Gay Through Time: A Chronological Look at Gay Literature
Throughout history, gay literature has suffered perhaps the most tumultuous literary story. From the beginnings featuring inconspicuous players like Plato, Shakespeare, and Proust to the more current times featuring the more explicit Vidal, Isherwood, Kramer, and Cunningham, the gay literary movement has changed with the changing times. In fact, looking back on the literary movement is almost just like looking back on the history of the gay movement. It all changes with the times. Starting with the inconspicuous words by the ancient Greeks up to the explicit and transgressive words by writers like Dennis Cooper, Michael Cunningham, and Alison Bechdel, it’s evident that with more and more successes in gay rights comes more and more works that act to tell the truth of the gay lifestyle.
It’s appropriate to begin with a definition of gay literature, because the genre is an area of contention in the literary world. Over the past year, I have studied in deep detail various pieces of fiction, political writings, and essays that make up the gay canon. Through my research, I have come to the conclusion that gay literature is any text that can be deemed socially important or of literary value which features homosexual themes, homoerotic undertones, and/or gay or bisexual male protagonists or (in some cases) supporting characters. The lines do get muddied, however. Though a work like Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is often considered to be a work that concentrates on the sexuality of two females, it is often grouped into the genre of “gay lit.” This is where the umbrella term “queer lit” comes into play. This term is broader in scope and encapsulates all works with LGBT themes. However, when looking at the area of “queer lit,” it is easy to deconstruct the different areas of it, which all have an entirely different history and set of influential works from what they are based. For instance, the “lesbian literature” tradition has a different history and place in the present moment than, say, “gay literature.” Each movement stems from differing preeminent texts and lie in a different spectrum within the literary world. It is evident that it often becomes a muddy situation when trying to distinguish what makes something “gay lit” or “lesbian lit” or “transgender lit” and, therefore, each sect of “queer lit” really deserves its own critical essay. My focus will be on “gay lit.”
It is also worth noting that many writers who receive the label of “gay author” immediately reject it. Armistread Maupin and Jeanette Winterson have been particularly opponents of the label of “gay author.” Many authors of works that have been grouped into the “queer lit” canon have argued that their works are for everyone and that making the distinction between “queer lit” and “heterosexual lit” is reductive and unproductive. On her official sit, Winterson argues why she does not feel her successful novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit to be a “lesbian novel.” She writes, “I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.” Winterson believes that it is important for works featuring gay characters to be just as integrated into society as works that primarily feature straight characters. This statement does make sense. For me, it brings my mind to the current human rights movement. With human rights, the objective is not to point out the differences between homosexual and heterosexual people, but to embrace the similarities. Maupin establishes a point in a 2000 interview with the New York Times that is not as cut-and-dry as Winterson’s view. Maupin says, “I don’t mind being cross-shelved. I’m very proud of being in the gay and lesbian section, but I don’t want to be told that I can’t sit up in the front of the book store with the straight, white writers.” I align more with Maupin’s point of view, because he does believe in distinguishing the differences between homosexual literature and heterosexual literature, but also, like Winterson, believes in the integration of certain genres of literature. The pride that Maupin takes in being featured in the gay and lesbian section at the bookstore aligns very well with the pride that homosexual people often take in their lifestyle. The fact of the matter is that, yes, the homosexual community is different than the heterosexual community, but that does not mean that the two different sectors in our population are polar opposites.
By historical terms, it is difficult to trace when exactly writers began writing about homosexual themes. Fortunately, there are many texts that offer a scope as to when homosexual writings began. First and foremost, it is always worth mentioning Greek mythology. Detailed in these fantastical stories are anecdotes about various Greek gods and the men they attracted. Though these works do not overtly speak of homosexual sex, they offer a beginning to writings about the topic. Often, in any sort of queer lit course, Greek mythology will be the first area that will be covered. The Book of Samuel in the Bible also offers an early example of homosexual writing. Though also not overt and quite controversial, the story about Jonathan and David has often been interpreted as being about the love between two men. Plato’s Symposium is also an early example of homosexual writing. Between 385-380 BCE, Plato set about writing his classic work, Symposium. Detailed within the work were several meditations on homosexuality. It’s interesting to note that this piece has hardly aged with time. Plato’s observations on homosexuality align almost perfectly with the current, dominating view: homosexuality is natural.
Fast forward several hundred years to the times of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Both playwrights/poets have been cited as being extremely influential to current gay literature. During the 1500s, sodomy laws began to become enacted and the church really came down on relations between men. These rulings can now be seen as incredibly hypocritical, because, only a few hundred years early, several Roman and Greek emperors had had public affairs with men. These church laws absolutely affected the way relations between men could be talked about through literature and, therefore, caused any writer who wanted to write about these topics to basically conceal them in metaphor or through masking. Though Marlowe and Shakespeare’s works are often read today with a queer eye, during their time of production, they were often represented and interpreted through a heterosexual lens. Marlowe’s Edward II could surely be read as a text with both heterosexual and homosexual undertones. It details a relationship between two men. During the late 1500s, it can certainly be deduced that this was seen as a platonic friendship between. By today’s standards, however, many read this play as being about the romantic attraction between two homosexuals. The same thing goes for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The play details a relationship that could be taken as either heterosexual or homosexual. Through today’s lens, many read it as homosexual. The same sort of lens can be used when looking at Shakespeare’s Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Current readings of Shakespeare’s various Love Sonnets also offer the argument that these poems are predominantly gay and were written to males. These current rendering may have something to do with the fact that there is certainly evidence of the fact that both Marlowe and Shakespeare were homosexuals.
In the mid to late 1800’s, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde came to prominence and instilled an everlasting influence on not only gay literature, but the gay community. Both men, in different ways, were seen as revolutionary for their works and views. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855. This is work is seen by many as his masterpiece. For obvious reasons, Whitman has been incredibly influential to American literature, but, in many ways, he has also been seen as particularly important to gay authors. Whitman, himself a homosexual, has been cited as a huge influence by gay literary luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and Michael Cunningham. Leaves of Grass contains a chapter called “Calamus.” Several of the poems in the chapter Speak explicitly of comradeship, the embrace of men, and brotherly love. By today’s standards, it really is the first of its kind to really speak in depth of the natural act of love between men.
Also influential during this period of time was Oscar Wilde. Of course, many tend to focus on his personal life when taking a look at his impact on both the gay community and gay literature. In 1895, Wilde was put on trial for “gross indecency,” a term that, by today’s standards, would mean homosexual sex. The trial was very public and caused a decent amount of outcry from both sides. In his testimony, Wilde refused to apologize for his love affairs with men and, afterwards, was imprisoned. In a lot of ways, Oscar Wilde soon became a poster child of sorts for homosexuals at the time. His refusal to feel shame for his sexual preferences and his often times garish way of dressing led signaled a coming movement with terms to homosexual rights. During his lifetime, Wilde published and produced many types of art. Gay anthologies almost always feature his testimony at his trial. In addition, some queer literary scholars often site his works The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “De Profundis” (1897) as primarily homosexual texts. Some also argues the merits of including Dorian Gray in the canon. Scholars have stated that many people tend to put the face to the title and deduce that it is homosexual. Surely, Dorian Gray does feature it’s fair share of homoerotic undertones; however, it is his work “De Profundis,” an epistolary work written from his prison cell to Lord Alfred Douglas, his former lover, which features the highest amount of homosexual themes. In the work, Wilde meditates on love between men, desire, passion, art, and philosophy. This epistolary piece has become a go-to in gay studies.
During World War I, homosexual literature remained in almost the same place it had been in pre-War. Few risks were being taken, because, as evident from the Wilde trials, there were consequences. Of course, during the period of the war, many political activists began writing on the subject of homosexuality, protesting the injustices done to people like Oscar Wilde, few authors wrote of the subject. Here, I introduce two of the few writers who took a risk during the time: Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust. Mann, first and foremost, has been praised for the effect that his only overtly homosexual text, Death In Venice (1912), has had on the genre of gay lit. To this day, the German novella hits the top of almost every list titled to the effect of “Essential Gay Lit.” Many consider this work to be the first explicitly fictitious account of a gay man. The story details an aging gay man in Venice who becomes obsessed with a young man while vacationing. By the end of his stay, he becomes ill and dies while watching the boy over a weeklong vacation.
Marcel Proust is also cited as being a major influence in gay lit. His seven-volume French novel, In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), details several questions relating to homosexuality. In America, it is also worth mentioning that Willa Cather began writing. Her works (particularly “Paul’s Case” (1905), today, are often read with a queer eye and are interpreted as being about young homosexuals.
As the Modernist movement came to fruition after the war, homosexual themes began to become more and more prominent in literary texts, especially in Europe. The Modernist movement signaled a change in the philosophy of art during post-war times. Many writers of the time like Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, 1925), DH Lawrence (Women in Love, 1920), Nella Larsen (Passing, 1929), and Djuna Barnes (Nightwood, 1936) argued for full creative expression, which meant the ability to write about issues revolving around sexuality, gender, and race. All of these issues are taken up the former works. In addition to Woolf, Lawrence, and Barnes, EM Forster began to forge ahead with his successful career during the post-war times. A homosexual himself, Forster began to pen one of the most cited gay pieces of fiction in history, Maurice, in 1913. At the time of writing and throughout his life, Forster remained fairly closeted. The only people who knew of his homosexuality were close friends and lovers. Out of shame, Forster refused to have this preeminent homosexual text, which details the coming out process of a young English boy, until after his death. The book was not published until 1971.
It is also worth noting Jean Genet, who, also during this time, wrote his French masterwork, Our Lady of the Flowers in 1943. Genet wrote the work during one of his many stays in prison. Flowers explicitly details a relationship between a homosexual man and a drag queen. Genet wrote the work as a meditation on masturbation. Story goes that Genet felt incredibly sexually repressed in prison and wrote to stimulate himself. The text of Our Lady of the Flowers proves this to be true, for it is incredibly transgressive for the time and stands as one of the first books to meditate on the sexuality of gay or transgendered people.
In addition, it is also important to mention that gay pulps and gay comics began to become popular during the latter half of the war. Many gay men called for more explicitly told stories about gay sex. These cheaply-produced underground texts began to be produced in the 1930’s and later took off, cashing in on themes of pornography, politics, and love.
In the times of World War II and Post-War/Depression era, the gay literary movement truly began to take off. One of the first primary figures of the time was Gore Vidal. Vidal, a pseudo-closeted homosexual throughout his life, published his very controversial work The City & the Pillar in 1948. This work is important in many ways. First of all, it is the first piece of literature to actually portray a sex scene between two men. It is a love story, but ends tragically. This work is also important, because it signals a shift in the way homosexual stories are told. Vidal does not hold back in the text and feels no barriers when attempting to suggest the truth about the American homosexual man. Of course, during this time, there remained wary authors who were afraid to explicitly detail a story about a homosexual man, Vidal signaled the beginning.
James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”followed in 1956. In comparison, Baldwin’s novel was by far much more tame than Ginsberg’s masterpiece, the publication of which followed in a censorship trial, but both works are almost always canonized when looking at gay lit. Another key figure of the time was Truman Capote, who was well-known as a flamboyant, homosexual man. His novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though certainly about a homosexual man and his platonic relationship with the infamous Holly Golightly became a smash hit in 1958. Capote never does write the word “gay” or “homosexual” in the novels, but shadows it with literary devices which allude to this truth. Some scholars see that as a tactic to appeal to both a heterosexual and homosexual audience. This piece of information does showcase how it still remained a risk in the late-50’s to speak of homosexual men in literature.
Other primary gay authors of the time were William Burroughs, John Rechy, and Christopher Isherwood. Burroughs, who was part of the Beat Generation, with the like of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, developed a sensibility with his comrades to not “hide the madness.” This philosophy become all to explicitly clear with his groundbreaking work, Naked Lunch (1959), which also, as was with the case with Ginsberg’s “Howl,” suffered through an obscenity trial. Rechy’s City of Night (1963), which detailed the life of a semi-autobiographical gay hustler and his trysts in various cities, was almost equally as controversial. Also, during this period of time, Christopher Isherwood came to prominence as a gay author. In 1939, he published Goodbye to Berlin which contained a wealth of homosexual themes and a particularly infamous semi-autobiographical story of the platonic relationship between a gay man and a salacious woman, Sally Bowles. This novel began a prolific career for Isherwood, which resulted in many influential gay texts, including 1969’s A Single Man. This Post-World War II period signaled a major shift in gay literature. As certain gay authors rose to literary prominence, more and more leniency began to be enacted when looking at texts that establish gay characters and themes. It’s important to note that many of these authors were also in correspondence with each other during the time. Capote, Vidal, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Isherwood all came to know each other, fight each other, promote each other, and give feedback to each other. A community was set in motion which indicated a new era in gay rights. This shift in politics would really take off once the final straw was drawn during the Stonewall riots in 1969.
Throughout the 1960’s, police often raided several establishments popular to members of the LGBT community. The people of the community would be kicked out and, often times, arrested. Arrested, basically, for trying to have fun in a heterocentric world. These injustices would start to come to an end in 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay and transgender establishment. Unfortunately for the police, the attendees had had enough of unfairness done upon them. They fought back and a riot ensued. This riot would become the major the event that would, in full force, begin the gay rights movement. Many writers turned to political writings to install a new gay philosophy of sorts. Carl Whitman, famous for his essay, “The Gay Manifesto,” would instill that gay men must celebrate their differences and make them known to the public. Gay men must come out. They must have sex. They must be loud. Soon, life for gay men became a huge party. Along with this party came a boom in gay literature. Beginning in 1970 with Gordon Merrick’s rarely anthologized, The Lord Won’t Mind, gay literature got a new, more commercial face. This work, in particular, is praised for providing that does not end in detriment or death for a gay character. It reads like the typical romance novel, but with two male characters. It does not necessarily have literary merit, but it does represent a shift in the view of gay literature. The Lord Won’t Mind was very successful and was followed by mainstream novels like Tales of the City (first serialized in 1976) by Armistead Maupin and the wildly successful The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren. Of course, many scholars argue the importance of the latter, mainstream works, it can also be argued that they also have a place that kickstarted a new view of gay literature in society.
What followed Merrick’s work was the successful Argentinian novel The Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig in 1976, which was later made into a successful play and film starring William Hurt. In addition, authors like Edmund White (A Boy’s Own Story, 1982), James Purdy (Narrow Rooms, 1973), and David Leavitt (Family Dancing, 1984) began their incredibly prolific careers as gay authors during this period. In 1971, EM Forster’s posthumous Maurice was finally published to critical acclaim as well. In 1978, Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran both published works that have been regarded in two different ways. Though both novels detail a story about a gay man looking for love amongst that crazy, drug-heavy, promisicuous party scene of Fire Island and New York City, each novel is written in entirely different ways. While Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance is written in a very lyrical, beautiful style, Larry Kramer’s Faggots comes off as a satire that is loosely written and is often times read as a commentary against the fast lane lifestyle of gay men post-Stonewall. Many gay men criticized Kramer for his portrayal while commending Holleran for his. This would all change as Larry Kramer became a predominant, important influence during the AIDS epidemic.
The first case of AIDS was said to hit around 1981. The epidemic, however, really picked up around 1983 when many, many, many gay men came down with and dropped dead from the virus. The medical, political, and gay world were in crisis. Ronald Reagan wouldn’t say the word “AIDS;” the general public came down on the gay community and called it “karma;” the medical world struggled to find medicine appropriate in aiding the victims; and gay men lost lovers and friends every single day. The gay world was in crisis. This crisis surely impacted the gay literary world in a lot of ways. First of all, many publications were extremely wary of publishing anything about any gay characters during that period of time. The reason being that gay men suddenly had a harsher connotation attached to them than ever before and, as sad as it is, were no longer marketable. Also, because gay men were losing their friends and lovers and fearing for their own lives, the will to write literature dwindled and the act was put on the back burner. Political writings became prominent during the period of time. Larry Kramer was crucial and stands as a poster child for activism during the AIDS crisis. Many of these writings have been anthologized. During the crisis, Kramer also wrote a play called A Normal Heart which really has acted as maybe the most important work written during the AIDS crisis. The play truly made a social commentary on the beginning days of the crisis and, surely, there was not a dry eye in the audience after opening night. Some established authors like Edmund White, David Leavitt, James Purdy, and Armistead Maupin did continue to write during this period of time and did cover the topic of AIDS, but as far as new gay writers were concerned, there were very few. The gay world had come under fire and crisis.
The negative connotation given to the gay community did not really dwindle until the early 1990s. New advancements in AIDs medicine and successes in gay rights helped in establishing new views toward the traumatized gay community. With this came celebrated works like Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library (1988), Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), Dennis Cooper’s Closer (1989), Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World (1990), and, perhaps most importantly, Tony Kushner’s mega-important play, Angels in America (1993). Angels in America really signaled a shift in the connotation toward gay men at the time and is often times considered to be one of the most important gay works of all time. Not only does the play attack homophobia, it attacks class discrimination and racism. It paints a painful picture of the AIDS crisis and surely has been important in establishing a new era in gay literature. Right now, gay literature is facing perhaps its most colorful time in history. New works including Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997), David Sedaris’s Naked (1997), Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998), Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project (2000), Augusten Burroughs’ Sellevision, Jamie O’Neill’s instant classic At Swim, Two Boys (2001), Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts (2005), Andre Acimen’s Call Me By Your Name (2007), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), and Stephen McCauley’s Insignificant Others (2010) have provided a wealth of new viewpoints on the LGBT community and have certainly offered a new progression in the public opinion toward LGBT individuals. This progress is most certainly due to progressions with regards to political rights involving LGBT members. Times have changed and so has gay literature.
In addition to more adult-oriented literature, gay young adult literature has also become a popular medium in the gay lit tradition. Works like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), Brian Malloy’s The Year of Ice (2002), David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003), and Perry Moore’s Hero (2007) have been responsible for providing stories that positively depict gay men in the YA novel format. Of course, many schools are still hesitant to teach novels like Chbosky’s Perks, which only features a gay supporting character, the medium has been well-celebrated and is very popular between teens and young adults.
Lesbian literature and transgender literature surely do not have as large an audience as gay literature and, for this reason, I do believe it is important to note some of the important works that have been published along with the wildly successful gay literature works. To begin, lesbian literature stems from almost the same beginning as gay literature. Some often cited, preeminent works in the two genres include the afforementioned Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Passing by Nella Larsen, and Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. From these works, stemmed some major lesbian works of fiction. First, came Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), which was released soon after the Stonewall riots, initially through an independent lesbian publishing house. Rubyfruit Jungle soon crossed over into the more mainstream domain and has since been deemed an American classic. Another important figure of lesbian literature is Jeanette Winterson, who, as stated before, rejects the label of lesbian author. It is worth noting, however, that many of his fictional and non-fictional novels, including, perhaps, her most influential, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), have been incredibly important to the lesbian literary tradition. More recently works like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home have been praised for their depiction of lesbian women.
Transgender fiction is in, however, muddier water. Because there are fewer homosexual people than heterosexual people and even fewer transgender people than homosexual people, pieces of fiction by transgender people are far and few. It is not a popular topic to write on by the general public and often causes anxiety by the publishing house. Many are not willing to publish works that may not cater to a larger audience and, therefore, many transgender pieces of writing are not published. However, there are a few pieces that have been cited as being influential throughout history. The aforementioned Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers in 1943. The story details a relationship between a homosexual and a drag queen. This is, perhaps, one of the first works to detail the story of a drag queen in such explicit detail. In more recent times, Kate Bornstein’s autobiographical Gender Outlaw (1992) and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993, now out of print) have been cited as some of the most important works by someone who is transgender. These works do not cover the entire spectrum, but the sparseness of titles does demonstrate the elusive nature of the transgender text. Many transgender writers do not even write on the topic, while many of the writers who do are not published. It’s a contentious area that does need revision.
Overall, I do feel that gay literature is sitting in the most shining position that it has ever been in. Recent developments and successes in gay rights and with concern to gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws have provided me with even more optimism as to where gay literature will go in the future. The fact of the matter is, however, that gay literature compares nothing to the current state of more heterocentric works. Even today, it remains risky domain to write about a gay character. For this reason, it is still rare to see it and, most of the time, the only place we do see it is from more established gay authors like White, Winterson, Cunningham, Chabon, and Leavitt. I like to often compare the gay literary movement to gay film. Even though Brokeback Mountain ended up becoming a huge film of the times, many do not realize that it began as a low-budget, independent film. This has also been the case for such films as A Single Man, Far From Heaven, and I Love You Phillip Morris, which all depict the realities faced by the gay man in American society. In 2013, the biodrama about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, was meant to be released as a big budget picture. However, none of the studios would accept it and, therefore, it was released as a TV movie on HBO. Today, this is still the case with gay literature. Many authors go directly to the independent presses, because many agents and major publishing houses are hesitant to release or support a book about gay men, because they fear the audience will be smaller than if they were to release a book that is centered on heterosexuals. It’s still a reality. It’s still discrimination. However, I am optimistic that, with time, and with successes in gay rights, things in the gay literary world will continue to change and progress. I have no doubt they will. I’m also certain, though, that I will never see a novel about gay men hit the charts like something like The Hunger Games did.
I thought it would also be important to look at some of the other works that I have not yet mentioned that have been included in the gay canon. Though, sometimes very confusing, almost all of them make sense to me (except for maybe To Kill a Mockingbird and On the Road). I think it’s important to look at these works, because many of them have supplied the public with homosexual characters and undertones and, therefore, have surely been influential to the current time in gay literature. Also, it’s worth noting that these are only works that I have read that are often included in the canon:
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde (1886)
- Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)
- Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930)
- John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937)
- Carsen McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1946)
- JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
- Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)
- John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (1959)
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
- JG Ballard’s Crash (1973)
- Bret Easten Ellis’s Less Than Zero (1985) & American Psycho (1991)
- Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) & Invisible Monsters (1999)
- John O’Brien’s Better (2009)
I mean, seriously, On the Road is pushing it, though I have read a rumor that Kerouac and Gore Vidal did hook up one night. I’m going to go ahead and believe that.
Apart from that, I am very confident that I could easily teach most of these texts in a Queer Lit class. Fight Club for sure can be interpreted with a gay lens; there’s absolutely no question about A Separate Peace; and American Psycho and Crash may be two of the gayest novels I have read in recent times.
Stevens, Hugh, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.
Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. New York: Hatchette Book Group,