Bookworm - Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s

By Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson
c.1957, 2010, University of Wisconsin Press. $26.95. 166 pages.
TGIF. These four little letters bring smiles to the faces of weary workers who have done their time for the week. Thank God It’s Friday.

But what if your options for Friday night revelry were limited? What if you couldn’t go out because you couldn’t come out? In the new book Gay Bar by Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson, you’ll read about a woman who solved that problem back when it was bold to do so.

For most of her adult life, Helen Pyle Branson was interested in the occult and what we would now call New Age subjects. Straight, married, and a mother, Branson was also a woman ahead of her time: She was extremely interested in friendships, specifically with gay men.

Back in the 1950s, homosexuality was considered an illness that could be “cured” with intensive therapy and classes. Gays and lesbians were “degenerates” then, and “normal” people shunned them with horror. To be gay was to be an outcast, often unemployed, sometimes homeless. Some even considered gayness to be a threat similar to Communism.

Branson didn’t care.

Her “boys” were welcome in her establishment, as long as they behaved – and she wasn’t afraid to oust anyone who didn’t. She protected her boys from the police, roughnecks, haters, scammers, and themselves. She fed them, gave them a safe place to congregate, and became a surrogate mother to them. She studied them and encouraged their families to love them, too.

Author Will Fellows had seen the book that Helen Branson wrote in the mid-’50s, and he thought the memoir/social commentary might make a good play. Fascinated, he began to dig into the life and thoughts of this progressive straight woman who embraced gay men.

And if Fellows had just left well-enough alone, if he had just let that book stand on its own merits, this book might have been better.

Gay Bar – the original version – had its charms. It offered a unique and honest vintage look at gay men’s lives from the perspective of a woman who genuinely loved them for who they were and who hated their persecution. Branson had her (very un-PC) theories on gayness, and she was obviously willing to discuss things with anyone who would listen, as shown by her friendship and correspondence with a sympathetic psychiatrist who also studied homosexuality.

But then Fellows steps in and puts Branson’s words into today’s perspective. I thought his ideas were intelligent and well-considered (a definite good thing), but – against Branson’s bygone-era charm – they muddy the appeal of the original (a not-so-good thing).

Can I recommend this book? Only barely, and only if you remember that this is more a gay history book than it is pleasure reading. Truly, if you’re looking for something fun and nowhere near academic, find another book and leave Gay Bar for another day.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.

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