Introduction to “Gay and Lesbian Literature in the Twentieth Century” (Vol. 218)
“At the end of the nineteenth century, gay and lesbian themes, characters, and imagery were implicit but not directly addressed in literary works because of the conservative social values of the Victorian age. Homoerotic relationships were suggested, but gay voices remained largely closeted, and same-sex desire was rarely made explicit in the literature of the period. The advent of the twentieth century, however, ushered in many social changes, and the modernist period allowed a number of diverse voices to come to the forefront and incorporate themes of same-sex attachments and homoerotic desire in their work. Such authors as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde became prominent in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century as artists who utilized metaphors and allegories to explore issues of gender identification and sexual identity. As the century wore on, gay and lesbian fiction, drama, poetry, and autobiography began more boldly to elucidate issues of gender, sexuality, and societal repression. This emerging gay literary consciousness mirrored other social movements of the time like the Civil Rights movement. The increased acceptance of the gay community is also viewed as a reaction to the broad scientific, technological, and sociopolitical changes taking place in western societies in the 1960s and later. By mid-century, gay and lesbian novels, short stories, poetry, plays, essays, and autobiographies began to garner both popularity and critical acclaim. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer are examples of mid-twentieth-century works that generated not only controversy for their explicit gay and lesbian themes and characters, but also praise for their frank exploration of sexual identity, homoerotic longing, and social barriers. In much of the literature of the period, gay and lesbian characters are routinely subjected to discrimination, marginalization, ridicule, violence, and even death because of their sexual identity, which reflected the societal condemnation most gays and lesbians were subjected to in society once their sexual identities were revealed.
“Once the Gay Rights movement began in earnest during the late 1960s, gay and lesbian literature became a highly visible literary genre and began to attract considerable attention in the United States. Gay and lesbian writers aligned themselves with other marginalized peoples and began the hard struggle to gain recognition, tolerance, and equal rights within the dominant heterosexual culture. Literature became a useful medium through which to explore these struggles and chronicle their personal experience. Homosexual relationships were portrayed in sexually explicit terms, as were the daunting challenges of living as a gay or lesbian person in contemporary society. The coming-out novel became a popular subgenre of gay and lesbian literature as homosexual writers chronicled the struggles of coming to terms with their sexual identity, their first same-sex experiences, and the challenges they encountered disclosing their identity to family, friends, and their communities. With the advent of AIDS in the 1980s, gay writers examined the impact of the epidemic on the gay community, gay culture, and on personal relationships. Lesbian literature also emerged as a distinct genre, as it confronted some of the same issues as literature written by gay men, but also focused on themes unique to the lesbian community. In recent years, bisexual and transgender literatures have been grouped with gay and lesbian literature under the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) literature; this has become a prominent literary genre that reflects the unique experiences common to a broad swath of gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals in a wide variety of regions, cultures, communities, and circumstances. Under the rubric of LGBT literature, there are gay and lesbian writers specializing in science fiction, romance, and detective and espionage fiction. By the close of the twentieth century, LGBT authors were writing in every literary genre and subgenre and reflecting a wide range of cultural and political views.”6
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- “Gay and Lesbian Literature in the Twentieth Century.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 218. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2009. Gale Literature Resource Center, accessed September 30, 2022.