A Delicate Balance
The first author we will mention – though his work falls just shy of the 20th century – is one essential author whose enormous impact on the culture extends to the present day.
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
Wilde has long been considered a pioneer in modern LGBTQ+ culture and writing. His works are some of the most revered in western literature and feature considerable gay subtext. In 1895, he was arrested and convicted in a London court for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. He later died – exiled and penniless – in Paris in 1900.
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” – Wilde, during his 1895 trial
After Wilde, important LGBTQ fiction appeared frequently in the early part of the 20th century, but until the late 1950s, authors and publishers could be prosecuted for writing openly about homosexuality. Society’s vehement moral condemnation of homosexuality created an atmosphere of self-loathing and the gay and lesbian characters in these books often met grim fates – desolation, suicide and murder.
Great Reads (1900-1940)
Many of these works are still available in libraries and bookstores today. Their impact was tremendous and set the stage for the next few decades where LGBTQ+ writing begins – slowly – to emerge from the shadows.
The Immoralist by André Gide (1902)
A young man discovers a new freedom in seeking to live according to his own desires.
Three Lives by Gertrude Stein (1909)
Three working class women face the challenges of race and sexuality in society
Maurice by E.M. Forster (1914)
An intense affair between a Cambridge student and a stable hand, shattering the conventions of both romance and class. Actually written in 1914, but not published until 1971, a year after Forster’s death, as per his wishes.
The Fox by D.H. Lawrence (1922)
A World War I soldier upsets the balance of a delicate relationship between two women.
Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1928)
Rollicking, subversive story of a multi-gendered character who lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
A young women heroically challenges society to accept her non-conforming passion and sexuality.
Strange Brother by Blair Niles (1931)
Explores gay life among African Americans in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem.
Better Angle by Forman Brown (1933)
A young gay man’s sexual awakening that miraculously manages to give the protagonist a rare romantic happy ending with another man.
Great Reads (1940-1970)
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet (1943)
A largely autobiographical account of a young man’s journey through the Parisian underworld, populated mostly by homosexuals on the fringes of society.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
The British aristocracy, during the golden age just before the second world war. While the dynamic between the two friends Charles and Sebastian is homosexual in nature, it is not explicitly sexual.
The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (1945)
This novella explores the lives of expatriates living in Germany during the early years of the Nazis’ rise to power, quite oblivious to the political horrors to come.
Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal (1968)
Gore Vidal returns… and he came roaring back with this novel, probably the biggest selling book on this list. In this story, the hero, Myron, becomes the heroine, Myra, by undergoing a clinical “sex change” [1968 wording]. An irreverent satire of late 1960s America, and one of the first novels to address pansexuality.
The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (1948)
Two young men explore a brief amorous encounter that changes both their lives forever. Significantly, the original 1948 ending featured a major character being murdered, but in 1965, Vidal himself voluntarily revised the ending and the character lived.
Notably, Vidal detested labels and was deeply opposed to phrases like “gay writer” and “gay literature.” He once said “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing acts, not people.”
Three plays featuring powerful dialogue, larger-than-life characters, and inventive subtext. Williams’ bold and innovative works of art focused on desires both heterosexual and homosexual.
Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers (1941)
McCullers debut novel, a controversial look at oppressive masculinity in both the U.S. military and America’s deep south.
Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima (1949)
The story of Kochan, an adolescent boy tormented by his burgeoning attraction to men. A giant of Japanese literature, Mishima struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his sense of masculinity and honor.
City of Night by John Rechy (1963)
This daring novel introduced readers to the underground world of male prostitution, drag queens, and street denizens. A surprise bestseller that provoked curiosity and outrage.
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
A tender depiction of a secret romance between a suburban housewife and a young salesgirl. Adapted into a popular 2015, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett
Olivia by Dorothy Stracey (1949)
Love story about a young British girl’s infatuation with her French headmistress.
Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (1964)
Two women, separated by age and background, meet at a boarding house and fall in love. A classic of romantic lesbian literature.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
An American man living in Paris must explore his feelings and frustrations with other men in his life.
Another Country by James Baldwin (1962)
More Baldwin, one of the first activists and authors to write openly about the gay African American experience. Set in Greenwich Village and Harlem, New York City, in the late 1950s, its many themes, taboo at the time, shed light on infidelity, bisexuality and interracial couples.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)
Twenty years after Berlin Stories, Isherwood published this daring and poignant portrayal of a day in the life of a lonely middle-aged gay man in California.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton (1965)
Explores the long passionate life of a woman-loving artist.
Midnight Cowboy by James O’Herlihy (1965)
The lives of the outcasts and hustlers on the streets of New York City, were eventually made into an X-rated (now R-rated) film in 1969. One critic said that reading the book “would turn people homosexual”
A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt (1966)
Featuring the first gay African American detective.
Pulp Fiction (Mid-20th Century)
A popular genre at the time – though not one that necessarily portrayed LGBTQ+ characters in a positive light. The pulp fiction books of the 1940s and 50s were cheaply-produced paperbacks with sensational themes, mostly available in drug stores and dime stores. Lesbian characters and lesbian-themed stories were especially popular, though the books were on the salacious side and mostly mass-marketed to capture the voyeuristic sensibilities of heterosexual men. There was one considerable bright spot… and her name was Ann Bannon.
Bannon was one pulp fiction author who actually wrote pulpy lesbian fiction for lesbians. Here Beebo Brinker Chronicles remains a favorite; the series explored the lives and loves of Laura, Beth and Beebo as they navigate uncharted territories of desire.