Reflections on Last Night at the Telegraph Club
This extensively researched historical novel by Malinda Lo was particularly interesting to me because my first long term love, C., was a Chinese American woman in San Francisco. Ten years older than me, C. came of age in the same era that is portrayed in this novel of young lesbian love in the 1950s.
In 1965, when I was fifteen, I had many of the same feelings as Lily, Melinda Lo’s 17-year-old protagonist. Looking up lesbians at the Phoenix Public Library, I learned homosexuality was a mental illness and lesbians were sexual deviants doomed to live unhappy lives, unable to keep jobs or maintain loving relationships.
I also learned about an organization called Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco which began as a private social club, an alternative to the frequently raided bar scene. I called them collect and they sent me a copy of their publication, The Ladder, in a plain brown envelope. Thinking I was the only lesbian in Arizona, I resolved to go to San Francisco as soon as possible to find other girls like me.
Before I turned 21, the legal drinking age, opportunities to meet other lesbians in social settings were very limited as was the case in this 1950s-based novel. We rarely could identify each other as lesbians unless we dressed and acted like a man which did not suit me.
The summer of 1970, I headed to Maud’s, a lesbian bar in San Francisco I’d read about in The Ladder. I wore a multicolored paisley blouse in a swashbuckling style, with balloon sleeves and a sash tied around the waist and worn over bell-bottom pants of the same silky fabric in electric blue.
Before anyone threw me out for being underage, I sat down at the bar next to an attractive, trim Asian woman conservatively dressed in a cream-colored silk blouse, open at the neck, and black slacks.
The woman swiveled in her chair to look me over: six feet tall and wearing that outrageous outfit.
In fact, it was only seconds before a tough-looking dyke with slicked-back hair came over and asked for my ID.
After the bouncer asked me to leave, C. followed me out. Thus began a long-distance relationship that lasted until my fourth year of medical school.
In the early 1970s, it was dangerous for lesbians to show affection in public. Just like the Telegraph Bar in the 1950s, Maud’s would flick the lights to warn patrons to avoid touching as the police were coming just as the Telegraph Bar. Queers gathering in bars risked losing their jobs and being ostracized by friends and family.
After Lily and her lover were caught up in a raid on the Telegraph Club, her mother feared she had ruined her life and would be unable to find a husband, have children or hold down a job. Her father feared she was doomed to lead a loveless, lonely life. My mother feared the same for me in the late 1960s.
When C. and I met in San Francisco, the windows of lesbian bars such as Maud’s, Amelia’s and Peg’s Place were covered to protect patrons from threatening, prying eyes. There was always the fear of being seen by someone from one’s school or workplace and being outed.
C. and I were both ambitious women embarking on careers in academia and medicine. We worried when we emerged from a gay bar to find a man taking down the license plate number of our car. We assumed he intended to publish our names somewhere.
When I went to medical school in conservative Salt Lake City in the early 1970s, our occasional forays into the raunchy part of town to visit the Sun Tavern were fraught with fear of discovery.
The 1970s, however, opened a new era for queer people. The June 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village became the cradle of the modern LGBT rights movement. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders in 1973. In San Francisco the Human Rights Ordinance was signed into law in 1978 banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing.
Subsequent decades saw incremental increases in the human rights of LGBTQ people leading up to Supreme Court Ruling affirming same-sex marriage in 2015.
Those of us who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s still carry the scars of those early years when our love was deemed sick and wrong. We risked everything to love as we desired. Some of my peers still hide their authentic selves from their families for fear of rejection and are afraid to show affection in public.
Our human rights are tenuous. Right-wing ideologues scapegoat same-sex love as one of the major factors threatening their view of America, along with abortion rights, and racial and gender equality. If we are not vigilant, we could easily slip back into that dark time when queer love was dehumanized and outlawed.
That is why Malinda Lo’s historical novel for young adults is such an important reminder of what it was like not so long ago and what is at stake right now.