John D'Emilio, "A Woman for All Generations," 1930s - 1990s
This essay appeared in the Windy City Times, August 6th, 2008, under the headline: "Chicago Gay History: A Woman for All Generations." Copyright (c) by John D'Emilio 2008. All rights reserved.
It's hard not to think generationally. Groups of people come of age at a particular historical moment, and it marks them forever, creating a bond. I grew up in an environment where everyone spoke of “the immigrant generation.” We all knew what it meant: The old folks were different from the young. African Americans of a certain age speak of growing up under Jim Crow, in the segregated South; it shaped them in profound ways. Journalists write about baby boomers or Generation X. Tom Brokaw pens a best-selling book called “The Greatest Generation.” A large group of aging Americans speak of “the sixties” in a way that says “it made us who we are.”
Within the LGBT world, notions of generations circulate too. People refer to the Stonewall generation or the separatist generation to describe an experience that distinguishes them from other gays or lesbians. Whatever the label, the assumption is that our generation, however defined, makes us who we are. As we move through life, the world changes, and we don't. It's as if we're trapped forever in a bygone time.
I think what draws me to Valerie Taylor, the pulp novelist I wrote about in my last column, is that she resisted this pigeonholing. Though she lived to be 84, she flat-out refused to remain stuck in the box of a particular coming-of-age experience. She always remained a woman of the moment, a woman who changed with the times.
Velma Nacella Young ( Taylor's birth name ) was born in 1913 in Aurora, Ill., when it was still a small town beyond Chicago's sprawl. Her family had little money but plenty of books and, when Velma had the chance to attend college, she seized it. Two years at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., gave her credentials to teach at country schools. They also made her a socialist. This was in the middle of the Depression, and lots of Americans were seizing socialist ideas of economic justice.
In small town America in the 1930s, there weren't many images of lesbian life. Nor was it common then for a woman to support herself. And so Velma Young, like who knows how many women-loving-women of her generation, got married. She had three sons with her husband, William Tate. But he proved to be “an alcoholic no-good bum” and, after 14 years of marriage, Velma took her sons and left. While much of white America was entering the “Father Knows Best” era of idealized family life, she was breaking out of the housewife box.
Writing was her way out. Velma had been composing stories and poems since childhood. In 1952, using the pseudonym of Valerie Taylor, she published, in her words, a “raunchy heterosexual love story” titled Hired Hand. With the $500 she received for it ( a solid chunk of cash in those days ) , Taylor—as we'll now call her—“went out and bought two dresses and a pair of shoes, got a job, and consulted a divorce lawyer. ... That was a good little royalty check,” she recalled, many years later.
Despite the huge sales of pulp novels, authors did not receive a fair share of royalties, and Taylor always needed a day job to support herself and her sons. But she wrote steadily, moving decisively into the lesbian pulp genre. She published Whisper Their Love, and then The Girls in 3-B. In the 1960s, Taylor wrote a series of linked novels with unambiguous titles like Stranger on Lesbos and A World Without Men.
The increasingly overt subject matter of her books reflected the change in Taylor's life after leaving her husband. She was now romantically interested in women. But lesbians in Chicago in the 1950s, as Taylor reminisced, “didn't have the underground network the men had ... There was a lot of loneliness.” Lesbians as well as gay men were cautious about revealing themselves: “in those days, you'd lose your job if you ever came out,” and a single mom raising three teenagers could not risk being out of work.
Over time, Taylor developed a circle of friends. But her first sense of lesbian “community” came through The Ladder, a magazine produced by the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian homophile organization. It began publishing in 1956, as the lesbian pulp boom was taking off. From its start, The Ladder paid attention to lesbian culture and literature, and it reviewed Taylor's work. Taylor came to know Barbara Grier, who wrote most of The Ladder's literary columns. She also corresponded with lesbian writers like May Sarton, Elsa Gidlow and Jeannette Foster.
Taylor's visibility as a writer meant that many small-town lesbians wrote to her and asked for advice in meeting other lesbians. She'd tell them to sit at a drugstore lunch counter with a copy of The Well of Loneliness or with a Beebo Brinker lesbian pulp. If a woman exhibited signs of interest, she was probably a lesbian. Such were the challenges of building community in the 1950s.
Maybe it was a yearning for community that impelled Taylor, in the mid-1960s, to do something most lesbians and gay men of her generation were unwilling to risk. She joined the small but courageous homophile movement. Since a Daughters of Bilitis chapter never sank deep roots in Chicago, she participated in Mattachine Midwest, helping to edit its newsletter. Her columns reveal a feisty personality who didn't mince words. When Time printed a particularly ugly antigay article, Taylor opined: “The pages are too stiff to wrap garbage in and the magazine is no good for anything else.” Writing about the many syndicate-run gay bars in Chicago, she said “they prey on gay people.”
When lesbian feminism and gay liberation exploded into life in the early 1970s, most of Taylor's generation kept a distance and remained discreetly in the closet. Not Taylor. She jumped in with both feet. In 1973, she was one of the featured speakers at the noon rally at Civic Plaza during Pride Week. Acknowledging that she was older than almost everyone else there, Taylor introduced herself as a representative of “the gay grandmothers of America.” The next year, she helped Marie Kuda organize the first of several annual Lesbian Writers Conferences that brought together women from around the country. Taylor gave keynotes at more than one of them.
Her message to the younger generation was powerful, visionary and sometimes unsettling. “The whole world should be our subject matter,” she told those at the conference of writers. “All of life belongs to us.” For Taylor, feminism and gay liberation weren't for the faint hearted. “Revolution is never a straight-line process ... a great many people get hurt.” She wanted folks to think big: “We need not choose between the struggle for world peace and the fight for women's liberation. ... The entire world is our battlefield.”
Taylor spent the last decade and a half of her life in the warmer climate of Tucson. Sometime in the 1980s, she wrote an essay in which she asked “Have you ever wondered what happened to old Amazons?” The question grew out of experience. In 1980, Taylor learned that Jeannette Foster, the pioneering lesbian scholar, was incapacitated and in need of financial help. Taylor established a Sisterhood Fund and raised money from lesbians around the country to support Foster in the last year of her life. In 1993, Lee Lynch, a younger lesbian writer, did the same for Taylor. “I knew my sisters wouldn't let me down,” an 81-year-old Taylor told an interviewer. “There really is a lesbian community all over the place.”
She might have added that she had helped build it.