Gay literature is a collective term for literature produced by or for the LGBT community which involves characters, plot lines, and/or themes portraying male homosexual behavior. The term is now used most commonly to cover specifically gay male literature, with a separate genre of lesbian literature existing for women. Historically, the term "gay literature" was sometimes used to cover both gay male and lesbian literatures.
In a historical sense, literature as we understand it is a fairly new innovation, and the current concept of homosexuality is even fresher from the cultural oven. It's no great surprise, then, that gay literature — or even gay characters in literature — are so relatively new as to still be shiny.— Kilian Meloy, "Influential Gay Characters in Literature" (2007)
Overview and history
Because the social acceptance of homosexuality has varied in many world cultures throughout history, LGBT literature has covered a vast array of themes and concepts. LGBT individuals have often turned to literature as a source of validation, understanding, and beautification of same-sex attraction. In contexts where homosexuality has been perceived negatively, LGBT literature may also document the psychological stresses and alienation suffered by those experiencing prejudice, legal discrimination, AIDS, self-loathing, bullying, violence, religious condemnation, denial, suicide, persecution, and other such obstacles.
Themes of love between individuals of the same gender are found in a variety of ancient texts throughout the world. The ancient Greeks, in particular, explored the theme on a variety of different levels in such works as Plato's Symposium.
Many mythologies and religious narratives include stories of romantic affection or sexuality between men or feature divine actions that result in changes in gender. These myths have been interpreted as forms of LGBT expression and modern conceptions of sexuality and gender have been applied to them. Myths have been used by individual cultures, in part, to explain and validate their particular social institutions or to explain the cause of transgender identity or homosexuality.
In classical mythology, male lovers were attributed to ancient Greek gods and heroes such as Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon and Heracles (including Ganymede, Hyacinth, Nerites and Hylas, respectively) as a reflection and validation of the tradition of pederasty.
Though Homer did not explicitly portray the heroes Achilles and Patroclus as homosexual lovers in his 8th century BC Trojan War epic, the Iliad, later ancient authors presented the intense relationship as such. In his 5th century BC lost tragedy The Myrmidons, Aeschylus casts Achilles and Patroclus as pederastic lovers. In a surviving fragment of the play, Achilles speaks of "our frequent kisses" and a "devout union of the thighs". Plato does the same in his Symposium (385–370 BC); the speaker Phaedrus cites Aeschylus and holds Achilles up as an example of how people will be more brave and even sacrifice themselves for their lovers. In his oration Against Timarchus, Aeschines argues that though Homer "hides their love and avoids giving a name to their friendship", Homer assumed that educated readers would understand the "exceeding greatness of their affection". Plato's Symposium also includes a creation myth that explains homo- and heterosexuality (Aristophanes speech) and celebrates the pederastic tradition and erotic love between men (Pausanias speech), as does another of his dialogues, Phaedrus.
The tradition of pederasty in ancient Greece (as early as 650 BC) and later the acceptance of limited homosexuality in ancient Rome infused an awareness of male-male attraction and sex into ancient poetry. In the second of Virgil's Eclogues (1st century BC), the shepherd Corydon proclaims his love for the boy Alexis. Some of the erotic poetry of Catullus in the same century is directed at other men (Carmen 48, 50, and 99), and in a wedding hymn (Carmen 61) he portrays a male concubine about to be supplanted by his master's future wife. The first line of his infamous invective Carmen 16 — which has been called "one of the filthiest expressions ever written in Latin—or in any other language, for that matter" — contains explicit homosexual sex acts.
The Satyricon by Petronius is a Latin work of fiction detailing the misadventures of Encolpius and his lover, a handsome and promiscuous sixteen-year-old servant boy named Giton. Written in the 1st century AD during the reign of Nero, it is the earliest known text of its kind depicting homosexuality.
In the celebrated Japanese work The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, the title character Hikaru Genji is rejected by the lady Utsusemi in chapter 3 and instead sleeps with her young brother: "Genji pulled the boy down beside him ... Genji, for his part, or so one is informed, found the boy more attractive than his chilly sister."
Antonio Rocco's Alcibiades the Schoolboy, published anonymously in 1652, is an Italian dialogue written as a defense of homosexual sodomy. The first such explicit work known to be written since ancient times, its intended purpose as a "Carnivalesque satire", a defense of pederasty, or a work of pornography is unknown, and debated.
Several medieval European works contain references to homosexuality, such as in Lanval, a French lai, in which the knight Lanval is accused by Guinevere of having "no desire for women". Others include homosexual themes, like Yde et Olive.
18th and 19th centuries
The era known as the Age of Enlightenment (the 1650s to the 1780s) gave rise to, in part, a general challenge to the traditional doctrines of society in Western Europe. A particular interest in the Classical era of Greece and Rome "as a model for contemporary life" put the Greek appreciation of nudity, the male form and male friendship (and the inevitable homoerotic overtones) into art and literature. It was common for gay authors at this time to include allusions to Greek mythological characters as a code that homosexual readers would recognize. Gay men of the period "commonly understood ancient Greece and Rome to be societies where homosexual relationships were tolerated and even encouraged," and references to those cultures might identify an author or book's sympathy with gay readers and gay themes but probably be overlooked by straight readers. Despite the "increased visibility of queer behavior" and prospering networks of male prostitution in cities like Paris and London, homosexual activity had been outlawed in England (and by extension, the United States) as early as the Buggery Act 1533. Across much of Europe in the 1700s and 1800s, the legal punishment for sodomy was death, making it dangerous to publish or distribute anything with overt gay themes. James Jenkins of Valancourt Books noted:
These sorts of coded, subtextual ways of writing about homosexuality were often necessary, since up until the 1950s British authors could be prosecuted for writing openly about homosexuality, and in the U.S., authors and publishers could also face legal action and suppression of their books, not to mention social or moral condemnation that might end an author's career.
Many early Gothic fiction authors, like Matthew Lewis, William Thomas Beckford and Francis Lathom, were homosexual, and would sublimate these themes and express them in more acceptable forms, using transgressive genres like Gothic and horror fiction. The title character of Lewis's The Monk (1796) falls in love with young novice Rosario, and though Rosario is later revealed to be a woman named Matilda, the gay subtext is clear. A similar situation occurs in Charles Maturin's The Fatal Revenge (1807) when the valet Cyprian asks his master, Ippolito, to kiss him as though he were Ippolito's female lover; later Cyprian is also revealed to be a woman. In Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the close friendship between a young monk and a new novice is scrutinized as potentially "too like love." Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla (1872) basically invented the lesbian vampire story, and influenced Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Stoker's novel has its own homoerotic aspects, as when Count Dracula warns off the female vampires and claims Jonathan Harker, saying "This man belongs to me!"
A Year in Arcadia: Kyllenion (1805) by Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg is "the earliest known novel that centers on an explicitly male-male love affair". Set in ancient Greece, the German novel features several couples—including a homosexual one—falling in love, overcoming obstacles and living happily ever after. The Romantic movement gaining momentum at the end of the 18th century allowed men to "express deep affection for each other", and the motif of ancient Greece as "a utopia of male-male love" was an acceptable vehicle to reflect this, but some of Duke August's contemporaries felt that his characters "stepped over the bounds of manly affection into unseemly eroticism." The first American gay novel was Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania (1870) by Bayard Taylor, the story of a newly engaged young man who finds himself instead falling in love with another man. Robert K. Martin called it "quite explicit in its adoption of a political stance toward homosexuality" and notes that the character Philip "argues for the 'rights' of those 'who cannot shape themselves according to the common-place pattern of society.'" Henry Blake Fuller's 1898 play, At St. Judas's, and 1919 novel, Bertram Cope's Year, are noted as among the earliest published American works in literature on the theme of homosexual relationships.
The new "atmosphere of frankness" created by the Enlightenment sparked the production of pornography like John Cleland's infamous Fanny Hill (1749), which features a rare graphic scene of male homosexual sex. Published anonymously a century later, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881) and Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal (1893) are two of the earliest pieces of English-language pornography to explicitly and near-exclusively concern homosexuality. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain is about a male prostitute, and set in London around the time of the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Oscar Wilde trials. Teleny, chronicling a passionate affair between a Frenchman and a Hungarian pianist, is often attributed to a collaborative effort by Wilde and some of his contemporaries. Wilde's more mainstream The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) still shocked readers with its sensuality and overtly homosexual characters. Drew Banks called Dorian Gray a groundbreaking gay character because he was "one of the first in a long list of hedonistic fellows whose homosexual tendencies secured a terrible fate." The French realist Émile Zola in his novel Nana (1880) depicted, along with a wide variety of heterosexual couplings and some lesbian scenes, a single homosexual character, Labordette. Paris theater society and the demi-monde are long accustomed to his presence and role as go-between; he knows all the women, escorts them, and runs errands for them. He is "a parasite, with even a touch of pimp", but also a more sympathetic figure than most of the men, as much a moral coward as them but physically brave and not a stereotype.[a]
By the 20th century, discussion of homosexuality became more open and society's understanding of it evolved. A number of novels with explicitly gay themes and characters began to appear in the domain of mainstream or art literature.
Nobel Prize-winner André Gide's semi-autobiographical novel The Immoralist (1902) finds a newly married man reawakened by his attraction to a series of young Arab boys. Though Bayard Taylor's Joseph and His Friend (1870) had been the first American gay novel, Edward Prime-Stevenson's Imre: A Memorandum (1906) was the first in which the homosexual couple were happy and united at the end. Initially published privately under the pseudonym "Xavier Mayne", it tells the story of a British aristocrat and a Hungarian soldier whose new friendship turns into love. In Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death in Venice, a tightly wound, aging writer finds himself increasingly infatuated with a young Polish boy. Marcel Proust's serialized novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–27) and Gide's The Counterfeiters (1925) also explore homosexual themes.
British author E.M. Forster earned a prominent reputation as a novelist while concealing his own homosexuality from the broader British public. In 1913-14, he privately penned Maurice, a bildungsroman that follows a young, upper-middle-class man through the self-discovery of his own attraction to other men, two relationships, and his interactions with an often uncomprehending or hostile society. The book is notable for its affirming tone and happy ending. "A happy ending was imperative," wrote Forster, "...I was determined that in fiction anyway, two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows ... Happiness is its keynote." The book was not published until 1971, after Forster's death. William J. Mann said of the novel, "[Alec Scudder of Maurice was] a refreshingly unapologetic young gay man who was not an effete Oscar Wilde aristocrat, but rather a working class, masculine, ordinary guy ... an example of the working class teaching the privileged class about honesty and authenticity — a bit of a stereotype now, but back then quite extraordinary."
Blair Niles's Strange Brother (1931), about the platonic relationship between a heterosexual woman and a gay man in New York City in the late 1920s and early 1930s, is an early, objective exploration of homosexual issues during the Harlem Renaissance. Though praised for its journalistic approach, sympathetic nature and promotion of tolerance and compassion, the novel has been numbered among a group of early gay novels that is "cast in the form of a tragic melodrama" and, according to editor and author Anthony Slide, illustrates the "basic assumption that gay characters in literature must come to a tragic end." "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade" by gay author and artist Richard Bruce Nugent, published in 1926, was the first short story by an African-American writer openly addressing his homosexuality. Written in a modernist stream-of-consciousness style, its subject matter was bisexuality and interracial male desire.
Forman Brown's 1933 novel Better Angel, published under the pseudonym Richard Meeker, is an early novel which describes a gay lifestyle without condemning it. Christopher Carey called it "the first homosexual novel with a truly happy ending". Slide names only four familiar gay novels of the first half of the 20th century in English: Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936), Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948). In John O'Hara's 1935 novel BUtterfield 8, the principal female character Gloria Wondrous has a friend Ann Paul, who in school "was suspect because of a couple of crushes which ... her former schoolmates were too free about calling Lesbian, and Gloria did not think so". Gloria speculates that "there was a little of that in practically all women", considers her own experience with women making passes, and rejects her own theory.
The story of a young man who is coming of age and discovers his own homosexuality, The City and the Pillar (1946) is recognized as the first post-World War II novel whose openly gay and well-adjusted protagonist is not killed off at the end of the story for defying social norms. It is also one of the "definitive war-influenced gay novels", one of the few books of its period dealing directly with male homosexuality. The City and the Pillar has also been called "the most notorious of the gay novels of the 1940s and 1950s." It sparked a public scandal, including notoriety and criticism, because it was released at a time when homosexuality was commonly considered immoral and because it was the first book by an accepted American author to portray overt homosexuality as a natural behavior. Upon its release, The New York Times refused to publish advertisements for the novel and Vidal was blacklisted to the extent that no major newspaper or magazine would review any of his novels for six years. Modern scholars note the importance of the novel to the visibility of gay literature. Michael Bronski points out that "gay-male-themed books received greater critical attention than lesbian ones" and that "writers such as Gore Vidal were accepted as important American writers, even when they received attacks from homophobic critics." Ian Young notes that social disruptions of World War II changed public morals, and lists The City and the Pillar among a spate of war novels that use the military as backdrop for overt homosexual behavior.
Other notable works of the 1940s and 1950s include Jean Genet's semiautobiographical Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) and The Thief's Journal (1949), Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask (1949), Umberto Saba's Ernesto (written in 1953, published posthumously in 1975), and Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin. Mary Renault's The Charioteer, a 1953 British war novel about homosexual men in and out of the military, quickly became a bestseller within the gay community. Renault's historical novels The Last of the Wine (1956) — about Athenian pederasty in ancient Greece — and The Persian Boy (1972) — about Alexander the Great and his slave lover Bagoas — followed suit. A Room in Chelsea Square (1958) by British author Michael Nelson — about a wealthy gentleman who lures an attractive younger man to London with the promise of an upper crust lifestyle — was originally published anonymously both because of its explicit gay content at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, and because its characters were "thinly veiled portrayals of prominent London literary figures."
A key element of Allen Drury's 1959 bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning political novel Advise and Consent is the blackmailing of young US senator Brigham Anderson, who is hiding a secret wartime homosexual tryst. In 2009, The Wall Street Journal's Scott Simon wrote of Drury that "the conservative Washington novelist was more progressive than Hollywood liberals," noting that the character Anderson is "candid and unapologetic" about his affair, and even calling him "Drury's most appealing character". Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times in 2005:
For a public official to be identified as gay in the Washington of the 50s and 60s meant not only career suicide but also potentially actual suicide. Yet Drury, a staunchly anti-Communist conservative of his time, regarded the character as sympathetic, not a villain. The senator's gay affair, he wrote, was "purely personal and harmed no one else."
Drury later wrote about the unrequited love of one male astronaut for another in his 1971 novel The Throne of Saturn, and in his two-part tale of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten's attempt to change Egyptian religion—A God Against the Gods (1976) and Return to Thebes (1977)—Akhenaten's romance with his brother Smenkhkara contributes to his downfall. Tormented homosexual North McAllister is one of the ensemble of Alpha Zeta fraternity brothers and their families that Drury follows over the course of 60 years in his University novels (1990-1998), as well as René Suratt — villain and "bisexual seducer of students" — and the tragic lovers Amos Wilson and Joel. Assessing Drury's body of work in 1999, Erik Tarloff suggested in The New York Times that "homosexuality does appear to be the only minority status to which Drury seems inclined to accord much sympathy."
James Baldwin followed Giovanni's Room with Another Country (1962), a "controversial bestseller" that "explicitly combines racial and sexual protests ... structured around the lives of eight racially, regionally, socioeconomically, and sexually diverse characters." John Rechy's City of Night (1963) and Numbers (1967) are graphic tales of male hustlers; City of Night has been called a "landmark novel" that "marked a radical departure from all other novels of its kind, and gave voice to a subculture that had never before been revealed with such acuity." Claude J. Summers wrote of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964):
A Single Man more fully develops the context of gay oppression than do [Isherwood's] earlier novels ... To portray homosexuals as simply another tribe in a nation comprising many different tribes is both to soften the stigma linked to homosexuality and to encourage solidarity among gay people. And by associating the mistreatment of homosexuals with the discrimination suffered by other minorities in America, Isherwood legitimizes the grievances of gay people at a time when homosexuals were not recognized either as a genuine minority or as valuable members of the human community. Presaging the gay liberation movement, A Single Man presents homosexuality as simply a human variation that should be accorded value and respect and depicts homosexuals as a group whose grievances should be redressed.
George Baxt's A Queer Kind of Death (1966) introduced Pharaoh Love, the first gay black detective in fiction. The novel was met with considerable acclaim, and The New York Times critic Anthony Boucher wrote, "This is a detective story, and unlike any other that you have read. No brief review can attempt to convey its quality. I merely note that it deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality, that said readers may well find it 'shocking', that it is beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit ... and that you must under no circumstances miss it." Love would be the central figure in two immediate sequels Swing Low Sweet Harriet (1967) and Topsy and Evil (1968) and also two later novels, A Queer Kind of Love (1994) and A Queer Kind of Umbrella (1995). In his controversial 1968 satire Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal explored the mutability of gender-roles and sexual-orientation as being social constructs established by social mores, making the eponymous heroine a transsexual waging a "war against gender roles".
Though Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) was unanimously recommended by the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury to receive the 1974 award, the Pulitzer board chose instead to make no award that year. In 2005 TIME named the novel one of its "All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels", a list of the best English language novels from 1923 to 2005. Other notable novels from the 1970s include Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance (1978), and Tales of the City (1978), the first volume of Armistead Maupin's long-running Tales of the City series.
In the 1980s, Edmund White — who had cowritten the 1977 gay sex manual The Joy of Gay Sex — published the semiautobiographical novels A Boy's Own Story (1982) and The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988). Bret Easton Ellis also came to prominence with Less Than Zero (1985), The Rules of Attraction (1987) and later American Psycho (1991). Nobel Prize winner Roger Martin du Gard's unfinished Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, written between 1941 and 1958, was published posthumously in 1983. It explores adolescent homosexual relations and includes a fictional first-person account, written in 1944, of a brief tragic encounter between a young soldier and a bakery apprentice in rural France.
In the 21st century, much of LGBT literature has achieved a high level of sophistication and many works have earned mainstream acclaim. Notable authors include Alan Hollinghurst, André Aciman, Michael Cunningham, Michael Chabon, Colm Tóibín, Sarah Waters, John Boyne, Pablo Soler Frost, Jamie O'Neill, and Andrew Sean Greer. Greer, an openly gay man, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Less. LGBT themes have also become more visible in a growing body of high-quality young adult literature, with notable authors including Alex Sánchez, Stephen Chbosky, Shyam Selvadurai, Perry Moore, Adam Silvera, and David Levithan. Becky Albertalli's teen novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda was adapted into the feature film Love, Simon by 20th Century Fox, the first film by a major studio focused on a gay teenage romance.
Gay pulp fiction or gay pulps, refers to printed works, primarily fiction, that include references to male homosexuality, specifically male gay sex, and that are cheaply produced, typically in paperback books made of wood pulp paper; lesbian pulp fiction is similar work about women. Michael Bronski, the editor of an anthology of gay pulp writing, notes in his introduction, "Gay pulp is not an exact term, and it is used somewhat loosely to refer to a variety of books that had very different origins and markets" People often use the term to refer to the "classic" gay pulps that were produced before about 1970, but it may also be used to refer to the gay erotica or pornography in paperback book or digest magazine form produced since that date.
Homosexuality in speculative fiction refers to the incorporation of homosexual themes into science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction and related genres which together constitute speculative fiction. Such elements may include a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) character as the protagonist or a major character, or exploration of varieties of sexual experience that deviate from the conventional.
Science fiction and fantasy have traditionally been puritanical genres aimed at a male readership, and can be more restricted than non-genre literature by their conventions of characterisation and the effect that these conventions have on depictions of sexuality and gender. During the pulp magazine era (1920s-30s), explicit sexuality of any kind was rare in genre science fiction and fantasy. Then, according to Joanna Russ, in the more relaxed Golden Age of Science Fiction (1940s-50s) the genre "resolutely ignored the whole subject" of homosexuality. Some writers were able to introduce more explicit sexuality into their work as the readership for science fiction and fantasy began to age in the 1950s, however until the late 1960s few depicted alternative sexuality or revised gender roles, or openly investigated sexual questions. After the pushing back of boundaries in the 1960s and 70s, homosexuality gained much wider acceptance, and was often incorporated into otherwise conventional SF stories with little comment. By the 1980s, blatant homophobia was no longer considered acceptable to most readers. In Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos (1986), the titular "unlikely hero" is gay obstetrician Dr. Ethan Urquhart, whose dangerous adventure alongside the first woman he has ever met presents both a future society where homosexuality is the norm and the lingering sexism and homophobia of our own world. Uranian Worlds, by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, was compiled in 1983 and is an authoritative guide to science fiction literature featuring gay, lesbian, transgender, and related themes. The book covers science fiction literature published before 1990 (2nd edition, 1990), providing a short review and commentary on each piece.
As speculative fiction gives authors and readers the freedom to imagine societies that are different from real-life cultures, this freedom makes speculative fiction a useful means of examining sexual bias by forcing the reader to reconsider his or her heteronormative cultural assumptions. It has also been claimed that LGBT readers identify strongly with the mutants, aliens and other outsider characters found in speculative fiction.
James Jenkins of Valancourt Books notes that the connection between gay fiction and horror goes back to the Gothic novels of the 1790s and early 1800s. Many Gothic authors, like Matthew Lewis, William Thomas Beckford and Francis Lathom, were homosexual, and according to Jenkins "the traditional explanation for the gay/horror connection is that it was impossible for them to write openly about gay themes back then (or even perhaps express them, since words like 'gay' and 'homosexual' didn't exist), so they sublimated them and expressed them in more acceptable forms, using the medium of a transgressive genre like horror fiction." Early works with clear gay subtext include Lewis's The Monk (1796) and both Charles Maturin's The Fatal Revenge (1807) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Somewhat later came the first lesbian vampire novella Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde, which shocked readers with its sensuality and overtly homosexual characters. There is even gay subtext in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) as the title character warns off the female vampires and claims Jonathan Harker, saying "This man belongs to me!" The erotic metaphor of vampirism, inspired by Carmilla, has resulted in numerous vampire films since the 1970s strongly implying or explicitly portraying lesbianism.
James R. Keller writes that in particular,"Gay and lesbian readers have been quick to identify with the representation of the vampire, suggesting its experiences parallel those of the sexual outsider." Richard Dyer discusses the recurring homoerotic motifs of vampire fiction in his article "Children of the Night", primarily "the necessity of secrecy, the persistence of a forbidden passion, and the fear of discovery." With the vampire having been a recurring metaphor for same-sex desire from before Stoker's Dracula, Dyer observes that historically earlier representations of vampires tend to evoke horror and later ones turn that horror into celebration. The homoerotic overtones of Anne Rice's celebrated The Vampire Chronicles series (1976–2016) are well-documented, and its publication reinforced the "widely recognized parallel between the queer and the vampire."
LGBT themes in comics is a relatively new concept, as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) themes and characters were historically omitted intentionally from the content of comic books and their comic strip predecessors, due to either censorship or the perception that comics were for children. With any mention of homosexuality in mainstream United States comics forbidden by the Comics Code Authority (CCA) until 1989, earlier attempts at exploring these issues in the US took the form of subtle hints or subtext regarding a character's sexual orientation. LGBT themes were tackled earlier in underground comics from the early 1970s onward. Independently published one-off comic books and series, often produced by gay creators and featuring autobiographical storylines, tackled political issues of interest to LGBT readers.
Comic strips have also dealt in subtext and innuendo, their wide distribution in newspapers limiting their inclusion of controversial material. The first openly gay characters appeared in prominent strips in the late 1970s; representation of LGBT issues in these titles causes vociferous reaction, both praise and condemnation, to the present day. Comic strips aimed at LGBT audiences are also syndicated in gay- and lesbian-targeted magazines and comics have been created to educate people about LGBT-related issues and to influence real-world politics, with their format and distribution allowing them to transmit messages more subtle, complex, and positive than typical education material. Portrayal of LGBT themes in comics is recognized by several notable awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award and GLAAD Media Awards for outstanding comic book and comic strip.
Since the 1990s, LGBT themes have become more common in mainstream US comics, including in a number of titles in which a gay character is the star. European comics have been more inclusive from an earlier date. The lack of censorship, and greater acceptance of comics as a medium of adult entertainment led to less controversy about the representation of LGBT characters. The popular Japanese manga tradition has included genres of girls' comics that feature homosexual relationships since the 1970s, in the form of yaoi and yuri. These works are often extremely romantic and include archetypal characters that often are not identified as gay. Since the Japanese "gay boom" of the 1990s, a body of manga aimed at LGBT customers has been produced, which have more realistic and autobiographical themes. Pornographic manga also often includes sexualised depictions of lesbians and intersex people. Queer theorists[who?] have noted that LGBT characters in mainstream comic books are usually shown as assimilated into heterosexual society, whereas in alternative comics the diversity and uniqueness of LGBT culture is emphasized.
Compared to gay and lesbian teen fiction, sales of gay-themed books for younger children, and availability of these books in public and school libraries, remain "very dicey and very different."
When Megan Went Away (1979) was the first picture book to include LGBT characters. The story, written by Jane Severance and illustrated by Tea Schook, concerns a preteen girl whose lesbian mother and her partner have separated. The first children's book with gay male character was Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. Originally published in 1981 in Danish as Mette bor hos Morten og Erik, it tells the story of Jenny, her father and his partner and their daily life. Controversy and politicization followed its publication.
Some of the best known children's books with gay themes include Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) and Daddy's Roommate (1991), published by LGBT publisher Alyson Books. Both books discussed same-sex parenting and attracted criticism and controversy. The American Library Association ranked Heather Has Two Mommies as the third and second most frequently challenged book in the United States in 1993 and 1994, respectively.
Recent controversies include King & King, originally written in Dutch and published in English in 2002. The book is about a prince uninterested in princesses, who eventually falls in love with another prince. In 2006, parents sued a Massachusetts school district after a teacher read the book to their son's second grade class. And Tango Makes Three (2005) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell has been frequently challenged, and is often on the American Library Associations's List of Challenged Books for Banned Books Week. It was ranked ninth on this list in 2017. The book tells the true story of two male penguins who adopt an egg and raise the baby once it has hatched. While it has been banned and debated many times, it has been awarded and noted by the American Library Association on their Rainbow Book List.
In 2018, Little Bee Books partnered with media advocacy group GLAAD for a series of books that offered positive LGBT representation in children's literature. The partnership kicked off with Prince & Knight, written by Daniel Haack and illustrated by Stevie Lewis, which was named to the American Library Association's Rainbow Book List and was named a best book of the year by Kirkus Reviews, Amazon and the Chicago Tribune. The partnership has gone on to include books that also offer lesbian, transgender and gender non-conforming representation.
Australian titles include the books in the 'Learn to Include' series: The Rainbow Cubby House, My House, Going to Fair Day and Koalas on Parade. House of Hades (2013), Book 4 in the young adult series The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan, features a gay supporting character, Nico di Angelo.
A more extensive list of gay children's literature includes:
- A Name on the Quilt: A Story of Remembrance by Jeannine Atkins
- Uncle Bobby's Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen
- A B C: A Family Alphabet Book by Bobby Combs
- 1 2 3: A Family Counting Book by Bobby Combs
- Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola
- Asha's Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
- The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein
- Molly's Family by Nancy Garden
- Antonio's Card/La Targeta de Antonio by Rigoberto González
- Best Best Colors: Los Mejores Colo res by Eric Hoffman
- Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle by Pija Linderbaum
- Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers
- Felicia's Favorite Story by Leslea Newman
- Saturday is Pattyday by Leslea Newman
- Too Far Away to Touch by Leslea Newman
- The White Swan Express by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki
- It's Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
- Tiger Flowers by Patricia Quinlan
- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson
- Seeds by George Shannon
- My Two Uncles by Judith Vigna
- William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow
- Mommy, Mama, and Me by Lesléa Newman
In July 2014, Singapore's National Library Board (NLB), a state-funded network of 26 public libraries, confirmed it would destroy three children's books with pro-LGBT families themes for being "against its 'pro-family' stance[,] following complaints by a parent and its own internal review." The decision was widely criticized by LGBT supporters and the arts and literary community who see the actions as akin to book burnings and other forms of censorship. The three books are And Tango Makes Three, which covers the true story of a pair of male penguins that successfully raise a chick, The White Swan Express, which features children adopted by a variety of families including gay, mixed-race and single parents, and Who's In My Family, which references families with homosexual parents. Two weeks after a gay rights rally, these books "sparked a fierce debate" between the religious conservatives, who opposed the rally, and Singapore's growing gay-rights lobby.
As of 2020, there have been no explicitly bisexual characters–either children or adults–in children's picture book fiction. While many nonfiction picture book biographies of historical figures who had relationships with people of the same gender overlook or ignore those relationships, at least one, Frida Kahlo for Girls and Boys by Nadia Fink (2017), mentions that Kahlo loved both men and women. Some young adult fiction books do feature bisexual characters, including Empress of the World by Sara Ryan (2001), Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies by Brent Hartinger (2007), Pink by Lili Wilkinson (2009), and It's Our Prom (So Deal with It) by Julie Anne Peters (2012). When they do appear in young adult fiction, bisexuals are often portrayed as confused or greedy.
According to a 2015 NPR story, hundreds of books featuring transgender characters have been published since 2000. Although a vast majority of them tend to be targeted to a teenage audience, these self-publications also consist of picture books for younger children.
Transgender teenage girl Jazz Jennings co-authored a 2014 children's book called I Am Jazz about her experience discovering her identity. Scholastic Books published Alex Gino's George in 2015, about a transgender girl, Melissa, who everyone else knows as George. Unable to find books with transgender characters to explain her father's transition to her children, Australian author Jess Walton created the 2016 children's book Introducing Teddy with illustrator Dougal MacPherson to assist children in understanding gender fluidity. Additional books listed by The Horn Book Magazine include:
- George (2012) by Alex Gino
- Red: A Crayon's Story (2015) by Michael Hall
- The Other Boy (2016) by M. G. Hennessey
- Lily and Dunkin (2016) by Donna Gephart
- Alex as Well (2015) by Alyssa Brugman
- Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity (2016) by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
- Look Past (2016) by Eric Devine
- If I Was Your Girl (2016) by Meredith Russo
- Lizard Radio (2015) by Pat Schmatz
- Beast (2016) by Brie Spangler
- The Art of Being Normal (2016) by Lisa Williamson
In the past few years, transgender women have been finding publishers for their own picture books written for transgender kids. Some of these books include:
- A Princess of Great Daring (2015) written by Tobi Hill-Meyer, illustrated by Elenore Toczynski
- Super Power Baby Shower (2017) written by Tobi Hill-Meyer and Fay Onyx, illustrated by Janine Carrington
- He wants to be a princess (2019) written and illustrated by Nicky Brookes
- From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea (2017) written by Kai Cheng Thom, illustrated by Kai Yun Ching & Wai-Yant Li
- The Girl from the Stars (2016) written and illustrated by Amy Heart
- The Sisters from the Stars (2018) written and illustrated by Amy Heart
- Gay characters in fiction
- Lesbian literature
- List of lesbian fiction
- List of poets portraying sexual relations between women
- Singapore gay literature
- List of LGBT writers
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- The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse edited by Stephen Coote, Penguin, 1983
- Essays on Gay Literature edited by Stuart Kellogg, Harrington Park Press, 1983
- Chapman, Elizabeth L. (Winter 2013). "No More Controversial than a Gardening Display?: Provision of LGBT-Related Fiction to Children and Young People in U.K. Public Libraries" (PDF). Library Trends. 61 (3): 542–568. doi:10.1353/lib.2013.0010. S2CID 5856431.
- Spence, Alex (July 2000). "Controversial Books in the Public Library: A Comparative Survey of Holdings of Gay-Related Children's Picture Books". The Library Quarterly. 70 (3): 335–379. doi:10.1086/603196. JSTOR 4309441. S2CID 140739803.
- Buso, Michael Alan (2017). "Here There Is No Plague": The Ideology and Phenomenology of AIDS in Gay Literature AIDS in Gay Literature. University of West Virginia. - Document ID 5291
- Spence, Alex (2020). Asian Gay Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern LGBTQ Works of Literary Fiction and Biography, Arranged by Country.
- Lambda Literary Foundation – Publishes the Lambda Book Report and the Lambda Literary Awards
- Blithe House Quarterly – online journal
- Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Culture on Gay Literature
- NuWine Press - Gay Christian Book Publisher featuring fresh perspectives on the Christian faith
- Lodestar Quarterly — an Online Journal of the Finest Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Literature
- Lesbian Mysteries features Lesbian Mystery Novels
- Gay's the Word UK LGBTQ Specialist Bookshop
- GLSEN Annotated Bibliography of Children's Books With Gay and Lesbian Characters
-  Lists, summarizes, and offers reader reviews of Teen, Middle Grade, and Picture Books with Gay (GLBTQ) characters and themes.
- Culture & History - Pink Alliance This site hosts several relevant documents, including an electronic (PDF) posting of a detailed annotated bibliography and reading list with substantial background information. ASIAN GAY LITERATURE, by Alex Spence, was published in 2020 digitally and in print. In ca. 135 pages, this work notes approximately 400 titles of modern Asian LGBT-related literature from roughly the last 25 years, with arrangement by country for 24 countries and jurisdictions. ASIAN GAY LITERATURE is also archived (and is accessible over the internet) at the Internet Archive and at Library and Archives Canada.