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 No one stopped by because virtually no one knew the space existed, and aside from some old posters and out-of-date textbooks, we didn’t have anything to offer them.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 http://lgbtq.illinoisstate.edu/giving. 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.