As lesbian authors, we’re often asked what the most influential books for us were, or which lesfic titles were our “firsts.” I had some odd lesfic firsts, but the very firsts are the titles below.
The Well of Loneliness
This iconic book in lesbian literature is considered the very first lesbian novel. Written in 1928 by British author Radclyffe Hall, it was met with severe backlash, but interestingly, support as well. Although the only hint of sex between the two female lovers came in the words “and that night, they were not divided," it was considered obscene by some and there were trials in the U.K. and U.S. to determine whether it should be banned. The U.K. court ordered the book to be destroyed; the New York Court in the U.S. decided that there wasn’t anything in the book that could truly be held up as obscene and charges were dropped.
Hall herself was a masculine lesbian and wrote The Well of Loneliness in an attempt to convince the world that “inverts” (a term from psychology that gay people were called back then) were created by God in the same way as anyone else and should be allowed to live in peace like anyone else. Although the book is filled with many things that would be deemed today as self-recriminations, it was the first book that ever attempted to defend homosexuality. The Well of Loneliness has been a must-read for out-and-coming-out lesbians for generations for several reasons:
1. It was the first. In an era when it was considered wrong to even entertain gay thoughts, and people were imprisoned if they wore clothing of the opposite sex, or institutionalized if suspected of having “immoral tendencies,” it took guts. It’s also a masterpiece in literary terms alone.
2. It spawned a few other titles that tried to achieve a similar goal, and although things didn’t go the way readers would have wanted, it began the dialogue. The pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s were written for titillation purposes. They never ended well for the lesbians and were meant as lessons in morality. Change comes in an evolution, not in one bold move.
3. It’s a snapshot in time. Today’s lesbian characters live lives like everyone else. Often their sexual preferences are not even an issue. Unlike the pulp novels, which killed or punished the “predatory” lesbian to make a moral point, Hall was just being true to life in the turn-of-the-20th-century world.
Rubyfruit Jungle came out in 1973 and is considered one of the first "modern" lesbian novels. Many lesbians revere it for its realistic portrayal of lesbian life. By that, I mean that it tells the story of a girl who realizes that she's gay at a young age and the various situations she deals with because of that realization. The book doesn't romantacize lesbian romance, but portray a "normal" person on her way to coming out.
This is actually a series, known as The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, but I’ll count it here as one. Written by Ann Bannon, under the pseudonym Ann Weldy, it was a pulp fiction series that became a cult classic in the lesbian world. First published in the early 1960s, it tells the story of a Midwestern woman who goes to New York in order to live the way she wants to live. It was probably the first time a butchy woman is portrayed unabashedly. A number of years ago, Beebo Brinker was turned into an off-off-Broadway play in New York.
The Price of Salt
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was a groundbreaking novel in that it actually had a happy ending, unlike most other lesbian-themed novels. Considering it was published in 1952, that was pretty badass of Highsmith. Salt was the basis for the Oscar-nominated film Carol.
And probably the oddest title on this list…
Never heard of it? That’s because it’s not a novel, but it is about lesbians. Lesbian nuns, to be exact.
Why would I want to read a book about lesbian nuns?
When you’re raised Catholic, you’re taught that sex is bad unless you’re doing it for procreation.
It’s also ingrained in you that priests and nuns are considered above other people. There’s a mystique around them, and we’re taught to trust them, revere them, and even fear them. Priests take a vow of chastity, something that’s unique to Catholic clergy. But even stranger than that is the ritual that nuns go through.
They marry God.
I mean, they actually have a wedding-like ceremony in which the novices (sort of pre-nuns) wear wedding dresses, walk down the aisle of a church, put on a ring, and take vows of fidelity. They are then dubbed “brides of Christ.”
This is real.
So when a book comes along that suggests that nuns are not only running around having sex, but that they’re having sex with each other…that almost blew my head off.
This was important to me because, as a good, Italian, Roman Catholic girl, I wasn’t alone in my “strange ways.” I realized that if these women, who gave themselves to serving God and the Church, could feel those things and act upon them, then these ways were not just normal but human. And I decided that to expect humans to be abstinent was not only unreasonable but detrimental. Tell someone they can’t have something and you’re asking for trouble.
Lesbian Nuns is a collection of true stories—real women who struggled with their beliefs, their urges, and their identities, many before the sexual revolution and gay rights movement. Some people still struggle to come out of the closet today—imagine what it was like for nuns back in the day.
So there you have it. The first 5 lesfic titles of my life. We’ve come a long way, baby.