The Way We Were
Victor J. Banis
In its own little way, in its own little niche, the genre of glbt fiction is healthy and prospering today. A score or more of small independent publishers release novels and short stories each month in which men love men, often quite graphically, women love women (ditto), and transgendered individuals find happiness by the closing pages. It was not always so, however.
One of the upsides of being as old as I am is, I was privileged to be not only a witness to the gay publishing revolution of the 60s and 70s, but a participant in it as well. And I say “revolution” in the fullest sense of its meaning, because it was indeed a revolution that occurred then, for publishers, writers, and readers as well.
True, there had been gay novels before then, and gay and lesbian characters in many “straight” novels, but the difference was that they mostly had to be either objects of ridicule, or shown as bad people doing naughty things, for which they must be punished in the end, usually by being killed off, though a few were graciously allowed to live so long as they were cured by the last chapter. As late as the mid-fifties, U.S. Courts held that homosexuality, even without erotic content, was in itself sufficient to find a book to be obscene. To show gays or lesbians in a positive light was to invite arrest and prosecution.
My first published novel, The Affairs of Gloria (1963), had a couple of decidedly tepid lesbian scenes, at a time when the U.S. Government, alarmed by the beginning rumblings of the sexual revolution, had determined to stamp out this deviant sexual behavior—certainly they meant to eliminate literary depictions of it. As many already know, I was arrested on obscenity charges for those lesbian scenes and subjected to a lengthy trial, the intent of which was to send me off to prison for ten years. The attempt failed and I was acquitted, but only on a legal technicality.
Now, a sensible person would have read the handwriting on the wall and concluded that I wasn’t likely to be so lucky a second time. I felt, however, as if my constitutional right to freedom of speech had been violated, and in case you’ve never thought about it, without the right to hold and express a contrary opinion, the rest of any so-called democracy is a sham.
Determined that I would not be intimidated, I wrote a book that spoofed the then popular spy genre – The Man From U,N.C.L.E. in particular, and James Bond. I called mine The Man From C.A.M.P., and its protagonist, Jackie Holmes, was perhaps the most positive gay character in fiction to date. What’s more, the endings were invariably happy. Jackie got his man in the end. The book was published in 1966 by a very brave Greenleaf Classics, and eight more books followed, with wonderful covers by artist Robert Bonfils that left no doubt what kind of reading this was.
Readers took to this new kind of gay fiction like ducks to water. Other writers followed my example, other publishers followed Greenleaf, and a revolution was born. In the ten years leading up to 1966, there were a few hundred gay novels published, mostly, as I have said, of the doom-and-gloom variety. In the ten years after, thousands of gay novels of every genre and description, poured into the newly invigorated market, paving the way for today’s seemingly limitless offerings.
It was a heady time for gay writers—writing every day as we did with the threat of arrest and prison hanging over our heads. Each week a small band of us would rush down to Circus Books on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, to check out the new paperback releases and see how far the barriers had been pushed this go-round in terms of words and sexual content. Then home we’d go to see if we could push them a little further. There were other arrests, and other trials, but the tide could not be turned back, and in time, the Federal government bowed to the new reality.
The Stonewall uprising more or less cemented the burgeoning gay liberation movement, but in the publishing arena, the victory was already ours.
Did the gay revolution, with which the publishing upheaval went hand-in-hand, solve all our problems? No, it doesn’t work that way. For starters, it takes roughly a century for the dust to settle from any revolution. It wasn’t until the Civil War that the American Revolution really worked itself out, and Russians are still trying to come to terms with the events of 1917. The social revolution of the 1960s will be complete when all those who were around before it occurred are gone, and a generation has grown up that did not know firsthand what it was like before. Still, it behooves us all to remember that there are people out there, some of them with considerable power, who would like nothing better than to shove all of us—gays, women, blacks, et al—back in our closets and nail the doors shut. At the very least, it’s wise to learn what the past was, in order to best avoid its being repeated.
Now, about those books being published today: to tell the gospel truth, I think many of them are better than what we did then—it’s easier to follow the trail already blazed. Still, the next time you pick up and enjoy an offering from Dreamspinner Press, or MLR, or Amber Allure, or any of the other many publishers in the field, or send them your novel to publish, bear in mind that a host of men and women, gay and straight, struggled mightily to pave that road you are following. And while you’re at it, give a little nod in the direction of Jackie Holmes. He’ll appreciate it.
And so will I.
I'd like to thank Victor for taking the time to share an eagle's eye view of the path we tread today in the world of LGBTQ fiction. I am so thankful for him, and the other pioneers who paved the way.
Though, sadly, the original Man from C.A.M.P. is out of print, you can get a newer edition over at MLR press. The cover still manages to achieve that swanky, smexy, old schooly Austin Powers kinda feel, and I know Victor's words still pack a punch. Go take a look, and pay homage to one of the folk who blazed the trail for so many of the authors you love today.
Victor J. Banis is a writer. A wonderful writer... and if you want the full story on that I suggest you check out the eye-opening bio on his website. You won't be sorry. Oh, and be sure to leave a comment on the blog complete with contact info. One lucky commenter will receive a complementary copy of the new edition of The Man From C.A.M.P.