Homosexuality, traditionally regarded as a disease or perversion by church, state, and society, was rigorously denounced and condemned by those same institutions. In the case of the arts and literature, works featuring homoeroticism or gays and lesbians as characters were often censored, if they were recognized at all. English-language writers, for example, wrote “gay novels” under pseudonyms and published them either privately or in foreign countries.
Gay characters and sensibilities were introduced into literature only by arch subterfuge, with writers following society’s unwritten decree that homoerotic fiction must end with the death, destruction, or extraordinary “conversion” of the questionable characters. In Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870), a disastrous marriage causes Joseph to drift toward Philip, a young, golden-haired man; the novel ends, however, with Joseph’s sudden, almost inexplicable interest in Philip’s look-alike sister. This plot shift presumably was made to “save” Joseph from a fate worse than death. Henry James’s Roderick Hudson (1876) sketches wealthy Rowland Mallet’s infatuation with a young sculptor, but after a rift between them, the eponymous character sinks into a decadent languor from which he is rescued only by Christina Light, a beautiful, bored girl. Like other novels of the time, homoerotic love is forced to yield to the heterosexual imperative.
Lesbian sexuality was a major theme in Colette’s novels about teenagers who were infatuated with older women. Male love figured in Robert Musil’s Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1906; Young Törless, 1955), set in a military school, and Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925), the story of Gustav von Aschenbach’s fatal infatuation with Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old Polish boy of Apollonian beauty and stillness.
Gay novelists in England and the United States resorted to setting love stories in faraway lands or using other techniques of evasion. Charles Warren Stoddard’s For the Pleasure of His Company: An Affair of the Misty City, Thrice Told (1903), the story of Paul Clitheroe’s love affair with two darkly handsome men, runs sour until Paul ends up in the company of three South Sea islanders. Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Imre: A Memorandum (1906), privately published abroad in a small run of 125 copies, ends with a young Englishman, Oswald, in the arms of Imre, a twenty-five-year-old Hungarian army officer; but this “openness” is undercut by the novelist’s pretense to be no more than the editor of a manuscript sent to him by a British friend. The guardedness of gay novelists continued for decades, even when the theme was a “coming out” of sorts. Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year (1919), set near Chicago, is about the ruined love affair between Randolph and Bertram Cope, but Fuller pretends that the rupture is based on age rather than on rival love.
The 1920’s, an age of reckless, fast living, did not end gay fiction’s camouflage. Sophisticates knew ofSigmund Freud’s radical sex theories and D. H. Lawrence’s carnal characters, but there was no progress in attitudes about homosexuality. Camouflage through euphuism became the mode, as in Ronald Firbank’s high-camp affectation in his novellas or Carl Van Vechten’s frothy tone in The Blind Bow-Boy (1923), where the notorious Duke of Middlebottom dresses as a sailor and has stationery printed with the motto “A thing of beauty is a boy forever.” The...
The protagonist in Fritz Peters’s The World Next Door (1949) admits that he loves a man while denying that he is gay. Helped by new trends in Europe, Patricia Highsmith and Gore Vidal dared to break the pattern of gay and lesbian invisibility and shame. Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952, as Claire Morgan; also published as Carol) has a clear lesbian theme, while Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948; revised 1965) depicts men undressing and kissing. Vidal’s Jim Willard is presented as a reproach to society’s censors: After Willard is vilely denounced by the man with whom he tries to rekindle their boyhood homoeroticism, he strangles the object of his affection
Vidal’s all-male Eden was shocking to American literary critics. Vidal, however, was not in the league of Jean Genet, whose dark, decadent fiction—Notre-Dame des Fleurs (1944, 1951; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949), Miracle de la rose (1946, 1951; Miracle of the Rose 1966), Querelle de Brest (1947, 1953; Querelle of Brest, 1966), and the semiautobiographical Journal du voleur (1948, 1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954)—never flinches from portraying the emotional and psychological depths of gay relations. Sex and violence are mixed with lurid and salacious density, and Genet often creates an extremely perverse but original perspective on theft, rape, and even murder.
Genet’s deliberate idealization of outlawed desire is reflected in Yukio Mishima’s Japanese fiction. A martial artist and sexual outlaw, Mishima resorts to metaphor for deception. The narrator of Kamen no kokuhaku (1949; Confessions of a Mask, 1958) enters into anonymous relationships with women, for whom he harbors secret distaste, simply to “fit” into conventional society.
The 1950’s was a time of anticommunist—and antigay—hysteria in the United States. Fearing the critics, gay male writers often became grotesque, parasitic, clownish, or campy characters in their own lives. Capote embraced Manhattan whimsy and capriciousness; Burns wrote a weak, straight novel shortly before he died; and Vidal put his energy into nonfiction and politics. Many versions of the “apprenticeship” gay novel appeared as well, with themes of a problematic childhood.
Gay fiction divided itself into two main categories: traditional realism (James Baldwin and J. R. Ackerley) and counterculture writing (William S. Burroughs), though there were fascinating exceptions to the rule—as in James Purdy’s Malcolm (1959), an allegorical story about a teenager befriended by a possible pedophile; Peters’s Finistère (1951) is set in a France more apt to accept the adolescent protagonist’s burgeoning gayness than are his parents; James Barr’s Quatrefoil (1950), a male love story told in a lofty, intellectual manner; and William Talsman’s playfully witty and stylish The Gaudy Image (1958). Most of these novels, however, ended in wistfulness or death for the protagonist. Young Matt in Finistère drowns himself; Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) ends on a bridge, where David tries to discard his lover’s letter, only to have the wind blow the fragments back to him; and in Quatrefoil, Phillip, after his lover is killed in an aircrash, contemplates suicide, only to decide that love has made him strong.
Lesbian pulp novels, intended for a heterosexual readership, were sold at places such as drugstores and newsstands in...
Homoeroticism became iconic after the Stonewall Inn bar uprising in New York City in 1969, a small revolt of bar patrons and others that ultimately strengthened an emerging modern gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States. Gay and lesbian writers began to produce works of full self-disclosure. By the end of the 1960’s, gay and lesbian fiction expanded to include various subgenres: In other words, gay and lesbian literature was no longer simply about homosexuality as a “problem.” In Europe, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Genet reveled in picaresque novels. Marie-Claire Blais brought stories of French Canadian lesbians to readers outside Canada, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote science fiction in which fantasy worlds included gender equality.
The 1970’s was rich in gay inventiveness. Anne Rice and Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote in the science fantasy genre, with Bradley becoming one of the first science-fiction writers to use independent female characters to explore gender roles. Guy Hocquenghem explored the connections between the body and technology. Mary Renault used classical history to show how bisexuality was once a cultural norm.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the new taxonomy of gay and lesbian writing was consolidated. The rise of small presses specializing in gay and lesbian (and lesbian feminist) writing ensured the publication of diverse writers and genres. The “coming-out” and semiautobiographical novels of Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Rita Mae Brown, and Jeanette Winterson explore a wide range of experiences, including parental disgust and rejection, dispossession of home, the death of innocence, and various discourses on love. Also remaining popular was the “colonialist” tradition of upper-class men seeking erotic adventure with foreigners or working-class people—already encountered in nineteenth century and early twentieth century novels. Alan Hollinghurst is most notable in this tradition.
The 1970’s also included Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her (1974), the first black lesbian novel published in the United States. In 1977, Barbara Smith, in “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” decried the overt dismissal of literature by black women and black lesbians. Her essay led to a radical rethinking of the place of African American literature in the literary canon. Novels such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), which feature lesbian sexuality as central themes, soon followed. Also in the 1970’s, black gay men, working to promote literature by men of color, especially through small presses, were influenced by black lesbians and feminists of all races and ethnicities.
The confluence of the gay and lesbian rights movement and the rise of third-wave feminism ensured that lesbian writers could tell their stories from a lesbian-feminist perspective. June Arnold envisions women taking control of their own destinies and Dutch writer Anna Blaman uses language to upend social stereotypes. Feminist literary theorists helped to shape lesbian writing as well, even outside the academy. Canadian...
Austen, Roger. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977. Dated but literate and still relevant history of the “gay novel” from its beginnings into the 1960’s. Covers two hundred novels and includes a bibliography and an index.
Cart, Michael, and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006. Examines the historical development of gay and lesbian young adult fiction. Comprehensive resource on an undervalued genre. Appendixes include “Young Adult Novels with GLBTQ Content,...