Happy Friday readers! Today we continue our Pride series of blog posts by lifting the curtain to the past to see how queer representation has morphed and changed throughout the centuries as well as share some notable historically queer reading recommendations. Fair warning, there will be puns.
Depending on the century, the location, and the ideologies of the time, queer characters and stories in literature were more evident than in other instances, where queer context hid in plain sight behind clever language.
A Gay Old Time
Queer characters, stories, and themes are nothing new. We have only to look at world mythology to see romantic affection between same gendered individuals, to see characters that change gender, to see characters who subvert sexual romance. Myths are a way humans used to explain the world around them, and forms of LGBT expression are a part of that.
A well known example is Greek mythology which features a divine pantheon that mirrors and expounds on human interaction. Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Heracles all had male lovers at some point or another. Or take Norse mythology, with the gender fluid shape shifting Loki, a god who not only fathered children but gave birth as well.
Beyond the myths, you can look at the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s the Iliad, a relationship that is not explicit but later ancient authors cast them as such, particularly in Aeschylus’s 5th century lost tragedy The Myrmidons. Surviving fragments of the work include mention of frequent kisses and ‘a devout union of the thighs’. Take that a huge step forward to modern literature and Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, which frames this context in a luscious love story.
Other notable examples of early queer literature include the Satyricon by Petronius written in the 1st Century AD, The Tale of Genji written by Muraskai Shikibu in early 11th Century Japan, and Antonio Rocco’s Alchibiades the Schoolboy, published anonymously in the 1650’s Italty.
Writing in the Margins
Suppression is the vindictive tool of history. Through the dark lens of societal and religious pressure, queer authors had to be sneaky in their language. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, sodomy was outlawed and legally punished by death throughout Europe. As the age of Enlightenment swept through Europe and later America, challenge arose to those doctrines.
The late 1700s also saw the rise of Gothic literature, where many of the early authors in the genre such as Matthew Lewis, Francis Lathom, and William Thomas Beckford, were gay and used the vehicle of literature to sublimate queer themes into more acceptable forms. An example of this is Lewis’s The Monk from 1796, where the titular character falls for a young novice that is later revealed to be a woman. This is the same sort of tactic Shakespeare uses in Twelfth Night, a romping good time of gender fluidity and queer subtext.
The 19th and 20th century saw some more definitive works pave the way for modern queer literature, including Joseph and His Friend written by Bayard Taylor in 1870, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall in 1925, and Orlando by Viriginia Woolf published in 1928. These are just a sampling of some of the books that wedged the door further for queer representation in literature prior to the Stonewall Riots.
Included in the Resources are several lists that provide additional titles from the 1800s and 1900s which we highly suggest taking a peek at, but the conversation around representation continues to shift and grow today as authors strive for better rep across the full spectrum of gender identity and sexuality. Fifty years out from Stonewall, it is vital to keep this conversation pushing forward, to lift and integrate LBGTQI+ fiction as part of the literary lexicon because as history has proven, it is far too easy to suppress and silence the voices of those considered outside ‘conventional norms.’ Keep pushing forward.
Be sure to check out the Juneteenth Book Festival today, a free festival celebrating Black voices in the literary industry, including the Queer & Black, On and Off the Page panel featuring Julian Waters, Roya Marsh, Ashley Woodfolk, Claire Kann, and Candice Iloh, moderated by Leah Johnson.
You can find all the panels on Youtube here: