A Deep Dive into LGBTQ+ Romance
By Preston Decker & Logan Agin (2023)
The 1970s were a significant time in LGBTQ+ history, with the Stonewall riots and the start of the gay rights movement. This period is characterized by significant change and progress for the LGBTQ+ community. the rise of gay pulps in the romance industry. Before, people did not tolerate the community as respectfully as we do now. One way the LGBTQ+ community communicated was through writing. Not letters or magazines but in novels. Gay Pulps were a form of romance novels that were written between the ’30s and the ’70s with themes of homosexuality (Bronski 3). These novels paved the way for the current genre of gay romance. So, what is special about these novels? Mainly because they were meant to be thrown away. Books that were sold for the sole purpose of being read in one to two sittings and then thrown in the trash. The type of novel that was so cheap to buy they were sold for pennies on the dollar. These novels were the genre of pulps. For this paper, we will look into pulp novels, specifically gay pulps published in the 1970s. The 70s was a new dawn for the gay pulp industry in light of the Stonewall riots. Afterward, the gay pulp genre took off. With the explosion of the gay pulp industry, we are looking to answer how these gay novels affected the LGBTQ+ community. How did these gay pulps further the LGBTQ+ representation in the romance industry? And to explore other common themes, tropes, and ideas that are common in gay pulp fiction and across non-gay pulp romance novels. To do this, we have compiled a long list of sources offered at the Rubenstein rare book archive and other primary and secondary sources offered in the Duke Library. We hope to start by zooming in on the gay pulp novels themselves, published only during the 1970s. From there, we zoom out on the common tropes we see throughout the novels. We will describe the trope and provide evidence to support our claims. This will help us relate these books to the romance industry and the LGBTQ+ community. Finally, we plan to really take a serious dive into the effects of the Stonewall riots on the gay pulp industry. To do this, we will be exploring four primary sources from the 1970s. These sources will all fit three categories: it is a novel, they are considered to be gay pulp fiction in the 1970s, and they are male-on-male romances. These sources are Gay-Way by Richard Hornsby, Gay-Bikers by Michael Scott, A Rose for Caesar, a part of the Carl and Corley papers, and finally, Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren.
What exactly was gay pulp fiction in the 1970s? Gay pulps are books that were cheap novels, usually produced for a little over $1, that contained themes of male and female homosexuality. These books were wildly popular in the 1970s. Gay men and others ate up these erotic stories. These pulp novels were the first-time gay men who had been represented in the romance novels industry. Gay and Lesbian Review goes on to write about Gordon Merrick in an article. The reviewers write how Merricks 1974 published novel The Lord Won’t Mind was the stepping stone for the wave of gay novels that says, “the first homosexual novel with a happy ending” (Gay and Lesbian Review). Gay pulp fiction in the 1970s included many different topics, themes, and tropes that were very popular in non-gay romance novels at the time. Some of these include themes about sex, tragedy, captivity, rape, forbidden love, and many other common tropes that are seen in the romance industry. We, as authors, are going to explore why these stories were so captivating to the gay male audience and why these pulp novels became a significant part of LGBTQ history (Pulp fiction).
The first book we read was Gay-Way by Richard Hornsby. This book is centered around the male protagonist Davy. In Gay-Way, we see the male protagonist described as beautiful with golden locks of hair. The plot itself is quite a dark one. It follows a boy who, after having his first gay experience in high school, moves on a whim to LA. The boy takes the train, where he has his second gay sexual experience with an older gentleman. The boy is disgusted by the old man but needs money and food to make it to LA. After arriving in LA, the boy has become a full-on male prostitute. He is selling his body on the street to make as much cash as possible. He is disgusted and ashamed of what he was doing in Gay-Way “I feel humiliated, I feel like a real queer” (Hornsby 16-17); after having multiple gay sexual experiences, Davy tries to rob a man who is paying to have sex with him. The man notices he is being robbed and begins to beat and torture Davy. He is then bound and raped by this man. After being raped, Davy is thrown out onto the street, where he collapses.
We also decided to look into Gay-Bikers by Michael Scott. Gay-Bikers revolves around two distant brothers who have been separated for the better half of 6 years. So once the older brother Hugh finds out his younger brother Carey is the leader of a gay biker gang in New York City, he decides it is time for a reunion. In the first chapter, we are introduced to Hugh, a successful businessman that owns the LGBTQ+ version of Playboy magazine, properly named Gay boy. While waiting in his office, a male prostitute comes in to relieve Hugh. While Hugh is busy, his close friend David walks in and presents him with an offer for a photoshoot. The idea is gay bikers. While Hugh is still busy, David then shows him a news article with a picture of his younger brother Carey. Hugh is even more excited and hits his climax because of the picture. In the next chapter, we learn the reason for Carey’s disappearance and avoidance. In the summer six years beforehand, Hugh and his football boyfriend raped Carey. After this, Carey runs away from home at the age of sixteen. While looking for their son, Carey and Hugh’s parents were fatally killed in a car accident. On the lookout for a new home, Carey is raped again while hitchhiking. This time though, he fights back. Carey ends up killing the man, but in the process, he kills the old Carey. Fast forward back to the present, Carey then finds a lover, a man who turned gay and fell for Carey after being kidnapped and given two options, just him or all his goons as well. Once Hugh is reunited, he is surprised to see that Carey, his younger brother, is no longer what he used to be, destroying Hugh’s lust for Carey. Carey then captures Hugh and David and lets his goons rape them. From there, we hit the end of Gay-Bikers by Michael Scott. This novel hits on many common tropes we have identified in gay pulp fiction during the 1970s. We see a tragic end to Hugh and Carey’s taboo and forbidden relationship. We witnessed Carey’s coming-of-age story as well as his move to make a straight male gay. Michael Scott went on to release a total of four books in 1976 for Midwood Publications. These books are perfectly titled, with names like Gay-Exorcist, Gay-Cruise, and Gay-Psycho we have the feeling these will capture the same tone as Gay-Bikers.
The next novel was A Rose for Caesar. This story is a part of the Carl v. Corley papers. This novel has two main characters, Rex and Caesar. Rex is a considerable hero in this novel. While Caesar is the heroine. Again, we see the male heroine describe in a way that resembles classic depictions of female romance characters, as stated above. He had wide shoulders tapering to a small 26-inch waistline (A Rose from Caesar 1) This novel follows 3 characters from a small town in the country. Rex, Caesar, and Ashlowe are the three characters. From Nebraska that join the military together. At the beginning of the novel, Rex is conflicted with the beautiful image of Caesar’s strong body (Carl V. Corley 10) Rex is conflicted because his most recent girlfriend is still on his mind. Caesar guides Rex through this difficult time in his life and decides to join the army. Rex and Caesar eventually start to fall in love while they go through training and then are deployed overseas to Japan. The story follows the love of Rex and Caesar as they decide to join the army to fight off the Japanese. The story explores the forbidden love the two have for each other while in the military. It follows the two’s love throughout boot camp to getting deployed in Japan. The story ends with Rex discovering Caesar in a pool of his own blood on the battlefield. He then cries for Caesar and leaves him a rose and a final kiss on the lips before retreating to a safe area away from the frontlines.
The last novel that we will be touching on is The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, published in 1974. Harlan Brown, an athletic director at the School Prescott College, runs into 3 runners, Vince Matti, Jacques LaFont, and Billy Sive, after they were expelled from the University of Oregon for being gay. After some convincing by the three boys, Brown, who has not coached since his days at Penn State, reluctantly agrees. After a while, Brown starts to fall for one of the runners, Billy. Billy returns the feeling, and a new relationship between the two is formed. It is relieved that Brown has always been gay, but he had a wife and daughter during his time at Penn State. After false allegations, Brown is forced to resign and is soon divorced by his wife. From there, he was forced to hustle for money. When Joe Prescott finds Brown on the streets, he offers him a job at his college, where we begin the novel. Once Brown finds confidence in himself to commit to Billy and comes out of the closet, they are met with much discrimination in the world of amateur sports. The couple responds by making it to the Olympics, where Billy wins a gold medal. During the second race, Billy is in first with a couple of meters to go when an anti-gay radical jumps Billy shooting and killing him before he finished. Brown is devastated. To stay true to his word Brown takes Billy’s sperm from the sperm bank and raises his child, fully committing to Billy. As we see, there are tropes within The Front Runner story that are repeated in the books we read. We see the tragic ending of Billy and Harlan’s forbidden relationship. We see the struggle of coming out, revealing many difficulties behind that. Harlan’s story does not end; however, Warren goes on to write more books giving us closure on Harlan Brown’s story and expanding many of the other character’s stories.
Depiction of Characthers
The depictions of our characters portrayed in the novels we have read are very important for understanding how the community looked at the LGBTQ+ community at the time. The gay pulps that we have read do not have the traditional male and female hero and heroine dynamic. Instead, they alter just slightly to male-on-male hero and heroine. The males in traditional romance novels are always the hero. This goes with the heroine being the female. The heroine in romance novels is feminine with unmatched beauty. In the novel, The Flame and the Flower, this is seen in which was a wildly popular romance novel in the 1970s (Doherty). When describing Heather, the heroine is usually vulnerable and needs protection by the hero. So how does the heroine in the gay pulp novels that we read depicted? He is usually the male in every heterosexual romance novel you read. Described as masculine, with broad shoulders, bronze skin, with a perfect smile. In the gay pulps we have explored, the hero and heroine personalities have two options to choose from. First, feminine. Secondly, masculine. There is little in between the two. We either have the male act as womanly as possible or an alpha male who is your typical strong masculine man that is strong, muscular, and handsome. Almost every man is described physically in terms like flawless skin, muscular, well proportioned, tight ass, In the story A Rose for Caesar, the author describes the heroine as “He was dark as pulled molasses candy and as smooth, no skin blemishes nor scars nor marks to take away from his fine looks” (Carly Cory a rose from Caesar 1). The very perfect description of the hero and heroine characters is still very much alive in gay pulp fiction. They even depict males as always being “well-hung”. Perfection is still present in gay pulp fiction in the 1970s, just like any other romance we have read. [PD]
One of the most notable traits of these gay pulps was how they depicted gay men of the time. These depictions of gay men in these novels were usually not positive. Whether that be the hero or a side character in the stories, both usually were not cast a good light on. In a few of the books we read, we observed that gay men were depicted as usually living very hard lives. In Gay-Way, the hero is described as begging for cash, stealing from others, and selling his body for monetary gain. (Hornsby) He is also often seen sleeping on the streets throughout the novel. Along with that, we see in the novel The Front Runner that Harlan is in the face of a major life conflict. As he struggles with his identity as a gay athlete. He knows that coming out could cost him his career. (Warren). This was seen throughout the four novels we read. The hero usually either has lots of eternal struggles, like feeling shame for being gay (Warren). Or they struggle to make ends meet from a financial standpoint. (Hornsby). Also, in Front Runner, Harlan says, “Maybe he had been mistaken in thinking that he could have love and be happy. Maybe happiness was a thing for children, and love was just an illusion grown-ups chased.” (Warren 62) We believe this quote also really highlights a key aspect of the gay pulp genre: forbidden love. That causes the characters to go through eternal conflict over their love.
Another trope we see is the characters being sexually deviant. In this case, sexually deviant is defined as any arousal or sexual preference directed towards an object or activity that is outside the social norm. For comparison, we will be using present-day social norms. In the book Gay-Way by Richard Hornsby, the main character is an 18-year-old boy who, after his first gay sexual experience, moves on a whim to California and becomes a male prostitute. In the story,, Davy is fired from his job for having gay sex in the freezer of his first and only job. He then resorts to prostitution to make ends meet (Hornsby). We have found a theme in the depiction of gay men as having really hard lives. We see this theme commonly found in the four primary novels that we read for describing gay men in pulp fiction novels. In the novel Gay-Bikers, we see the heroine have a normal life completely turned upside down when he finds himself in a romantic relationship with his brother, which ultimately leads to his rape. From there, we read that our heroine runs away and is even raped a second time. But from this hardship, he morphs into the new Carey, the gang leader who rapes others. For the brother, our hero, we do not see the same story, but with the introduction to our heroine’s backstory Carey, we see that he was the catalyst for making him the way he is. [LA]
From the other perspective, we only see the hero in Gay-Bikers and The Front Runner portrayed this way. Hugh is not perfect by any means yet, he is a successful businessman who graduated from college. He played varsity sports in high school and even secretly dated the college quarterback on the football team. He has many high connections with little to zero worry about money. Hugh is the definition of self-made, loved by everyone, young and beautiful. In The Front Runner, we see Harlan portrayed completely differently from the others. We see Harlan is living a life in balance compared to Hugh and Davey. “Harlan was a beacon of strength, resilience, and unwavering determination. His spirit burned bright, guiding those around him with his unyielding passion for justice and equality. Despite facing adversity, he stood firm, unwavering in his commitment to his beliefs and the pursuit of a better world” (Warren, 122). Warren wanted to make a character that can be related to the normal reader. This off-norm standard for gay pulps in the 1970s seems normal to the traditional romances read by everyday readers. Yet, this is groundbreaking to the 1970s gay pulp genre. LA] (this needs evidence from the novel gay bikers and the front runner)
As for tropes, the most common trope we see in many of these books is the coming-of-age trope. We see both A Rose from Caesar and Gay-Way, have the main protagonist having their first sexual experience. In Gay-way and A Rose for Caesar these novels we see the coming-of-age trope as the protagonist experiences their first gay sexual experience. In Gay-Way, the hero has his coming of age as a young teen with his first gay sexual experience in high school. In the article How to write a coming-of-age character we see the “turning point” commonly across many gay pulps. A turning point is an event that sparks a meaningful change in the character’s life. “This phase marks a moment of truth for your character, giving them a chance to prove themselves as independent, capable adults. They’ve learned how to stand on their own in this new adult world—and as a result, they get their first real taste of what it’s like to break away from the rules and expectations of their childhood.”(Jorstad) The trend of seeing the heroes have their first gay experience was loved by the LBGTQ+ community. (TCTROPES) The community sympathized with the characters that were coming of age. I believe the quote from Whalen describes this perfectly “Gay fiction at its core is about the formation of an individual identity (the basic coming out story) (Whalen, 76) In Gay-Bikers, we see the coming of age of Carey, the heroine. Just like Gay-Way, we see Carey get his first sexual male-on-male experience with his brother at the age of 16. Eventually, this led to the events of the novel and shaped the whole character of Carey. We see this trend again and again in gay pulps during the 1970s. A young male teenager has his first sexual experience with a male in high school, followed by dropping out of high school and leaving for the city where most of the plot takes place. [PD] [LA]
One thing we noticed across the gay pulps we read was the inclusion of the said tragedy. All of the books we have read and the sources we have gathered have concluded that tragedy was a common theme across gay pulp fiction. Not only just a tragedy but also a “self-hating hero who is doomed to die at his own hands, thus enacting the inevitable, implicitly deserved faith of all homosexuals.” (Bronski 7) This quote portrays how the romance industry thought of homosexuals at the time. We see this in numerous gay pulps: the hero or the main character usually feels guilty or ashamed of oneself. In Gay-Way, the hero states, “I feel humiliated. I feel like a real queer” (Hornsby, pg 16-17). In Gay-Bikers, we see Hugh leaving in utter defeat after witnessing how he affected his brother, doomed to die with the weight of what he did. This trend of self-hate is dark and lonely. In A Rose for Caesar, the three main characters all go to war. On one fateful day, the three main characters, Rex, Caesar, and Ashlowe, all stumble upon Japanese troops. After deciding to engage said tropes, both Caesar and Ashlowe die. Rex is devastated and cries out for Caesar to come back. He then kisses Caesar and leaves a rose as Rex runs away. Even our fourth book, The Front Runner, includes tragedy in its novel. When the hero of our story Billy is killed while running in the Olympics. The following quote is how they found Billy on the track. “The whole left temple and part of his forehead was gone. In their place was a pink and white bleeding crater” (Warren, 305). As you can see, these tragedies do not seem to stop for the gay pulps in the 1970s. Upon reading all these stories, we noticed that tragedy doesn’t usually take the same form from book to book. Rather than the authors handcrafted these tragedies to highlight the devastation in the stories. [PD] [LA]
Why do we see these tragedies as such a big part of the gay pulp industry? In the Bronski article, the author states, “most novels dealing with gay life and culture were written by gay men drawing upon their own experiences” (Bronski 5) With these stories being written from their own experiences, we believe that these themes of tragedy and self-hate have some truthfulness and shine light onto how gay men were treated at the time. We see this through the LGBTQ+ community coming together, protesting, and demanding for change, positive change for them. This is still a topic for debate. Bronski argues that “Even novels that did end badly were not necessarily promoting anti-homosexual sentiments or themes.” (Bronski Essay) [PD]
Gay Pulp and Stonewall
At the same time, these novels were dealing with themes that deal with homosexual tragedy. We see a major tragedy happen in the LGBTQ+ community. This was the Stonewall Riots which occurred at the Stonewall Inn, which was a popular gay bar located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City in the 1960s. At that time, LGBTQ+ individuals faced widespread discrimination, harassment, and violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. On June 28, 1969, after many protests by the LGBTQ+ community. The police raided the iconic spot for gay men and women in New York, and the riots turned violent. The Stonewall Riots were a turning point in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, as this is considered what sparked the LGBTQ+ movement of the 70s. This led the LGBTQ+ community to demand equal rights and to end discrimination. The riots lasted several days and involved LGBTQ+ activists, allies, and marginalized individuals who fought back against the police raids and mistreatment. But what did this mean for Gay pulp fiction? “Post stonewall riots, we see the invention of gay fiction” (Bronski 7). The Bronski article summarizes this revolution with the quote, “I contend, due to the need to believe that the Stonewall Riots and the gay liberation movement were a decisive break from the past and a radical new beginning.” (Bronski essay). People rallied around the riots, and a new sense of community was formed. This new and empowered LGBTQ+ community allowed gay fiction to explode. This is well summarized with the quote, “gay pulps not only filled a literary void but also helped shape a gay identity for their myriad readers and helped pave the way for the gay liberation movement of the post-Stonewall era.” (Henwood- Greer, 6). It was the LGBTQ+ community that was buying these books allowing the creation of a “very lucrative niche market.” (Bronski 7). Having representation in novels was huge for this community and allowed them to feel connected to the romance industry. The biggest change we see is the emergence of hardcore all-male pornography in the 1970s when, for the first time, many of the cultural inhibitions and legal restrictions on explicit gay sexual content were “swept away” by the current of a sexual revolution—prompted in large part by the 1969 Stonewall riots (Escoffier, 2009). We see a transition in the gay pulp fiction content to include more graphic depictions of gay male sex and explore new types of kinks the likes at which we, as the authors, didn’t know existed. For example, in Gay-Bikers, the graphic depiction goes as follows “You raped him, you buttfucker! You fucked that kid up the ass! Warped him for life! Turned him into what? Where? A male prostitute, a thief, a junkie, giving blow jobs to creeps like you in dark alleys to get the price of a fix?”. In previous gay pulps before Stonewall, we do not see this type of erotica. This is a clear jump into what the readers wanted in their gay pulp fiction. Bronski argues that the new novels post stonewall was ever more intense and closer to porn than actual stories. Bronski argues that these types of erotic stories give rise due to the newfound politics behind gay rights (Bronski 323), and the battle with US censorship laws allowed these erotic novels to really flourish (Bronski 5).
In conclusion, we see many similarities between gay pulp novels and the traditional straight romance industry. Many of the tropes mentioned above, like rape, coming of age, and tragedy, are prevalent in the romance industry at the time and abundantly prevalent in gay pulp fiction in the 1970s. These gay pulps, despite their sometimes-negative connotations, really allowed for the representation of a whole community, LGBTQ+, in the romance industry. Not only did gay pulps inspire many, but they also allowed gay men to band together in light of tragic events like the Stonewall riots. We are thankful that the Rubenstein rare book archive has preserved these important pieces of history and that we were given a chance to read and analyze these stories. [PD] [LA]
Amory, Richard. Song of the Loon. San Diego: Greenleaf Classics, 1966
Austen, Roger. Playing The Game: The Homosexual Novel In America. Indianapolis, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Inc., 1977.
Bronski, Michael. “Fictions about Pulp. (Essay).” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, November-December 2001, 18+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed April 11, 2023). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A80923952/AONE?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=3a45ceb2.
Bronski, Micheal. Pulp Fiction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.
Corley, Carl. A Rose For Caesar, Carl V. Corley Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Doherty, Alison. “The 20 Most Influential Romance Novels of the Last 100 Years.” BOOK RIOT, January 6, 2022. https://bookriot.com/most-influential-romance-novels/.
Hamer, Diane. “I Am a Women’: Ann Bannon and the Writing of Lesbian Identity in the 1950’s”. ed. Mark, Lilly. Lesbian and Gay Writing: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Hartman, Steve. “Evolution of Gay Rights from 1967 to Today”. Uploaded by: CBS Evening News. Jun 26, 2015. 2:22. https://youtu.be/NY7Lh8cD2e8
Henwood-Greer Eric, “Gay Male Pulp Fiction of The 1960’s From The Drugstores to The Stonewall Riots” The Albatross English Undergraduate Journal, Vol. 6 (2016)
Hornsby, Richard. Gay Way. n.p. S.L. Publishers Export Co., 1970.
Jorstad, Lewis. ‘The Coming of Age Arc: How to Write About Growing Up’. The Novel Smithy. Character Development. 2021. https://thenovelsmithy.com/coming-of-age-character-arc/
“Pulp Fiction: Gay .” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America, 1st Edition. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2023). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pulp-fiction-gay
Radford, Jean. The Progress of Romance : The Politics of Popular Fiction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Scott, Micheal. Gay Bikers. New York: Midwood Publications, 1976.
Stryker, Susan. Queer Pulp : Perverted Passions From the Golden Age of The Paperback. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, c2001.
Warren, Patricia. The Front Runner. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York. 1974
Whalen, Kacey, “A consumption of gay men: navigating the shifting boundaries of m/m romantic readership” (master’s thesis, Depaul, 2017), 76, https://via.library.depaul.edu/etd/228
Woodiwiss, Kathleen E. The Flame and the Flower. Avon, 1972.