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Passions Uncovered: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Pulps


A magazine or book printed on cheap paper (as newsprint) and often dealing with sensational material; also sensational or tabloid writing - often used attributively [pulp fiction].
-- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Welcome to Passions Uncovered, an exhibition of selected book covers from gay, lesbian and transgender-themed vintage paperbacks held by the University of Saskatchewan Library’s Special Collections Division.

Passions Uncovered is a contribution to Saskatchewan Resources for Sexual Diversity (SRSD), a project established in 2004 to improve access to information on gender and sexual diversity available in the province’s libraries and archives.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, before the widespread diffusion of television, reading paperback fiction was one of the favorite pastimes of the working class. Popular genres included mystery and detection, true crime, westerns, science fiction and romance. Pulp fiction books were inexpensive (selling for 25 or 35 cents), readily available in dime stores, drugstores, bus depots, newsstands and featured illustrated covers designed to immediately catch the shoppers’ eye. The writing was accessible and unaffected by the high-minded attentions of literary critics, traditional booksellers, and public librarians.

Lesbian and gay-themed paperbacks were first produced in the early 1950s and immediately racked up impressive sales figures. Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s widely publicized studies on human sexuality published in 1948 and 1953 increased American public interest in same-sex behaviors and relationships. The earliest lesbian and gay paperbacks were reprints of either classic European titles or of recent novels by literary authors such as James Baldwin, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. Original lesbian paperbacks were pioneered by New York’s Fawcett Books in 1952 with the inclusion of Spring Fire by Vin Packer (pseudonym of Marijane Meaker) in their Gold Medal series of paperback originals. Spring Fire was an enormous success selling over a million and a half copies, encouraging Fawcett and other mainstream publishers to produce hundreds of other homosexual-themed titles.

“A theme too important to keep from the light”
- Pulp blurb

Frequently queer pulp authors wrote pseudonymously (some assuming several names of varying genders) to hide their true identities and to protect the prospects of their writings in other genres. Many lesbian novels were written by men (both straight and gay) and occasionally by heterosexual women. The minority of lesbian novels actually written by lesbians tended to be more realistic, less sensational and reasonably sympathetic. By contrast, gay-themed works were more likely to actually be authored by male homosexuals.

The readership of lesbian-themed works was also more varied. Many were clearly published to satisfy the prurient curiosity of heterosexual men. To the surprise of some publishers these were also eagerly purchased by lesbians and heterosexual women. With the notable exception of the estimable historical novels of lesbian Mary Renault (all previously published in hardback), the readership of gay-themed paperbacks appears to have been predominantly male and homosexual.

“What depths will the human heart plumb to satisfy the insatiable lusts of the flesh?”
- Pulp blurb

Early queer pulps have often been dismissed as badly written, melodramatic, and formulaic in their reliance on a few unhappy stereotypes. All these factors contribute to their current camp appeal. Then popular (mis)understandings of psychology and psychiatry attributed the homosexuality of characters to juvenile seductions, prison rapes and to parental absences and abuse. On the other hand, a number of lesbian and gay pulps were very well written by authors of indisputable talent including Ann Bannon (pseudonym of Ann Thayer), Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lawrence Block and Patricia Highsmith. Besides the provocative cover art, perhaps the only other near universal feature of the genre was the requisite tragic ending. Editors and publishers needed a legal defense against possible condemnation or censorship and demanded that authors provide ‘moral’ conclusions in which the queer characters might be redeemed by heterosexual marriages, or punished by abandonment, fatal accidents, murder and suicide.

Vintage lesbian and gay paperbacks are now avidly collected for their lurid cover illustrations. Beyond offering a retro flavor of their times, these pulps are important sources of information for those interested in both queer and broader social history during the mid twentieth century. The decade of the 1950s is commonly and mistakenly viewed as a time of universal ‘traditional’ heterosexuality and suburban domesticity. These pulps, however, clearly document the rapid emergence of gay and lesbian communities in urban centres - a phenomenon which seems to have equally fascinated and disturbed the wider public. Paperback publishers catered to this interest by producing books that both challenged and defended traditional sexual attitudes and gender roles.

Despite their many biases and inaccuracies, for isolated gays and lesbians across North America these books were a vital source of information and provided some hope for a freer life. According to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the act of taking one of these paperbacks off the drugstore rack and paying for it at the counter was a frightening and difficult experience for most. Nevertheless, these pulps were so influential in the coming-out process and in the building of community that lesbian historian Joan Nestle has labeled them ‘survival literature’.

If you have comments or questions about this exhibition or if you wish to contribute additional pulp titles to our collection please contact us.

(To examine the front and back covers of some of our most interesting pulps please click on the images in our Gallery of Covers. To browse catalogue records for all of our LGBT pulp titles click on Catalogue of Our Pulp Collection. You will find links to more information on gay, lesbian and transgender pulp literature and to similar exhibits on our Pulp Resources.)

“Gay paperbacks might reflect the prejudices of the day in either text or cover - or both. Or they might not. Either way, they popularized the subject by disseminating millions of images of homosexuals. These images were at once public and private, because a book, especially a paperback designed to be carried in the pocket, is first seen publicly on the drugstore rack, and later looked at and read in private or even in secret, often at night…. So began the demythologizing of that chimaera The Homosexual.”
--- Ian Young, The Paperback Explosion: How Gay Paperbacks Changed America