The LGBTQIA+ community has come a long way since the first pride parade in 1970.
Even before that, most of society was still not accepting of anyone who didn’t follow the heterosexual agenda. This mindset even went towards representation outside of ‘real life’, such as in romance literature. Since publishers were judged if they released LGBTQIA+ works in general, they often forced authors to change their narrative. This meant not including happy endings, as it was believed to encourage the idea that gay relationships were possible. This led most fictional works in the mid 19th century to include representation, just not the good kind. Fortunately, this has greatly changed today. Representation is far better than before, with characters being happy and safe as themselves. We’ll be diving into the evolution of LGBTQIA+ portrayal in romance literature, starting from the 1930s to present day.
Disclaimer: This is not a recommendation list, as some of the novels are hurtful to groups. There will also be plot spoilers.
Strange Brother (1931) by Blair Niles
Trigger Warning: suicide, homophobia, hate crime.
Noted as one of the first gay novels of the 20th century, the story follows Mark Thorton, who has just moved to New York City. He meets a straight woman named June Westbrook and quickly forms a friendship with her. He decides to come out to her one night after discovering the state laws against those who aren’t heterosexual. She accepts him and the two grow closer, spending much of their time going out with friends and partying. While Mark tries to grow comfortable with the idea of coming out, he is still fearful and commits suicide when someone at work threatens to out him. Strange Brother is a book that received critical reviews, as members of the LGBTQIA+ community believed it was harsh of Niles to kill of a gay character who could’ve lived a happy life. It’s also one of the first instances of society forbidding a happy ending for anyone who wasn’t straight, as Niles’ book was only able to make publication through this ending.
Spring Fire (1952) by Vin Packer, pseudonym for Marijane Meaker
Trigger Warning: rape, sexual assault, homophobia, mental institute.
Known as the first lesbian paperback novel, Spring Fire tells the story of Susan (“Mitch”) who meets an older student named Leda Taylor while pledging for a sorority. The two start an affair after Mitch is sexually assaulted, but it’s not very healthy onward. Leda continuously tells Mitch that they aren’t lesbians and that their desires must be kept private. This eventually has Mitch believe she’s ‘not normal’ and decides to leave the sorority. As she’s packing, she and Leda get caught by the other members of the house. Leda accuses her of seduction, causing an investigation which ultimately has Leda admitted to a mental institute and Mitch believing that she never really loved her. While Leda and Mitch’s relationship touched on the harsh reality of LGBTQIA+ love during that time, it was not a heartwarming read. Meaker explained that she originally wanted her two protagonists to have a good ending together, but that her publisher instructed her to make one of them insane or sick in order to actually have an audience. It would eventually release a million copies, but much to readers’ disappointment because of the unexpected dark ending.
The Price of Salt (1952) by Claire Morgan, pseudonym for Patricia Highsmith
In the same year as Spring Fire came the popular novel The Price of Salt, later renamed Carol. The story follows Therese Belivet, a young woman who sees the beautiful and mature Carol one day at her job in the department store. The pair quickly become good friends, traveling outside of New York. They eventually confess their feelings for each other and begin a relationship hidden away from Carol’s husband Harge, who she is filing divorce from, and Therese’s boyfriend Richard. However, the women face constant homophobia from those around them, especially Harge who hires a private investigator to follow them during one of their trips. Though they become torn on what to do at certain moments of adversity, the two women find each other at the end and readers can assume their relationship back on. Highsmith’s novel is the first LGBTQIA+ representation that holds a happy ending, with both characters alive and safe. It almost didn’t get published since Highsmith’s primary publisher rejected the story. The company told her that she was ruining her career by writing this. The author then decided to find another publisher and soon enough, The Price of Salt was getting printed on paper.
Maurice (1971) by E.M. Forster
Realizing his love is not returned by an old college friend, Englishman Maurice Hall decides to ‘fix’ himself by curing his homosexuality through therapy. It is after the first session, when he meets a man named Alec, that he realizes it failed to work. Now fearful that he will be exposed for being gay, Maurice makes plans to leave the country for one that accepts his life. He urges Alec to come with him, seeing how much love he holds for him, but the man rejects. Maurice is about to depart when he comes across Alec, who tells him that he’s changed his mind because he doesn’t want to ever be apart from him. Maurice is a novel that not only provides a cute love story, but also has great LGBTQIA+ representation as the protagonist learns to come to terms with his sexuality. He learns to love himself for who he is and finds requited love at the same time, bringing readers the happiest of endings where no one is hurt or deemed ‘crazy.’ It was also proof of publishers, and society, beginning to realize that the LGBTQIA+ community is just like everyone else and can have happy stories.
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1998) by James Baldwin
While not entirely considered romance, this novel is one of the first examples of bisexuality found in fiction. Famous theater actor Leo Proudhammer is struggling between life and death as he recovers from a severe heart attack. He begins reflecting on his successful career by thinking back on the relationships he had throughout the years, which include one with a woman named Barbara and one with a man named Christopher. Leo also recalls a sexual encounter he had with the both of them at the same time, a surprise to readers even in the 90s. While the three characters find themselves better as friends, Leo was fully comfortable with his sexual orientation. His story showed readers that bisexual folks could grow up to live incredibly fortunate lives with supporters along the way, as Leo was a beloved actor by his fans. It’s a great milestone for the LGBTQIA+ representation in literature, and genuinely proves how much change can happen in a number of years. Also, who doesn’t love James Baldwin?
How to Be a Normal Person (2015) by T.J. Klune
Gustavo Tiberius is a quiet and quirky man living in a small town in Oregon. His life mostly consists of reading encyclopedias and playing with his pet ferret while owning a video rental store. He considers himself not normal and is totally fine with that, until he meets Casey. An asexual stoner hipster, Gustavo is surprised that someone as cool as Casey has an interest in his life and tries to change for him. An absolute tearjerker that’s been praised for its amazingly written characters and storyline, How to Be a Normal Person is a novel that explicitly explores asexuality in a romance. While some might believe this is expected of a 21st century novel, keep in mind that gay marriage barely became legalized in all 50 states in this same year. So to have a story that represents a part of the LGBTQIA+ community that’s often forgotten, is a big moment for readers who are looking for acceptance and inclusion.
Felix Ever After (2020) by Kacen Callender
Trigger Warning: transphobia, hate crime.
Teenager Felix Love has never actually been in love, ironically. He wishes to experience the feeling that everyone around him seems to have found, but he believes that it’s near impossible as a Black, queer, transgender man. When an anonymous student at school begins posting photos of himself before he transitioned, alongside his dead name, Felix aims for revenge. It is during this time that Felix finds himself in a love triangle, while also going through a voyage of self-discovery and realizing what it means to truly love. Felix Ever After is a novel that represents queer and transgender folks in the best way possible. The novel again, while not entirely a romance, provides an ending full of love and warmth as Felix finds happiness in himself and his relationship. It’s disheartening to think this wouldn’t have made publication sixty years ago. However, Felix Ever After proves today how much LGBTQIA+ representation in fiction has evolved and will continue to grow for years to come.
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