June is Pride Month, and it’s a good time to celebrate some authorswho have identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community—or have simply lived their lives differently than those in the mainstream and have written books about their lives of difference.
Given the ever-changing ways that issues of gender and sexuality have been expressed and tolerated over the past two centuries, it’s not always possible to say with complete certainty whether or not a particular author was, or was not, gay. It’s important to mention that for a very long time, it was not only illegal to engage in homosexual activity, but also to publish material depicting such activity. For that reason, not every author was comfortable being forthright about their sexuality or writing about it, and we must guard against interpreting their behavior through our contemporary lens. Thankfully, many of today’s queer authors are free to write books in which their characters can explore their gender and sexual identities freely.
LGBTQ+ Authors and Books
Here are a few authors from history that we're celebrating this Pride Month, from the 19th century through today.
In the late 19th century, the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett began writing a series of stories set in her native state of Maine. Of the 22 books she published, the most enduring one is The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which describes a deep friendship between two women that has often been interpreted as lesbian in recent scholarship. It mirrors the central relationship of Jewett’s adult life, living in Boston with Annie Fields, the widow of publisher James Fields, for more than 20 years until her death in 1909.
Willa Cather was working as a journalist for the magazine McClure’s when she went to Boston and met Sarah Orne Jewett at the house she shared with Annie Fields on Charles Street. “Sometimes entering a new door can make a great change in one’s life,” she wrote many years later of the visit, during which the two women encouraged her to write books. “You must find your own quiet center of life and write from that,” Jewett wrote to Cather in 1908—words Cather took to heart; she dedicated her first novel, O Pioneers! (1913), to Jewett, and she edited the collection of Jewett’s short stories that Houghton Mifflin brought out in 1925.
Cather herself lived with two women during her life, but never clarified the nature of the relationships. She burned all of her letters to the first, Isabelle McClung, when they were returned to her upon McClung’s death, and wrote into her will her wish that any existing letters of hers remain unpublished. She spent most of her life with Edith Lewis, an editor at McClure’s, who was also the executor of her will and upheld that wish as long as she was alive.
Claude McKay was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was born and raised in Jamaica and travelled in Europe before settling in New York City just before World War I. While traveling, he met up with Virginia and Leonard Woolf and several members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. HMH published two of his books of poems, including Harlem Shadows (1922), considered by many scholars to mark the start of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay was interested in exploring what it means to be considered an outsider, and his poems and stories explore not only issues of sexuality but also race, class, and politics. McKay was bisexual and a Marxist and had difficulty finding publishers for his books. A few months ago, McKay’s previously unpublished novel about a queer Black man living in Marseilles, France, was published by Penguin Classics.
Djuna Barnes was a journalist working in Brooklyn, New York, when she got an assignment from a magazine to travel to Paris, where she ended up staying for a decade. Barnes was a believer in the philosophy of Free Love and is known to have had many affairs with both women and men. In Paris, she lived with the American sculptor Thelma Wood, who appears as a character in her novel Nightwood (1937), considered a classic of both Modernism and lesbian storytelling. The book included an introduction written by T. S. Eliot, who praised the book’s use of “nocturnal elements,” by which he was referring to several dream sequences and the way some of the action takes place out of sequence.
And that brings us to the present day, to current HMH author Alison Bechdel. In Bechdel’s two graphic memoirs, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012), she tells her own story (so far—she’s still very much alive!) and the story of her father’s closeted life, in comic book style. These are fascinating, multi-layered, and humorous reflections of life today, in which her being a lesbian is both central to her story and only one aspect of the universal struggle to finding meaning and purpose in life.
Alexander Chee is a novelist and essayist who probes deeply into the concept of identity and when and where you feel like yourself. His autobiographical first novel, Edinburgh (2001), was followed by the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, in which he explores what it means to be gay, Korean-American, Scottish-American, and from Maine. He explores themes of identity and secrets and the expectations of others as well in his historical novel Queen of the Night (2016), about a performer in the Paris Opera in the 19th century. Each book is different and marvelous.
Chinelo Okparanta came to the United States from Nigeria with her family at 10 years old, and her writing is infused with the sense of knowing two places and being a part of two worlds. Her novel Under the Udala Trees is a graceful and wonderful story of about a young girl who falls in love with another girl in a displaced person’s camp in Nigeria. It deals with ethnic divisions, war, and keeping secrets.
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So, during this Pride Month, let’s take a moment to celebrate LGBTQ+ books and authors throughout history as we look forward to hearing and telling many more of their stories in the years to come.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning