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20 Pioneering Novels that Paved the Way for Today’s LGBT Literature


Today’s LGBT genre is vibrant, accessible, accepted and intertwined with the likes of memoirs, young adult fiction and graphic novels. It was a long journey to reach this point. At first, homosexuality had to be hinted at and could never be explicit. It was disguised in everything from vampire tales to philosophical fiction. Countless gay authors had to hide their own sexuality when writing about this subject. Many books with gay themes were banned or (worse) simply ignored and allowed to fade into obscurity. When LGBT plots and characters became more common in 1950s pulp fiction, the narratives had desperately unhappy endings, same-sex relationships were portrayed as tragic, and the cover artwork was lurid. Two recommended reads on this subject are Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram and the more academic The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature.

Our list is in chronological order

Probably the earliest gay novel published in America

Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania by Bayard Taylor (1870)

Taylor was a prolific author of poetry and travel writing. This novel describes a relationship between two men without ever becoming sexual or doom-laden. Considering that it was written in the middle of the Victorian era, Taylor’s book was way ahead of its time.

First editions are very scarce and highly collectible.

Imre: A Memorandum by Xavier Mayne (1906)

An early novel about a homosexual relationship between two men that’s important because of its sympathetic portrayal of gay love. AbeBooks sold a first edition for more than £8,000 in 2009. Only 500 copies were privately printed. The tale describes a love story between a 30-something British aristocrat and a 25-year-old Hungarian military officer who meet in a Budapest cafe. Xavier Mayne was the pen name of Edward Prime-Stevenson, who was an American author who turned away from a legal career to become a mainstream writer for magazines such as Harper’s and The New York Independent. Prime-Stevenson also wrote a 1908 study called The Intersexes that defends homosexuality from numerous standpoints.

Not an easy novel to read due to the complex plots

The Counterfeiters by André Gide (1925)

A complex novel with multiple plots that made little impact on its publication due to its gay characters and their intertwining relationships. Today it’s seen as a book that paved the way for post-modern fiction.

A novel of campus life that is long forgotten.

The Western Shore by Clarkson Crane (1925)

One of the first novels about gay university life. Clarkson Crane (1894-1971) attended Berkeley and this novel probably resulted from his experiences. Cane served in France in the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps during World War I. He returned to France in 1923 where he wrote this novel, which quickly faded into obscurity. At this time, American university life was portrayed in literature as being nothing but heterosexual romance, parties, and sport.

A lesbian novel that sparked controversy.

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

Published by Jonathan Cape, the plot sees an Englishwoman find love with another woman while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I only to suffer social isolation. The novel portrays lesbianism as a natural state. It was hugely controversial and put lesbians in the newspaper headlines.

Gender is a fluid thing in this pioneering book.

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1928)

This well-known novel is important because of the fluid way in which Woolf treats gender. The book describes the adventures of a poet who changes sex and meets important historical figures.

A novel about the challenges of coming out.

Strange Brother by Blair Niles (1931)

A platonic relationship between a heterosexual woman and a gay man is at the heart of this downbeat novel set in New York in the Art Deco era. It highlights many of the issues facing people afraid to reveal their true sexuality. Blair Niles was actually Mary Blair Rice, a novelist and travel writer, who made just this one foray into gay literature.

She is a he in this novel that features characters based on real people.

The Scarlet Pansy by Robert Scully (1932)

Horrible title. The main character, Fay Etrange, is referred to as “her” throughout but she’s clearly a man. This is a story of how the androgynous Fay has endless encounters after moving to New York and diving into the queer world of nightclubs, theatres, and street life. It has been surmised that Scully was actually publisher Robert McAlmon, who founded Contact Editions, and the book’s characters are based upon notable figures in the American expatriate community of Paris, ranging from Sylvia Beach to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Hats off to Fordham University Press who republished this novel in 2016.

This novel was also titled Better Angel.

Better Angel / Torment by Richard Meeker (1933)

Richard Meeker is the pen name of Forman Brown. This novel was also published under the title, Torment. It describes a young man’s gay awakening between the World Wars and, importantly, shows that a homosexual lifestyle can be rewarding rather than tragic. The Torment edition cover blurb reads: “Kurt loved this woman. Did he love her brother more? Is it evil for one man to lavish affection on another?”

Early lesbian fiction.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936)

An early example of lesbian-themed fiction. Published by Faber and Faber, this novel did not end up forgotten and was praised by several notable authors for its prose. The main character, Nora Flood, is based on the author.

Janes Bowles was married to fellow author Paul Bowles.

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (1943)

This novel is about two women who break from their traditional lives. One of them visits Panama, where she meets women working in the city’s brothels. Bowles was the wife of Sheltering Sky author Paul Bowles.

James W. Fugaté had to write this novel under a pen name.

Quatrefoil by James Barr / James W. Fugaté (1950)

A landmark novel because it portrays gay men in a positive light. Two men become lovers and one of them has the choice of financial security or true love. James W. Fugaté wrote the book under the pen name of James Barr. Fugaté served in the US Navy in World War II and rejoined the Navy in 1952 but he was discovered to be the author of Quatrefoil which led to his discharge.

Claire Morgan was Patricia Highsmith

The Price of Salt / Carol by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

First published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, this novel has been titled The Price of Salt and also Carol. The story concerns Therese Belivet, a young woman living in New York, who meets Carol, an elegant woman in her early thirties. It depicts a lesbian relationship in a relatively positive light, plus there’s the wonderful prose from Patricia Highsmith. Cate Blanchett starred in a movie adaptation in 2015.

The characters in this novel were based on real people.

A Room in Chelsea Square by Michael Nelson (1958)

A British novel that was originally published anonymously because homosexuality was still illegal in the UK at this time and because the main characters were based on real people, including the poet Stephen Spender.

This is a collection of short stories.

The Keval and Other Gay Adventures by Harry Otis (1959)

A selection of gay-themed short stories spanning the world. One Incorporated, the publisher was a non-profit philanthropic organisation that promoted homosexual literature through a monthly periodical called ONE and other ventures.

Author Christopher Isherwood was well traveled and lived in Berlin during the 1920s.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

Set in California, this novel depicts one day in the life of George, a middle-aged university professor, in mourning after the sudden death of his partner. Isherwood lived a full life in the UK and the United States but also spent time in Berlin at the height of its ‘Cabaret’ era of sexual freedom.

A lesbian novel set among the casino culture of Reno in Nevada.

Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (1964)

Originally published in hardback by Macmillan Canada, the hardcover binding was a landmark because most lesbian novels were being printed as pulp fiction at this time. Set in the 1950s’ casinos of Reno, this novel’s plot concerns two women, one waiting on a divorce, who meet and begin a relationship that becomes complicated.

A lesbian novel about the difficulties of coming out.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton (1965)

A novel about a lesbian relationship that sunk like a stone in the 1960s before being rediscovered by the women’s movements of the 1970s. Sarton, an established writer at the time, revealed her own homosexuality by publishing this book which deals with the difficulties of coming out.

This gay novel bucked the trend and became a bestseller.

The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick (1970)

A gay novel on New York Times bestseller list in 1970? Yes, this one was popular. Charlie Mills and Peter Martin meet and fall in love. The book follows Charlie’s path from being a closeted gay man. Merrick was an actor who wrote a number of gay-themed novels in a mass market style. Merrick’s first novel, the autobiographical The Strumpet Wind was published in 1947 and concerns a gay American spy in France during World War II.

This novel was published until a year after EM Forster’s death.

Maurice by E.M. Forster (1971)

Written in 1913 and 1914, but not published until 1971, the year after Forster’s death, Maurice is a very English story of homosexual love in the early 20th century. Forster never attempted to publish it because he thought gay love had too many taboos. This novel, also featuring class strife and blackmail, was turned into a film in 1987. Unlike many gay novels from the early decades of the 20th century, Maurice is now widely available and frequently read.

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