LGBTQ+ characters and topics are often underrepresented in mainstream publishing due to censorship and disputes that LGBTQ+ content is “controversial,” and therefore not commercially possible. However, books about LGBTQ+ characters and history have a profound effect on readers, and LQBTQ+ visibility in the media plays a valuable role when it comes to representation. Not only can these stories educate and inform readers who don’t identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, they can also depict a path in life that LGBTQ+ readers may not have known to be possible.
Throughout history and still today, LGBTQ+ stories and themes have been the subject of debates and controversy. Not only that, but they have faced many challenges and rejections. Through all these hurdles LGBTQ+ readers and writers have dealt with book bans, restrictions and even legal issues (we won’t get into how ridiculous that is), just to share their stories. Can you imagine writing a love story and it be discarded because of who is doing the loving. LGBTQ+ writers are some of the most heart-swelling authors we have, and this isn’t something we want to deprive the world of.
These stories are truly valuable but the history of LGBTQ+ literature is not generally known or taught. In Greek and Roman times many stories show same sex relationships, especially in writers such as Plato and Homer. In the Renaissance period Shakespeare offered interpretations of LGBTQ+ stories, especially in his erotic sonnets. In the Eighteenth century we saw same sex love in the poetry of Katherine Phillips but it was the Nineteenth century that LGBTQ literature really became prominent, though still very subversive. We were given the gift of writers like Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf and there discrete reference to LGBTQ identities and connections. It would be an understatement to say that these writers paved the way for LGBTQ+ literature to have a wider awareness in the literary world.
The twentieth century gave us writers such as James Baldwin with his award winning text ‘The Fire Next time 1963’, Audre Lorde (an exceptional woman, feminist, writer and civil rights activist), American Novelist, Truman Capote, Adrienne Rich, who is one of the most influential and widely read poets of the second half of the twentieth century and many more. Who constantly pushed social boundaries and tore down barriers in order to bring light to LGBTQ+ stories and give them the representation and recognition they so rightly deserved.
The twentieth century was seen as a game changer for LGBTQ+ literature with these great texts receiving critical, as well as commercial success. From Plato and Homer slyly glossing over same sex relationships intertwined and hidden into their work, to published authors like Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin, the LGBTQ+ community has come a long way. But it wasn’t without its adversity and grave hardship for most.
Up until our turning point in the twentieth century, anything to do with LGBTQ was illegal in most nations. In the early twenty-first century gay marriage began to become legal in some places but LGBTQ literature was still often banned and censored due to social traditions. Which is not a good enough reason for banning a whole genre of writing that holds so much representation and has the ability to create social change. But nevertheless, it happened. A lot. It still happens today, from ancient times right up until now, the LGBTQ+ community are deprived of literature, stories, biographies, etc. simply because society decided that it was wrong to be queer.
Sappho had her work destroyed, best known for their poems on female-centred sexuality and love. She was celebrated during her time but eleventh century Pope Gregory VII burned her poetry for portrayals of lesbian relationships.
Walt Whitman struggled to get his ‘Leaves of Grass’ published due to its queer nature, themes and sensual metaphors. He undeterred, self-published and self-financed his work and ended up losing his job after his employer found his works to be offensive and inappropriate.
Oscar Wilde was put on trial in a court of law four times for claims of indecency, as homosexuality was forbidden in England at this time, he spent two years in jail and was eventually exiled because he refused to adhere to the unjustifiable laws of his country.
Hollywood and their obsession with taking LGBTQ+ book characters and making them portray a straight character in film adaptions isn’t helpful either. Such as Ayo in Black Panther, Achilles in Troy, Jughead Jones in Riverdale, Mystique in X-men and so many more LGBTQ+ book characters who were stripped of their sexuality in order to adhere to heterosexual norms.
Even queer theorist Judith Butler struggled to get her early texts published. Trans writers have faced a great deal of limitations on their work, with authors of colour facing the most oppression. Thankfully, literature like ‘Luna’ by Julie Anne Peters and ‘Gender Outlaws: The next generation’ by Kate Bornstein paved the way for more trans literature in the future.
There are still many discriminatory approaches and individual biases all around the world today, so it is difficult to say how many great voices have fallen through the cracks, not been heard and just pushed aside because of the prejudice and discrimination placed on the LGBTQ+ community. But it is the hope for our future that this happens less and less until we can finally see equal representation in all of our literary texts.
It is no secret that LGBTQ+ writers have faced adversity time and time again and getting equal representation is a road we are still travelling along. But the literature we have today is creating social and legal change, and with writers such as Andrea Gibson, TJ Klune, Casey McQuiston, George. M. Johnson, Mary Lambert and so many more, we have representation at our fingers tips, which is a long way from where we started. Not only that, but if we learn about the history of our LGBTQ ancestors, we have a whole stack of incredibly inspirational writers and literature that we can discover a lot from.
Feature image credit: Penguin.co.uk