LGBTQ+ Literature: The Evolution From Classics to Now

Explore the history and evolution of LGBTQ+ literature from classic works to contemporary pieces, highlighting key milestones and influential authors

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From the groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt to the contemporary sensation Red, White and Royal Blue, queer literature has undergone a profound evolution in recent decades, shifting from its origins in tragic narratives to a more compassionate and inclusive portrayal of queer characters. These novels serve as pivotal landmarks in the representation of LGBTQ+ identities in literature, marking significant strides toward broader acceptance and understanding in modern media.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

The Price of Salt centers around the love story between two women. Therese Belivet is an aspiring theater set designer working as a clerk in a New York department store who’s in an unfulfilling relationship with a man named Richard. Carol Aird is a sophisticated woman going through a difficult divorce. The two women meet as Carol purchases a toy for her daughter and gives Therese her address for delivery, prompting Therese to send her a Christmas letter, initiating their relationship. However, Carol’s husband becomes suspicious and hires a private investigator to gather evidence of Carol’s homosexuality in an attempt to gain full custody of their daughter.

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The book ends on an uplifting note when Carol invites Therese to live with her. Though Therese initially declines, she reconsiders her previous relationships — loneliness swept over her like a rushing wind — and rushes to reunite with Carol.

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The Price of Salt was quite popular in the 1950s among the lesbian community due to its non-conformity to the stereotypes placed among queer people and the hopeful note on which the book ends. Before The Price of Salt, any lesbian character featured in a novel would either play into the butcher-femme stereotype or wind up as oversexualized for the sake of appealing to a male audience. Even Therese is baffled to find that neither Carol nor she fits within these stereotypes.

Behind the Times: The Demonization of Queer People Back Then

Certain situations within the book reflect the views of the era. Lesbian wives and gay husbands often lost parental rights due to the discovery of them being homosexual, like Carol, who lost custody of her daughter and was only allowed supervised visits. Queer people were not allowed to express themselves freely and often sought refuge away from the public eye or concealed their true selves through a heteronormative facade, such as how it’s shown through the characters only expressing their love in private spaces like hotels or in their own homes.

This also showcases the intervention of heteronormativity in the lives of queer people during this period. Carol’s husband sends a detective to spy on the couple and gather evidence, which ultimately leads to Carol losing custody of her daughter and breaking up with Therese. This depicts how queer people were forced to conform to a heteronormative society that denominated them as congenital inverts, a theory that claimed homosexuality was the inborn reversal of gender traits (leading to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes), just to maintain a normal life.

Still, The Price of Salt was a revolutionary novel for its time due to its breaking out of stereotypes and its rare image of a happy ending for a queer couple. To this day, the novel remains a prominent classic amongst the queer community and a phenomenal read.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

This story follows a day in the life of George, an English man, after his long-term partner, Jim, dies in a car accident. Unable to cope with the sorrow, George goes about his day meeting people who illuminate the possibilities of being alive in this world. During one of his lectures at the university where he teaches, he meets a student named Kenny, who strikes up a conversation with him after class and later buys him a present at a bookstore. George then proceeds to visit Doris, Jim’s lover, in the hospital and later encounters a fellow expatriate from England with whom he chats before heading to a pub and meeting Kenny, which ends in a misunderstanding and Kenny leaving George’s home the next morning.

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Like The Price of Salt, A Single Man was written during a time when homosexuality was not well received, and queer people were deemed deviants by society. The book reflects some of the typical aspects of queer literature of the era, as well as additionally sharing some similarities with the author’s life, such as the main character teaching at a university and his meeting Kenny, the student, the way author Christopher Isherwood met his partner, Don Bachardy.

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However, one of the most significant aspects of this novel is its exploration of loss and grief. Isherwood, who experienced profound grief — first losing his father in the Great War, and later his partner Heinz Neddermeyer, with whom he fled the Nazis and who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 — captures this emotion perfectly in A Single Man.

George battles with his grief by dissociating and immersing himself in monotonous tasks that ultimately fail to bring him comfort. The loss of Jim has damaged his psyche so profoundly that he constantly experiences self-destructive thoughts and even contemplates following Jim in death when he sees Doris being wheeled in for surgery at the hospital.

“This is the gate. . . Must I pass through here, too?”

George, A Single Man

Although the novel is quite tragic, it brings a certain comfort to those dealing with grief and loss. It provides deep insight into these feelings and how they can affect our sense of self over time. Through its exploration of George’s profound sorrow and his struggle to find meaning after Jim’s death. The grief caused by the loss of a loved one is a feeling that has affected everyone at some point in their lives, and A Single Man shows this feeling through the lens of a gay character. This perspective shows that loss and pain are part of the human condition regardless of one’s sexual orientation. Thus, making it a worthwhile read for those seeking something more profound.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

If we are talking about classics, we certainly can’t forget about Brokeback Mountain. The original short story, written by Annie Proulx, much like its movie counterpart, focuses on two young men, Jack and Ennis, who are hired to herd sheep on Brokeback Mountain and develop a deep, emotional, and sexual attachment. After their work is done, they continue their separate lives for the next 20 years until they meet again when Jack sends Ennis a postcard telling him of his return. They both continue their liaisons on remote camping trips, reminiscing about their lives and their time at Brokeback Mountain, until Jack suggests setting up a ranch together. Ennis declines, as he is traumatized by the time his dad shows him a mutilated gay rancher.

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Later on, Ennis’s wife divorces him, and he continues to see Jack until Ennis tells him they won’t be able to see each other for a while due to Ennis’s work. Jack confesses he has been traveling to Mexico to have intimate relationships with men because Ennis can’t give him much of a life. They both argue and leave without resolving their issues. Months later, Ennis receives back the postcard he’d sent Jack with the word “deceased” on it and finds out Jack has passed after apparently changing a tire. However, Ennis suspects he was killed. He visits Jack’s family and retrieves some of his things from their earlier days together, after which Ennis starts dreaming with Jack.

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The 2005 movie adaptation was considered a turning point for queer representation in cinema. It was one of the first films to feature a gay romance without resorting to cliches, such as using gay characters solely as comedic relief or depicting them as AIDS victims. Moreover, the main cast included major stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, and Anna Faris, adding significant mainstream appeal to the film.

Despite its groundbreaking approach, the movie was highly controversial, facing backlash from conservative groups and sparking widespread debate about the portrayal of LGBTQ+ relationships in mainstream media. Additionally, it still adhered to the typical tragic ending often depicted for queer characters, which some critics argued perpetuated harmful tropes.

Nevertheless, the film won multiple awards, including several Academy Awards, and is still regarded as a classic today.

Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

This story revolves around 16-year-old high school student, Simon Piers, who, on the surface, appears to have the perfect life with a loving family and amazing friends. However, he is secretly hiding the fact that he is gay. Through a school confession website, Simon discovers another gay student at his high school. He begins exchanging emails with the student, who goes by the name “Blue.” Things take a turn when Martin, a classmate, unearths Simon’s emails and blackmails him into helping him get a date with Abby, one of Simon’s friends. Throughout the story, Simon tries to guess who Blue might be, considering several possibilities: the stage manager Cal Price, the football player Bram Greenfeld, or even suspecting that Martin might be playing a cruel joke on him.

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When things go sour with Martin, he retaliates by exposing Simon on the school’s confession website, leading to Simon being bullied. This also results in his family finding out his secret, though they ultimately accept him. Later, Simon decides to attend a carnival, where he meets Blue, who turns out to be Bram. The two start dating afterwards, and Simon reconciles with his friends and finds his happy ending.

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Like many contemporary young adult novels, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda has made a significant impact on modern media through its movie adaptation, Love, Simon. The film became the first to be produced by a major American production company to depict a happy ending for a gay couple. Both the novel and the movie adaptation move away from the typical tragic fates often experienced by LGBTQ+ characters. The story is a simple, clean romance that doesn’t rely on R-rated scenes or excessive misfortune to convey its message. Simon’s mild life and cute romance have given more visibility to positive depictions of queer characters, showcasing that queer people do not transform into different beings after they come out; they are who they always were, and their sexual preferences do not change that.

“As soon as you came out, you said, ‘Mom, I’m still me.’ I need you to hear this. You are still you, Simon. You are the same son who I love to tease, and who your father depends on for just about everything. And you’re the same brother who always compliments his sister on her food, even when it sucks.”

– Emily from Love, Simon

Although the movie has been criticized for being too idyllic, its success has undoubtedly contributed to the creation of more straightforward and realistic views of queer people and their experiences. Its portrayal of a hopeful outcome provides an essential narrative for LGBTQ+ youth seeking uplifting stories. These newer representations move away from extreme tragedies and the over-sexualization of gay characters. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Love, Simon are excellent choices for those who want to enjoy a heartwarming story that celebrates love and acceptance without shedding tears over their pages or screens.

A True Changing of the Times

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuinston

One of the most recent popular novels is Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. The story revolves around Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of the first female US President, Ellen Claremont, who is running for re-election in 2020. Alex, along with his sister June and friend Nora, the granddaughter of the vice president, attends the wedding of a member of the British royal family, where we meet Prince Henry.

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Alex has always despised Prince Henry, the younger brother of the groom, and after getting into a physical altercation with him, they both end up causing a highly photographed and published scandal. To prevent a full-blown media crisis that could distract Alex’s mom from her re-election bid, Alex is sent to England to do some damage control and pretend he and Henry are old friends. During his visit, Alex and Henry resolve their differences, and Alex invites Henry to his New Year’s party, where Henry kisses him and comes out as gay. After much contemplation, Alex realizes he is bisexual, and they start a friends-with-benefits relationship, emailing each other and developing a close bond.

Realizing he has feelings for Henry, Alex turns to his mentor and close friend, who Alex finds out has joined the opposition. This leads Alex to come out to his mother and seek her advice. Henry starts ghosting Alex, and when confronted, he tells Alex that a proper relationship isn’t possible due to the royal family’s constraints. However, he gives Alex his signet ring, and they resume their secret relationship.

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Despite their discretion, their emails are leaked to the press, outing them both. Alex and Henry are separated, while Ellen’s team handles the media and public opinion. Alex heads to England to support Henry as he comes out to the royal family and his grandmother, the Queen. Despite her claim that the world would never accept them, a large group of supporters gather outside the palace in solidarity with Alex and Henry.

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The literature surrounding the LGBTQ+ community has shifted to narratives depicting the journey and obstacles of queer people coming out and how this can negatively impact their lives if not done on their own terms. Stories like Red, White & Royal Blue and Love, Simon deal with themes of self-discovery, acceptance, and familial support, which are crucial for a queer person deciding their own journey, as they will undoubtedly be judged by the world around them. This is illustrated perfectly by the contrast between Alex and Henry’s families. Alex receives support and guidance from his mother, leading to confidence in himself and his ability to confront Henry about their relationship. This enables Alex to become Henry’s biggest advocate when it is time for Henry to confront his own family. In contrast, the royal family judges Henry and tells him he won’t be accepted, making him insecure and fearful about having a serious relationship with anyone.

Red, White & Royal Blue is an example of how queer literature has evolved from tragic, violent stories focused on the consequences for queer people to lighthearted, romantic narratives centered around the journey of self-acceptance that queer individuals go through, and how important it is for them to have a supportive environment. Having more of these so-called “cheesy” romances with an abundance of clichés and dramatic dialogue encourages a more positive portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community in media, showing that queer people don’t need to be plagued by untimely deaths, rejections, diseases, or other unfortunate events.

It’s About the Journey

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With time, literature allows society to evolve with it. The novels presented here are a testament to that transformation. They showcase how society has progressed from portraying tragic endings and negative consequences for queer people during a time of heavy discrimination and rejection to creating narratives that educate others about the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. These stories reflect our collective growth and increasing acceptance, illustrating that we have learned from our past and are moving towards a more inclusive and understanding future.


Do you want to know more about LGBTQ+ history? Check out this article.

Be sure to browse our Hooray for Representation – LGBTQ Voices bookshelf on Bookshop.org for more queer stories!

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