Dearest Litterary Lezzies and all queer culture query-ers alike,
Welcome to the “Gay Gay Book Club”. Where each month we will be reading discussing a queer literary work! I started this Queer Book Club in NYC in February, but now am opening up this rad group to include virtual “chapter” here on Effort-Lez. Each month, I will be writing about our discussions for each book and releasing our next read and am inviting you to join us, read along and chat about the piece with us.
We are currently reading a young adult novel from the eighties called: “Annie On My Mind” by Nancy Garden. Join us here on Effort-Lez next month to see what we discuss!
This past month, we read “Rubyfruit Jungle,” the classic 1973 coming of age story. Our group had a lot to say about this autobiographical first novel by the incredible activist Rita Mae Brown. Caution: spoilers ahead!
We look forward to having you virtually join us!
Queer Book Club: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
Our first question at book club goes as follows: “Very generally, did you enjoy the book?” Although we had some disagreements around the pacing of the novel, we had a unanimous yes.
Rubyfruit Jungle is the wonderfully written story of Molly Bolt, a child born out of wedlock and adopted by a poor southern family struggling to have children of their own. Given the political climate for women and the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970s, it is something of a miracle that this novel was produced. This novel was published in the time between the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS epidemic of the eighties. Furthermore, 1973 – the same year the novel was published – was the year of Roe v. Wade, and the year the American Psychiatric Association finally removed homosexuality from their official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. To put it broadly: feminism and homosexuality were more visible in the American society and culture of the seventies than they had ever been before, but basic rights and acceptance for women and the LGBTQ+ community were still merely a dream; entirely in contrast with the attitude of our protagonist.
Notwithstanding the harsh climate in which this book was published, our main character Molly moves through the world as a relatively open lesbian. The novel seems like a thought experiment around the question: “What if we lived without shame?” Molly was constantly reminded of the things she should be ashamed of: being a bastard, being adopted, being poor, being an independent woman, having sex, having career aspirations, rejecting marriage, etc. Despite these constant reminders, Molly maintains her unabashed lifestyle and dreams, scoffing at anyone who tries to tell her she can’t achieve them. Her complete lack of shame is consistent throughout the book from her young childhood through to her adult life, despite the harsh real-world climate the LGBTQ+ community faced in this time period.
As a child, Molly is a troublemaker who cannot be controlled by her adoptive mother. She engages in sexual relationships with whomever she pleases, both female and male. She takes extreme actions agains those who try to shame her. She generally rebells against the idea that because of the circumstances of her birth (gender, sexuality, social class, etc), she is expected to grow up to become a meek housewife and mother. She comes to believe that the only way she can escape the small-minded South is by studying hard, earning her way to college and eventually living in freedom in New York City. Through a mixture of hard work, playing the part of the all-American good girl, and blackmailing her principal, Molly earns her way to college at the University of Florida where she faces her biggest form of adversity.
In college, Molly engages in a relationship with her female roommate. When their romance is discovered, Molly confronts the school psychiatrist and the (seemingly closeted) dean. The confrontation results in revocation of her scholarship based on her sexuality, and after the only moment of hesitation in the novel, Molly hitch-hikes to New York City. This incident led our group to one of our major questions: wouldn’t there have been harsher consequences after the public unveiling of Molly’s sexuality? In the 50s and 60s, homosexuals were routinely denied employment, housing, and even institutionalized for being gay. How could Molly, someone who had relationships with other females starting as a young girl, never be found out or penalized for her actions until college? And then when she is found out, her only punishment is non-renewal of her scholarship and the relatively unmourned loss of a few personal relationships. It seems like the novel misses an opportunity to call out the widespread, often violent persecution of people based on their sexuality and call for change (especially in the south). As a way to explore the idea of rejecting shame, however, Rita Mae Brown may have shied away from halting Molly in her tracks in order to advance the narrative and embrace the queer reader.
Another discussion point that our group lingered on dealt with the consistency and facility with which Molly finds female lovers throughout the book. She discovers and engages her lovers with ease, and the majority of them seem to make the first move regardless of their sexuality (many of them do not self identify as lesbians). It seems as though this dichotomy – shameless Molly and her secret lovers – draws the reader to conclude that life without shame is an admirable goal. I don’t know anyone who would disagree. The issue, however, is that although aspiring to be self assured and confident in ourselves is a worthy aspiration, living so unabashedly in the real world in this time period had consequences that are barely hinted at.
Regardless of the downplaying of societal hostility towards the gay community, this novel is an incredible, powerful piece. It forces the reader to confront their own shame, and consider rejecting it. Do we feel shame rightfully, or only because we fail to live up to something we should never have aspired to in the first place? What would our lives look like if we lived without the burden of our shame? Rubyfruit Jungle offers an example of what that might look like; and more importantly what that might look like for a queer person. Rita Mae Brown shows us that it is ok to be who you are, even if the social climate may lead you to believe otherwise. When this book came out, the LGBTQ+ community was harshly discriminated against, yes, but was also greatly in need of a book that embraced who they were; a book that embraced homosexuality as a natural, beautiful expression of our humanness. Rubyfruit Jungle filled that gap and gave our community a fierce, imperfect yet confident protagonist: Molly Bolt.
What did you think of Rubyfruit Jungle?
Join us next month as we discuss: Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden