Writer Sandra Moran grabbed a bottle of water and took a seat in the couch-and-chair circle. It was book club night in a new subdivision just south of 151st and Quivira.
Fifteen neighbors were assembling in a downstairs den to discuss Moran’s debut novel. It’s a rare treat when the author joins the discussion at a book club meeting.
But the recent meeting for this club, made up mostly of moms, was different for another reason.
“I have to ask this,” Moran said after the talk meandered through setting and plot. “Were the relationships in the book off-putting to you?”
Somebody needed to point out the elephant in the room. Might as well have been the handler.
The gathered readers were all heterosexual. Moran is a lesbian, and her book, “Letters Never Sent,” fits solidly in a literary genre called lesbian fiction — lesbian authors writing lesbian-themed novels. Such books typically don’t reach a mainstream audience.
Moran’s novel explores a 1930s same-sex relationship, discovered in the 1990s by a daughter of one of the lovers. Other tough issues are prominent in the book, including rape and abortion.
“Actually,” said Megan Nordstrom, 37, about the lesbian love story, “I wanted to say, ‘Just go ahead!’ I was ready for them to get together.”
“I thought it was uncomfortable at times, but it felt very true,” said Ellen Johnson, 68. “It was a wonderful awakening.”
Moran lives in Lenexa and her cousin is friends with a club member. She wasn’t exactly sure how the book’s themes would go over with the group.
“That makes me so stinking happy,” Moran said later about the club’s positive reaction. “Another cool thing: Ellen said she was going to give the book to her daughter to read with her book club in Chicago.”
No doubt, openly gay and lesbian relationships and same-sex marriage have made recent and rapid gains in acceptance, led by younger adults. Several public opinion polls show overall support for legalization of same-sex marriage at about 55 percent. Support from millennials, those born in 1981 and after, has hit about 70 percent.
But while there have been breakthrough books, drawing a general audience to stories about same-sex relationships is still far from a matter of course.
Moran teaches anthropology at Johnson County Community College and has long had an interest in gender roles, kinship, sexual freedom and marriage.
In “Letters Never Sent,” Katherine is a young woman who, along with waves of others, leaves the farm in the 1930s to take a position as a shop girl in the big city. After she dies in the 1990s, her daughter Joan learns about her mother’s relationship with Annie through a series of letters.
“Even though there’s 60 years separating their stories,” Moran said about Katherine and Joan, “ultimately they make some of the same decisions. In some ways there hasn’t been a lot of change.”
In talking about her novel to readers, straight and gay, many have said they felt a connection to the characters of Katherine and Annie, who kept their relationship secret.
“They’re our mothers and grandmothers and aunts,” Moran said. “They’re women we know.”
Moran, 45, revealed her sexual orientation to family and friends while in her early 20s. Afterward, she neither hid it nor broadcast it, she said. Moran worked as a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal and later on the staff of Kansas Gov. Bill Graves.
“I had dated men — I was even engaged a couple times — and I had healthy relationships with men,” she said. “But I met this woman, and I just knew she was who I was attracted to so much more, on so many different levels, than the men I had dated.”
From the start in her fiction-writing efforts, Moran said, she decided to focus seriously on lesbian themes, culturally and historically.
“I want stories that are more than girl-meets-girl,” she said. “I intentionally tried to confront a lot of issues you don’t usually find in lesbian fiction.”
The genre has an extensive history but not a well-known one to mainstream readers, said Marianne K. Martin, a lesbian romance author and a founder of Bywater Books, a small press for lesbian fiction.
In the 1950s and ’60s, much of the genre could be considered “pulp fiction,” she said, paperback novels that were cheap, widely available and with something important in common.
“There was always a tragic ending for the lesbian heroine,” Martin said. “To make the stories acceptable for publishing, the main character died or was killed, or she went back to her boyfriend or husband.”
In 1973, Naiad Press was started in Kansas City and Rehoboth Beach, Del, and became a path breaker in publishing lesbian literature, particularly romances and mysteries. A few big publishers developed small gay and lesbian departments but later closed them.
Naiad broke new ground for lesbian authors, but the publisher also had strict, formulaic rules about the manuscripts it would consider, Martin said. The big one: Gone were the tragedies. Stories had to have happy endings.
Of course, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) characters and themes go back centuries in literature, said Susan K. Thomas, English Department lecturer and LGBT specialist at the University of Kansas.
As for the 20th century, Thomas said, the watershed book for same-sex issues was “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall, published in 1928. It was banned in Britain for its defense of a lesbian relationship.
Another milestone, much later: “The Color Purple,” a blockbuster novel in 1982 that included a sexual relationship between the female characters Celie and Shug.
But LGBT literature remains a niche.
“Unless it’s a really dynamic book, there are real difficulties getting published by the mainstream presses,” Thomas said.
In recent years, presses such as Bywater Books and Bedazzled Ink, which published Moran’s “Letters Never Sent,” and several LGBT publishers have helped fill the void.
Internet publishing and self-publishing have opened up a flood of gay- and lesbian-themed writing, but as with such books in general, there’s little gatekeeping, Martin said.
To Moran, success for “Letters Never Sent” and subsequent efforts will mean reaching a lesbian readership — and beyond.
“For so long we didn’t talk about same-sex issues,” Moran said. “My hope for my book is that it will reach a larger, mainstream audience. Ultimately, I’d like it if it weren’t ‘lesbian fiction’ — just ‘fiction.’ ”