A window into a hidden, underground culture.
They have campy cover illustrations and titillating titles: Sappho, Dusky Dyke, When Men Meet. Published in the 1950s and ’60s, paperback novels with gay and lesbian themes also hooked readers with back-cover blurbs about conflicted characters. There was Millie from Dormitory Women, who “wanted desperately to be like the other girls.” And Jackie from Male Bride, who “found himself more attracted to men than to women” and “was led down the aisle into the twilight world of desire and dreams.”
Last spring, undergraduates perused the pulp novels in a history and gender studies course called Queer on the Quads: Uncovering LGBTQ History at the University of Chicago. To glimpse lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer life in decades past, they also examined sociologists’ field notes, newspaper clippings, and other primary sources in the Special Collections Research Center.
Sold at drugstores and newsstands around the country, gay- and lesbian-themed paperbacks circulated freely with science fiction, romance, and mystery titles. Instructor Monica Mercado, AM’06, a PhD student in history, explained to students how the popular, inexpensive novels gave small-town readers a window to another world. “We had an interesting conversation about networks of communication,” she says, “and where people got information—right, wrong, or even ‘trashy’—at a time when gay culture was largely hidden and underground.”
The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality is collecting oral histories and archival materials to document the LGBTQ experience at the University. For more, see “Desire for History” in the Core.