The Politics of Pride: A Personal Journey
Katherine V. Forrest
For LGBT people of my mid-twentieth century generation, books depicted us with revulsion or pity; films portrayed us in ludicrous, hyper-fervid fantasies of evil; abnormal psychology texts grouped us among the most disturbed of deviates. Somehow, out of this context, we found a way to survive, to find connections, and make a life for ourselves. Out of this context and out of the course of my own life emerged a writer.
My personal journey is not that much different from many of our stories. From as early as age five, I had been falling in love with my female playmates except for those obligatory few tomboy years when I preferred the adventurous neighborhood boys to the uninteresting girls. By the time adolescence brought a drastic change in attitude, I had learned unambiguously that any orientation beyond friendship with my own gender was unacceptable to my parents, peers, and to my church.
So, I would be like everyone else. Match up. Be accepted. No matter what it took. I would successfully run the gauntlet of my peer group and society.
It was a goal so unrelentingly difficult that I spent my late teen years committing every other sin in the book rather than succumb to the one I yearned to commit. That sin might be technically forgivable, but I knew in my depths it would be an irrevocable act, a one-way passage to another place. Like so many self-denying gay people of my generation, I muddied my own life and the lives of anyone who cared about me. Self-hatred did its insidious damage to every relationship, and I marched on to the next one and the next one, leaving the wreckage behind and convincing myself that I was really okay, I just needed time, and with a little more maturity I would grow out of this aberration and mature into that which was expected of me.
Even after I committed the Big Sin and made that irrevocable passage, and even though I thereafter found women who loved me, and even though I had loving relationships, I remained essentially in the grip of all the early shame and my own powerful homophobia. Until I was forty years old.
I had always wanted to write, and did write -- in the same way as I had tried to live my life, the way the world expected me to write. But, at age forty, forcing its way to the surface was a book, unbidden, pouring out of me like a song, the book that was mine to write -- Curious Wine. I have perhaps written better novels in the years since, but none I will ever love more than this book in which I claimed my identity, found my truth, my integrity, my pride, my voice, and my future.
From the perspective of today's open and sexually free lesbian community, it seems astonishing that in 1983 -- a mere two decades ago -- Curious Wine was a breakthrough book for erotic candor. In writing a book that I myself needed and wanted to read, a book that conveyed the passion and beauty of lesbian love and of how very beautiful women are together, I wrote the book that other lesbians wanted to read. And continue to read: Curious Wine is one of the most popular lesbian novels of all time, selling as well today as it did in 1983.
Few readers see everything an author puts into a novel, and there are some elements that only the author will probably ever know and understand. Curious Wine is universally considered a romantic story without political issues. But my artistic choices were indeed political and challenged many stereotypes of that day. The two major characters, Diana and Lane, are not adolescents drawn by the mystique of the forbidden; they are thirty-two and thirty-four years old, with considerable sophistication. They are not taken in by any factor having to do with emotional immaturity. Neither woman fits into any mold of psychological dysfunction, nor into the heterosexual mythology of the time that one lesbian was always "the man," nor the belief that women become lesbians because they are unattractive to men -- Diana is very attractive, Lane classically beautiful, and they have had positive heterosexual experiences. They are college-educated and professionally successful, their economic independence allowing many options. Out of all these options they choose the most difficult: a life with each other. Unusual for its time, Curious Wine also portrays a heterosexual parent who does not reflexively reject his lesbian child. Deeply troubled by Diana's admission, her father, instead of issuing rote condemnation, asks for time to reexamine his assumptions.
I wrote Curious Wine to celebrate not only the beauty of our love but its rightness -- and politics is implicit in every line of this "simple" romance.
My second novel, Daughters of a Coral Dawn, a futuristic, often humorous utopian novel, is filled with the sensuality of Curious Wine, and portraits of the kind of strong and resourceful women that lesbians have dreamed of finding and subsequently dreamed of becoming. My aim for this novel was perfectly expressed by Ann Bannon in her review in the Gay Community News: "Daughters of a Coral Dawn is a love song to the strength, beauty, and ingenuity of women."
At that time (1984), I was casting about for the ingredients to fit a concept I vaguely envisioned as "a lesbian life in process." I was already working on a mystery novel with the theme of power abuse, which I knew would have considerable resonance with a lesbian audience, and was a theme which, it turned out, would pervade much of my work. I set the novel in the business world, a remarkably under-utilized background in fiction considering that most of us spend a third of our adult lives in offices and cubicles. The murder victim is a tyrannical executive, the suspects his emotionally and spiritually battered employees. At that time women were finally moving into the higher echelons of police work, and, realizing that I would need police investigators on the scene, I decided that my investigating detective would be a woman.
And so onto the pages of Amateur City stepped homicide detective Kate Delafield of the Los Angeles Police Department: my lesbian life in process. Here was a woman in a high visibility, high pressure, and high stakes profession. An imperfect woman with integrity and decency, around whose very professional and capable shoulders I could swirl the political winds of her increasingly volatile and visible community. And, perhaps most importantly of all, she was a lesbian in the closet who presented the very best case scenario for anyone arguing the practical necessities of being there. A serendipitous meeting of author and character -- because who better to explore this woman and this issue than a writer who had spent forty years locked in her own closet?
As the series opens, Kate Delafield's personal circumstances represent the lives of many lesbians in early 1980s America and perhaps worldwide. Unable to take part in the visible bar scene, Kate has little awareness of the clamorous politics engulfing her community in 1984, nor of its suddenly burgeoning literature. She has been living quietly with an adored partner in a 12-year relationship, their circle of acquaintances only a few lesbian and gay friends. But as Amateur City opens, her narrow private world has collapsed: her partner is dead in a car crash. Now ttrapped with her grief in the closet she believes she must occupy at all costs to be effective in her homophobia-ridden profession, Kate struggles to keep intact her image of competence and control.
In steps Ellen O'Neil, whose relationship with another woman is notable for its power inequalities. Ellen recognizes Kate's loneliness and grief, and their love scene late in the story portrays one of the great strengths and beauties of lesbian relationships: the gift of healing that women can bring to one another.
In the second book of the series, Kate collides head-on with her community in her investigation of 19-year-old Dory Quillin's death at a lesbian bar. Multi-racial faces they are, these women of the Nightwood Bar, confrontational faces; and closeted Kate stirs uneasily under the hostility from these "sisters" who view her as the enemy. Central to this mid-eighties novel is the emerging politics of our reinvention of family, and the ever-strengthening community that gay men and lesbians are building with families chosen by and for ourselves. Murder at the Nightwood Bar extends well beyond a conventional mystery novel; it is the story of a woman's journey to community.
In the next book, too, The Beverly Malibu, the tracks from the murder of an old-time Hollywood director lead all the way back to the McCarthy era, whose poisonous effects still reverberate among the denizens of the apartment building in which a murder has occurred. A parallel view is inescapable: The McCarthy period has never ended for our community. Nor will it until we are accepted fully into our families, our jobs, our government, and our churches. Kate meets Aimee Grant, the much younger and freer woman who will become her partner, and with the unnerving behavior of Aimee, who has her own ideas about sexual dynamics, Kate begins a sexual metamorphosis from her classic butch assumptions in Amateur City.
In Murder by Tradition, Kate investigates that ugliest of crimes against us, a gaybashing murder. Based on a real case, this pre-"Law and Order" novel covers both the investigation and the court proceedings. This is a book I write for my gay brothers, and it is a portrait of lesbians and gay men as brother and sister, and also of a heterosexual woman (the prosecuting attorney) who becomes an ally. By revealing herself for the first time to this straight woman, Kate edges out of the closet, and on the stand in court she must make a crucial decision when she is at the mercy of a lawyer who knows she is a lesbian.
Another scene makes one of the most crucial political points in the Delafield series when Kate begins to contend with her own homophobia. Over the space of three novels, having chosen not to face up to her bigoted police partner, she finally confronts his virulent homophobia by demanding: "Why is calling another man homosexual the ultimate insult? Why are gay men so completely disgusting to other men?"
He lays out his case: "Faggots, they want to be fucked, so they turn themselves into women. If you're a real man, then you aren't a woman."
And Kate says, "Ed, what you just said -- do you realize, do you have any idea how much it shows utter contempt for women?"
His response is dismissive. But Taylor's disdain for the female is classic -- historically rooted in male socialization in every culture and across all religions. Contempt for the female is the very core of homophobia, and Taylor represents the urgent reason why the feminist movement for equality is just as important to gay men as it is to women of every culture.
The theme of the closet is pervasive in the next three Delafield novels. Liberty Square illustrates the devastating legacy of the closet in dealing with the time Kate spent as a officer in the Marine Corps, the elite military organization notable for its ruthless witch-hunt for lesbians. Apparition Alley also has at its heart the consequences of the closet. The seventh novel of the series, Sleeping Bones, takes place in the late nineties, and although Kate is more out in her personal life than she has ever been, she still finds justification for being closeted on the job.
Over the space of these seven books, readers who have followed Kate from the beginning perhaps now understand that this woman of great integrity is at the same time greatly flawed, and the flaw is her rationale for remaining in the closet. She still will not see how it has limited her life and her options, isolated her on the job, removed her from her community, and distanced her from Aimee, who is increasingly impatient with a partner whose choices and politics diverge so radically from hers. In the upcoming eighth novel Kate Delafield finally reaches a crossroads and a collision that's become inevitable.
Between Curious Wine and Sleeping Bones, over the space of thirteen works of fiction, my work has represented the growth of a community, and of a writer. My work has presented in an entertaining format (I trust) many of the issues important to my community. As this new century begins in America, except for lesbians who are totally isolated, all of us have grown in political awareness and identity. I'm grateful to have seen these changes in my lifetime, to have chronicled them in my work, to have had a character like Kate Delafield to explore and portray.
The emphasis in my work has been on coming out -- the great-unfinished business of our community and the great lesson learned from my own lesbian life. Speaking the truth of ourselves is the most important, most empowering step any of us can make to achieve personal dignity, that any community can make to achieve political stature. The personal is indeed the political, as the LGBT community continues to prove each and every day in each and every one of our lives.