Lavender Menace‘s copy of The Left Hand of Darkness comes from the infamous Ace Books, who published The Lord of the Rings in the US in violation of copyright law. Like so many queer books in those days, it was bought in a bus station.
The Iron Ladies: Why do Women Vote Tory? By Bea Campbell Virago Press, 1987 ISBN 0860686892
Why do women vote Tory? How would a lesbian Communist journalist know?
Bea Campbell, who worked on City Limits and other papers in London in the 1980s, was curious about the rise of Margaret Thatcher – who did little to help her fellow women Conservatives. She persuaded Tory women to tell her why they supported the party. She didn’t realise that some of the women she interviewed – and especially two, Emma Nicholson and Janet Young – would support Section 28 and impose silence about queer lives on a generation.
Bea Campbell examines the strange and contradictory role of women in the Tory Party. She tells the story of the Primrose League, created by men in the party to channel the energy of Tory women away from equality. They became such a successful workforce that the party has needed them ever since – but kept them firmly in second place, confined to roles as guardians of morality and the family. The Iron Ladies helps explain why angry souls like Emma, now Baroness Nicholson, are still fighting against same-sex marriage and trans equality thirty years later.
This is a shortened version of a longer appreciation of Bea Campbell’s ground-breaking work, which will be published as a longer blog soon.
Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson Women’s Press, 1984 ISBN 0704339439
‘Safe spaces’ in 1984 were thin on the ground
‘Safe spaces’ for queer people were rarely heard of in 1984. This mystery by a lesbian writer explores the idea of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’. In a liberal, wealthy city, challenging the system isn’t supposed to lead to murder. But when Pam’s radical print shop collective proposes to merge with a lesbian typesetter, she is horrified to find the shop’s machinery smashed and one of her co-workers shot dead.
Quiet, methodical Pam teams up with impulsive Hadley from the lesbian collective in order to solve the mystery. At first, they are less than serious, but then they become lovers as well as fellow-sleuths. As Pam tries to come to terms with a complete change in her life, the situation spins out of control – and the police, saboteurs and foreign rebel movements are involved. Pam and Hadley are no longer sure if they can trust anyone – including each other.
Mysteries are one of the most popular types of lesbian books today, but few deal with the world of queer books and presses. Lesbian writer Barbara Wilson, now known as Barbara Sjoholm, founded Seal Press in the US, lived in London in the 1980s, and came to Lavender Menace to read from Murder in the Collective.
This is a taster of a longer appreciation of Wilson’s first crime novel, which will be published as a longer blog soon.
Maybe the Moon Bantam Press 1993, a division of Transworld Publishers Ltd ISBN 0593 027655
The Lavender Menace LGBT+ Archive has been growing for about a year now. One of our books was rescued from a remainder shop – Maybe the Moon by Armistead Maupin, a hardback novel published in 1993. On the front is a ‘friendly label’ showing a catastrophic drop in the price.
Why did the publisher, Transworld, expend so much effort to create a beautiful design? At the time the bookshop opened, few commercial publishers would go anywhere near a lesbian or gay book. We may never know what inspired Transworld’s change of heart. But Maupin’s novel lies at a crossroads in the history of queer books – and of our bookshop itself.
By the 1990s the Tales of the City novels were popular. They had even spawned a tv series (though the negotiations around the queer content led to years of delay.) But, meanwhile, Maupin had moved on to something very different. He was writing and publishing Maybe the Moon.
Tales of the City tells stories of colourful, bohemian San Francisco. They are comic and light-hearted though often serious as well (focussing, for instance, on the HIV epidemic.) Maybe the Moon comes from a very different place – and not just because it’s set in Hollywood.
Maupin’s reading for Maybe the Moon filled West & Wilde’s large shop. Tales of the City fans listened as Maupin explained that this was a different novel, not part of the San Francisco series, based on the life and writings of his friend Tamara De Treaux, who had died recently at age 30.
De Treaux was a Hollywood actor who had played the title role in one of the most famous films of all time, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. But she remained unknown. She played the legendary alien in a rubber suit and was never credited. She was 31 inches tall.
‘She was invisible,’ Maupin told San Francisco Focus magazine in 1992. ‘It occurred to me that there was a very strong parallel between her and lesbian and gay actors who are required to stay invisible, to remain in the closet.’ De Treaux refused to obey the rules and gave interviews about her role to magazines and newspapers, drawing Spielberg’s anger – and Maupin’s respect.
‘She was the inspiration for my character Cady,’ he said. He insisted that Cady was an amalgam of De Treaux’ experience and his own. He believed, he said, in empathy as the basis of storytelling (and living).
Now, almost 30 years later, Maybe the Moon is out of print. The lesbian and gay community (as it was known then) has changed dramatically. But how does the novel read today?
Maupin’s portrait of Cady’s life – seen through her notebooks – is stark. There is gentle humour, as in Tales of the City, but some of it is darker. We learn how Cady copes with people’s ignorance, with constant hostile stares – with living in a ‘normal’ world which is, to her, a set for a film about giants. She lives by her feisty wit, but often has to bite her tongue because there is so much about her life that people simply cannot understand.
And then there’s sex.
To most people, Cady is a sexless freak – but she is strongly heterosexual and frank about it. ‘If sex with a little person was kinky by definition,’ she explains, ‘I had no choice but to embrace kink and be damned grateful for its existence.’
‘It was a question of perception,’ she adds, ‘and taking control of my own destiny.’
Eventually, she falls in love with Neil, a black piano player. He is a loyal friend – and then he and Cady become lovers. Their relationship is affectionate, sexual, and full of humour – even though it is not easy or without cost. One of the best parts of the book is their shy but joyous first night together on Catalina Island.
Meanwhile, Cady’s friends are outsiders like herself: Renee, warm-hearted, generous and somewhat dim, getting older, still single, and very talented at finding the wrong men; Jeff, gay waiter and writer – who is determined never to be closeted, but, like Cady, finds that honesty comes at a price. He helps her in a plot to defy her producer’s orders and appear at a lavish movie event, not as a character in a rubber suit, but as herself.
In his interview for San Francisco Focus, Maupin detailed his own struggles with Hollywood. One producer wanted to make a version of Tales of the City without queer characters. A screenwriter suggested that one of Maupin’s gay characters should become a serial killer.
The UK publisher of Maybe the Moon took a different, positive view. The initial print run of the book was 60,000. At least two versions of the silver-and-lavender cover of our copy were produced, as well as another, different, American cover. Someone thought it was a novel which would be bought and remembered.
It marked a time the lesbian and gay community was becoming the LGBT+ community, making a place to stand and facing outward. Like Cady, we were taking control of our destiny. Maybe the Moon has no lesbian, trans or non-binary characters, but Maupin’s view looks forward to the queer writing of today. It shows the moment we changed our vision: Cadence Roth, sexual outlaw, is straight, but she is also queer.
Footnote: Gay writer Paul Magrs blogged about Maybe the Moon in 2012 at http://lifeonmagrs.blogspot.com/2012/05/maybe-moon-by-armistead-maupin.html. You can see the American cover of Maybe the Moon as part of our banner photo at the top of our website. A new series of Tales of the City was launched on Netflix in 2019, with the same queer characters as the original series and no gay serial killers.
Please leave a comment about this review and your own thoughts if you’ve read the book yourself.
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