Happily Never After: 20th Century Censorship, Lesbian Pulp Novels, and ‘Bury Your Gays’

Meredith Walker

The Comstock Act is best known for criminalizing the distribution of materials related to abortion or contraception through the U.S. Postal Service

The Comstock Act is best known for criminalizing the distribution of materials related to abortion or contraception through the U.S. Postal Service. However, discussion about family planning was not the only kind of content that the Comstock Act censored. Starting with the publication of Women’s Barracks in 1950, the titillating accounts of lesbianism in pulp novels began to gain popularity and a place on the pulp fiction racks of newsstands and drugstores across America. Most of these novels were written by straight men for straight men and were little more than soft-core erotica that explored taboo sexuality such as lesbian rape or incest. However, a small subset of these novels were written by women, and while there was still a tendency toward arousing content in these, many of them were as much love stories as they were erotica. Pulp novels were distributed through the U.S. Postal Service. The Comstock Act prevented the use of the mail to distribute material that was “obscene, lewd, or lascivious,” one might ask how this lesbian erotica made it past the censors to the bookshelves at all. The answer is that the Comstock Act seemed to be enforced the same way the Motion Picture Production Code was. If the crime doesn’t pay, it’s not obscene…it’s a morality lesson. In this era, homosexuality was as bad (or perhaps worse) than Frank Sinatra robbing a casino. Ocean’s 11 ends in the ill-gotten cash being incinerated (literally, crime doesn't pay), but for lesbian pulp novels, the “crime” usually ended in madness, murder, or heterosexuality. Dick Carroll (editor of Gold Medal Books in the early 1950s) told Marijane Meaker (author of Spring Fire): “You see, our books go through the mails. They have to pass inspection…If your book appears to proselytize for homosexuality, all the books sent with it to the distributors are returned.” Carroll and Meaker had this conversation when she pitched him her book idea. “[Y]our main character...has to reject it knowing that it’s wrong.” “In other words, my heroine has to decide she’s really not queer.” “That’s it. And the one she’s involved with is sick or crazy.” ⁠ There was the loophole, and there were four common tropes used by writers who took advantage of this loophole. Institutionalization/insanity Murder/Suicide Eventual heterosexuality Trauma causing sexual dysfunction/corrective rape
Happily Never After: 20th Century Censorship, Lesbian Pulp Novels, and ‘Bury Your Gays’
Spring Fire Cover

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Most of the books contained more than one of these tropes

Most of the books contained more than one of these tropes, just to be safe. In Spring Fire, Mitch decides she was never actually a lesbian, and Leda, her love interest, is institutionalized. If some of these sounds familiar, it’s because the way authors of lesbian pulp threaded that loophole has had lasting consequences on the way queer women are represented in media decades later. Institutionalization and traumatic sexual experiences are rarer tropes in modern media, but they still appear from time to time. From American Horror Story, to How to Get Away with Murder, characters go mad, get institutionalized, or have the “sexual dysfunction” of their queerness explained as a response to sexual trauma. However, the tropes of murder/suicide and eventual heterosexuality are incredibly common in modern representations of queerness, especially in media portrayals of queer women. “Bury your gays” became a common trope for exactly the reason that queer characters just cannot seem to make it to the epilogue alive. They represent far fewer characters in media than their heterosexual counterparts, but a far higher percentage of those characters end up dead. One 2016 Vox article, which assessed all TV deaths from 2015-2016, found that 10% of deaths were queer women. A staggering number considering how few queer women were portrayed in the first place. Moreover, as bad as that number seems, the most common of these tropes is still the inevitability of heterosexuality for queer women. Whether it’s a character that briefly has a relationship with a woman before ending up with a male partner or the “lesbian kiss episode” that sweeps week popularized in the 1990s. Lesbianism as a sales gimmick, where women return to the heterosexual norm after a “walk on the wild” side, is another trope from the lesbian pulp era that has become embedded in modern media portrayals of queer women. These tropes took hold in the 1950s to get around censorship, but once they were introduced, they became a self-perpetuating meme that has subconsciously become the standard for how queer women are viewed in media.
Ancestry UK
Happily Never After: 20th Century Censorship, Lesbian Pulp Novels, and ‘Bury Your Gays’

Meredith Walker

Meredith wrote for Edition 6: LGBTQ+ History month.
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