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Pulp fiction: Valerie Taylor, lesbian literature and 1950s America

Pulp fiction

Before there was Armistead Maupin, there was Valerie Taylor. Jennifer Dentel, researcher and curator at Chicago’s Gerber/Hart library and archive, on America’s first great author of books published in the lesbian pulp fiction genre.

It was 1953 and Velma Nacella Young was trapped in a bad marriage. Working under the pseudonym of Valerie Taylor, she wrote her first novel, a lusty pulp set on a Midwestern farm, and its success changed her life. Using the US$500 proceeds, she bought a pair of shoes, two new dresses, a divorce and uprooted to Chicago with her children to live in a community of artists.

Between 1957 and 1977, she published nine lesbian novels with her first, Whisper Their Love, selling two million copies and considered an historic milestone for their realistic portrayal of lesbian life. Later described by Joan Nestle of the Lesbian Herstory Archives as ‘survival literature’, the lurid, pulp aesthetic often hid the very real political significance of the genre, specifically by lesbian authors such as Taylor.

Throughout her novels, she provided critical resources for her hidden queer readership, inserting references to tangible gay literature, safe spaces and terminology to help educate on homosexuality and to map underground Chicago for its disparate gay community. Much of Taylor’s written and political work has been forgotten, but in her time, she was unique as one of the first lesbian authors to be visibly active in gay liberation fronts. She was involved in a forerunner to Stonewall, the Mattachine Society, and was dubbed the ‘lesbian grandmother of America’.

In the 1950s and 60s, lesbian pulp novels were largely written by men; often voyeuristic and titillating with lurid covers and purple prose designed to cater to a largely heterosexual male audience. They were by no means strictly queer sites. In fact, quite often the opposite. In 1967, the editors of lesbian magazine, The Ladder, developed a ranking system to help better distribute texts with positive representations of gay women called The Lesbian in Literature.

They ranked nearly all pulp novels with a T – for Trash, that is to say, the ‘quality is essentially poor’. However, lesbian pulp authors did exist within the genre, and Valerie Taylor was one of the most prolific. Hidden among the more overt features of the genre, she managed to subvert the pulp formula to offer gay readers a cloaked forum for an underground gay identity and lifestyle by presenting factual as fiction.

Taylor set much of her work in Chicago in the American Midwest. Like the rest of the US homosexuality was illegal in the 1950s in Chicago’s state of Illinois and while Chicago was a large, vibrant city with a thriving network of queer bars and spaces, the surrounding area was largely rural farmland.

Many of the characters in Taylor’s novels arrive in the city from the farm or country and experience their first taste of a different life. As one of the roommates in The Girls in 3B remarks, ‘somewhere in this big city is all the romance and beauty and excitement I’ve always wanted to find.’

In the story of queer history of the US, the Midwest and Chicago is largely ignored in favor of San Francisco and New York. However, the Midwest and Chicago has played a very important role in queer history and the study of sexuality, with milestones such as the first US gay rights organisation, Kinsey’s groundbreaking studies of sexuality, and Naiad Press, the oldest lesbian publishing house, all breaking in this region.

One key theme throughout all of Taylor’s novels is how books could be a passive, codified tool that brought queer people closer together across the obvious social boundaries and could educate themselves and others about homosexuality. Several of her characters are given books that spark their lesbian awakening, and many of these titles existed in real life with the potential to inspire further reading.

In The Girls in 3B, the character Barby receives a lesbian novel from her boss, Miss Gordon, with whom she ends up in a relationship. After reading it, Barby is entranced: ‘It was like stepping into a new world…Was it possible she belonged in that world, too?’

This idea of books spurring self-discovery and revelation is echoed in World Without Men. Kate spends the day in her neighbour Erika’s apartment and examines her bookshelves to find very real titles such as We Walk Alone (by Ann Aldrich), Whisper Their Love (Taylor’s own novel), and Edge of Twilight (by Paula Christian). After Kate reads all day, Erika comes home and notes, tongue-in-cheek, ‘a certain lack of variety in [her] reading’. Kate responds that she discovered something about herself through reading, to which Erika replies ‘come to bed and I’ll show you what you found out about yourself.’

While Taylor frequently referred to notable queer books and places that existed in real-time, she also used her novels to illuminate the harsh and oftentimes lonely reality of being gay in the city. Bars and bar raids were a frequent subject in her novels. In the 1950s and 1960s, bars were one of the few places where gay people could socialise outside of parties in private homes. Taylor writes several fictional gay bars into her novels, but also gives specific intersections and areas of Chicago that mirrored the locations of real bars that existed at this time. While Karla’s Place, The Spot, and Happi Time were not the names of real bars, Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot and the Fun Lounge were.

The Pub, one of the bars in Taylor’s novel, is specifically described as being on the ‘ragged edge of the theater district,’ while, Karla’s Place is located ‘on the near North Side…just outside the business district’ and Jo and Richard in Unlike Others go to a bar called The Spot ‘north of Randolph on Wabash’ to which Taylor even gives driving directions. These locations are accurate descriptions of where many of Chicago’s gay bars were in the 1950s and 1960s. By inserting these references, Taylor gives her readers a coded, but very much accurate queer roadmap of Chicago.

Taylor’s work was intensely critical of police entrapment and bar raids, as well as the legal and psychological standing of homosexuals and these criticisms cropped up in her pulp work. In Stranger on Lesbos, Frances is taken to jail when police raid Karla’s Place. She is subsequently outed to her husband who she has to call for bail money. Most notably, a prisoner at the jail says, ‘It’s better to pay then get their names in the paper and maybe lose their jobs.’

When bars were raided, names were printed in the newspapers and people often lost their jobs. Some even committed suicide. Aside from raids, it was also common for the Chicago Police to practice entrapment with male cops posing as homosexuals to root out and arrest men who took them up on offers of sex or companionship.

In Unlike Others, Jo’s friend Richard is at a gay bar called Happi Time when he accepts a proposition from a stranger who turns out to be a cop. In 1964, shortly after the publication of Unlike Others, Chicago’s Fun Lounge was raided, and more than 100 arrests made. While the newspapers could not mention all the names, they made sure to print those of the eight teachers detained. The charges were dropped but the consequences of having their names in print made this correction largely irrelevant. In Unlike Others, when discussing worries that Richard’s name would be printed, his friends ask what he does for a living and then reply ‘could be worse. He could be a teacher.’

Valerie Taylor resented being thought of as merely a pulp novelist. She was a lifelong activist who began writing lesbian fiction because she ‘thought that we should have some books about lesbians who acted like human beings.’ She was also a poet and was politically active, involved in the founding of one of Chicago’s earliest homophile organisations, Mattachine Midwest and the Lesbian Writers’ Conference.

Later in her life, Taylor entered into a relationship with activist and lawyer Pearl Hart some of whose case work filtered into Taylor’s novels. For instance, Marjorie Mary Harris, ‘Mag’, the columnist who helps to get a gay male friend out of jail in Unlike Others draws on Hart’s specific cases as a criminal defense attorney.

Taylor’s activism is apparent throughout her novels, and while they are predominantly romances, she used the pulp genre to fulfil a redemptive purpose for a hidden community of readers. In her work as an activist, she explicitly stated her intentions to use the pulp medium as both a way to educate heterosexuals and provide positive lesbian representations.

In a 1961 interview with Mattachine, Taylor acknowledged that fiction was a way to reach people who were ignorant of homosexuals, stating that while most people would likely not buy a scientific textbook, ‘they will spend 35 cents for a paperback with a lurid cover that they can read on the bus.’

Taylor moved to Arizona in the 1970s, continuing to publish novels and poetry, and passed away in 1997 at the age of 84. Her pulps are remarkable, realistically portraying lesbian lives. Without giving in to the voyeuristic tendencies of most lesbian pulps, she portrays her characters as ‘people who acted human, who had problems, and families, and allergies, and jobs, and so on.’  These women are sympathetic characters with chances at love, community and careers.

While this seems minor given the huge advancements in gay visibility and rights since the 1960s, positive representations of lesbians both humanised this minority group to heterosexual readers at a time of intense political persecution and provided a lifeline for a lesbian audience. In this way, Valerie Taylor’s early novels subverted the typical lesbian pulp narrative. She consistently appealed to her readers to see the injustice in treating gay people differently and the logic of allowing people to go about their personal lives in private. Her novels showed her readers proof of a lesbian world and provided resources for them to access it. This visibility and depiction were critical when they were published and her novels remain a beautiful, realistic picture of midcentury lesbian life in Chicago.

Jennifer Dentel is an independent researcher and curator from Chicago. She currently works at Gerber/Hart, an LGBTQ library and archive specialising in the LGBTQ history and culture of Chicago and the Midwest. In addition to her research on pulp author and activist Valerie Taylor, she has co-curated several exhibits at Gerber/Hart, including on pre-Stonewall activism, the history of drag in Chicago, and lesbians and feminism in Chicago in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her chapter on ‘Midwestern farmers’ daughters: heartland values and cloaked resistance in the novels of Valerie Taylor’ features in Queer Between the Covers: Histories of Queer Publishing and Publishing Queer Voices (University of London Press).

Image: ‘They came to the city fascinated, frightened – hungering after life.’ Cover of The Girls in 3-B, Valerie Taylor (1959).

 

 

 

 

 

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