By Joel Castellaw
Prior to the Stonewall riots of 1969 that sparked a gay liberation movement in America, LGBTQ folks in this country lived in the shadows. We were characterized as “destroyers of society,” facing loss of employment if exposed, and subject to police entrapment and mass arrests. It’s no surprise that most of us remained hidden, with little sense of community or identity. In the midst of this atmosphere of oppression, an outlet for queer expression and identification exploded during the 1960s: gay pulp fiction. The number of these titles published in the United States rose from three in 1961, to twenty-six by 1965, to 176 in 1968, and 250 in 1969. These inexpensive paperback originals were printed on the cheapest stock available, known as pulp stock because it’s made mostly from sawmill residue. It’s the use of this paper that gives us the name “pulp fiction.”
These cheap novels depicted gay and lesbian protagonists in ways that were a sharp departure from the bleak, self-loathing caricatures of LGBTQ life found in mainstream publications of the period. For example the most widely-read and well-loved of the vintage gay pulp titles, Richard Amory’s “Song of the Loon,” features ecstatically celebratory heroes. This novel is patterned after the pastoral romance and filled with rugged men of the Western frontier who proclaimed their love for each other in rhymed couplets before plunging into each other’s arms.
While it would be hard to describe the novels and short stories that make up this genre as examples of fine literature (they vary in quality and content from serviceable and sexy, to clunky and campy, to patently pornographic), they have become the subject of scholarly study – considered noteworthy as examples of queer culture, and, moreover, for the role that they played in the creation of queer community. These novels helped readers to see same-sex desire as normal and moral, and the plots of some of the novels provided blueprints for civil rights activism.
Regrettably, most gay pulp fiction titles from the 1960s are out of print and have been for decades. Used copies available through second-hand sellers are scarce and can command prices upwards of $100 for a single well-worn paperback. Fortunately, Lambda Archives has a significant collection of these titles. There are over 500 gay pulp fiction titles in the Lambda Archives collection – almost exclusively gay male pulp fiction that was published in the 1960s by Greenleaf Classics, the second-largest publisher of such titles during the period. Greenleaf Classics was a local San Diego publisher – their location changed frequently and ranged from Mission Gorge to Camino del Rio South, from El Cajon to Santee – so the significance of this collection to our own local LGBTQ community can’t be overstated. The collection is also significant because some of the authors represented went on to become important in the more general world of gay-themed fiction, including Victor J. Banis, Richard Amory, James Colton, and Carl Corley.
Greenleaf Classics was led by William Hamling, its managing editor, and Earl Kemp, publisher. Hamling and Kemp put themselves in peril by publishing frank depictions of gay life at a time when such subjects were widely viewed as obscene. Court cases ensued, and the publishers sometimes won, sometimes lost. Greenleaf prevailed in the case of Redrup v. New York (1967), convincing the U.S. Supreme Court “that an adult in the comfort and privacy of his own home was the best judge of what was obscene.” Later, after a shift in the composition of
the court, Greenleaf lost an appeal in the case of Hamling v. United States (1974), and Hamling and Kemp spent time in jail on obscenity charges for publishing “The Illustrated President Commission Report on Obscenity and Pornography.” (The Archives has a copy of this report as well.) Initially sentenced to five years each, they had their sentences reduced to ninety days – but in exchange they had to agree to cease publishing material of a sexual nature. Greenleaf made the successful transition to publishing more legitimate titles, particularly business books.
The Lambda Archives Vintage Pulp Fiction collection is currently in the process of being catalogued, and there are plans in the works for an exhibit in the future that will highlight key items from the collection. For those who want to explore the topic further, two of the works that take a scholarly work at these obscure, but important books are David Bergman’s “The Cultural Work of Sixties Gay Pulp Fiction” in “The Queer Sixties,” edited by Patricia Juliana Smith. And “1960s Gay Pulp Fiction: The Misplaced Heritage,” by Jaime Harker.
— Professor Joel Castellaw is chair of the Communication Department at Grossmont College.