Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Celebrate. Read. Celebrate.

By proclamation of the President of the United States, June 2016 is LGBT Pride Month. First celebrated nearly half a century ago, the celebration was first recognized by President Clinton in 2000. President Obama resumed marking it with a presidential proclamation in 2009 and has done so for each year of his presidency.

The event was born in conflict, after a police raid on a gay bar in New York City, the Stonewall Inn, on June 28, 1969. Such raids were common in most, if not all, American cities: sometimes as part of legalized protection rackets enforcement; in others, simply as harassment. Stonewall marked the occasion when the victims fought back.

Since then, LGBT Pride has evolved into celebrations, parades, scholarly symposia, and advocacy events. The month marks a history long suppressed and still being uncovered; celebrates the famous and their contributions, and remembers those called from this life too soon. We mark progress made in realizing the American dream of equal justice under law, and plan the next steps in achieving it.

You had to be there, then, to fully appreciate- and marvel over- how far we have come. LGBT Americans were a community underground, suppressed, vilified, and- mostly-mocked. LGBT books and magazines were a particular target of law enforcement, chiefly by the United States Postal Service. 

Most publishers refused such work; those that made their way into print did so mostly via private, limited publication. Authors often published under a pseudonym- Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt, sold very well, but Highsmith disavowed it for some forty years, fearing the knowledge of her authorship would end her successful career as a novelist and short story author. 

Sometimes LGBT books appeared by happy accident, as with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) and Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent (1961); supporting gay characters in mainstream fiction could exist, but were expected to be unhappy, or mentally unbalanced, tortured souls. In the United States, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder until 1973; it was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom until 1967. 

Biographers airbrushed their subjects; heirs suppressed or destroyed incriminating documents (Henry James was barely dead before his family began planning how to reframe his life, and they assiduously blocked all access to the embarrassing bits of his archive for nearly a century).

There was no LGBT history to speak of; when Martin Duberman and other academics revolted against academic suppression of the field in the early 1970s, their professional association tried to read them out of it entirely.

Stonewall emboldened people One way they expressed that confidence was in the opening of LGBT bookshops in most major American cities. They united a fugitive product with a scattered audience and midwifed the birth of LGBT fiction.

Over time, mainstream bookstores noticed, and began stocking a broader range of titles; the internet sale of books brought them to LGBT readers in the most obscure corners of the land (not always easily: Amazon listed all LGBT works as “adult” material until 2009). Today there are more LGBT writers than you can shake a stick at.

We celebrate writers at Henry Bemis Books; LGBT writers among them. This month, we’ll be featuring one each day- "Pride Month Profiles"- in addition to our regular offerings. Their lives and works are monuments to battles lost and won, and more yet to be fought. We all stand on their shoulders.

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