(Above: Victor Banis in 1966; Below: Banis in 1944, at age 7.)
Victor Banis has a raspy, queeny old laugh. It sounds a lot like John Waters's almost-a-cackle guffaw and comes easily and often. It takes on especially mischevious tones when I ask the 76-year-old about government surveillance. Is he surprised by new revelations that the United States government spies on its own citizens? "Ha-ha! No, I'm far too aware of those guys. I don't find it surprising in the least!"
Banis has firsthand experience with government spooks. No, his computer wasn't hacked and his phone wasn't bugged—nothing that high-tech. His experience was more hands-on: opened mail left in neat bundles outside his door. This began in early 1965, just before Banis went on trial for conspiracy and obscenity charges stemming from the 1964 publication of his book The Affairs of Gloria, a lesbian-tinged pulp about a self-described "free-wheeling nympho."
From March of 1965 until January of 1966, Banis commuted back-and-forth from his Los Angeles home to the federal court house in Sioux City, Iowa. After months of exhausting testimony, Banis was eventually acquitted, but he was left with a "burning resentment" for the government's "callous disregard" for first amendment rights.
"The bottom line was that my innocence was gone," Banis writes in his 2008 memoir, Spine Intact, Some Creases. "I had been screwed in no uncertain terms." Worked into a froth, Banis sat down to give the establishment a full-throated—and very gay—screw right back. The result: The Why Not, a first-of-its-kind and very unabashed collection of frank, often funny vignettes about gay men living in Los Angeles. It didn't take long for Banis to write it — it was based in large part on his own life — but selling it was a different story, one that changed gay culture forever, and one whose legacy I had to learn more about. So, I went straight to the source.
Banis lives in West Virginia now, but he was born in 1937 in Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, where he grew up impoverished and isolated from his peers. His memoir mentions some of the more traditional taunts and bullying and alludes to being raped by a gang of police, but he doesn't linger on the bad times. "I've seen plenty of ugliness," he tells me, reluctantly. "I don't think any gay man that grew up before the revolution got through it without scars." But that's all he'll say about the violence. Besides, he found security and comfort at his homestead.
"A bunch of loonies," is how Banis lovingly describes his 10 siblings, his hard-working mother, and chronically ill, occasionally abusive father. The Banis Clan was open-minded, fun-loving, close, and completely supportive. "[And that] is probably the best thing that could happen to a gay boy growing up there and then." No one seemed to care he was gay, and a young Banis tacitly acknowledged that openness by moving out West with another man in 1963.
Banis's family did, however, intend on him being upright. Mother "believed and practiced the Christian virtues," as did her children, so Banis was not well-versed in the dirty words he later used in his writing. He swears he didn't say "damn" aloud until he was 30-years-old. But Mother Banis also taught her children to fight for what's right, and he believed that people had the right to write what they wanted. As he told me, colorfully, "I don't know if it's necessary to write books with the word 'motherfucker,' but I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be allowed." The same idea applied to gay books. "Why shouldn't a book show homosexuality in a favorable light? Why shouldn't gays be allowed to fall in love and live happily ever after?"
Banis had written for a few of the underground gay magazines before 1966. They were mostly small pieces, like poetry for One Inc and a short story for Adolf Brand's Zurich-based Der Kreis, but censorship and self-doubt had held him back. Besides, he didn't want to peddle in the stereotypes and pathetic gay characters being floated at the time. While some small publishers printed gay books, they were mostly tales of woe. Banis often cites Grove Press's 1963 publication John Rechy's sad gay hustler tale City of Night as an example. The literary establishment was too obsessed with homosexual drama.
"If you think about the gay literary establishment, even today, AIDS was a godsend to them — they could write books about guys falling in love and still have their tragic ending," Banis says. "They've never gotten past those damn tragic endings."
Banis wanted to create something lighter and more free. He was ready to roar, and he let The Why Not spill out of him. It took only a few weeks to get a draft completed. But getting it published was a different story: No one wanted to touch gay fiction, especially something proud and pro-sex, and The Why Not amassed dozens of rejections before one empathetic editor suggested Banis try Earl Kemp at Greenleaf Classics.
If you ask Banis, the gay rights revolution isn't "pre-Stonewall" or "post-Stonewall," it's pre-Greenleaf and post-Greenleaf. And it was Kemp—a straight man who wasn't that interested in sharing a gay story, or even improving gay rights—who was the catalyst. As Kemp explained to me, he was terrified of gay men and had never met one until Banis and his then-lover, fellow writer and sometimes collaborator Sam Dodson, took him out on the town. "I was terrified of meeting Vic. The thought of being alone with a known, active gay person was more than I could handle," Kemp wrote in an email exchange. "For the first time I saw gays, in big numbers, just being themselves." But before that Kemp simply saw in The Why Not a good manuscript—and something that would sell. His decision to publish the book changed gay culture forever. Kemp is, according to Banis, "one of the unsung heroes of gay publications."
The Why Not was an instant hit. Of course there was the erotic element inherent in all pulp paperbacks. "Obediently, mechanically, my sex hardened, reaching out for him," reads one passage from the book's first chapter. But as titillating and novel as that soft-core action was, the book's appeal was just as rooted in its intimate, honest look at the queer experience. As an example, here's a narration that may ring familiar to many contemporary gay men: "This present arrangement had been Walt's idea. It had been his suggestion, when their relationship as lover ended, that they remain friends instead, roommates." Or maybe this: " 'Why can't I be hung?' he thinks, instinctively clasping his inadequate genitals in hand.… Nice fanny [though], something to be thankful for."
The gay pulp market exploded after The Why Not's publication. Banis remembers flocking to Circus Books on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles every Thursday to get the latest paperbacks. Soon, hundreds of titles were available. Banis alone published approximately 60 titles between 1966 and 1969, some for Greenleaf, some for other publishers, including Leisure Books, Medco Books, Adult Press, Sundown Reader, and Ember Library. Most of the titles were nothing special — standard plots with a fixed ratio of sex and very often filled with reprinted materials (Banis's own Man from CAMP series regularly reused text from previous installments). Like almost all authors, Banis adopted a number of pen names, some more imaginative than others: Victor Jay, Victor Samuels, Dodd V. Banson, JX Williams, John Dexter, and then there was Don Holliday, the name Banis used for his aforementioned Man from CAMP series.
A franchise of nine books and numerous dubious tie-ins — the 1968 CAMP Cookbook was a cheeky attempt at crossover marketing — the Man from CAMP franchise starred Banis's most popular and joyous character, Jackie Holmes, a y secret agent. But Holmes wasn't just a campy character, a spoofy and gay James Bond. He was a sexually confident queen who disarmed bombs while exploding gender norms. As Michael Bronski wrote in the introduction to Banis's Longhorns:
"…An effeminate (if strong and agile) gay man was a shocking twist on the accepted notions of gender roles at the time. One might have imagined a gay hero who was big and masculine—that might make some sense—but a queen?…To push the envelope even further—Jackie Holmes was a bottom. With the publication of the first book in the series, Victor Banis overthrew a century of gay stereotypes and invented something shockingly new and culturally powerful."
And unlike past gay books, with vague, opaque covers, the Man from CAMP's covers, illustrated by Robert Bonfils, made clear this queen knew how to live life.
Within a few years, the pulp paperback market was super-saturated and made dark detours into a variety of sexual genres—including rape, incest, and pederasty—all of which Banis and Kemp say came from market demand and a tireless desire to "push the envelope." "We were changing the paperback world," Banis explains. Kemp adds, "We were fucking with the establishment." (The establishment would later fuck Kemp back: He was jailed in 1970 for publishing an illustrated version of The President's 1969 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.)
By the late-'60s, Banis had become disenchanted with the pulp industry's assemblyline set up. He decided to move on to other genres, including gothic and western romances for straight women and even a few action titles for The Executioner, the grocery store paperback spy series. As political and cultural barriers eroded after the Stonewall, Banis's works were dismissed as frivolous camp or downright trash. He may have been forgotten had it not been for gay writers such as Bronski, who celebrates Banis in his anthropological study Pulp Friction, and, just as important, Laura Baumbach, a straight female author who discovered Banis' work at the turn of the 21st century and decided it had to be saved. "The content is important," Baumbach says. "It needs to be out there. It shouldn't be out of print." Through her publishing house MLR Press (MLR stands for ManLoveRomance), Baumbach has helped revive and reprint Banis's old titles. He's even produced a few new ones, including Lola Dances, Longhorns, and The Deadly Mystery series.
Despite their flaws—including weak plots or seemingly flippant portrayals of limp-wristed queens—pulps were essential to the creation of a coherent, collective gay identity. "Pulps were the first mass representation available to generations of (embryo) gay people," author and professor Fabio Cleto writes in his introduction to Banis's memoir. They created a "mirror that enabled queers — and heterosexuals, to some extent — to literally come to terms with their own self-understanding."
They also sparked the advent of gay consumer culture. In his book Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, Bronski writes, "Gay culture had reached a point by 1967 where it could be marketed at a profit. It had become a saleable commodity." It was a commodity that was both born from community and that shaped a community, too.
After reading Banis's works, his memoir, and speaking with him, I was left with the feeling that I was talking to an old friend. Perhaps gay men—even across a wide generational divide—do speak a common language and do have a shared sensibility, one in which we have to find silver linings in the face of childhood taunts and institutionalized discrimination.
"One of the fundamental truths of the gay experience, is that gays have more fun," explains Banis, who, at 76 and despite a stroke, remains as vibrant as always.
How much Banis himself helped shape a common gay language through his writing may be impossible to gauge. By his estimate, he had two million books in print by 1972. It's certainly possible the language and inflections used in his pulp paperbacks, some of the first mass gay media, seeped into the queer vernacular and consciousness. When I ask him if he's ever considered this, he thinks for a moment. "I hadn't thought about that, but I probably did, because I did do so many books." He pauses and then laughs that infectious laugh. "I'm the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." Or, at the very least, the most infamous.