LGBT people have a glorious history. Colorful. Courageous. We built a creative culture even when the Law had us in its teeth. Yes, we were fearful, but collectively not so fearful that we gave up and disappeared. Yes, we hid from the world, but we hid in plain sight. And at night, when we came out of hiding at our bars, cafes, and other gathering places, we emerged as butterflies of exquisite design. We were damned spiffy.
Those underground years are largely gone. I can almost hear many of us say, “And good riddance!” After all, who wants to be arrested just for dancing with a partner of the same sex? Who wants to be roughed up by the cops in a raid? I know I sure don’t.
But I don’t want to elide that history, either. As we advance in our struggle for our civil and human rights, sometimes that history gets hidden in the attic, like the batty and slightly dangerous maiden aunt whose presence isn’t convenient when the nice neighbors come to call.
The result of these ornery feelings of mine is “Criminal Gold,” my debut novel, recently released by BSB. The story takes place in New York City in 1949, and the projected series will run through the 1950s, when dyke life was hidden, but exciting. Here in New York, dyke culture of that time was rich with style, sensuality, and even romantic intrigue, depending on which nightspots you frequented. Legally, though, those years were not kind to Lesbians. Raids and arrests were rampant. Punishment included not just incarceration but commitment to psycho wards, where attempts to “cure” same-sex attraction included all manner of horrific therapies. So Criminal Gold’s protagonist, Cantor Gold, is risking her life by living as an out and well-tailored butch in 1949. Some people might say she was crazy.
In the real world, Cantor might certainly be crazy to expose herself to such danger. But in the world of fiction, particularly genre fiction, Cantor Gold is able to make her stand, dare the bullies, defy the Law. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that this is the second time I’ve capitalized “Law.” No, it’s not a typo. I think of the Law as a living entity, a body endowed with the authority to do either harm or good. Too often in our LGBT history, it has done harm. The Law with a capital L is not neutral, as a lower case “law” would be. Capitalized, it conveys an oppressive authority.) Cantor, by choosing to make her living as an art smuggler, has made the decision to ignore the Law. She feels no allegiance to an entity which considers her a criminal merely for being alive. She has the courage—the authorities would say she has the unmitigated gall—to recognize the falsehood of “equal protection” and “equal justice.” So despite the risk of arrest, or even death, Cantor lives as she pleases, makes love to whom she pleases. And she triumphs, too, earning fistfuls of cash and living very well, right under the nose of the Law that wants to destroy her.
Writing Cantor’s story in the crime and mystery genre allows great freedom in creating her world. I consider genre fiction—mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc.—as cultural folk tales, mythologies which express our fears, desires and aspirations. And like all mythologies, folk tales serve to celebrate our triumphs, and explain and even justify our defeats. Thus, genre fiction is not always reflective of the real world, but it is often reflective of our dreams, the aspirations of our deepest selves, allowing us to go along for the ride with the heroes we might secretly want to be, or with the lovers we wish we embraced. In its own way, genre fiction is often more “real” than a lot of literary fiction. Genre fiction very quickly gets to the meat of who we are. Or, in the case of the time period of Criminal Gold, who we were, providing modern readers with a way to remember where we came from, how courageous we were, how we triumphed over our challenges.
While writing Criminal Gold and talking with friends and fellow writers about the book and my plans for a Cantor Gold series, I was sometimes asked if a story about a Lesbian in the 1950s would resonate with modern readers, especially now that much of the danger of those underground years has been alleviated and LGBT rights are becoming a reality. But I am convinced that Cantor and her adventures will resonate very deeply indeed. First of all, as a crime and mystery yarn, it’s just a hell of a swell read, a thrilling ride through a dangerous night with very colorful underworld characters: a femme fatale, a couple of sidekicks, gangsters. What fun! And secondly, though the modern LGBT community doesn’t face all the horrors of Cantor’s time, we are still not fully inside the Law’s good graces. Though many states now recognize our marriages and our families, the Federal government does not. So Cantor Gold’s issue remains: if the Law stigmatizes you as “other,” if you are not a full beneficiary of its protection, and if, in fact, the Law continues to deny you the full privileges of citizenship accorded other people, then what allegiance do we owe that Law at all?
In the fiction world, Cantor Gold lives her answer. In our real world, each of us must live our own. Each day, we have to live who we are. And if we look over our shoulders at the courageous dykes who came before us, we can find strength in who we were.