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Gay and lesbian books becoming more marketable

It was one of the strangest questions Leslea Newman had ever fielded on the radio talk-show circuit.

"Did you ever think that if your father was gay and your mother was a lesbian," the caller asked, "you wouldn't even be here?"

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Ms. Newman -- Leslea "Heather Has Two Mommies" Newman, as she often calls herself, after her best-known children's book -- was stumped. And that doesn't happen very often. Ms. Newman wasn't voted 1973 "class wit" in high school for nothing. A published poet, novelist, writing teacher, self-proclaimed lesbian and author of eight children's books, including "Heather," a controversial story about a child of lesbian parents, Ms. Newman is usually ready with a quick repartee.

"Well," she finally said to the caller, "and what is your point?"

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"I started turning down talk shows shortly after that; they were too brutal," Ms. Newman said.

Ms. Newman, 39, who graduated from the University of Vermont, studied poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., and lived in New York's Greenwich Village briefly, discovered she was a lesbian when she moved in 1982 to Northampton, the Massachusetts town she affectionately calls "Lesbianville." She lives there permanently now, with her partner, Mary Vazquez. They do not have children -- the idea for "Heather" was planted by a friend with a child -- but they are "married."

In the late 1980s, Ms. Newman couldn't get anyone to publish "Heather Has Two Mommies" -- the book whose inclusion in a New York City multicultural curriculum package two years ago brought her unexpected fame as it became the center of debate. (It was eventually removed from the curriculum.) Even the feminist presses had rejected the 35-page tale, saying they didn't have experience with children's books, and Ms. Newman was forced to self-publish, raising $4,000 by asking fans to preorder a book for $10.

But times have changed. Today Ms. Newman is benefiting from what many gay activists have termed a renaissance of gay writing. Publishers, large and small, have recognized the potential of the gay book-buying market and are snapping up gay titles and lavishing gay books with attention and advertising dollars. Alyson Publications, an independent gay press in Boston, bought "Heather" for its new line of children's books, Alyson Wonderland, and last spring Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, approached Ms. Newman and asked her to compile an anthology of contemporary lesbian love poems, due out by Valentine's Day 1996.

Though gays and lesbians have been writing since the dawn of publishing, and novels by gay authors such as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and John Horne Burns were critically acclaimed during the late '40s and early '50s, the trend ebbed during the last few decades as publishers shied away from gay material. Today's gay literature once again tackles gay subject matter in a forthright, even brazen manner, from John Berendt's true crime book about a gay murder, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (Random House), which has sold 400,000 copies and is on the New York Times best-seller list, to scholarly books of history, such as George Chauncey's "Gay New York" (BasicBooks, a division of HarperCollins), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to the humorous how-to book "The Unofficial Gay Manual" (Doubleday).

At least 300 new gay-related titles were released last spring, according to one longtime bookstore owner -- compared with a maximum of 200 new titles in any previous season.

Some attribute the proliferation of gay books to the AIDS crisis, which galvanized the gay community, created an extensive network of organizations and publications, dragged many gays out of the closet and gave them a political agenda and unprecedented visibility. Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" (St. Martin's Press), an account of the history of the AIDS crisis, became a best seller in 1987; two years ago, Paul Monette's "Becoming a Man" (HarperSanFrancisco), an autobiographical account of his life as a gay man, won the National Book Award.

But the bottom line is the bottom line: Publishers are in the business of selling books, and so far, gay books sell. The gay market has "great demographics," as several editors put it -- gays tend to be college-educated with discretionary income.


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