I’m Glad as Heck You Exist

Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun BY Charles J. Shields. New York: Henry Holt. 384 pages. $30.
Cover of Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun

About the time the playwright Lorraine Hansberry returned home to New York from Provincetown in the summer of 1957, a package arrived wrapped in plain brown paper. She had been waiting for it. Inside were copies of One: The Homosexual Magazine. One was sold mainly by subscription, because not many newsagents would have dared sell it, and even fewer people would have dared buy it. It was considered “obscene material” by the US Post Office; hence the nondescript wrapping.

One was produced every month in a small loft office in Los Angeles by several men who had been members of the Mattachine Society. The name “Mattachine” comes from a secret medieval French society of unmarried men who satirized oppressive social conventions with masked dances. In that spirit, One challenged the view that homosexuality was abnormal. In San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, published The Ladder. Lorraine wanted to assemble a complete run of both. “Would you please send me as many back issues of your publication as the enclosed check will stand for?” Signed, “Mrs. L. Nemiroff.”

The Daughters of Bilitis began in 1955, when Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who had been partners for several years, started a social club “with the vague idea that something should be done about the problems of lesbians, both within their own group and with the public.” The name they chose, “Bilitis”—without knowing what it meant exactly—was a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho created by the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work, The Songs of Bilitis, a collection of erotic, essentially lesbian poetry. The advantage of the name, said Martin, was that “You could be fairly anonymous when asked about it. You could say it was an organization interested in Greek poetry or whatever.” A year after the club started, “the DOB,” as members began calling it, began publishing The Ladder, the first national lesbian publication. Early issues included essays, book reviews, fiction, poetry, letters from readers, and summaries of public discussions held by the DOB and the Mattachine Society. There were articles about raising children in “a deviant relationship,” psychotherapy versus public opinion, lesbians and fear, job hunting, criticism of mainstream media depictions of homosexuality, and the psychological dimensions of self-acceptance.

At first, The Ladder was typed, illustrated, and laid out by hand. The covers were of construction paper. It was rather high schoolish looking. (It was “laughable,” Meaker sniffed. “While they were very brave people, like many pioneers they weren’t the chicest people.”)  No matter. The four hundred or so who subscribed read The Ladder to find out where the girls were.

For Lorraine, figuring that out was more difficult than it was for white women. “During the fifties in the Village,” Lorde said, “I didn’t know the few other black women who were visibly gay at all well.” Most Black lesbians were closeted because “It was hard enough to be black, to be black and female, to be black, female, and gay. To be black, female, gay, and out of the closet in a white environment, even to the extent of dancing in the Bagatelle, was considered by many black lesbians to be simply suicidal.”

It was lonely and furtive, living that way. “There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes,” according to Lorde. “We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour.” Lorde would pass black women on Eighth Street, “the invisible but visible sisters,” and they would acknowledge each other with “that telltale flick of the eye, that certain otherwise prohibited openness of expression, that definiteness of voice which would suggest, I think she’s gay. After all, doesn’t it take one to know one?”

But the editors of The Ladder believed that conforming and keeping a very low profile was how it should be, out of necessity. Lesbians wanted to get along like everyone else; they were “saleswomen, dental technicians, photographers, stenographers, teachers, traffic management people. Some are home-owners, some are saving for a home, some are just living. . . . We aren’t ‘bar-hoppers’ but people with steady jobs, most of them good positions.” To gain acceptance, they should try to assimilate as much as possible with heterosexual culture, to blend in.

The homophile Mattachine Society agreed. Although the organization had roots in Communist activism, the leadership thought it more prudent, and more productive in the long run, to defuse social hostility rather than agitate for change. In the meantime, camouflage on the street provided self-protection. “In those days we didn’t ‘out’ one another,” Meaker said. “There were all sorts of ways we hid our connections to each other so that people who knew we were homosexuals wouldn’t know others were.”

Lorraine, after she read a few issues of The Ladder, questioned whether repressing and effacing oneself was ever the best strategy. 

“I’m glad as heck you exist,” she began her letter to the editor, published in the May 1957 issue of The Ladder. She just wanted to share some “off-the-top-of-the-head reactions” to what she had been reading in the magazine. To start with, she was cheered that the Daughters of Bilitis were “serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations.” She recognized the need for a “room of one’s own,” so to speak, but she didn’t endorse isolation. Moreover, feminism and lesbianism were connected, she maintained—an insight twenty years in advance of the Combahee River Collective’s landmark “Black Feminist Statement” and thirty years before feminist critical inquiry into how race, class, gender, and sexuality overlap. But as a Marxist, she was trained to see the bigger picture.

What she wanted to talk about was a recent discussion in The Ladder about how lesbians should dress and act. She, for one, could certainly appreciate the wish to fit in with “a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.” As a Negro, she says, she was raised hearing about the importance of appearing acceptable to whites, and “I know something about the shallowness of such a view as an end in itself.” Lesbians can, if they’re willing, bow to the “dominant social group” because they think it prevents trouble, but it won’t change their being ostracized. Even Ralph Bunche, she points out, the first American Negro to win the Nobel Peace Prize, “with all his clean fingernails, degrees, and, of course, undeniable service to the human race, could still be insulted, denied a hotel room or meal in many parts of our country.” The oppressor can never be appeased. To be fair, she does concede that “the sight of the ‘butch’ strolling hand in hand with her friend in their trousers and definitive haircuts” was red meat to bigots. Currently, that’s just how things were and, she implies, would stay, unless those who were different stood up for themselves.

She ends with a friendly appeal: she would like to be included in the discussion; she was looking for community. All the gay organizations, she writes, “seem to be cropping up on the West Coast rather than here, where a vigorous and active gay set almost bump one another off the streets—what is in the air out there? Pioneers still? Or a tougher circumstance which inspires battle? Would like to hear speculation, light-hearted or otherwise.”

In accordance with The Ladder’s policy about remaining anonymous in print, she signed her letter with her initials only, “L. H. N.”

Excerpted from Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J. Shields. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Charles J. Shields. All rights reserved.