Keeping up with the Cheneys, a Bookstore Birthday Remembrance
By Kris Kleindienst, Owner, Left Bank Books
July 5th, 2022
July is Left Bank Books’ birthday month. As we celebrate our 53 rd year, let’s revisit a time nearly
two decades earlier, when then, as now, members of the political dynasty known as the Cheney
family were in the national spotlight. Let’s remember when Left Bank played a cameo role
speaking truth to Cheney power. It is an encouraging reminder that social justice, like
bookselling, requires a long game.
It was Spring, 2004. The January 6 committee and Congresswoman Liz Cheney’s surprising role
was the stuff of fiction if it was anything. George W. Bush was in the White House. Dick
Cheney, Liz’s father—a key architect of the Iraq War, and a “big fan” of waterboarding--was
Vice President and Lynne Cheney, her mother, was Second Lady. Liz Cheney worked in Bush’s
State Department and her older sister Mary was one of her father’s closest political advisors.
Mary, you may recall, is a lesbian, married to her partner, and holds somewhat extreme
libertarian views which she actively promotes through various super PACS. It was a very cozy
Liz wasn’t always supportive of gay marriage as a Congresswoman. Neither was her mother
Lynne, who in 2001 replied to ABC’s Cokie Roberts’ question about her daughter’s lesbianism
that “Mary has never declared such a thing.” Nor was Dick, but we all know Dicks. We
probably all know a family like the Cheneys, in fact. Over-achievers with an agenda that doesn’t
include the human rights including those of the family’s one inconvenient member. To a person,
the Cheneys wield considerable power over the quality of everyone else’s lives. For instance, the
Bush Administration, which included Dick, Lynne, Mary and Liz Cheney, was actively
supporting an anti-gay amendment to the U.S. Constitution oxymoronically titled The Marriage
Protection Act of 2004 that would limit marriage to heterosexual couples. This amendment
ultimately failed to make it out of Congress and in 2015, gay marriage legalized by the Supreme
Court. The dread we feel today with the recent roll-back of rights by SCOTUS is not new. Any
queer remotely near my age can remember the bone deep dread we experienced as we organized
in state after state, (including Missouri) to keep state versions of The Marriage Protection Act
from becoming law. We were exhausted in every way mounting a resistance and saw little hope
that if a federal amendment was introduced, we were probably sunk.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
In the spring of 2004 when the Cheneys were, except for Mary, officially antigay, some bright
editor at Penguin Publishing realized it had an historical romance novel set in the old West in its
rights folder and decided to reissue it. Sisters was a 1981 sex-laced, Sapphically-charged novel
described by Publishers Weekly as “a mix of standard and usual pulp romance fare: lots of turgid
prose, heaving bosoms, female characters who are proto-feminists and practice safe sex with
multiple partners—and a juicy lesbian subplot.” Other descriptions refer to its graphic
depictions of sex, condoms, and rape.
Sisters was written by Second Lady Lynne Cheney.
A few years after Sisters was first published, Lynne was appointed chair of the National
Endowment for the Humanities where she made a name for herself decrying federal funding for
“pornography” which she exemplified by referencing Robert Mapplethorpe’s brilliant queer
photography. She also did some other shocking stuff around education standards, that is still
discussed today, but that is for another story.
Here is a passage from Sisters:
“The women who embraced in the wagon were Adam and Eve on a dark cathedral stage--no,
Eve and Eve, loving one another as they would not be able to once they ate of the fruit and knew
themselves as they truly were. She felt curiously moved, curiously envious of them. . . . she saw
that the women in the cart had a passionate, loving intimacy forever closed to her. How strong it
made them. What comfort it gave.”
At Left Bank Books, the idea that one of the people leading the charge against LGBTQIA+
human rights and artistic freedom of expression would get to publish, and presumably profit
from, a novel celebrating lesbian love was problematic of course. We knew we did not want to
carry it. But then we had a better idea.
If Lynne Cheney was going to profit from writing lesbian “porn” while attacking the rights of
self-same, then we were going to turn our profit from those sales around and donate a portion of
our proceeds to the scholarship fund of the upcoming Creating Change Conference, an annual
gathering of some 2,000 LGBTQIA+ activists that was being held later that year in St. Louis. We
were going to publicly highlight her hypocrisy.
“What better way to foster educational opportunities for the younger generation of lesbian, gay,
bisexual , and transgender people than to raise money through the sale of Lynne’s lost-life
chapter?” I wrote in our press release.
We blanketed relevant media and almost immediately had 200 pre-orders.
But my quote above found its way into the gossip column of the Washington Post, which is read
by folks like the Cheneys, and within a matter of days, the publication was cancelled.
“I told [Penguin] that she did not think the book was her best work,” Lynne Cheney’s attorney is
quoted as saying in an Associated Press article. Right.
We would have loved to make a donation to Creating Change out of Lynne Cheney’s
hypocritical conduct, and as a rule we are not fans of censorship at the whim of legal pressure,
but we felt a little proud of ourselves for exposing this hypocrisy. So many of us at Left Bank
and the queer community were drenched in anxiety about our future rights, rights we didn’t even
actually have at that point. Still reeling from the AIDS pandemic in progress, organizing for the
right to exist was draining. I was happy we could let a little air out of the Cheney tires, play
radical little mouse to their big fat Republican elephant.
In 2007, Lynne and Dick Cheney reversed course and voiced their opposition to the proposed
federal antigay amendment they previously supported. Yet in 2013, Congresswoman Liz Cheney
was still against federal protection for gay marriage, creating a fissure between her and her sister
Mary, whose lesbian wedding she actually attended. By 2014 however, she, like her parents, had
also reversed her opinion. And today she is fighting to save democracy.
As I said, social justice and bookselling are both long games. Something both progressive
activists and booksellers would do well to keep in mind. To paraphrase the tagline of an old tv
police procedural, "There are eight million stories in the naked bookstore. This has been one of
them." Don’t lose hope, friends.
Thank you for supporting your local progressive bookstore for over half a century.