Out of the Closet & Onto the Page

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.

10 replies
  1. Jennie Coughlin
    Jennie Coughlin says:

    I’ve been wondering about this for a while. One of the key characters is gay, but that’s not usually the point of the stories. Even in the newest book where he’s the main character, the LGBT element is more what forces him to re-examine everything he thought he knew about a point in the past rather than any questioning of himself. It doesn’t feel like LGBT fiction in any classic definition, and that’s why it’s classified as literary rather than LGBT. (Much like the Irish mob’s role in the story doesn’t push it into crime/mystery/thriller.) It’s good to know that seems to be the right choice.

  2. RachelB.
    RachelB. says:

    Your desire and need for total acceptance comes from the heart and is quite touching but it doesn’t change a basic biological fact: human beings (and all animals) are hard-wired to procreate. Period. By stating there is an “imbalanced preference” for male/females relations, you show a gross misunderstanding of the human condition (something intrinsic to a writing career) because you imply that male/female relationships result from intolerant outside forces who foist it upon them. This is not true and the reasonable side of your logical brain knows it. Now, with regard to literature, if being gay will enhance a character’s personality on the page, make him come alive, make him more sympathetic or more hated, then by all means, make that character gay. But the average Joe or Jane Reader is not going to gravitate to a gay character just because they’re gay. There would be no point to it. What your article is suggesting very gently is actually a form of censorship, where artists are being asked to alter their stories and characters to satisfy the agenda of a political group. And let’s face it, the LGBT lobby is highly politicized. But that is not how art is created. And by the very fact you state, “it’s about time for a new wave of LGBT characters to make their mark center stage outside the LGBT genre”, you show you have no clue about the nature of art or the creative process. Thank you for your opinon, but putting political pressure on artists is not the mark of a free society. Freedom of expression is one of the last freedoms left. We support your write to write whatever you will. But please keep your hands off our art.

  3. Bryn Hammond
    Bryn Hammond says:

    Amen. I was afraid a traditional publisher wouldn’t let me have a gay second main in a Genghis Khan novel. — Genghis’ sworn brother has been done gay before, but as a bad guy. The source material has the suggestion, and hints at him and Genghis. Scholarly biographies mention the suspicions, in order to pour scorn. As if. Mongol scholars are an old-fashioned set. — And am I allowed to write a novel that uses the story material? Would a publisher tell me a gay Jamuqa is uncommercial? Unless perhaps I make him a villain? I had serious fears that yes, they would. It was a factor in why I went indie. I don’t often say that, I feel silly to have to say that. My fears were justified, then?

  4. Paul
    Paul says:

    I wasn’t terribly impressed with Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore, because if you have to tell people a character is gay, you really haven’t written an LGBT character.

    The main character of my first novel is gay, but the story focus is on the fact that he was the product of a covert military genetically engineering project and people are trying to kidnap him. I went with self-publishing because my instinct told me that traditional publication was even more of an uphill battle than normal.

    Authors with the commercial power of Rowling or Stephen King or James Patterson could be the ones to move the glacier. I’m not holding my breath, however. I think it will come down a small press or independently published book going viral to break the glass ceiling for gay characters.

  5. J-L Heylen
    J-L Heylen says:

    Fascinating article. I think you are spot on that a ‘normalised’ approach to different sexualities, gender identities and sexual preferences is the next big thing in literature. I have found a handful of fantasy and sci-fi writers with GLBTQI characters that are just getting on with the job, so to speak. I agree with previous commenters that traditional publishers are unlikely to take the chance. Maybe that’s because they know people like RachelB are out there and are not attracted to such books, forgetting that people like me, Devin and others all will buy them. I went the facilitated publishing route for this reason. As a society, we no longer seem to think that a women writing a male character is unusual. I live for the day when a non-GLBTQI author can write a GLBTQI character without tension, comment or intolerant debate.

  6. J-L Heylen
    J-L Heylen says:

    Devin, great article. Thanks. This highlights to me one of the great dilemnas of writing and book marketing – to disclose or not to disclose? I publish with keywords that I hope will alert interested readers to the themes therein. The principal of these are Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction. I am an author and reader in these genres first, and I incidentally happen to be a lesbian. As the world stands today, as highlighted by your commenters above, it seems it is also necessary to shout victoriously in my marketing material hat I have lesbian characters. Those that don’t want to read of such characters, like RachelB above (I suspect), don’t have to. Those that do want to, regardless of the life choice in sexual partner they have made, can buy with full knowledge of what they will get. I wish this were not so. I would like to think that my stories have appeal to all readers, but sadly, people still exist in the world who are offended by my choices and the choices of my characters. Your article may take us all one step closer to the day when GLBTI characters are as mainstream as any other. I hope so.


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