From Then to Now: LGBTQIA+ Milestones in Literature History, to Celebrations in Publishing Today
By Charlotte Brook
Throughout the history of literature, LGBTQIA+ authors, characters, and themes have faced rejection, disgust and persecution for sharing their identities and stories with the world. Yet despite this, authors have fought back and increasingly queer identities have become louder and prouder in the pages of literature.
Tracing Representation Back in Time
Representation within literature can be traced back as far as Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, found in the tender relationship between Greek heroes in The Trojan War, Achilles and Patroclus. The depiction of a same-sex relationship in this classic text has caused dispute for centuries and was completely omitted, or should I say straightwashed, from the famous film adaptation Troy.
Yet, it has also inspired even more beautiful literature, namely Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. In this re-write, the celebration of same-sex love between the two Greek soldiers cannot be denied, even more so solidifying their relationship in history.
Fast-forward to the 19th century and the time of lesbian diarist Anne Lister, who today is responsible for the ‘Gentleman Jack’ effect. Due to her open sexuality and “masculine appearance,” Anne was nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’ – Jack being a derogatory slang term in the 1800s for a gay woman. Hiding the details of her affairs in code within her diaries, they were only decrypted and published in the 1980s, leading to her becoming an inspirational figure for many.
The BBC period drama Gentleman Jack depicts the life told in her diaries and has had such an effect on many women’s lives, empowering them to embrace their own identity, that a follow-up documentary, Gentleman Jack Changed My Life has also made its way to the screen.
In the 20th century, female literary icon Virginia Woolf wrote her novel Orlando as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Orlando is the fictional embodiment of Sackville-West who in the middle of the novel awakes to find he is now a woman. Not only does Woolf create a masterpiece of queer fiction, this novel undermines gender roles of the time and brought sharp attention to feminism during the suffrage movement.
LGBTQIA+ Authors Face Backlash
LGBTQIA+ stories are woven throughout literature in history, yet along with them are also the real-life stories of the authors that were condemned and persecuted for daring to write them.
Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, subverted expectations of the time in more ways than one. Not only did he break the existing British model of poetry to write more openly and inclusively in American free verse, he matched this new form with its subject matter in depicting same-sex love.
Due to the refusal of publishers to print his book, Whitman was forced to self-publish. After publication, the book stirred protests. Libraries refused to buy it, sales of the book were banned in Boston, and Whitman lost his job. Leaves of Grass stirred controversy for years, yet today is considered one of the greatest poetry collections ever written.
Not long after in 1928, Radclyffe Hall faced trial for their novel, The Well of Loneliness. Hall referred to themselves as a “congenital introvert,” a term at the time used to describe someone born into the wrong body, somebody transgender. Their gender identity and love affairs hugely informed their novel. Subsequently, the publisher faced an obscenity trial and the novel was banned in England until 1959! Hall didn’t live to see the day the ban was lifted.
These authors did not let society dictate their identities and engraved them in their art despite the backlash they knew they would receive from the stories of those who came before them throughout history.
Celebrating LGBTQIA+ in Publishing Today
Today, there are many books published written by LGBTQIA+ authors that celebrate these identities and sexualities – if you’re in need of recommendations, check out our LGBTQIA+ feature in every issue, but also those LGBTQIA+ authors throughout our pages!
You may have heard of some recent queer lit favourites such as Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby - longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the novel centres around both cisgender and transgender characters, skewing heteronormative ideas around gender. Another is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a beautiful lyrical novel following protagonist Little Dog, a queer Vietnamese man who must navigate his identity with strict ideas of masculinity, class, and racism.
Queer literature today celebrates such a diversity of sexualities and narratives, becoming entirely its own genre.
There are literary festivals and prizes dedicated exclusively to queer literature too!
Coming in October, Brighton and Hove host their LGBTQIA+ Literature Festival, The Coast Is Queer. The event runs from the 6–9 October and bring together writers, performers, activists and readers for a weekend of workshops, panel discussions, and performances in a celebration of queer lives and writing. Find out more here.
There is still a long way to go for LGBTQIA+ representation in literature and in the publishing industry but Pride Month is all about celebrating so let’s celebrate the authors and characters throughout history who paved the way for those today and way into the future to be unapologetically themselves and proud!