A Brief History of Gay and Lesbian Characters in Fiction

04/05/2013 01:54 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

With marriage equality in the news this year, it's worth noting that 2013 also marks the 40th anniversary of the pioneering novel Rubyfruit Jungle.

Rita Mae Brown's 1973 book was of course not the first to include lesbian and gay characters, whether closeted or open. But, at the time, it was unusual for a protagonist to be mostly candid and guilt-free about not being "straight," even while facing various obstacles.

Brown's whip-smart, frequently hilarious Molly Bolt creation helped pave the way for other uncloseted lesbian and gay characters in subsequent decades -- though these characters were sometimes stereotypical and too often supporting players rather than lead players.

But, overall, gay and straight authors alike populated post-1973 works with more lesbian and gay characters, and often portrayed them sensitively -- while receiving less flak than before. Heck, it was gratifyingly significant to see how little outcry ensued when Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay.

Prior to Rubyfruit Jungle, a few other novels -- such as Colette's Claudine at School (1900), Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948), James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) and E.M. Forster's Maurice (published posthumously in 1971 but written much earlier) -- were somewhat or very groundbreaking in their portrayal of gay or bisexual characters. But, for the most part, readers of certain pre-1973 books had to guess if characters were gay or bisexual, because authors risked a lot if they weren't cautious in their literary pursuits and personal lives. Just ask Oscar Wilde.

So one is left wondering: Did something go on when Ishmael and Queequeg were put in the same inn bedroom in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851)? Was the admirable Marian Halcombe a lesbian in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860)? What about Theodora and Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959)? And does any of that really matter?

Things can get rather complicated when thinking about some pre-1973 authors. For instance, Willa Cather is now widely thought to have been a lesbian, but there's little overt indication of that in her many fine novels. Yet Jim Burden, who's enamored of the title character in My Antonia (1918), can conceivably be viewed as an other-gender stand-in for Cather.

Some post-1973 highlights? Celie and Shug in Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), Idgie and Ruth in Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987), Boyce and Larry in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride (1993), Ennis and Jack in Annie Proulx's story "Brokeback Mountain" (1997), Clarissa and Sally in Michael Cunningham's The Hours (1998), Lina in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (2002), Sandy in Margaret Drabble's The Sea Lady (2006) and Harrison in Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna (2009), among other characters.

Middlesex also features the gender-confused protagonist Callie -- meaning Eugenides' novel is a bit like a modern version of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928).

Several of the post-1973 titles I mentioned above are set in pre-1973 times. Almost a do-over, in a way, on behalf of pre-1973 authors who had to be more constrained about alluding to homosexuality in their books.

What are your favorite fictional works featuring major or secondary characters who are definitely or possibly gay or bisexual?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.