See Us: A Study on LGBTQ+ in Literature

Pride Month is coming up in a couple of months, but the pride remains year-round for those who support or are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. We fight every day against prejudices and for our voices to be heard and our stories to be told, even if they’re considered unconventional.

More and more stories with queer characters or queer themes are told every day as more individuals summon the courage to speak up. However, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate those who first introduced the “impossibility” that there’s more to love than that of a man and a woman, that gender was more than just male or female.

I for one love reading LGBTQ+ literature, so it’s inconceivable for me to know that such literature wasn’t even given a proper name and acknowledgment until the 20th century. Ironically enough, there have been gay and lesbian themes in literature as far back as the 8th century BC.

Homer’s The Iliad and other works from Ancient Greece tell stories or poetry of Greek gods falling for men or women feeling unrequited love for other women. In fact, literary scholars have speculated if the Greek warrior Achilles and his best friend Patroclus were closer than their platonic bond implied. Although homoerotic themes have popped up in literature, any gay or lesbian character was never ‘out’ for fear of censorship or even possible arrest. After all, it wasn’t until 1962 that the United States decriminalized same-sex acts.

That’s right; you could’ve been arrested for loving someone of the same sex. Prominent queer writer Oscar Wilde was arrested multiple times for expressing his love for other men both in action and in writing. One of his famous books, A Picture of Dorian Gray, was censored and forcibly rewritten in 1891, a year after it was first published, because of its blatant homoeroticism.

A decade prior to this, Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend: A Story in Pennsylvania was the first American gay novel. In fact, Taylor dedicated his book to those “who believe in the truth and tenderness of man’s love for man, as of man’s love for woman” since the titular character falls in love with a man. The book was written without misinterpretation and as a commentary on the romantic, rather than sexual, love a man can have for another man.

In 1952, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt told the story of two women falling in love and is among the first gay novels to have a happy ending and debunk lesbian stereotypes.

After the Stonewall riots in 1969, where demonstrations were held across America in response to police raids against gay and lesbian bars, explicit gay literature was on the rise. Authors like Rita Mae Brown and Larry Kramer were determined for their own experiences in the LGBTQ+ community to be heard, especially when the fear of AIDS threatened to silence the community once and for all.

Nevertheless, writers persisted. They were set on challenging and refuting stereotypes and fears that turned prejudice and ignorance into violence. It was their voices and courage that started the conversation on LGBTQ+ rights that began with the proposal of the Equality Act in 1974. It is their voices that persist even now.