Pride Month- A month in which we celebrate self-affirmation, dignity, equality, and increased visibility of, among others, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people as a community. This celebration marks the beginning of an era we are trying to create — an era that erases the stigma around the community and creates a world of happiness and love for all of us. But, has the LGBTQIA+ community always been stigmatised by society? You would be surprised to know that the answer to this question is a NO. This stigma has been perpetuated for the longest time but we have a ray of hope now, when we are all trying to help them break the shackles and live on their own terms. However, there have been numerous art forms of the bygone eras which have tried to convey that they are as integral a part of society as others are, and it is not their gender or sexuality that defines them. One of these art forms which helped the initiation of breaking the stigma was literature.
The 1700s, the 1800s and beyond
It’s quite baffling how love comes in various magnificent forms, and is accepted as well. With the reinforcement of the rainbow demonstration of love that we witness today, it wasn’t always this acknowledged. Homosexuality was admonished in the early 18th century. However, some literary works widely accentuated; the interpretation was widely speculative though. A Year in Arcadia: Kyllenion, attributed to Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha Altenburg is the earliest known novel that appertains male-male relationship
Consider the Iliad, the ancient epic greek poem, ascribed by Homer, which recounts some of the relevant occasions pertaining to the final weeks of the Trojan War. The homosexual relations between its protagonist- Achilles and Patroclus is not explicitly portrayed, but is conjectured and acclaimed; as the former is known to be insolent towards others and tender for the latter at most, if not all, times. Their profound love for each other is an excellent instance of depiction of gay literature in ancient times. This is observed when Achilles is seen lamenting over Patroclus’s death after he is killed by Hector:
“ I will pursue Hector who has slain him whom I loved so dearly” — Achilles for Patroclus, The Iliad.
Achilles also entreated that after his death, his ashes be mixed with Patroclus’s so that they are together for eternity. Many identify them as very close comrades who fought beside each other in the Trojan War. Plato has signified their bond as a divinely approved one, in his work Symposium. Moreover, Shakespeare celebrated this relationship by inculcating it in one of his plays: Troilus and Cressida (rechristened from Achilles and Patroclus). A recent novel, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller provides a riveting approach at the two boys discovering their sexualities eventually.
Speaking of Shakespeare, he had his own whimsical approach at including homosexuality in his works. A very dubious one includes an acrostic in Hamlet, whose 1st word of every line leads to the expression: ‘I am a homosexual’. There has also been an advertent display of love in between two male individuals in one of his works, as opposed to a surreptitious one mentioned thereof. In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, readers witness the Earl of Suffolk and Duke of York die in each others’ arms as forbidden lovers, after an ardent exchange of gestures:
So did he [York] turn and over Suffolk’s neck
He threw his wounded arm and kiss’d his lips,
And so espoused to death, with blood he seal’d
A testament of never ending love.
—Exeter, on giving an account of the battle to King Henry in the play Henry V
Augmenting to this are Shakespearean sonnets that talk of homosexuality. In 1609, a collection of 164 sonnets were published, arguably without his endorsement. These sonnets comprise mostly of fervent rhapsodies of love. Sonnet 126’s first line: Oh thou, my lovely boy throws light on homosexual relations between the narrator and the boy aforementioned. Sonnet 20 gives a detailed elaboration of a “man” whose face resembles that of a woman that was painted by Nature itself. It appears to be speaking of affectionate love that the speaker develops for the unnamed man.
Shakespeare’s sexuality has been a concept of dispute recurrently. Public accounts claim him being betrothed to Anne Hathaway (obviously not the actor) and having three children with her. However, the examination of his literary works sometimes claim something else; particularly about the sonnets and how there is a possibility of them being written by Shakespeare by not visualising himself as the narrator, but as Shakespeare himself.
Charlotte Brontë also provided a foreground to lesbian literature through her works Shirley and Vilette. The pieces talk about excessively engaging and sometimes obsessive relationships between women. It is speculated that Brontë herself had feelings for her friend Ellen Nussey. Corresponding to this, Emily Dickinson’s poetry pieces also have some allegorical figments that point to her being in love with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert.
One of the most renowned works that appertain homosexuality includes The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Despite homosexuality being rebuked and deemed inflammatory in the Victorian Era, it is considered one of the finest portrayal of a myriad of human emotions in the current era. The language he used to describe Dorian Gray is incontestably a symbol of deep romantic intimacy.
“Tell me about Mr. Dorian Gray. How often do you see him?”
“Everyday. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him everyday. He is absolutely necessary to me.”
-Basil Hallward, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde presented his works in a society where homosexuality was intolerable and was considered an unmitigable crime. As a consequence, he was sentenced to imprisonment in 1895.
The 20th century was a booming blast for the community affectionately called alphabet mafia in the West. Awareness had begun to spread, derogatory terms were frowned upon, protests demanding inclusion were on the rise. But all this had come at a cost; people were afraid of change, afraid of what they didn’t know. Religion was used as a method to shun all beings non-cishetero. Violence, conversion camps, and some went even as far as exorcism to cast out the apparent devil that resided inside, blaming an out-worldly being for a valid sexual orientation or gender identity that we now know to be natural. All the clamping down and the methods used for silencing the community finally reached their limit when a series of spontaneous demonstrations in a small neighbourhood of New York City proved to be a catalyst for the gay rights movement all over the globe. The turn up for these protests was exceedingly spectacular for not only members of the community were involved but even non-members showed solidarity by standing with them. The Stonewall Riots — which those protests are now called — was the turning point for the oppression of the ones who chose to live life as they are and as always, literature played a huge role in laying the foundation.
It was in 1906 when the world saw the first book in which the ending had the gay couple living happily ever after. Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Imre: A Memorandum is a psychological romance set in Hungary. Two men — a 30-something British aristocrat and a 25-year-old Imre strike a friendship that soon turns into something more. It was the conclusion where the two men are happy and in a devoted, loving relationship with each other that spoke to the masses. It proved that there was indeed hope for such couples in real life to be able to live out in the open.
E.M. Forester’s Maurice was originally penned in 1913–14 but wasn’t published until 1971, after Forester’s death. The book is a bildungsroman following an upper-middle-class man trying to figure out his sexuality and his position in society. One of the keynotes of this story is how the main lead didn’t drown in self-hate after coming out, rather he went on finding out more about himself and taking all his experiences in his stride. The book resonated with the masses for its portrayal of a working, ordinary guy who just happened to be gay rather than a flamboyant, effeminate aristocrat which had become the norm. Although the former is now considered a stereotype, back then it wasn’t.
A few notable works from the early half of the century also include Better Angel by Forman Brown, famous for describing a gay lifestyle without condemning it; Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote which focuses on a 13-year-old effeminate boy sent to live with his estranged from birth father. There he meets his stepmother and her cousin, Randolph who is a gay man; Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, originally written in French and then translated. Written in poetic prose, it describes a man’s journey in the Parisian underworld where he comes across people of various kinds; Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima shows a boy’s sexual awakening in Imperialistic Japan; The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal is a coming of age story of a young man discovering his sexuality in post World War II America. The book faced extreme backlash at its inception for the unabashed portrayal of homosexuality as a leading theme rather than an undertone. Through it all, the book still managed to find a home in a number of bookshelves around the world.
In the latter half of the century, especially after the Stonewall Riots, more and more gay literature found the spotlight. Old manuscripts pertaining to the cause were dug up and published posthumously. Writers were freer to express their points of view on these subjects without fearing the consequences. All this culminated in the increasing number of books regarding the community. Giovanni’s Room and Another Country by James Baldwin explored the sexual diversity among the characters, becoming one of the first books to ever do so. The Charioteer by Mary Renault is a British war novel that introduces a gay military man and soon became a bestseller within the community. A Room in Chelsea Square by Michael Nelson created an uproar by publications and he had to publish his work anonymously because of fear of imprisonment since homosexuality was still a crime and the characters were inspired if not almost caricatures of prominent London figures. A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt featured the first gay black character in the main role. And it wasn’t his sexuality being explored but more of his job as a detective. The book was followed by four more with the same protagonist on different missions.
The 1900s also proved to be the time for rising female authors which in turn brought about a rise in lesbian literature.
The first lesbian-themed English novel is A Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Hall was at the height of her career after her book Adam’s Breed; she risked it all for her next work where she wanted to destigmatise homosexuality. Hall specifically instructed her publishing house that not a word was to be edited out from her work no matter how promiscuous. The story is about an upper-class Englishwoman finding love with another woman and how they had to stand rejection as well as objection from society. The novel received an immediate ban in Britain due to the themes but was cleared in the USA.
Orlando: a biography by Virginia Woolfe is a satirical dig at the aristocracy in Britain. It follows the life of a poet who mysteriously undergoes a sex change from man to woman at the of 30 and goes on to live for 300 more years. The book is filled with feministic ideologies and has been analyzed by scholars from all domains of literature.
One of the conditions for the publication of such literature was that the theme should be tackled as a problem rather than a central idea. Which was the major reason why most novels/poems had sad endings where one of the leads would die or go to conversion camps coming back fully healed or pretend to be straight for the rest of their life. The first happy ending where both women were seen together in the end was Diana: A Strange Autobiography by France V. Rummell. Although the work was credited as an autobiography, scholars have since deemed it to be fictional. The first fictional novel (at least before Diana was credited as fiction) which didn’t have either woman dying, breaking up, having a nervous breakdown or living in isolation is The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. The title has since been changed to Carol which is also a movie by the same name starring Cate Blanchett.
While gay novels definitely had a wider outreach and amassed thousands of readers, after the 1970s, novels centred on women’s homosexuality too gained some traction. Especially after the founding of The Lambda Literary Award in 1988 which focussed on increasing visibility of LGBTQIA+ literature. A few of the popular novels are — The Color Purple by Alice Walker which focuses on two African American sisters and their conversation in the form of letters; Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson is a coming of age story of a young British girl and her transition from youth to adulthood.
Works focusing on transgender themes were significantly less in the 1900s. The most prominent one was Man into Woman by Lili Elbe, which has also been reflected on the silver screen with the name The Danish Girl starring Eddie Redmayne. The movie went on to garner and win several accolades including an Academy Award.
The 21st century as we now know it has taken a humongous leap in terms of inclusion. The community has been recognized with respect and different sexualities have now been termed. Homosexuality has been decriminalised in 125 countries, few countries have lifted the ban on queer people enlisting for military, and awareness has continued to spread to every nook and corner. Even then, the community still has a long way to go in terms of equality but with each passing day, the goal gets nearer. LGBTQIA+ literature in the 21st century has obviously conformed to suit the rising trends. From side characters to the main leads, representation is now the norm and here are the most widely known works from the 2000s.
Here we’ve compiled a small list containing the most widely known titles of the century.
From South Asian writers:
Cobalt Blue — Sachin Kundalkar
The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali — Sabina Khan
Funny Boy — Shyam Selvadurai
Cinnamon Gardens — Shyam Selvadurai
The Man who was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore — Devdutt Pattanaik
Babyji — Abha Dawesar
From across the globe:
The Song of Achilles — Madeline Miller
Call Me by Your Name — André Aciman
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo — Taylor Reid Jenkins
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe — Benjamin Alire Saenz
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue — Mackenzie Lee
Red, White and Royal Blue — Casey McQuiston
They Both Die at the End — Adam Silvera
A Little Life — Hanya Yanagihara
Less — Andrew Sean Greer
Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda — Becky Albertalli
Girl, Woman, Other — Bernadine Evaristo
The Vanishing Half — Brit Bennett
Heartstopper — Alice Oseman
Carry On — Rainbow Rowell
At Swim, Two Boys — Jamie O’Neill
The House in the Cerulean Sea — TJ Klune
Sissy: A Coming of Age Gender Story— Jacob Tobia
The Line of Beauty— Alan Hollinghurst