Historical Gay Literature, and Why It Matters

by Dylan Allswang

The LGBT community has always been characterized by its literature. Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, James Baldwin, and TS Elliot, are just a few examples of gay writers who have created influential and iconic pieces of literature — often not explicitly about gay relationships. The LGBT community has looked to these works as role models, and as cautionary tales.

More modern LGBT writers and activists have taken a different approach to gay representation in literature. Instead of stories that subtly touch on homosexuality, we now have romance focused “young adult” books that have no real purpose besides featuring gay characters. I’ve observed that this transition toward niche LGBT-only literature deprives the gay community of meaningful literature and representation that earlier characters provided.

For example, in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield, possibly one of the most iconic teenagers in literature, is also infatuated with his roommate Stradlater. Caulfield calls him a “sexy bastard” and admires his “gorgeous locks” and sexual “technique.” On hearing that Stradlater has a date, Holden flies into a jealous rage, attacking his roommate, seemingly because he dared to have a straight relationship. Holden also seems to grapple with his own internalized homophobia. He calls his likely gay teacher, Mr. Antolini, the pejorative term “flit.” Antolini later invites Holden to stay in his house and begins to “stroke” his face. The normally level-headed Holden flees his house and later rejects Antolini’s physical advances, maybe because Holden fears he might be a “flit” himself.

Holden Caufield isn’t the only character widely perceived to be gay by modern readers. An earlier example is the character Herbert West in HP Lovecraft’s Herbert West—Reanimator. The story concerns an ambitious young medical student who seduces the unnamed narrator into helping him uncover the secret to bringing back the dead.

Throughout the novel, Herbert is clearly coded as homosexual. West is described as “a small, slender, spectacled youth with delicate features, yellow hair, pale blue eyes, and a soft voice” while Lovecraft’s other protagonists are described as large, muscular, and unattractive New Englanders. This is made even more explicit in the 1985 film Reanimator, where Jeffery Combs plays West to campy perfection in a performance influenced by the source material and licensed by Lovecraft’s estate.

Lovecraft also alluded to gay relationships in his portrayal of the relationship between West and the narrator. This is likely based on Lovecraft’s own relationship with friend and fan Robert Barlow. Barlow idolized Lovecraft, and they spent months living together, despite their 27 year age gap. After Lovecraft’s early death, Barlow was named the executor of his estate. Barlow went into a downward spiral of boredom and depression, killing himself 14 years later. Lovecraft may also have had affairs with the poets Hart Crane and Samuel Loveman, who were both gay. He lived with them for a time before he met Barlow, but the latter is the only man he seems to have had any romantic relationship with.

These historic representations of gay relationships, written by closeted gay men, provide readers with the knowledge that their community has always been there — and with meaningful literature. The Catcher in the Rye remains an iconic coming of age story, and Herbert West—Reanimator is a suspenseful thriller about the dangers of ambition. They also have themes of homosexuality, but it is not the exclusive draw of the story.

In contrast, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of the most popular modern gay novels. It is a plotless romance following two insufferable characters with a bizarrely incoherent writing style. It does not have a plot, themes, or a reason for there to be gay characters in this novel. It is about gay people, and nothing else.

The gay community has come so far in recent decades, and is in a place where explicit representation is feasible in literature. This is squandered by cynical authors and undiscerning readers. This coincides with the startling statistic from GLAAD that acceptance of the LGBT community is going down for the first time in decades. Because the only representation of gays in popular culture is just for gay people, there isn’t positive representation intended for the heterosexual reader. A piece of literature that only serves gay people is not a piece of literature that is going to be read, and only disadvantages the LGBT community because we are not portrayed as full humans, but as people with one personality trait: gay.