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Brown, Rita Mae (b. 1944)  

Lesbian poet and novelist Rita Mae Brown, best known for the highly successful Rubyfruit Jungle, resists neat categorization.

Brown was born on November 28, 1944, in Hanover, Pennsylvania, to an unwed mother who turned her over to an orphanage. She was then given into the care of Ralph and Julia Ellen Brown of York, Pennsylvania, who eventually became her adopted parents.

When Brown was eleven, the family moved to Florida, where they remained throughout the rest of her childhood. She eventually enrolled in the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she campaigned for civil rights and greater racial integration. This outspokenness was responsible for her expulsion from the university in 1964.

Brown then hitchhiked to New York City and lived for a brief time in Greenwich Village in an abandoned car. She struggled in poverty for a while but continued to write and remain politically active. She was an early member of the National Organization for Women but was expelled for insisting that the group give more recognition to their lesbian constituents.

Brown attended New York University, where she earned a B.A. in English and the classics. In 1973, she received a Ph.D. from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. While attending NYU, Brown published two collections of feminist poetry: The Hand that Cradles the Rock (1971) and Songs to a Handsome Woman (1973).

The year 1973 was extremely important for her because it was also the year her lesbian classic, Rubyfruit Jungle, was published. The book launched her career as a novelist.

Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, Brown continued to pen novels (In Her Day, 1976; Six of One, 1978) and published an anthology of her political essays (A Plain Brown Rapper, 1976). During this period, Brown also met and began a relationship with tennis star Martina Navratilova. The two moved in together in 1979, and their relationship became part of the inspiration for Brown's novel Sudden Death (1983), which looks at life within the women's tennis circuit.

In 1981, Brown's relationship with Navratilova ended, and she headed to California to begin writing for television. She has continued to write for television periodically, including coauthoring the script of "My Two Loves," a 1986 television movie dealing with lesbian subject matter. Also in 1986, Brown stepped out from behind the typewriter to narrate the documentary "Before Stonewall."

The 1980s also saw the publication of several more novels (Southern Discomfort, 1982; High Hearts, 1986; Bingo, 1988) and a writer's manual (Starting From Scratch, 1988).

After taking a hiatus to write two mystery novels "with" her cat, Sneaky Pie, (Wish You Were Here, 1990; Rest in Pieces, 1992), Brown returned to lesbian subject matter in Venus Envy (1993), which is the story of a woman who comes out to friends and family because she believes she has terminal cancer but then discovers she has been misdiagnosed.

Even though she has had a long and varied career, Brown is still best known for her semiautobiographical, picaresque novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, in which she introduces the headstrong young lesbian, Molly Bolt. Molly feels no need to apologize for her lesbianism and storms through society with her openness and honesty, refusing to conform to the expectations of either the dominant heterosexual society or the New York lesbian subculture.

The novel espouses a doctrine of radical individualism that runs counter to much post-Stonewall lesbian literature that emphasizes communitarianism. Rubyfruit has sold millions of copies, and is one of the best-selling gay-lesbian books of all time.

A prolific and commercially successful writer, Brown articulates a lesbian voice that resists neat categorization: nonetheless, a voice that began the tradition of the lesbian picaro, the proud lesbian "hero."

Beth A. Kattelman


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Rita Mae Brown on the Charlie Rose Show.
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One of the greatest tennis players in history, Martina Navratilova has become an outspoken supporter of gay and lesbian rights.


Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Marchino, Lois. "Rita Mae Brown." American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Lina Mainiero, ed. Vol. 1 of 4. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. 257-258.

Roof, Judith. A Lure of Knowledge: Lesbian Sexuality and Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.

Wolf, Susan J. and Julia Penelope, eds. Sexual Practice, Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969-1989. Boston: Beacon, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kattelman, Beth A.  
    Entry Title: Brown, Rita Mae  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 8, 2013  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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