LGBTQ characters and themes are often underrepresented in mainstream publishing due to censorship and arguments that LGBTQ content is “niche,” and therefore not commercially viable. However, books about LGBTQ characters and history can have a profound effect on readers, and LGBTQ visibility in media has a valuable place in the world of representation. Not only can these stories educate and inform readers who do not identify as part of the LGBTQ community, they can also portray a path in life that LGBTQ readers may not have thought possible.
As valuable as these stories are, the history of LGBTQ literature is not widely known or taught. What are the most significant LGBTQ books in history and how has LGBTQ publishing evolved?
Overview of LGBTQ Literature Throughout History
Throughout history, literature with LGBTQ themes have faced challenges and objections. Writers and readers have navigated changing social tides and faced legal restrictions, book bans, and persecution—all with the goal of sharing their stories. Despite these hurdles, LGBTQ themes in literature can be traced back all the way back to ancient times.
Foundational LGBTQ Texts and Authors
The earliest representations of LGBTQ characters, themes, and same-sex love originated thousands of years ago.
- Ancient Greece and Rome: Plato’s Symposium and Homer’s Iliad describe same-sex partnerships, including one between two heroes of the Iliad‘, Achilles and Patroclus. Many stories in Greek and Roman mythology also reveal relationships and liaisons between same-sex and intersex figures. Contemporary scholars interpret these as the ancient world’s understanding and expression of same-sex romance, as well as their tolerance of it.
- The Renaissance: Scholars and students have offered LGBTQ interpretations of Shakespeare’s seminal works, including Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and his erotic sonnets. These texts give insight into gender and sexuality across Renaissance Europe.
- Eighteenth Century: Some physical intimacy between women in private was acceptable in Georgian England. These homoerotic relationships were even playfully encouraged before a woman’s marriage, as eighteenth-century literature attests in works like The Diaries of Anne Lister and the poetry of Katherine Philips. While open displays of same-sex love would have faced serious penalties, these texts reveal an important yet little-known part of eighteenth-century English society.
- Nineteenth Century: The nineteenth century introduced the next great period of LGBTQ literature, though less direct and more subversive. Writers like Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf wove sly references to LGBTQ identity and relationships into many works. They began paving the way for more LGBTQ awareness among readers.
- Twentieth Century: Authors such as James Baldwin, Truman Capote, E.M. Forster, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, Diane di Prima, Adrienne Rich, Thomas Mann, and many more pushed social boundaries and brought LGBTQ plots to prominence. These authors and their works often achieved critical and commercial success, marking the twentieth century as a new dawn for LGBTQ inclusion.
LGBTQ Book Bans, Writer Persecution, and Censorship
Up until the mid-twentieth century, it was illegal in many nations to express homosexuality. It wasn’t until the early twenty-first century that many countries began to allow gay marriage. Throughout this time, LGBTQ literature portraying same-sex love was often banned or censored, falling in line with social and legal customs.
Even amidst widening social acceptance of LGBTQ relationships, the American Library Association noted half of the most-challenged books of 2016 included LGBTQ content. From ancient writings through the early 1900s—and even in the present day—LGBTQ book pushback continues. Here are a few examples:
- The Works of Sappho Destroyed: Iconic Greek poet Sappho is known not only for her ahead-of-her-time lyrical poems but also for their themes of female-centered sexuality and love. She was revered during her time, yet her works were burned during the rules of fourth century archbishop Gregory of Nazianzus and eleventh century Pope Gregory VII for their portrayals of lesbianism.
- Walt Whitman Pays a Price for Publishing: No publisher would print Whitman’s Leaves of Grass due to its homosexual themes and sensual metaphors. Undeterred, Whitman self-published and self-financed the poetry collection. He lost his job at the Department of Interior after the Secretary of Interior, James Harlan, discovered Whitman had written Grass, which Harlan deemed offensive.
- Oscar Wilde Goes to Court: Oscar Wilde was put on trial three times for indecency in his home country of England, where homosexuality was outlawed. Wilde spent two years in jail and was eventually forced into exile for daring to carry on relationships with other men.
- Movies “Straightwash” Characters: Hollywood often takes LGBTQ book characters and makes them heterosexual in film adaptations. Consider the cases of Celie Johnson in The Color Purple, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Corporal Fife in The Thin Red Line, Mystique in the X-Men comics, Ayo in Black Panther, and Ruth and Idgie in Fried Green Tomatoes. As The Advocate notes, the list of straightwashed characters goes on and on.
- Queer Theorists Meet Resistance: Many queer theorists, such as Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Barbara Smith, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Adrienne Rich, and Cherrie Moraga, struggled to find publishers for their early texts.
- Transgender Authors Fight Exclusion: Trans voices have historically been relegated to the fringes of society, with trans authors of color encountering the most oppression. Thankfully, books like Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, Julie Anne Peters’ Luna, and Kate Bornstein’s and S. Bear Bergman’s Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation have paved the way for more trans authors in the future..
- Contemporary Books Continue to Be Banned: In 2017, the American Library Association reported that half of the top ten most-challenged books in the country were contested because of their LGBTQ characters and “sexually explicit” material. Frequently challenged books include children’s picture books like Todd Parr’s The Family Book, which is contested for displaying same-sex couples with children.
Due to the many discriminatory practices and biases still prevalent in societies around the world, it is hard to know how many authors’ voices have been stifled or pushed asidebecause of LGBTQ discrimination.
LGBTQ Literature Today
Many in the LGBTQ community have strong feelings about how books have evolved to be inclusive. We spoke with several LGBTQ bloggers to get their perspective on this issue. Vikki Reich, an LGBTQ writer, blogger, and producer, says LGBTQ literature has come a long way, but still occasionally produces characters who feel one-dimensional.
“I think our society as a whole is still stuck in that place where the majority does not know how to relate to and see themselves in minority characters because, unlike queer people and all other minority groups, they have never had to do that,” says Reich, whose writing has been published in Autostraddle, Huffington Post, and other popular platforms.
The Khalafs, the Modern Kinship writers, agree. They love the idea of introducing more LGBTQ characters whose sexuality or identity is not the driving force of the story: “In mainstream literature, I would love to see more LGBTQ protagonists whose sexuality or gender identity is an important part of their identity but not the main plot element,” says David.
Dutch couple Roxanne Weijer and Maartje Hensen, writers of the popular lesbian travel blog Once Upon a Journey, agree, stating LGBTQ literature has not yet hit a relatable mainstream: “We had to search for it, it never just appeared. And if it does, the whole ‘gay’ part is used as a big plot twist. It’s never casual.”
LGBTQ blogger and community organizer Karl Krause, who co-authors the blog Couple of Men with his boyfriend, explains further. “As much as I appreciate more and more stories becoming available with LGBTQ characters, I would love to see more average characters integrated into these stories,” he says. “It’s preferable to be represented as just humans who are an accepted part of an open-minded society.”
LGBTQ Publishing Statistics
According to Publishers Weekly, the number of LGBTQ books on the market has increased. Likewise, more LGBTQ characters are popping up throughout contemporary literature, especially in YA, science fiction, and fantasy.
Diversity in YA, a website monitoring inclusion in today’s book world, qualifies these trends by two main criteria. First, a book must have a main character who identifies as LGBTQ or deals with LGBTQ issues. Second, those issues must be overt and central to the plot.
While these numbers show progress toward inclusivity, there is room to grow. YA author and blogger Malinda Lo, a co-founder of Diversity in YA, tracks LGBTQ representation in the publishing industry. Here are a few of her findings:
- LGBTQ YA Novels Lead the Charge. Mainstream publishers released 47 LGBTQ YA novels in 2014. In 2015, that number rose to 54. In in 2016, LGBTQ YA books reached their highest publishing rates ever, at 79 titles.
- YA Novels Tend to Follow Cisgender Gay Protagonists. Between 2003 and 2013, Lo notes, 45 percent of main characters in LGBTQ YA-qualifying books were male at birth and continued identifying as male throughout the story, making them cisgender. In 2015, that number rose to 55 percent of main characters being cisgender males and identifying as gay, bisexual, or queer, respectively. In 2016, cisgender female main characters rose in prominence, representing 43 percent of these books’ main characters.
- Contemporary YA Novels Produce Most LGBTQ Characters. According to Lo’s data, more than 50 percent of LGBTQ novels written in 2016 were set in the present day and considered contemporary novels. The second-most-popular genre? Science fiction and fantasy at 22 percent.
- Reich yearns to see more LGBTQ representation outside of speculative fiction and YA novels. She says, “I know there is a lot of LGBTQ-specific literature out there, and I admit that I don’t read a lot of it because much of it seems geared towards youth and younger queer people. I’m a middle-aged mother of two. I’ve been with my partner for 25 years. Sometimes, I want to see us in literature as well.”
The Future of LGBTQ Literature
Questions do remain—from critics and consumers alike—about the direction of LGBTQ literature. Has LGBTQ literature hit enough of a mainstream that it is no longer considered “niche,” and is it adequately representing the community it claims to?
Meg Cale, a travel writer who co-authors a blog on LGBTQ traveling resources, safety, and information, thinks LGBTQ books have miles to go before they can claim mainstream status and all-important inclusivity. “I’d love to see more stories of queer and trans people of color. I’d also love to see more stories that revolve around storylines that aren’t centered on coming out or tragedy,” she says.
Cale echoes an observation made by many of the bloggers we interviewed. They feel too many LGBTQ stories revolve around coming-out narratives for young, predominantly white characters—which are essential, but they are only one of many LGBTQ experiences.
Marketer, publisher, and LGBTQ blogger Adam Groffman elaborates. “Being LGBTQ today feels different than what it maybe was in the past, and I’d love to see representative stories from my experiences today reflected in contemporary literature.”
This means wider stories on day-to-day queer life, as well as deeper insights on romance, sex, and dating, which Groffman writes about in his theater reviews.
While LGBTQ books continue to take up more bookstore shelves, with titles such as David Sedaris’ Calypso reaching all kinds of audiences, there’s room to grow with wider representations of diverse LGBTQ voices, as well as books that center on more than coming-out tales.
Future Steps for LGBTQ Literature
For authors and readers alike, there are numerous ways to produce and support inclusive LGBTQ publishing. Blogger Reich summarizes a few she’d like to see.
“I also feel like LGBTQ literature still carries a thread of the darkness of our literary history—the outsiders, the tragic, the painful,” she says. “It has changed and continues to change, and I’m here for it. I want happiness for LGBTQ people in books and in life. I want more stories about hope and love and people acting with kindness and a moral compass. In the darkest of times, literature can lift us up and give us hope. We all need that now.”