The Representation of of LGBTQIA+ Themes in Literature

Image Credit: Henry Be via Unsplash

Joshua McCormack discusses the representation of LGBTQIA+ themes in different genres of literature.

Ancient Greece.

Two words that conjure all manner of wonders. Storied temples shining beneath suns like freshly-minted coins. Marble, carved and woven into solemn kings and proud queens, mesmerising gods and chiselled warriors; figures of history and legend. The Olympics, democracy, the theatre, countless styles of art and warfare.

Choosing one achievement from this cornucopia of culture is an almost impossible task … but that's exactly what I'm going to do. Literature. That's the most enduring contribution of Ancient Greece. Homer's Odyssey and the Iliad; Sophocles with Antigone and Oedipus Rex; the works of Herodotus and Euripides, to name but a few. From introducing tragedies and comedies, to crafting many of the literary tropes, themes and devices that would form the bedrock of western literature and fiction – as explored in texts like Joseph Campbell's the Hero with a Thousand Faces – Ancient Greek literature has shaped our lives and society in innumerable ways.

But, if you're looking for the most influential of these texts it would have to be Hesiod's Theogony – the 8th century text which describes the origins, lineages and stories of the Greek Gods and Heroes.

Now, one may wonder how this is relevant to the topic at hand. Well, Greek Mythology, the inspiration of tens of thousands of acclaimed writers through the centuries … is radically queer. 

Be it Zeus and his relationship with his male cupbearer, Ganymede; Eros the inspiration for the avatar of romance, Cupid, who's embarked on relationships with men and women alike; and even, the Amazons. The latter, a fierce society of warrior women who practised heterosexual sex only once or twice a year, and then only as a means to secure their society's future, for the rest of the year they engaged in relationships with one another. The tragic hero Orpheus, Lord of the Seas Poseidon, renowned warrior Hercules, and the sun himself, Apollo. The list is endless, bisexual, lesbian, gay, pansexual, transgender …

It seems incongruous that the hyper war-like, hyper masculine society of Ancient Greece that was far from tolerating queer characters and relationships, would have them woven into the very fabric of their most beloved legends and histories – a flection of what, at least in comparison to the horrors of subsequent centuries, was a remarkably open and tolerant society. Alas, with the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of the bloody cross of christianity, LGBTQIA+ stories and characters were excluded from much of western literature. Sadly, it's only in the last few decades that this historic wrong has begun to be righted … however, it is a change – or rather a return – which has quickened pace in recent years.

Sadly, it's only in the last few decades that this historic wrong has begun to be righted. 

There have always been brave creatives determined to push the envelope, writers who refused to be told what kind of characters and stories they couldn't write, even in times and places where such forthrightness was liable to draw malign attention. Think Oscar Wilde and the Picture of Dorian Gray; James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, the recently re-adapted The Colour Purple, or 1872's lesbian vampire novel, Carmilla. All game changers in their own right, noble efforts … but isolated, not part of any major shift in the attitudes of the publishing industry. 

To witness that change, one must turn once more to those myths and legends, or rather their spiritual successors, a genre which would serve as the springboard for the rising tide of LGBTQ+ representation which is currently reshaping the industry: fantasy.

Setting the 1954 publication of Lord of the Rings as the benchmark, the ensuing decades saw a steady rise in LGBTQIA+ characters appearing in stories of the fantastical, more so than in any other genre. Robert Jordan's acclaimed 14-novel epic, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld, a satirical fantasy series in the vein of Monty Python, both introduced a number of queer characters and subplots throughout their respective runs. 

A slow build of representation, brick-by-brick echoed in other series and, to a lesser extent, in other genres of literature. But, why was fantasy the strongest in terms of representation during those decades? 

Hard to say. 

Perhaps it was the element of refuge it introduces; the idea of escaping into another world, free from the bigotry which plagued the real one, that appealed to so many writers? Perhaps it was because, at the time, the heavily conformist publishing industry resisted including LGBTQIA+ characters in any novels or stories with a closer relationship to reality? Perhaps, it was the echo of Greek mythology, steering them in a familiar direction?

The idea of escaping into another world, free from the bigotry which plagued the real one. 

In any case, fantasy led the ship, marching from one decade to the next, momentum gradually building until the watershed was reached with the 2011 release of Madeleine Miller's 2011 novel debut, The Song of Achilles

The acclaimed novel, which saw a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to Booktok, flung open the floodgates, paving the way for the wave of LGBTQIA+ fantasy stories that followed suit. Encompassing a myriad of sub-genres; from Tasmyn Muir's sapphic necromancer novel, Gideon the Ninth, to T.J Klune's Slice-of-Lice style tale, The House on the Cerulean Sea, to the door stopper epic fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree.

A trend which, thanks to Booktok, has only increased in recent years.

Rising tides lift all ships, and so it is with the publishing industry. Like runners shooting off from a plant in bloom, the explosion in LGBTQIA+ representation in fantasy has carried over, spread to other genres. For example, Romance – Red, White and Royal Blue, Boyfriend Material and Simon vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda. Young Adult – Heartstopper, She Who Became The Sun, and Felix Ever After. Horror – The Cabin at the End of the World and Wranglestone.

True, there are a number of genres which lag behind; crime, mystery, and historical fiction especially, but that'll almost certainly come with time. For now, a celebration is in order as we watch queer publishing go from strength to strength, at last returning to, and growing beyond, its ancient roots.