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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.

The first children’s book with LGBTQ+ characters is When Megan Went Away by Jane Severance back in 1979 (rather than the well-known Heather has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman). The first gay superhero is Midnighter in DC comics, who debuted in 1998, while Northstar is Marvel’s, his debut in 1979 (although he wasn't ‘out’ until years later). Furthermore, Northstar’s marriage to his husband, Kyle Jinadu, was the first same-sex marriage to occur in comics back in 2012.

I know I’m talking a lot about gay and lesbian specifically, but don’t take that to mean that I’ve forgotten about others in the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, the voices of bisexual, transgender, and other queer individuals were sparse and misunderstood, more so than those who identified as gay.

One of the first depictions of transgender individuals can be found in the novel Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid. The first transgender novel is Orlando by Virginia Woolfe, whose protagonist came out as female and is also bisexual. Alex Gino’s George, published in 2012, is considered the first children’s transgender novel. Transgender literature became its own brand of literature in the 2010’s, which included a rise in non-binary characters, themes, and authors (such as Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and their award-winning story The Discomfort of Evening).

Marvel comics has bisexual heroes like Daken (Wolverine’s son), Rictor, and Bling of the X-Men and gender-fluid characters like Xavin, Mystique, and Loki. DC comics portrays characters like Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and John Constantine as bisexual and characters like Danny the Street are genderqueer. The Shining Knight in DC comics, first introduced in 1941 and reimagined in 2005, was DC’s first intersex character while Comet is both bisexual and gender-fluid. (Go DC! Write that diversity!)

One of my personal favorite transgender novels is Dreadnought by April Daniels, which tells the story of Daniel who gains the superpowers of a dying hero as well as his true form—a woman! Daniels, a trans woman herself, published the book in 2017, her very first. As an avid superhero lover, I immediately fell in love with the novel for its action sequences, intriguing plot, and relatable character, Danielle Tozer. I highly recommend giving this series a read!

I also recommend Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love. This novel, written in 2018, is one of the first novels I ever read that depicted an asexual character, Alice. As a demisexual woman myself, I identified with Alice’s dating struggles and, for the first time since determining my sexuality in 2015, felt heard and represented. After all, asexual, aromantic, and demisexual characters and themes are, most likely, the most underrepresented and misunderstood in LGBTQ+ literature.

Nevertheless, writers like Claire Kann and Mackenzi Lee (A Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy) are determined to show that these individuals are heard because they too are capable of love.

As you can see, the LGBTQ+ community has come a long way since the 8th century BC. More and more stories about queer people are being told because, like it or not, they are just as a part of mainstream culture and society as heterosexual individuals. We are all human beings who feel love, sadness, loneliness, happiness, anger, etc. Who we love and who we are shouldn’t make a difference in how we’re treated.

For those who don’t feel seen, don’t be discouraged! There are plenty of books out there for you! Your story is told! You just have to find it.


About the Author: Jennifer Osuna is a demisexual woman who surrounds herself with books and superheroes of the fictional variety. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s watching movies, going for walks, podcasting about Marvel, and listening to music as the true introvert she is (and plenty proud of it, too!).


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