Reappraising LGBTQIA+ literature

originally posted June 12, 2021
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Devaluation [of LGBTQ literature] is part of the larger fallacy of dismissing the struggle of the LGBTQ community as essentially a fight about sexual expression. It is not. For queer people, the movement has always been about uncovering and embracing the deepest sense of oneself; it is a movement of human liberation. That’s how its writers have understood and tried to express it for nearly a century only to be usually met by indifference, silence, condescension.

With this premise, Michael Nava begins the first in a series of three posts to explore the steps that gay and lesbian* writers—as well as readers, publishers, critics, scholars, and other component parts—took to articulate their experience and existence.  Part I introduces the decades between 1940 and 1980, which “began as a wasteland for gay and lesbian writers” in books where, in Nava’s words, a “protagonist awakens to his homosexuality, engages in hopeless and/or unrequited love affairs that serve mostly to emphasize the depravity of his desire, and comes to a bitter end”—a description of plots set in a time when homosexuality was treated as illegal, considered to be immoral, and classified as a mental illness; think the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare

Part II “examine[s] the years between 1980 and 1996, when the mass movement for gay and lesbian equality (as it was then known) coupled with the AIDS epidemic briefly made gay and lesbian writers fashionable, only to see them dumped by an increasingly market-driven publishing industry.”  Part III presents the current state of gay and lesbian* publishing, “which is both the best and worst time to be a queer writer, as opportunities for publication expand while the audience for queer books seems to be contracting.”

Nava is a good voice for this exploration. In addition to authoring a groundbreaking series of novels featuring a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer named Henry Rios, he has begun a new series of historical novels, The Children of Eve (The City of Palaces is first in that series); crafted a number of essays, short stories, and poems focused on being gay and Latinx; and is coauthor of Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). Nava is a six-time recipient of the Lambda Literary Award in the mystery category, as well as the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for gay and lesbian literature; he is also a frequent author of articles for the Los Angeles Review of Books, where this post appeared on June 5, 2021. Good credentials, indeed, for attempting such a monumental task as a look into LGBTQAI+ literature.

Growing up in middle America during the late 1960s and 1970s, I, of course, knew nothing of gay or lesbian culture, let alone any relevant literature. An article in one of the Dayton newspapers, in fact, written to “out” several downtown gay bars, was my first exposure—and my first roadmap, with descriptions, listing places to go; I actually had to save that article for many years before I was old enough (and brave enough) to use it! Equally exciting, to me, was a research project I assisted with a decade or so later, during the middle-1980s, part of my tenure in the public library’s local history room. The topic was focused on a member of the Barney family, a very prosperous industrial family and well-known part of Dayton history; to my surprise, however, that member turned out to have been a notorious lesbian: Natalie Barney. Natalie, it turned out, was openly lesbian, especially after moving to Paris in the 1890s, and hosted the most famous writers’ and artists’ salons in Paris—her guests included the international likes of American writers W. Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder, and T. S. Eliot, just as examples. She was also, herself, a noted poet and novelist who published twenty-one books. But, none of that had been a part of the family’s Dayton heritage. After that project, I read everything I could find on her. Such were the times—I can attest to that.

Getting back to Nava’s post in the Los Angeles Review of Books, books were published, he tells us, “between 1940 and 1950 in which homosexuality was either a central theme or which featured major homosexual characters.” But, he continues,

What gay men related to in these depressing novels were the glimmers of humanity the gay writers were able to slip into their lead characters, whom they depicted as ordinary men rather than as stereotypes of either the screaming queen or sociopathic fag variety. Also, by identifying gay spaces in the books’ settings they signaled to a couple of generations of lonely, isolated men that such spaces existed. Finally, they recognized that gay men were driven not by simple or predatory lust but by the need to love and to be loved. That they were not allowed to find such fulfillment was, the books hinted, not entirely their fault; perhaps, they tentatively suggested, society, too, must bear some responsibility for these ruined lives because of its treatment of homosexuals.

Of the leading novels from these early years, Nava mentions and discusses The City and the Pillar, by Gore Vidal (E. P. Dutton, 1948), Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin (Dial Press, 1956), and Better Angel, by Richard Meeker (originally published by Greenberg Press, 1933; reprinted under the title Torment by Universal, 1951). He also talks about City of Night, by John Rechy (Grove Press, 1963), and A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood (Simon & Schuster, 1964). “Both novels were apparently based on autobiographical material, which seems to be a frequent occurrence in early gay literature as the writers were working in a literary void and so were compelled to draw heavily upon their own experiences.” In later years, Nava cites Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin (Harper & Row, 1978), and Dancer from the Dance, by Andrew Holleran (William Morrow & Co., 1978). I do remember Holleran’s book, and I remember it being very popular; but, I could not relate to the characters, setting, or themes—I may not have even finished it, except that it was gay. More to my liking was Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown (Daughters, Inc., 1973); I recall it being so entertaining, funny, and relatable that I read it several times, recommended it to a number of friends, and read everything Brown wrote for many, many years.

I’ve only scraped a few top points of this article, and I haven’t mentioned many of the details about lesbian books, authors, and publishing—that information says, perhaps, more about the times and attitudes than what I have provided above. So, please read this first part of the series and see if it triggers any memories of your own—or if, instead, it enlightens you to an age you knew nothing, or very little, about.

*In the words of author Nava: “The emphasis on gay and lesbian writers reflects the fact that the period under examination mostly preceded the emergence of transgender, bisexual, and nonbinary communities as distinct and recognizable literary communities and publishing cohorts; it in no way devalues them. . . . This is only part of the story, the part of the story I lived through and participated in: a trail of breadcrumbs for future readers, writers, and scholars to follow to uncover one of the most important literary movements of the last century.”

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image information: Featured image, via AuthorAllsorts, where it was used as artwork for a post, “Windows and Doors to Our Worlds: Writing LGBTQIA Literature” in which guest blogger author Laura Lam mentioned a We Need Diverse Books, DiverseBooks.org, program at the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in San Francisco.  


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