Nov 6, 2013

Spring 1980: My Boyfriend's Secret Bookshelf

When I first met Fred the Ministerial Student in December 1979, my sophomore year at Augustana College, I tried to determine if he was gay by examining his bookcases for books by gay authors -- I only knew about Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, and Samuel Delany.  I didn't find any.

In the open, anyway.

One day in the spring of 1980, long after we began dating, Fred asked me to get something from his bedroom closet, and I found a secret bookshelf, facing away from view, so even if the door was ajar, you wouldn't know what was there.

Curious, I pulled a book out.  Familiar Faces: Hidden Lives: The Story of Homosexual Men in America Today, by Howard Brown.

I had never seen a book about gay people, except for Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.

"There are a few others," Fred told me.  "I have almost all of the nonfiction, I think.  Of course, it has to be hidden."

"I've never seen a gay book in a bookstore."

"Not likely.  They wouldn't stock any -- it's illegal to put them out on the shelves -- and besides, who would walk up to the counter and try to buy one?"  (I would be doing it in just a few months).   "It's all by mail.  You don't have to give them your name, just a money order and post office box."

With Fred's permission, I spent the afternoon going through the seven gay books in existence.
1. Familiar Faces, Hidden Lives.
2. Greek Homosexuality
3. The Homosexual Matrix
4. Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?: Another Christian View
5. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times
6. Iolaus, An Anthology of Friendship, by early gay activist Edward Carpenter
7. A slim hardback, On Being Different: What it Means to be a Homosexual, by Merle Miller.

(He was actually off by a little; there were about 30 nonfiction books about gay people in print in 1980.)

The only author I recognized was Merle Miller.  My English and journalism teachers were always priasing him:

Born right next door, in Marshalltown, Iowa,  a graduate of the University of Iowa, and now look at him!  A famous journalist, novelist, and historian, biographer of presidents!

Read Something Happened (1962), or Only You, Dick Darling! (1965), or Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1973), for a model of clear, vigorous writing!

They didn't mention, or they didn't know, that in in January 1971, Merle Miller came out in an article in The New York Times: "What It Means to Be Homosexual."

The article received 2000 letters, and was reprinted, with an afterward, in the slim hardbound volume that I found on Fred's hidden bookshelf.

What does it mean to be gay?

It doesn't mean that you're crazy, sick, sinful, or evil.  It doesn't mean that you're plotting to seduce kids or overthrow civilization. It means that you are invisible, and heterosexuals will try anything and everything to keep you that way.

Merle Miler stayed invisible.  When he died in 1986, the New York Times refused to mention his partner of 22 years, David W. Elliott (who, paradoxically, wrote a novel entitled Listen to the Silence).

But  I mourned the writer who grew up right next door, who nobody knew was gay, who wrote one of the only gay books in existence.

See also: I Visit an Adult Bookstore.

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