by Devin O’Neill
Ah, 2012. An outstanding year for LGBT rights in the English speaking world. Victories in Washington, Maryland, Maine, and Minnesota, the Supreme Court decision to hear challenges to Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, and the imminent legalization of gay marriage in the United Kingdom will significantly impact and shape our generation’s human rights struggle.
Despite this progress, when I sit down and escape into my books, I feel a certain lack of…fabulousness. Where are my strong, central, LGBT fictionalized characters? I can find them easily in any book considered “LGBT”, but where are they in my fantasy novels? Science Fiction, Mystery, or Adventure? Are authors still hesitant to include LGBT characters in the works that aren’t explicitly for LGBT audiences? Phew… What these questions really boil down to is this: in a world that’s on an inevitable road towards acceptance, what’s the next step for LGBT characters and literature?
To answer that one must understand that, historically, public opinions of the LGBT movement have been reflected in literature, and they haven’t always been flattering or positive. LGBT characters often mirror the struggles of the real life counterparts during their respective time periods. These struggles, until recently, have usually only held the interest of LGBT people or the occasional compassionate supporter. The modern LGBT genre has thus functioned almost as a safe space for LGBT authors to express and publish their ideas openly and a clear label that anyone hostile to anything LGBT should just sashay away.
We also must understand that our concept of the “gay” or “queer” identity is a modern one. While same-sex relationships have been around for ages, it wasn’t until 1869, when “homosexual” was first coined as a psychological condition, that any type of “gay” identity even existed. Early gay characters weren’t always aware of such an identity, though, and can only be described as gay through a modern interpretation of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. The first American gay novel, Bayard Taylor’s 1870 novel Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania, shows two men holding hands and kissing, yet is something they only refer as their “manly love” (sounds like bromance, but definitely gay), rather than identification with some kind of sexual identity.
Victorian England was more reserved, often referring to homoerotic themes in subtext and euphemism only. Characters were written as discreetly as LGBT people lived and attempts to push the envelope between subtextual and explicit were risky for authors. Oscar Wilde seemed to publicly push the acceptable boundaries of homoeroticism (which would eventually be used as evidence against him in a sodomy trial), while other authors are subtle, to the point where it’s quite debatable if there is a homoerotic elements at all (Bram Stoker’s Dracula being an example). It’s difficult to identify what means what during when all one can do is infer why certain men are quite passionately proclaiming their love for each other upon meeting. (Again, sounds like bromance.)
By the 1910s and 20s the concept of a LGBT identity was still rudimentary, but more blunt expressions of same-sex desire began to emerge, though still in a more or less “unspoken” way (a hand placed here, a subtle phrasing dropped there.) Lesbian literature was spearheaded by Radcylff Hall’s 1929 The Well of Loneliness, which followed a masculine dressed lesbian named Stephen (yes, Stephen) around Paris’s underground gay scene. Paris was a common setting for gay literature of this time, thanks in part to France’s decriminalization of homosexual sex, a friendlier attitude than Americans had, and an even friendlier attitude than the Victorian British.
The 40s, 50s, and 60s saw the queer identity mature as characters began to acknowledge it and understand how it would affect their lives. LGBT books were tolerated and numerous, in that they weren’t often outright banned. Famously gay authors like Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal fleshed out their characters, who often felt the pain of loneliness, alienation, and self loathing, but also journeyed the path to self acceptance of their sexuality. LGBT characters were diversified and stereotypes were broken with masculine gay men, effeminate lesbian women, and LGBT racial minorities for the first time.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969, an escalated confrontation sprung from a police raid of a gay bar, gave birth to the modern gay rights movement and spurred massive social change for the population. The protesters adopted the word “gay” in their calls for “gay power” and the formation of the Gay Liberation Movement. A year later, the first pride parade was held, where LGBT people, undaunted by fear, marched down the streets of New York and loudly claimed their identity. Literature began to reflect this shift and the LGBT genre essentially came into existence as it is known today.
Characters changed drastically. Pre-Stonewall LGBT characters were written as people trapped in their own world (or the closet). They were internally conflicted, neurotic, and often led lonely and tragic lives, due to the prevailing attitudes and expectations for their gender of the time. They were sometimes whimsically sexualized, so much so that it’s hard to read them as anything other than their sex act.
Post-Stonewall characters were written more positively, and as multifaceted, goal oriented people with a deep capacity for love. They are not defined by the label “homosexual” or their sex act, but identify with roles that mean something equally important to them, such as fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, scholars, and athletes. Still, the LGBT genre, while empowering for its writers, characters, and audiences, in some ways closed off LGBT themes as something primarily only for LGBT people. Today, while LGBT characters have gained considerable depth, they still have yet to transcend their genre in a truly meaningful way.
The genre covers all aspects of LGBT life, but often stresses the historical struggle of LGBT people. This struggle is an inextricable part of the queer identity, and thus it’s important to retain in LGBT literature. However, the community is no longer isolated to its own world and looked down upon, but is an increasingly integrated and accepted as part of society: as coworkers, friends, even family. The distinction and imbalanced preference for heterosexuality over homosexuality (Heteronormativity) is beginning to fade, and the way we label and define things based on that duality should, hopefully, begin to fade with it.
As this happens, I hope to see authors, current and future, gay or straight, start writing strong, central LGBT characters into their works, so they are not just an occurrence or idiosyncrasy of a certain genre. Characters whose sexual orientation does not define their individuality and personal struggle in the story, but simply is a fact of their being. Queerness should not automatically classify a piece of literature as LGBT, but queer characters should become a common element in all genres as accepted members of their fictional world, in places where sexuality is nothing more than an afterthought. Really, at its core, what’s the difference between a romance, mystery, or adventure and LGBT one? This might not necessarily reflect our current reality, but in many cases that’s why we read books in the first place. Literature is an often an escape from reality, and rather than always being a reflection of how the world is, sometimes it is a reflection of a world we strive to see.
How can we know if the world is ready to accept LGBT characters like this? Because a few popular literary characters have already done it. Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, various LGBT comic and graphic novel characters, and, maybe most prominently, J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, whom she “outed” after her last Harry Potter novel at a fan convention in 2007. These aren’t exactly examples of “high-brow” literature, but that’s what is telling. These characters have become beloved despite their sexuality in mass, popular forms of work.
Self publishing offers infinitely more ease and freedom over gay characters than those who take the route of a publishing company. Some authors, especially those who write for juvenile or young-adult fiction, have spoken out about publishing agents trying to “straighten” gay characters. One author in particular, David De Baco, vouched for this in an interview commenting, “I’m not the first writer to say it’s more difficult to get a book with gay characters published than it is to actually write one.” Independent and self-published works simply don’t have to deal with the changes publishing companies try to do to make a book, in their eyes, marketable. Many indie books offer stories that aren’t just solely LGBT, but offer beautiful universal themes, like Alex Jeffers Safe as Houses which touches on illness, family, and love.
Regardless of the route, this is a change in the visibility of gay characters is something all pro-equality authors should take up. Attitudes are changing. When Rowling outed Dumbledore, many critics scoffed. Not because they thought it was inappropriate to have him as gay, but because the books actually gave no indication of it at all. In fact, Rowling never brought up anything that could clue us in on Dumbledore having romantic thoughts for anyone of any gender. I certainly didn’t make that assumption during my first read through of her series.
What was astounding, though, is not that the character was gay. It was the reaction of the crowd; they burst into applause. Her audience, adult, child, boys and girls, were all accepting to this revelation. This, one hundred years since Oscar Wilde’s literary homoeroticism was used to convict him of the “crime” of homosexual acts.
As heteronormativity goes, all readers, not just the queer ones, are beginning to identify with and appreciate LGBT characters. LGBT issues are everyone’s issues, and “gay love” is not any different than just “love”. Readers are ready for it, and it’s about time for a new wave of LGBT characters to make their mark center stage outside the LGBT genre. Perhaps Rowling said it best when, after the applause had stopped, she quipped, “If I had known this would have made you this happy, I would have announced it years ago.”
Devin O’Neill is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He has a Bachelors of Arts in English and Psychology from Lake Erie College, and enjoys writing about literature, movies, video games, LGBT issues, and short bios about himself. His hobbies include running outside when it’s not cold and taking care of his cat. Follow him on Twitter @devinkoneill.