October is LGBTQIA+ History Month, which means it’s time to celebrate the stories so many writers and individuals have been (and sometimes still are) unable to tell. These five novels have persisted through ruthless bans and censorship efforts to fill our hearts and our bookcases.
It’s important to note that this list does not address the full history of LGBTQIA+ literature. Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway, published as far back as 1925, features a bisexual protagonist who reflects on her relationships with men and a young female flame— of course, Woolf does not call her bisexual. It’s perhaps for that reason that this book has been controversial more for its inclusion of mental illness than for its bisexual elements. Another of Woolf’s works, Orlando, features a protagonist whose gender abruptly changes halfway through the novel. This book also faced little controversy— perhaps the public saw this change in gender as more of a metaphor than a nuanced commentary on gender identity. The term ‘transgender’ as we know it did not exist before the 1960s, though gender-nonconforming individuals were definitely present.
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1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
One of the most famous writers of all time, decadent intellectual Oscar Wilde reminds us of his wit, charisma, and tragic imprisonment. A notoriously well-dressed and charming member of the era’s wealthy intelligentsia, Wilde suffered a terrible decline at the end of his lifetime. Two years of hard labor and imprisonment laid waste to his health, psyche, and bank account. Destitute at the time of his death, Wilde himself said: “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing.” His crime? Homosexuality. Wilde was the subject of two sodomy trials in 1895, and he died at the age of forty-six— only three years after the end of his sentence. The courts used Wilde’s own works as evidence to convict him. Though the novel’s homoerotic passages contributed to its author’s imprisonment, The Picture of Dorian Gray remains a crucial part of Wilde’s enduring legacy.
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The novel focuses on young, attractive aristocrat Dorian Gray, whose soul is trapped within a portrait. As Gray sinks further into decadence and cruelty, he remains outwardly unchanged… but the new, visceral ugliness in the portrait shows what Gray has become. The Picture of Dorian Gray faced heavy criticism in its time. Contemporary newspapers called it “heavy with… the odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” In 1891, Wilde revised the original publication for its formal book released, removing the more homoerotic chapters. Fortunately, after over 120 years, the uncensored original text is now available to the public. As one of the original edits was the removal of the word ‘mistress,’ it seems Wilde’s intent was to present Gray as bisexual.
2. Maurice (1971)
Best known for his novel A Passage to India, E.M. Forster secretly wrote this novel depicting a loving homosexual relationship. As he feared the controversy his work may face, particularly as a gay man himself, he kept the work hidden with specific instructions that it must only receive posthumous publication. Attitudes at the time were so negative that Forster concealed his own desires for many years, not acting on his homosexuality until the age of twenty-seven. Though he wrote the work from 1913-1914 as a much younger man, the public did not read it until after his death. Famously, his final comment on the manuscript reads: “Publishable. But worth it?”
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Maurice is a groundbreaking work beyond its gay elements, featuring working class characters and situations that other historical gay writers, including Oscar Wilde, did not address. More importantly, it also gives gay characters happy endings. The ‘Bury Your Gays‘ trope, a phenomenon in which authors often kill LGBTQIA+ characters (or shower them with endless misfortune) is sadly commonplace in historic and contemporary works of fiction. This pessimistic viewpoint suggests that to be LGBTQIA+ is only ever awful, that these characters and people don’t get happy endings. Forster, conversely, regards homosexual love as one of the deepest forms of connection— as opposed to relationships with the motive of procreation, homosexuality’s “only purpose is love, so it can result in a spiritual union between two people.”
3. Giovanni’s Room (1976)
James Baldwin‘s impressive novel about an American man’s overseas affair with another man (Parisian bartender Giovanni) almost didn’t exist. When Baldwin himself arrived arrived in Paris in 1948 with no more than $41 to his name, he sought refuge from the bigotry of the United States, a place where he felt his writing came second to his race. Baldwin’s agent would eventually confirm these fears, telling him to burn the manuscript over fears that his sexuality would further alienate his audience.
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Baldwin’s novel explores themes of alienation reminiscent of Nella Larsen‘s Passing, the Harlem Renaissance story of a black protagonist with a lighter skin color that enables her to ‘pass’ as a white person. Giovanni’s Room also comments upon the eternal catch-22 of marginalized identities— concealing them may, at times, be safer… but it can also be infinitely damaging. The novel stands the test of time as a complex portrait of homosexuality and bisexuality.
4. The Color Purple (1982)
Alice Walker‘s renowned epistolary novel is the winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the first black woman to ever do so. Walker’s novel unfolds in the format of letters written to God, starting with violent subject matter and ending in redemption. It is also one of the most banned books in the U.S. today. While some of the controversy has to do with violence and explicitness, much criticism also surrounds the open depiction of protagonist Celie’s lesbian feelings— particularly, the openly sexual description of Celie’s attraction to women. The film adaptation even participates in the novel’s censorship, limiting expression of Celie’s true sexual identity.
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The depiction of Celie’s sexual identity is unambiguous; Walker writes that Celie and lover Shug “kiss and kiss til [they] can hardly kiss no more.” (And no, it doesn’t stop there.) It’s a queer story, but it’s also so much more. Protagonist Celie is an illiterate black woman, pregnant at 14-years-old— not the kind of character canonized literature typically includes. The novel boldly depicts the transformative power of love, showing how love can make the powerless powerful in the end. While the novel has ranked on the Top 100 Banned & Challenged Books List, Walker’s story remains a powerful tale of underrepresented characters.
5. Middlesex (2002)
It’s difficult to imagine that a ‘historic classic’ could have been published within our own century. But up until this unique moment in time, both intersex and transgender stories have not been a part of the literary canon. When it comes to published books, they’ve hardly existed at all— despite the millions of people who live these stories daily. Jeffrey Eugenides‘ novel, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, brought explorations of gender identity into public eye and onto bookshelves around the world. Texas prisons have banned the book due to its supposedly controversial subject matter.
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Intersex protagonist Cal’s parents raised him to be a girl. When he discovers his male genetics, he comes to embrace what he feels is his true identity. Eugenides’ bildungsroman is a novel of uncertain dichotomies (male and female, Greek and American, nature and nurture, present and future) and the nebulous space between two binary opposites. The novel opens: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” These words address the oft-unheard voices of those throughout the world whose gender identities may not always correspond with their bodies.
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It’s incredibly important to note that this list does not address the full spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities. Some identities, including pansexuality, asexuality, nonbinary genders, and many more, are only recently entering a larger public consciousness. As such, there are few overt depictions of such identities in classic works of literature. Likely, that will change in time. Maybe you will even be the one to change it.
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