Paying it Forward


My wife, Susie, gave me my first lesbian fiction novel when I was nineteen years old.  It was Rita Mae Brown’s Venus Envy.  I thought it was pretty interesting, and I wished there were a lot more people taking a crack at lesbian love stories, but our local bookstore had no section for such novels.  I never saw them in grocery stores or on course syllabi in any of the English classes. None of my college friends had ever read any of them either. As a child of the Internet age, it probably seems odd to say I never looked there, but I didn’t think to search for something I didn’t know existed.

Then, my junior year in college I got involved in the PRIDE group at Illinois State University. Part of my job was to make sure our office was staffed five hours a week, which involved me sitting on a folding chair in a tiny cubicle in the basement of the Student Services Building. No one stopped by because virtually no one knew the space existed, and aside from some old posters and out-of-date textbooks, we didn’t have anything to offer them. We didn’t even have room for them to sit down. Most of the time I did homework or stared at the walls. Then one day I arrived to find a box of books on the floor. The student in the cubicle next to ours said, “Two women dropped those off. They don’t have room for them anymore.”

I dragged the book into the office thinking that we didn’t really have room for them either. They looked old and musty, probably more textbooks from days when we were called “sexual inverts.” I picked one up and scanned the back cover to realize I couldn’t have been more wrong.  They were novels, novels by women I’d never heard of, women with names like Vin Packer and Ann Bannon. Some of them had comic-book style covers and comical titles labeling their subjects as “stranger” or “of the shadows.”  I had been an English minor and a Women’s Studies minor for years, but I had no idea what I was looking at.  I had no idea lesbian pulp fiction had ever existed. I sat on the floor and dug deeper into the box until I came across some mellower titles.  I read the backs of each of them until I found one about a cabby who fell for an Ivy-league college student. The book apparently told their story across the backdrop of the budding women’s movement.

I began reading Lee Lynch’s Toothpick House right there on the floor, and that’s how I finished it.  I felt like she’d written it for me, right now, instead of the year I was born. I couldn’t believe stories like that had been around my whole life and no one had told me about them. I went through the entire box.  Week by week I taught myself the classics, or at least the ones I had access to.  I also began to write about them. I wrote reflections on them in my English classes; I wrote analyses of them for my Women’s Studies classes; I even wrote a term paper for a political science course on their role in raising public awareness. As I did my research, I found more books, newer ones, ones being published right then. I read everything I could get my hands on. I bought as many as I could afford until I was literally paying for them with dimes and nickels. Then when I ran out of books to read, I started to write my own. I wrote during my free time; I wrote during my office hours; I during my classes. I haven’t stopped writing since.

Years later I ended up back at Illinois State University with Lee Lynch. I sat in one of my old classrooms listening to one of my heroes talk to a group of women at the National Women’s Music Festival, and I realized I’d come full circle. I’d signed a contract with Bold Strokes Books to publish that book I’d written in these classrooms.  I was sitting alongside the author who’d introduced me to a genre I’d come to consider my own.  As I listened while she graciously answered questions and offered advice to budding writers, I wondered how I could ever repay her or those women who’d shared her books with me.

Since then I’ve written five more books, and I’ve come to consider Lee a very dear friend and mentor, but I still don’t know the names of those women who left the books outside that basement office in the Student Services Building.  I’ve come to realize I’ll never be able to repay those debts I incurred at Illinois State University.  There’s no way to pay someone back for showing you your life’s work, but for the first time in my career I feel like I’m in a position to pay it forward.

Last year, the administration of Illinois State allowed for the creation of an LGBT Center.  It’s a real office, a space where students can gather, filled with bookcases, tables, and plenty of chairs. It’s a place where students and faculty can plan events like the one I attended last fall to share my work with Redbirds old and new.  I choked up when I saw all the books lining the shelves and thought of all the students to come who would finally get to know them for the treasures they are. The only problem is that the center is not currently funded, meaning it has no assigned staff, no programing budget, and very little opportunity for students to access the space. What the point of having an LGBT student center if no one gets to use it? So I’ve stepped into leading a fundraising campaign for the center.

This is my chance to give back, not to Lee Lynch or to the women who shared their books with me, but to every student who’s never had a chance to experience the treasures they shared with me. I would be deeply honored if those of you who love gay and lesbian literature would join me in helping to make sure the books we love are accessible for the next generation of readers by making a donation for any amount here  And if you’ve got suggestions for other ways to reach out to the readers of the future, I’d love to hear about them in the comment sections of this blog.

9 Responses to “Paying it Forward”

  1. 1 S.A. April 2, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    Excellent post – and what a good cause! I, too, discovered lesbian fiction in college (via the internet, in my case, as we also didn’t have a very well-developed LGBT center on campus). Thanks for working to get the new-and-improved LGBT center at ISU actually accessible and available.


  2. 2 Lee Lynch April 2, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    This is what it’s all about, investing in the next and next and next generations so we’re never silenced and hiding in the shadows again. Thanks for paying it forward, Rachel, and helping me to realize my dream.


  3. 3 Anita Bradshaw April 2, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    Great post, Rach. Thank you. My school didn’t have an office, a group or anything. My last semester there was one issue of the student newspaper on the “underground, closeted homosexuals” on campus. My girlfriend and I were do deeply underground and closeted that we didn’t have a clue there were others like us. But, I do remember we sat in our bedroom reading the issue in amazement. There was a quote from some leader of one of the conservative religious groups who talked about homosexuals weren’t natural or normal. We looked at each other and said “I feel pretty natural and normal. Don’t you?” Lots of schools have come a long way since then. Thanks for paying it forward. I think I should look up the LGBTQ group at James Madison University and see if they could use some help. Thanks!


  4. 4 Erin Saluta April 3, 2013 at 12:35 AM

    Wow! What a story! I love introducing our younger generation to books and am still a little shocked when they tell me they didn’t realize it existed. Not sure what else to suggest but admire your drive and dedication. Thank you.


  5. 5 Devlyn April 3, 2013 at 6:31 AM

    You are right Rachel, wonderful authors like Lee and now you have inspired many of us and continue to do so. It is so important that we keep this good work moving forward and out of the backwater areas you speak of.
    While future generations will always have the Internet or its next invention to seek out information it is the connections made through GLBTI organisations that will make them feel welcomed and important. Your and Lee’s and other Authors who make yourselves accessible to readers also does this. What a wonderful cause you are assisting with.


  6. 6 Gun Brooke April 3, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    Tweeted, Facebooked and Tumblr’d your link, Rachel! I got all choked up from reading this and I hope my actions help a little bit at least. Thanks for sharing this in such a wonderful way – and for such a worthy cause.



  7. 7 Kim April 3, 2013 at 3:58 PM

    Thanks for sharing. Much better alternative these days to subbing a female “hero” for the Harlequin romance male lead like I did in college 30 years ago. Yes those books were out there but I certainly had no intro to them.


  8. 8 Lyn April 4, 2013 at 8:29 AM

    I am retired and came to everything LGBT late in life especially the books and since I am such a reader once I discovered them I bought every book I could get my hands on many via used book sites. I ran out of room to store them all so I went through them all saved those I thought I would reread and took 10 big boxes of them to the LGBT center at my local university. They were just the opposite of Rachel’s Uni space and organization but no books of fiction. I pretty much started their library with all of your books and they had people who cataloged etc for a project.
    Since then I have given them more except for Rad books of which I kept every one. One time I wrote Rad and asked her if she would donate some of hers to my local university because I felt badly for them not having any of those great books. She said she would and that is one way everyone who is cleaning out can help out.


  9. 9 georgi55555 April 8, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    This is a very good post, highlighting the importance of thinking about our community and the next generation who need to learn and feel part of it all. While I think it is wonderful for your university to have donations coming in, living, as I do, in Scotland, I wish we could all stretch this idea further into a global concept of creating local lgbtq libraries in an LGBTQ Global Outreach project. Particularly for the young or the questioning of any age, finding that book is like finding a friend and a possible haven from bullying or loneliness, or simply to celebrate a lifestyle forged in silence. What about building an LGBTQ Outreach website with links to Boldstrokes and Bella etc with a donation button to fund libraries worldwide and to pay for the upkeep of the website.


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