Classic LGBTQIA+ Literature
By Becca Binnie
The twenty-first century has seen a much awaited rise in the number of LGBTQIA+ inclusive novels and whilst the journey for equality is not complete, more LGBTQIA+ representation in literature is being celebrated. With that said, it is interesting to look at some of the classic LGBTQIA+ literature. Classic LGBTQIA+ novels depict the struggle faced by the community as the characters deconstruct gender and sexuality whilst confronting the ongoing fight for the right to live, and to love, freely.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf, published by Hogarth Press in 1928
“I'm sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”
Orlando is a biography written about a fictional character. Woolf’s beautiful writing tells a tale of identity, highlighting the fluidity of gender, the importance of expression and the value of individuality. The novel was inspired by Woolf’s relationship with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, the two women exchanged numerous love letters and Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicholson called the novel “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
The tale follows Orlando, living in Elizabeth I’s England, who undergoes an unforeseen transformation when they awaken as a woman after living their life up until this point as a man. Woolf writes of Orlando’s experiences as a nobleman, an ambassador in Constantinople, up until she becomes a mother and a wife with an ardent sense of purpose, promise and self as she navigates the brink of suffrage for women. This early twentieth century novel underlines the socially constructed nature of gender and inspires hope and optimism whilst drawing attention to the lack of women’s rights and freedom.
Maurice by E.M. Forster, published by Hodder Arnold in 1971
“I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.”
Originally written in 1914, Maurice was published a year after E.M. Forster’s death in 1970. Forster understood that if the novel was published at the time of him writing it, it would have had a detrimental impact on his career, same-sex love was still an offence in England, he therefore requested it be published after his death.
The novel follows Maurice, a heartbroken man experiencing unrequited love. Through this pain, Maurice opens his heart and mind to sexual identity. It takes bravery for Maurice to live authentically as he goes against the norms, expectations and opinions of a society dictated by class, wealth and politics. Once Maurice finds love he holds on to it. This tender and honest story of love and acceptance is one of the few classic LGBTQIA+ works of fiction with a happy ending.
The 1987 film adaptation of this novel was Oscar-nominated and the novel continues to be adapted for stage. A beautifully classic tale that expresses the power of love.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2002
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
Middlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides, who was born intersex and raised as a girl until the age of fourteen when Calliope changes his name to Cal and decides to live as a male. The story explores Cal’s family, three generations of Greek-Americans, who travel from a village in Asia Minor to prohibition-era Detroit, before moving out to suburban Michigan. To understand why Calliope is unlike other girls she must delve into the family history and uncover a deep secret which leads to powerful transformation and introspection from which Cal is born.
Thrilling and inspiring, Cal is a dynamic narrator of his own story; a tale of self-discovery, bravery and family history. In 2002 Eugenides’ novel won the Pulitzer Prize, Middlesex was and remains an extraordinary tale of family, growing up and constructing the self.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin published by Dial Press in 1956
“‘Love him,’ said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?’”
Giovanni’s Room follows the life of David, an American man in his mid-twenties living in Paris. The intricate and complex manner of David’s narration tells a raw account of his experiences in relationships with other men, most notably with a man named Giovanni whom he meets in a Parisian bar. David describes his struggle to express love in a restrictive, prejudiced 1950s society.
Exploring shame, death, sexuality and the complications that come from just being, Giovanni’s Room is an important classical fiction that represents gay and bisexual relationships in an informative and eye-opening light, written by a gay Black American. The novel was considered, by BBC News in 2019, as one of 100 most influential novels. In 1977 it was banned for its content surrounding the exploration of sexuality.
Now it is important that these novels which tell of the struggle, the bravery and the fight the LGBTQIA+ community have endured and despite positive steps forward, continue to endure in the present day, are recognised. Now we have a growing collection of wonderful LGBTQIA+ novels but it is important to continue to learn from the past and classical literature, to construct a better, more inclusive society for everyone, regardless of who they are and who they love.