Judging (a Book) By Its Coverage: Stuck Rubber Baby

The plot: The story, written and illustrated by Howard Cruse, is narrated by Toland, a man coming of age in the 1960’s South. He gets caught up in the Civil Rights movement and, while helping others to achieve their rights, he discovers his own sexuality in the process…but not before fathering a child (hence the title).

The coverage:

Positives: Cruse offers up a nice selection of queer characters in Stuck Rubber Baby that act as reference points for Toland on his journey. Les, the preacher’s son, is confident in his identity but mostly closeted; Sammy, a friend of Toland and local organist, is out and fairly devil-may-care in his attitude; while Marge and Effie, proprietors of the local gay bar, are an older, established couple who take younger queer folks under their wings. The variety of characters never seems heavy handed—and is balanced equally with quality straight characters—and reflects Toland’s journey as he bridges the gap between the two.

One crucial relationships in the piece—one that is often underrepresented in fiction—was that between Toland and his girlfriend, Ginger. Although she dearly loves him (and ends up fathering his child), she is the main voice trying to convince him to be true to himself. She also has enough sense to realize that a relationship with him—although it might be able to hobble along in some capacity—would never be as fulfilling as one with a straight man who fully could reciprocate her feelings. 

Toland’s journey itself is probably the highlight of the book. The reader is able to follow his journey from a self-identified straight man to a proud gay man with relative ease and believability. The details that Cruse includes are thoughtful and reflect our society’s preoccupation with labeling. For instance, a young Toland is worried that he is different when he looked at another naked boy in the shower. The pressure that he feels about being labeled follows him through the rest of the book. Even after Toland begins sleeping with men, he is bound a determined to be straight out of fear of that label. So when Toland finally has the strength to publically come out, the revelation is all the more meaningful to the audience since we have suffered with him.

Negatives: As far as coverage goes, I really don’t have any complaints. However, one of the things that bothered me on the second read-through was how easy some of the relationships were. Les, for instance, was the son of an African-American minister in the South during the Civil Rights era. Despite all of those caveats, neither of his parents had any trouble with his sexual attraction. Although Cruse did try to explain things in a glib bit of dialogue, I’m not sure that the relationship seemed realistic.

Another example would be the proprietors of the local gay bar. People of color were shown to be hated and victimized in the story when they stood up for their civil rights, and I’m supposed to believe that an African-American lesbian couple would be allowed to have a gay bar near the city?

Although these characters are secondary to the plot, it seems as if Cruse is giving queer people of color a pass in the book while the white queer characters take the brunt of the threats and violence. Whether or not this is intended to spread out—and therefore generalize and equalize—the hatred across the spectrum is unknown.

The verdict:

By paralleling the queer character’s journey with the trials of the Civil Rights Movement, Cruse poignantly asserts that gay rights are civil rights. Although detractors are quick to say that skin color (a factor people can’t control) and who a person falls in love with (a factor that—in their minds—can be controlled) are vastly different arenas, Cruse shows deeper similarities by paralleling the relationships in the book. As Toland is arriving at the conclusion that it is wrong to treat the African-American people in his life differently because of their skin color, he also has to deal with a similar idea concerning the queer people in his life. If one is true, the other is also true, and Cruse solidifies this point by having crossover between the two realms (e.g. the civil rights group meeting at a gay bar and then having those gay people show up at the civil rights rallies). Senseless acts of violence are also equally perpetrated on black and gay characters, and Toland struggles to make sense of the incomprehensible hate.

All-in-all, Stuck Rubber Baby is a story that—while scripted at parts—rings true for the time and place of the setting. It details how minority groups will often support each other in the shadow of adversity and help to pull each other up. 

Jon Tully's picture
on December 12, 2014