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On the Hidden History of Queer Women in Baseball

baseballs

I’d already been reporting the story of queer women in baseball during World War II for four months by the time I finally cracked open Lynn Ames’ book, The Bright Lights of Summer. I didn’t really think the historical fiction novel had anything to help my story. It was based on the life of Dot Wilkinson, a softball player from the same era I was reporting on. It was about a different sport and didn’t overlap with the league whose players I was researching at all. But there, in the very first chapter, a single sentence sparked an idea that would lead me to discover a treasure trove of previously unreported information.

A character in the book, Julie, is researching women who played softball in the 1940s after she discovers that her mother had been one of them. Julie knows that in the present day, a lot of women who play softball are gay. But in the 1940s, being gay was still unacceptable and dangerous—not to mention that homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. Obviously there were no mentions of lesbians in old newspaper write-ups of the American Softball Association teams. But in her research, Julie finds a few present-day items that tell her she’s on the right track: obituaries, including that of Ricki Caito, Wilkinson’s longtime partner, who is mentioned in the obit as such.

I read that and I thought, what if the answers I’m looking for are in the obituaries? I’d been searching for months, coming up on dead ends and still-living All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players who refused to talk to me about the issue, even after I disclosed my own queerness in an attempt to connect. But it turned out the answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight. The obituaries unlocked a story that had long been hidden—the story of the queer women who played hardball—and provided a glimpse into the lives these women lived when they stepped off the diamond.

The answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight.

“I read obituaries every day to learn what sorts of lives are available to us,” writes Sarah Manguso in her book The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. Obituaries are an often overlooked source, tiny little tributes that are littered with clues about a person’s life. It’s where we learn who the most important people in someone’s life were, what they were like, what they liked to do.

Sometimes, obits can be something else, too: honest. “The obit as news, the obit as scoop, the obit that tells the stories that couldn’t be told while the subject was still in a litigious state,” Marilyn Johnson writes in her book about obituaries, The Dead Beat.

Obits are also historical documents, which, as researchers, we can interpret through our modern lens. For example, today we know that “loving companion” was often coded language to describe a same-sex partner. In one obituary I found, a player had a dreaded “special friend”; perhaps the only thing more insulting than being given the “special friend” title in your longtime partner’s obituary would be being left out completely. Jude Law’s character in the movie Closer, an obit writer, decoded some of this language: “‘He valued his privacy’—gay. ‘He enjoyed his privacy’—raging queen!”

And yet, despite being able to garner the clues about women who may have spent their lives with other women—who may or may not have identified as gay or a lesbian or queer—choosing to share these findings with the world at-large was another place for me to stop and consider. Yes, obituaries are public documents, so no, I wouldn’t necessarily be outing someone by sharing their name. But there is a good chance that these women were not out in their own lives. It’s possible that these women called their life partners simply a longtime roommate, a close friend, or a cousin. And while the stigma of queerness in 2019 is minimized in many ways from what it was when these women lived , it’s not gone completely; it’s just changed shape. We are still so close to their lifetimes. Their partners may still be alive. Some former players and teammates are still living. Is it disrespectful to write about a relationship that may have been a source of danger or shame or fear for someone?

On the other hand, isn’t it important to tell queer stories, to unearth them so that they are not lost? Isn’t it important for young queer people to see that we have always existed, that we have always been here, and if you know where to look, you can find yourself reflected even in an era that desperately tried to force us underground or completely erase us from existence? There are several books published over the last half a century that use a queer lens to look back at U.S. history in an attempt to center these oft-buried stories: Gay American History by Jonathan Ned Katz, A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, Queer America by Vicki L. Eaklor. We’ve always been here and we’ve always been queer, and many of us have been hiding in plain sight.

For people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live.

And for people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live. Astronaut Sally Ride’s longtime female partner didn’t become known until Ride died, and her partner was listed in her obituary. When former member of the Texas House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan, died in 1996, her obituary named her longtime partner, Nancy Earl (the clues were public earlier than that, though; a 1988 story about Jordan being hospitalized after being rescued from the pool at her home mentions “Nancy Earl, who lives with Jordan.”).

This is true, too, the obituaries of AAGPBL players. As a queer writer and baseball fan, it is with gratitude that I read these obituaries. I am grateful for the women who came before me, who found love with someone even when the world told them their love was wrong. I am grateful to the family members and obit writers who recognized that love and honored those partnerships by including partners’ names in the obits.

It seems that these relationships resonated with a lot of other people, too. When my story was published in Narratively, it went viral and became the most-read piece on their website in 2018. It was covered by The Lily, the women’s vertical at The Washington Post, I was interviewed on sports writer Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports podcast, and the story has been nominated for a prestigious baseball writing award. It made visible an entire community whose stories have gone untold despite the fact that their history on the baseball diamond has been well-documented, including in the classic movie A League of Their Own.

I know of several AAGPBL players who are still living, well into their 90s now. They’ve been with their female partners for decades, though none were willing to talk to me about it when I was reporting my story. “We didn’t talk about that,” was all they would say. It’s hard to open up about something you’ve had to keep secret as a matter of survival for the better part of a century. But now, living in a world that I believe is ready for their truth, I still hope to record their history while they are living, to hear the story of their lives and relationships straight from their lips.

I would never want to pressure someone into sharing something publicly that they don’t feel ready to reveal. I can only hope that maybe they read my piece—there’s a good chance they did; the AAGPBL’s Twitter account retweeted it and responded to it—and that they know they are seen and accepted for exactly who they are. I hope they know that their stories matter, to me and to a whole lot of other people. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn the full truth before it’s written in the obituary section.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Staff Picks: Peasants, Postpartum, and Palestine

Kate Colby. Photo: Caroline Larabell.

Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches is the book I never knew I needed. I wrote last week about my love for fiction about women interacting with art, and Colby’s unique blend of poetry, essay, and autofiction offers yet another angle on that conversation. She considers works by writers such as Ben Lerner and Virginia Woolf while incorporating her meandering thoughts into the ongoing narrative of “Driving to Margaret’s Mother’s Memorial Service.” In a stream of consciousness that roves I-195, Colby contrasts her literary critique with truisms and memories that careen the reader into questions about the nature of language. At the beginning of these musings, Colby notes that “writers tend to be preoccupied with what makes everything unique, but I get hung up on the countless ways they clump.” Language and life congeal throughout Dream of the Trenches, spanning topics from motherhood and middle age to metaphysical literature. Colby makes tongue twisters out of her inquiries, with exquisite turns of phrase such as “time let go and oblivious to dog hair.” She’s the kind of writer who notices both the windshield and the speck of dust on it, and Dream of the Trenches is the kind of book that places them side by side and says, Look. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford 

Like loving difficult people, loving a difficult book is hard to justify, not because you’re wrong but because what you love about it often eludes articulation. Carlo Levi’s memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli—based on his time as a political exile in Aliano (“Gagliano” in these pages, a nod to the local dialect, Alianese) from 1935 to 1936—is one such book. It is dense with despair and thick, like the hot air of malaria country, with hopelessness. The claustrophobic narrative begins with Levi’s arrival in Gagliano and ends with his leaving, and while we are meant to understand that Levi’s anti-fascist activity landed him in this position, he barely references it. This is not a political book. In the endless, empty days, there is only the whisper of a plot. What is it in this depressing book that offers enchantment? Maybe it’s that the characters are thrown into sharp relief against the squalid setting. Levi renders his ensemble cast with empathy and precision: As a doctor and artist, Levi’s presence is welcomed by the gentry, who are bitter at their parochial situation and seek his friendship as a way of elevating their lowborn citizenship by proxy; as an exile, he earns kinship with the peasants, who recognize in him something of their own oppressed situation. The calculating Donna Caterina has both her husband and brother on strings (and designs on marrying her daughters to Levi); Giulia, the sturdy peasant woman Levi employs as a housekeeper, practices mysticism and is a loyal companion. Maybe I was won over by the vicarious escape from political turmoil I felt. In his introduction, Levi writes that his exiled self was “so free of his own era as to be almost exiled from time.” Maybe the appeal of a difficult book can be found in its relentless difficulty, its uncut intensity, which demands our fullest engagement as readers. —Lauren Kane

 

Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Photo: Davide Mauro (CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)).

 

Every couple months, I turn, like a dog in the straw, and bed down with a title from the last century—or the century before that one. I knew that the reward of reading Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard would unfold in every direction. “Reading and rereading it,” writes E. M. Forster, an early admirer, “has made me realize how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” The novel, written in the fifties, is about a titled family in nineteenth-century Sicily, opens after the hour of the evening Rosary. Under the silk of the women’s dresses and the priest’s soutane, in a room bedecked with Roman gods, there is the stirring of the next tectonic shift on the Italian Peninsula. The book is about Lampedusa’s own ancestors, the Salina family, with whom a certain blessedness had died. Every blazing summer is the same for the House of the Leopard, but the coming revolution means a dozen small humiliations before eventually there are “horses bought with an eye more to price than to quality,” which I suppose signals the real end of the line. The joy is in the hunting in the hills and in the arguments for social niceties and in guessing Lampedusa’s more painful nostalgia from his perch in the middle of the twentieth century. The fun is also in speaking to friends and colleagues about the book now, another sixty years on, as the art of the letter fades underfoot and the arguments of social stratification echo as loud as ever. The Salinas are tempting not just because of their freedom from want—that quality is plenty on display in our own era. They are tempting because of their freedom from time and change and fad, which, in the 1850s, the 1950s, or 2019, is a bedtime story for all ages. —Julia Berick

In Dear Scarlet, Teresa Wong writes and illustrates her experience with postpartum depression. Intrusive thoughts are blown up in large text, subtracted from blacked-out bubbles: “I FEEL LIKE A MONSTER.” Elsewhere we see quiet but similarly daunting images: simple bird’s-eye views of her baby surrounded by white space, tiny arms stretching out of her swaddle. The rendering’s variance in tone feels true to life. It’s sometimes quiet, sometimes deafening, and always complex. Whatever the volume, there are always possibilities for suffocation but also for beauty and hope. Near the end, Wong tells her daughter: “I hope you never go through depression, postpartum or otherwise. But if you do, please know that I know what it’s like.” To name and acknowledge depression is already a gift. But within these pages, too, lie both a visual guide and a map of “what it’s like.” It is a wide view. Living with depression is like this, and this, and this. —Spencer Quong

When I lived in Palestine, I started listening to Mashrou’ Leila as part of an overly optimistic project: improving my Arabic. That undertaking went the way of all good intentions. A poor grasp of the language, though, shouldn’t keep anyone away from this band. Their latest album, The Beirut School, includes only three new songs, but the propulsive, hypnotic “Radio Romance” alone is worth the price of admission, and more importantly, seeing all these songs collected together reminded me of why I listen to them in the first place. Coverage of Mashrou’ Leila in the U.S. has tended to focus on the political, on what the band “represents,” and has neglected to emphasize that, honestly, the music is just a lot of fun. Maybe they’ve grown up—and a decade in, they’re certainly well aware of what they “represent”—but there is still humor here and joy; they seem to take as much pleasure as kids in making this music together. Even in the saddest songs, like “Shim El Yasmine” and “Inni Mnih,” something is being celebrated or appreciated: friendship or camaraderie or brotherhood, having someone to sing not to but with, which can be even more vital. For those who insist on seeing a band from “the Arab world” as political, though, I would point to Mashrou’ Leila’s cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” which for some inexplicable reason did not make it onto this album but can be found in all its glory on YouTube. The video is among the most purely joyful things I have seen, and a good reminder that politically and personally, sometimes the best revenge is just living well. —Hasan Altaf

 

Mashrou’ Leila. Photo: Anteger11 (CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)).

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review