With the increasing impact of the gay rights movement and acceptance of gays in mainstream society, gay studies and gay literature are emerging as respected fields. Defining gay literature is sometimes difficult, given the frequent vague and subtle references to gay characters or themes found in works. Not all gay literature deals specifically with sex; most focuses on emotion. The writer Christopher Isherwood said it best when he explained that being gay does not involve the act of sex; instead, it is the proclivity or the ability to fall in love with another member of the same gender.
In general, however, fiction is termed gay when it incorporates a gay theme or gay character into its narrative. Thus, not all gay literature is written by gay authors; nor do all gay authors write gay fiction. No single piece of gay fiction can claim to be emblematic of the “gay experience,” for as the growing numbers of gay short stories shows, this “experience” is different in each story. Further, gay literature also can share traits of other thematic clusters of literature, such as Feminist/Feminism, Native American, and African-American and such genres as detective short fiction, the ghost story, and the comedy.
From the early days of civilization, there have always been gay thinkers and writers. Among them is the Greek philosopher Plato, who has been among the most influential historically in the fields of philosophy and literature. Despite the much-heated debate over William Shakespeare’s sexuality, many critics believe his work—littered with cross-dressing characters and same-sex affectionate themes—strikes a definite gay or bisexual cord. In premodern America, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville were reputed to have been gay. In general, their better-known works do not contain overt sexual references, but their sexuality has been the subject of much biographic and bibliographic research and scholarly debate and has led to new interpretations of their works in recent years.
Historically, literary greats have been a driving force of the modern gay movement, which began in the late 1800s. As the example of Oscar Wilde shows, the road for these writers was far from easy. In his infamous 1895 trial for homosexuality, the British courts found the prolific and prize-winning Wilde guilty and sentenced him to a two-year jail term of hard labor. In both his writings and the notoriety of his personal life, Wilde drew international focus to the issue.
For the first part of the 1900s, gays were more or less “invisible,” living underground lives in the United States. Gay men and women organized a vast network through friends, businesses, and bars. Numerous laws targeted homosexuals. Gays lived with the constant threat of the police raids on gay establishments, which entailed brutality, arrests, and public embarrassment.
The gay lives of the literary giants Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein were widely known in literary circles, yet until recently scholarship about their sexuality or any subtle gay themes in their work has been minimal. Stories such as Henry James’s “The Pupil” (1891) are so subtle that the unsuspecting reader would not realize the underlying gay theme. In other stories, such as Willa Cather’s widely anthologized “Paul’s Case” (1905), the homoeroticism and sexuality of the characters are elusive yet present. Given the public intolerance of homosexuality, much of Stein’s writing that was overtly lesbian in theme was withheld from publication until later in the century.
At midcentury psychological associations told Americans that homosexuality was abnormal behavior, thereby contradicting the Kinsey Report, which indicated that nearly 10 percent of Americans were homosexual. At this point the literary world began to note and accept more direct gay references in fiction. The African-American writer James Baldwin introduced gay themes in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and later—more boldly—in Giovanni’s Room (1956). Central to the Beat movement and preceding the “free love” years of the 1960s, Allen Ginsberg gave an “in-your-face” homoerotic sexuality to his poetry. Other gay American authors writing early to midcentury include the poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle); the playwrights Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Christopher Isherwood; and the fiction writers Gore Vidal and John Cheever.
The birth of the contemporary gay rights movement was heralded in 1969 at a small gay bar in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. Although it did not gain the momentum of the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the time, this marked the beginning of an age when gays stopped hiding underground and became advocates for their rights. Later that year the National Institute of Mental Health recommended that the United States repeal laws against homosexual sex between consenting adults.
With the onslaught of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the early 1980s, the gay community became one of the hardest-hit groups. During the early years of AIDS, a panic swept through the gay community since doctors and researchers did not know exactly how the disease was contracted. As AIDS became more prevalent, its threat acted as a mobilizing force for the community. The specter of AIDS is present in most recent literature, whether directly or lurking in the shadows.
Gay literature made a significant impact in the literary landscape in the 1980s and 1990s. Universities offered courses in gay and lesbian literature and culture, and the number of gay-themed books being published increased considerably. Numerous anthologies of short gay fiction include The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (1991), Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories (1994), Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1994), the series Men on Men (beginning in 1988) and Women on Women (beginning in 1990), and even an anthology of gay and lesbian science fiction, Kindred Spirits (1984). In addition, many nonfiction compilations of stories about being gay have been published, including coming-out stories and reflections on definitions of families and hometowns. Most bookstores now have sections devoted to gay, lesbian, and bisexual literature; indeed, some are devoted almost entirely to the topic.
Bisexual literature often is included in this gay category, yet it has a foot in both sexual camps. allusions to the complex sexuality of bisexuals can be found in writings by Carson Mccullers, especially in her “Ballad of the Sad Cafe” (1951), or Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen (1986).
In recent years, awards for homosexual-themed literature have become increasingly prominent. The Lambda awards (Lesbian, Gay Male, Bisexual, and Transgender Awards) have swelled to 22 categories, including story collections and anthologies, poetry, memoirs, cultural studies, public policy, law, history, spirituality, and gender studies. These awards have gone not only to exclusively homosexual or transgender writers but also to those who win awards in both gay and straight categories, such as Jeffrey Eugenides, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and short story writer.
The literature of homosexuality has evolved to the point where it is often grouped not only according to ethnicity and genre, for example, Latina and Chicana, African-American, Asian and Native American, but also into sorts of sexuality, such as gay, transsexual, and bisexual not to mention the literary genres that represent it, including mystery, science fiction, and detective fiction, and even geographic region. In addition to myriad small presses, important publishers of homosexual literature include the University of Wisconsin Press, Duke University Press, and Ohio State University Press. Moreover, many online magazines publish and critique homosexual short fiction, Blithe House Quarterly and the Canadian Review of Gay & Lesbian Writing, to name just two.
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