Did you put that label onto yourself,(homosexual) or did you just feel different?I just felt different. I don’t think I really found a labeled home throughout most of my life. And I’m still a little wary of it. I know that’s where my heart is, that’s where my home is emotionally. I became more and more able as the years went by to be able to embrace that and to accept that. I think in many ways, those books were my love letters to the women that I thought I would never meet, that I would never get to know.
The few fleeting moments of fun where you could forget all about it and spend a little time in a dance bar, in Greenwich Village, those were marvelous. But that’s all they were. They were written on the wind. You couldn’t capture them and take them with you. They were here and then they were gone.
I remember once being asked in the 1990s, I was part of a panel, and somebody asked, "How could you be a lesbian and just be a housewife down there in Pasadena just doing laundry and taking care of kids?" And I said just because a person is a housewife in Southern California doesn’t mean the fire has gone out. They all laughed.
I had a mother who, it would have killed her. I can still remember bringing Odd Girl Out and shyly showing her the first published version. My mother was an avid reader. She loved me a lot and she wanted to be proud of me. She said, "Sweetheart, I didn’t know you had it in you." Which I could have taken 20 different ways, and I did. "I know how hard it is to write a book and how very hard it is to get it published." She said, "I’m proud of you because I know not everyone could do this. I know you’ll do better." And she said all I ask is please, never show this to your grandmother. So I never did. (Did I answer your question?)
I was asking you who your intended audience was?Those people that I wanted so much to meet and thought I never would. I assumed there were other women out there having thoughts like mine. Couldn’t I reach them somehow? It happened far more powerfully then I would have thought with thousands upon thousands of letters coming in from all over the country and eventually beyond. Saying, if I hadn’t read your book, I was on the verge of committing suicide. And one of the readers who has over the years told me this over and again is Katherine V. Forrest.
She was 18 years old and she walked into a drug store in Tacoma with so much pain and fear and isolation and sorrow for her life. She was really ready to end it. And she saw Odd Girl Out on a shelf and she said, I must have that book. I must read that book. She bought it and she read it and ever since she has never failed to tell me, which touches me greatly, that it saved her life. And I’ve heard her tell that to audiences. And I’ve discovered that Audre Lorde read them and talked about them in Zami. And Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crain read them. Kate Millett read them. Joan Nestle read them.
I had no idea I would be reaching a rather illustrious audience. I just wanted to hold out my hand and say I’m going through this too. It was a little disconcerting to find that people thought that since I’d written about it, I must be an expert. The letters would come in with people saying, Please tell me what to do. Well I couldn’t possibly tell people how to live their lives, but I did write back and try to comfort people.
Why do you think your books still have the appeal that they do 50 years later?I think for several reason. I think although the times and the conventions and the fashions and the trends have all changed. What people recognize when they read these books is the emotional truth and that is a perdurable truth. That doesn’t change very much. That feeling when you’re very young and you’re stumbling across your sexual orientation and you’re trying to come to terms with it. That is still a powerful transformative moment. The moment when you meet the person who will be the first great love of your life and possibly be lasting great love is still the moment when the heart clutches and that doesn’t change. People recognize that.
History LessonIn the 50s [lesbians] used these books as sort of travel guides a guide to Greenwich Village. How should I dress? How are they talking? What do you say when you go into a gay bar? How do you behave? All those things were current and right there for them. And now when readers go back, they are caught in the emotional truth, but also it becomes kind of a trip down a particular memory lane that perhaps you didn’t know about before. You suddenly begin to realize what attitudes were, what people were facing, how perilous a life you were living if you were openly gay in the 1950s. You had Senator Joe McCarthy holding forth. You had homosexuals working for the government or working in the army getting thrown in jail, losing their careers and their families. Oh the repression was terrible.
At the same time you saw people putting up with that, getting around it somehow. Finding ways to love just as keenly as they do now and miraculously finding time every now and again to have a little fun. It wasn’t all grim. If it have been nothing but tears and misery people wouldn’t have even tried it. I think those two things. The social history it gives to readers today and the eternal emotionally truth that strikes such a chord of recognition for them are the things that keep them going.