Lesbian Survival Literature

Whisper Their Love front cover. A brunette with short, curly hair is shown to the far right side of the image sitting down. Part of one of her legs is visible, showing the hem of a blue skirt and part of her shin. She is wearing a yellow, long-sleeved blouse which is buttoned at the cleavage level. Her face is slightly tilted to her right and to the back, and her gaze is relaxed and directed toward another woman, a redhead, who is sitting on the ground beside her with her body leaned over her lap and her right arm bent over the brunette's lap. Her eyes are green eyes and she is wearing a negligee with lace on its upper part, and straps. The brunette strokes her hair with her left hand, and the redhead's head is slightly curling over her right shoulder as she looks directly at the reader with a smile. To the left, in the background, a green night table is seen against a wall, with a table lamp on top which illuminates the wall in two places, over and under its shade. To the right of the image, around the brunette's left side, rays of light can be seen, seemingly coming through a window with blinds over it. The image is set over a yellow background seen at the top and the bottom of the cover.

Subversive messages

Make no mistake, the books referred to as Lesbain Survival Literature were true to their era and held their share of moralistic messages and tragic endings. Spring Fire, Odd Girl Out and Whisper Their Love, each written by authors, known for their positive portrayal of lesbian characters, end with the rejection of one of the women in favour of a male suitor. However, in addition to the censor-mandated conclusions, these stories offered a subversive message of vibrant subcultures, populated by strong dynamic women exuding a visible sexuality that rang true to many lesbian readers at the time. 

Scholar Yvonne Keller points out that many of the authors with sympathetic portrayals of lesbians treated lesbian sex scenes respectfully compared to other authors in the lesbian pulp fiction genre. They avoided gratuitously, overly sensational sex scenes, or, as in the case of author Pat Perdue (Randy Salem), ensured that voyeuristic male characters also suffered painful consequences.

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Grier Ratings

In the late 1950s and 1960s, short reviews of these books appeared in the Ladder, the first lesbian newsletter with a North American distribution. The reviewer was Gene Damon, a pseudonym for Barbara Grier, who would later become a significant publisher of lesbian literature in the latter half of the 20th century. During the 1960s, Grier was involved in the creation of a bibliography of lesbian literature, The Lesbian in Literature. 

Grier rated lesbian literature on a scale of A-C for how prominent the lesbian subject was to the story and a range of 1 to 3 asterisks for the quality of the representation. Thus a rating of 'A***' had lesbian characters with very sympathetic portrayals. A rating of 'A' without an asterisk meant there was a major lesbian component but not sympathetically portrayed. The B and C ratings were for works with lesbian subplots or suppressed/coded lesbian themes. Books that contained voyeuristic and demeaning representations of lesbians were rated as 'T (Trash)'. It is telling that lesbian representation was so low that any representation was considered better than none. Grier reasoned that the 'T (Trash)' rating served to warn lesbian readers away from the worst of the titles. It is worth keeping in mind that these ratings were applied during the 1960s and many readers today may find even the A*** rated books challenging to read regarding their representation of lesbian lives.

In subsequent editions in the late 1970s and 1980s, over 2000 books rated as 'T (Trash)' were removed. The times had changed, and increased feminist and lesbian publishing opportunities meant that finally there was a large enough volume of lesbian literature to warrant the removal of the worst of the lesbophobic titles.


Brandt, Kate. Happy Endings: Lesbian Writers Talk about Their Lives and Work. Naiad Press, 1993.

Damon, Gene, and Lee Stuart. The Lesbian in Literature: A Bibliography. San Francisco: Daughters of Bilitis, 1967.

Keller, Yvonne. ""Was It Right to Love Her Brother's Wife so Passionately?": Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965." American Quarterly 57.2 (2005): 385-410.