A Queer Look At Literature
￼October is Queer History Month. To some people it is also known as Gay History Month, while others insist on GLBT History Month, and still others insist on LGBT History Month, there are a host of other names as well, but I prefer the word queer because it is easier than the alphabet soup designations many people in the LGBTQRSTUVWXYZ community seem to insist on.
Actually, the word I really prefer is "gay" because it’s easier to say and more prominently used in the media. Back in the mid-’70s though, some in the lesbian community decided that "gay" only referred to gay men and so we became the gay and lesbian community for a while, then the lesbian and gay community because some women felt slighted and the guys just didn’t care enough to argue about it. The rest of the letters of the alphabet soon followed.
Of course, the fact that the members within our "community" can’t even agree on a name for said community, pretty much sums us up. If we spent half as much time fighting for equality as we spend fighting amongst ourselves and splintering off into smaller and smaller categories, homophobia would be a distant memory. To paraphrase FDR, "the only thing we have to fear," sadly... is ourselves.
Now I know that the protocol for Q-History Month is to ramble on about the Stonewall riots, blah blah blah, Gay Liberation Front, blah blah, Pride, blah blah 1974 vs 1975, blah blah Nicole, blah blah Pride March vs Pride Parade, blah blah rallies, blah blah marriage, blah blah "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," etc... but how many times can that get rehashed year after year before Q-History Month becomes synonymous with the same old articles that make one’s eyes glaze over
Instead, let’s look at our past in a different way. They say that the pen is mightier than a rally at some community center, so let’s examine some of the books and authors who have had an impact on our community and society as a whole.
Books and Literature and Homos, Oh My!
For many of us, the word "book" brings to mind best sellers like The Da Vinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter, or *shudder* even Twilight.
"Literature"on the other hand often invokes the works of DWMs (Dead White Males) such as Shakespeare, Twain, Faulkner, Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde and other sleep-inducing authors we were forced to read in school.
Queer Lit on the other hand, is too often associated with a genre that can be best described as smutty soft/ hard-core porn. At best, these books amount to the trashy romance novels of our community, but the literary history of our community is SO much greater than that and it is both reflective of the changes in society through the years, as well as being a cause of that same change.
It’s All Greek To Me
Back before the Greeks were responsible for Animal House and for destroying the European Union with their ouzo-induced spending sprees, they were best known for their toga parties and their open-minded views on sexuality. The Greeks put the lesbo in lesbian, their gods had sex with anything that moved, and Hermaphrodites became the first gender-bender long before anyone even heard of RuPaul. Sappho and Plato are among some of the "family" authors of the day.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Rears
Later, the Romans came along and took the Greek culture and pretended it was theirs all along. A new coat of paint, some renamings, and voila! Jupiter is having gay sex with some kid named Catamitus. Like their Greek predecessors, there were an abundance of Roman authors who were a little "light in the sandals." Literary greats such as Horace, Petronius, Catullus and Virgil (author of Aeneid), were among some of the queer writers of their time.
The Father, The Son and The Holy Witch Hunts, Batman!
...And then the Christians came along and screwed everything up for years. Who would have thought that a series of men in pointy hats and a dress could mess things up so bad for us? Christianity put homosexuality back in the closet, or at least back into the confessional booth. Parochial attitudes lasted through the Victorian era, and we’re still dealing with the last vestiges of these "values"today.
Oscar Wilde is one of the more notable literary figures to be persecuted because of his sexuality at the end of this period. The author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, had a very public feud with his lover’s father, which eventually resulted in civil
and criminal trials. Wilde was accused of sodomy, gross indecency and buggery. He was eventually sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison and died a few years after, a broken man.
Power of the (Printing) Press/Pulp Fiction
The 20th Century was a turning point for queer literature. New technology, in the form of small press publications opened new doors for queer lit. "Beefcake" magazines began to appear. Low-cost pulp fiction pa- perbacks, so called because of the low quality wood pulp paper, began to be produced by both small press and mainstream publishers. Initially, they were often fairly tame novels with gay and lesbian main characters and the main themes often dealt with issues of coming out. Later, in the ’50s and ’60s, as "camp" went mainstream, much of the gay pulp fiction took on a distinctive camp flavor and it became more sexual as obscenity and cen- sorship laws were relaxed.
The Man From C.A.M.P. series is a classic example of this genre. A campy gay take on the then-popular "secret agent man" genre, The Man From C.A.M.P. featured main character Jackie Holmes, a gay secret agent who used his sexuality as one of his main weapons. This James Bond- ish main character also borrowed heavily from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series with its use of acronyms. Jackie Holmes even worked against a counter organization known as B.U.T.C.H.
I Know It When I See It
More recently, though there is still plenty of "C.A.M.P.- like" queer literature. A good deal of gay prose has gone mainstream and gained an acceptance worldwide, as queer sexualities became almost a non-issue. These days it is harder to definitively label a work as queer lit. Is it still queer lit if the author is straight but writing about gay topics? Is it queer lit if the author is gay but he is writing about non-gay subject matter? If it becomes a bestseller and most of the readers are straight men and women, can it still be considered queer literature?
This blurring of the lines is surely a good thing and a sign of the greater acceptance that society has towards homosexuality these days. Straight author Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize, and popular success, with his 2000 novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in which issues of sexuality were a driving part of the story. Meanwhile, gay authors like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, are regular fixtures on the bestseller lists with books that touch upon, but don’t dwell on the topic of sexuality.
It appears that queer lit has come full circle and is now no different-or any better-defined-than any other genre, such as science fiction, mystery, or romance novels.