In 1982, a British researcher and historian named Helena Whitbread stumbled upon a strange series of diaries written in a code. The diaries were written by Anne Lister, a wealthy and well-educated landowner who lived from 1791-1840. According to a BBC News article titled “The Life and Loves of Anne Lister'' by Rebecca Woods, the code utilized a combination of “Greek and Latin, punctuation, and the zodiac.” Whitbread was eventually able to crack the code, only to discover Lister’s scandalous secret. Anne Lister was a lesbian. Though the term “lesbian” was not used at the time, Lister was a woman who exclusively loved women. She also spent a great deal of time with other women who loved women and wrote about her life in detail. The discovery of Anne Listers diaries drastically changed how historians view female homosexuality in Regency Era England. Rebecca Woods states that “Until then, clear evidence of sex between women had been absent from the historical record” and the journals “detailed a lesbian lifestyle many thought had not existed in the past.”
Lister’s diaries were almost lost to history ninety-two years before Helena Whitbread when a descendant of Lister’s family decoded the diaries. That descendant, a man named John Lister who was queer himself, nearly destroyed the diaries but eventually decided to hide them away. The absence of Anne Lister’s presence on queer history would radically change how historians talk about and understand an entire group of people. Preservation changed queer history. Now, Anne Lister was wealthy and white. She had the education to write in code and the privilege and power to travel and meet women which is something anyone with a lesser social standing would not have had the opportunity to do.
Scholars have some details of wealthy queer women, but are still mostly in the dark when it comes to queer narratives on more marginalized voices of the time. Those people did not have a code to keep their secrets, a wealthy relative to hide their books, or a library to preserve the documents of their estate. There are poor and trans and BIPOC voices lost to time that archives and libraries cannot get back. Queer history and memory is precarious and precious. As badass as it sounds, LGBTQIA+ folks did not spring fully formed from Zeus’s head wielding a spear and a full suit of armor ready to take on the 20th century. We have always been here, even if time and active erasure obscures the truth. Queer relationships are passed off by historians as “close friendships” or as “roommates.” Phrases like “he never married” peppered obituaries in British newspapers. The more marginalized the voice, the less likely it is that their stories get recorded and retold.
Enter, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, a YA historical fiction novel about a young Chinese American lesbian in McCarthy Era San Francisco. Holy (insert expletive indicating shock and awe and reverence here), Batman. I don’t quite have the words for how this book made me feel. Historical fiction featuring lesbian relationships tends to predominantly feature white and wealthy protagonists. Take every Sarah Waters book or Portrait of a Lady on Fire as an example. (You should definitely read The Paying Guests though, it’s *chef’s kiss*) The stories we tell about fictional queer relationships have a direct link to how we preserve and remember LGBTQIA+ history. So much has been erased and obscured, and what does typically remain is a result of extreme privilege. In an interview with We Need Diverse Books, Malinda Lo talks about living in San Francisco and learning about the proximity of the city’s lesbian bars to Chinatown. Lo says “I had this gut feeling that Chinese American lesbians who lived in Chinatown at the time must have known about these bars. I wanted to tell a story about one of them.”
Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows Lily Hu, a seventeen year old high-school student who loves science-fiction and dreams of rocket ships and space travel. Lily lives with her family in Chinatown among anxieties about communism and fear of deportation. After her father, a well-respected doctor, has his citizenship papers taken for refusing to give details on a patient suspected of communist sympathies, Lily’s life changes forever. Although Lily tries her best to not draw attention to herself or her family, she feels drawn to an advertisement for Tommy Andrews, a male impersonator at the Telegraph Club. When Lily finds out that her classmate Kath has seen Tommy Andrews perform and, in fact, has been to the Telegraph Club, the two girls start to realize that they have a lot in common.
I am a sucker for a good, satisfying slow-burn romance and boy does this book deliver. The relationship between Lily and Kath was so deeply relatable and beautiful that it took my breath away. I’m having trouble writing just how this book made me feel. I’ve never read another book quite like it, so it’s hard to articulate the emotions it brought me. It will definitely be at the top of my favorites list for this year.
Malinda Lo explores more than just the relationship between Lily and Kath. Lo delves into the lives of Lily’s family, giving the reader insight into Lily’s family dynamics. The book also explores lesbian night-life through the titular Telegraph Club as well as the racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia that saturated 1950s San Francisco. One aspect of the novel I found striking were the rumors and rumblings Lily hears about Chinese American women who also moved through the same lesbian communities. Although she hears about women like her who also come from Chinatown, she never encounters them. It highlighted the increased risk that Asian American communities faced in a post WWII America. While all the women who frequent the Telegraph Club need to be cautious, the stakes for Lily and for the women from Chinatown she never meets are significantly higher than the stakes for her white companions. For me, it echoed Malinda Lo’s own San Francisco experience, knowing that LGBTQIA+ Chinese Americans were present in the 1950s but not having a wealth of knowledge about them.
Queer history is vital to a queer future. Reclaiming spaces in history that were occupied by real people through fiction, is just as vital. Lo’s book stands against a tide that works to erase the stories of marginalized people and says, “Look at me, I have always been here. Although you may ignore it, I have a history and a place. I have a right to claim that history. I have a right to tell my stories. I have always been here.”
Before I finish up this blog post, I’m going to recommend some sources for those of you who may be interested in LGBTQIA+ history. The first is local! If you haven’t had a chance to look at the Under the Rainbow oral history collection from the University of Kansas, please do. It documents the lives of LGBTQIA+ people who were either born in Kansas or who were living in Kansas at the time of their interview. The second source I’m going to recommend is the Digital Transgender Archive. It contains oral histories, photographs, and other digitized archival material on trans people throughout history. I would highly recommend looking at the many interviews they have with transgender activist and icon Miss Major. I want a world in which future historians and generations of LGBTQIA+ people have countless first-hand accounts of queer life. I want thousands upon thousands of Anne Listers from every community, not just the white, well-educated, affluent ones. I want more books like Last Night at the Telegraph Club that reassert that queerness is everywhere. I want someone, thousands of years in the future to look back and say, “Of course. We’ve been here the whole time.”
-Margo Moore is a Youth Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.