In Gayla Turner's debut book, Don't You Dare: Uncovering Lost Love (BookBaby, May 24), she reveals her Grandmother Ruby's (1896-1977) century-old secret queer identity that she hid from the wider world. This revelation became clear to Turner when she saw Ruby and another woman named Ella's (who was dressed as the groom) June 8, 1915 wedding photo.
"When I found my grandmother's photos, I knew they were important to me," said Turner when asked why she decided to tell her grandmother's story. "However, it was not until I started putting the pieces together that I realized how important the pictures and story were to our LGBTQ+ history. Initially, the story was only going to be about my Grandma Ruby. However, as I researched her past, a bigger story started forming that needed to be told. Her photos and captions tell a story. They are funny, witty, beautiful, and lovingunlike the typical stoic photos taken back then. The pictures were not just one event; instead, they depicted a series of events that involved a substantial group of people.
"I often think about how difficult it must have been for them. Even keeping the photos was very dangerous. If anyone outside the circle of friends found out how deep their relationships really were, everything would change. They could be forced to marry a man their parents selected, run out of town, put into a mental institution or physically attacked."
The book weaves between Turner's discovery of those photos and the story they told alongside her research process that brought her to rural Amherst, Wisconsin where her grandmother grew up.
While researching, Turner approached it much like she would do a large work project. Turner is a bank examiner by day and that entails evaluating and inquiring about financial information to make sure banks comply with the rules.
Turner's true passions lie in the creative world and that includes playing guitar and piano. She got a music degree in college and later wrote and played music in local Los Angeles bands in the early 1980s. When Turner could not afford to pay the rent with music gigs alone she got a job at a credit union and that has led to a 30 year career in the banking world. Turner said a part of her wished she had stuck it out in the music world. Writing this book has enabled Turner to use both her creative and analytical skills at the same time.
At first Turner looked online but she quickly realized that this would be a more difficult process that required outside help. This included hiring a writing coach, joining a writing group and becoming a Wisconsin Historical Society member.
"It turned out to be a ten-year project, and I still feel like I am beginning to understand and trust the writing process," said Turner. "I traveled to Amherst a couple of times because I had a deep need to see, in person, the house where my grandmother lived and to walk the streets she had walked. Most importantly, I felt I needed to breathe the air and smell the ground where everything happened."
Although Turner is not an academically trained historian, she became passionate about LGBTQ+ history while researching for this book but what she found was there is scant information documenting that history.
"I hit many roadblocks along the way," said Turner. "The funny thing is, every time I thought I could not move forward in the story, information I did not see before would be revealed to me. I began expecting the roadblocks and always thanked Grandma Ruby for supplying me with the right hint when I needed it most."
Turner decided to combine the facts she was able to uncover via multiple resources together with her "own interpretation of events" to tell Ruby's story. She said it felt very "organic" to her to do it this way because if she only wrote about the facts the book would be too clinical.
"I have always thought of it as a love story," said Turner. "I often thought about what my grandmother and others were doing right before a photo was taken. And at times, it felt as if I was right there with them. I want the reader to feel and/or understand what it may have been like to be queer a hundred years ago."
Among Turner's findings was a secret lesbian social club led by a local businesswoman named Cora who threw parties for her fellow queer women and their allies at her home. Women from as far as Chicago would travel by train to these gatherings. Turner writes that the locals thought these parties were held so women could strategize ways to find husbands.
"Little did they know, finding a man was not a subject of their conversations," said Turner.
Turner also discovered that the women who wore gentleman's attire like Ella would be called chums or pals in Ruby's photo captions.
In terms of the wedding photos, Turner realized that Ruby's younger brother Leroy and another man she named Wallace (since she was never able to find out his real name) were in some of the pictures. Due to what Wallace was wearing, Turner surmised Wallace must have been a farmhand for Ruby's family and was an unwitting witness along with Leroy to Ruby and Ella's wedding ceremony.
Turner believes her grandmother would be "thrilled" to see her story told if she were alive today.
"I am sure she never imagined a time when she could have legally wed the person she loved," said Turner.
Turner also gives readers a history lesson on the National Purity Party that existed when Ruby was coming-of-age and how there are organizations and people today who also want to harm marginalized communities and women in general.
"It is frightening how quickly the freedoms we have today can disappear tomorrow," said Turner. With the recent draft opinion that would overturn of Roe v. Wade, it is only a matter of time until conservative groups/courts attack same-sex marriage. If you do not think they will, you are not paying attention.
"It is not lost on me that I have written a book that might very well join the list of books banned across the country. That makes it all-the-more important that I tell my story and the stories of my grandmother and her brave friends who dared to live and love as their hearts led them in a rural community in the Midwest one hundred years ago."
Turner told Windy City Times that she has always been fine with her own lesbian identity. The problem was other people in her life including her mother who asked her "How did it happen?" She said being a lesbian in Los Angeles is "vastly easier" than in other parts of the United States.
"This book was written to entertain and educate people," said Turner. "Stories like my grandmother's can help people understand that love is love and that we have every right to be here and to live full lives. In fact, we have always done so like flowers that grow up through cracks in the pavement. Just imagine what we can do when we are nurtured and given the same space and acceptance to grow like anyone else."
Turner also emphasized that "representation matters" and the importance of learning about LGBTQ+ history to "understand who we are and our vital role in society." She added that non-LGBTQ+ need to know that queer and trans people have always existed and "our stories deserve to be told."
See gaylaturner.com .