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Celebrating Pride in Classic Literature

By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Monique Smith 


While Pride is a cause for celebration every month, this article takes a look at early examples of LGBTQIA+ literature in honour of Pride Month 2024. Given the context of repression and restriction, many of these classics were met with disparagement. However, as the classic label testifies, these examples of literature were both impactful and imperative to the history of the LGBTQIA+ community. From Virginia Woolf to Rita Mae Brown, there are many classic writers to be celebrated across this Pride feature. 


Orlando by Virginia Woolf


Orlando: A Biography is a novel written by Virginia Woolf and was first published in 1928. The novel was inspired by Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, with whom she exchanged romantic letters during the twenties. Orlando is often regarded as a pioneer text in LGBTQIA+ literature for its exploration of gender identity and fluidity. 


In the novel, the protagonist Orlando begins as a young man in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, living a lavish and privileged lifestyle as an aristocrat. However, at the age of 30, Orlando undergoes a transformation and wakes up as a woman. The novel explores Orlando’s struggle to navigate gender identity and the societal expectations that come with it across the next 300 years.


The physical transformation from male to female challenges conventional binary notions of gender and highlights the complexity of the human experience as Orlando experiences life as two genders. Through Orlando’s experiences, Woolf critiques rigid gender norms and challenges the idea that gender remains fixed and immutable, advocating for greater acceptance of diverse gender identities and expressions. 


Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier


Mademoiselle de Maupin was written by the French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier, who strongly defended Romanticism – an intellectual movement in the late 18th century that focused on the values of nature and imagination following the Enlightenment. This sentiment is present in the book which explores the sexual deception of Theodore, whose beauty proves too much to ignore.


D’Albert is the central figure: a poet who desires a mistress and searches for love. After adhering to his requirements, he finds Rosette, yet the passion slowly subsides. When Rosette meets ‘Theodore’ – who is not actually a man, but the titular character – both d’Albert and Rosette become enraptured by her beauty. 


This novel explores how freeing the male gender can be, given that men do not have to conform to the same rigid social rules or expectations as women, and where Madeleine (Theodore) can enjoy new freedoms. Gautier shows how gender is a social construct and does not need to be tightly defined to each person, which was a very controversial and progressive idea at the time.


Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima


First published in July 1949, Confessions of a Mask is a Japanese coming-of-age story about a lonely boy’s yearning quest for understanding and belonging, and his gradual acceptance of his homosexuality in wartime Japan. 


The book is told through the protagonist, Kochan, who narrates his life from infancy to adulthood. Born a physically weak child, Kochan struggles immensely to fit into the then right-wing militarism and imperialist Japanese society. He develops an intense fascination with sadomasochism and the male physique, which, he discovers very quickly, deviates from societal norms. He decides to don a ‘mask’ to hide his true self from the world, while adopting a character in which he can navigate as an acceptable, ‘normal’, member of society.


Often lauded as the Japanese Hemingway, Yukio Mishima draws deeply from his own experiences and emotions to explore themes of identity, desire and the masks we wear to navigate life, often to meet societal expectations. Along with trying to come to terms with and navigate his own homosexuality, Kochan’s quest for a place in society also mirrors the monumental and sometimes futile efforts of Japan to find equal footing in the world, while also attempting to remain true to its unique spirit. 


Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown


Published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle is Rita Mae Brown’s first novel, which rightly earned her acclaimed success for her unapologetic and authentic coming-of-age plot. This autobiographical novel explores Brown’s sexuality and identity as an emerging lesbian author. 


Filling the shoes of Brown is protagonist Molly Bolt, who is in tune with her sexuality from an early age. The novel follows Molly throughout her life, detailing her sexual relationships and then her educational oppression when her scholarship is rescinded due to her sexuality. This leads Molly to search for an alternative career in filmmaking in New York where she is introduced to the lesbian communities. Not sure of these circles, Molly continues on self-assured and follows her own individuality. Along the way, she notes the striking differences between youth cultures, a suburban environment and the countryside, and the dominating heterosexual culture. 


Throughout the novel, Brown’s powerful message surrounding the importance of being true to yourself still resonates today, making Rubyfruit Jungle an essential read to celebrate Pride Month.

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