One of the hallmarks of a healthy society is our attitude to diversity. So whatever our sexuality and gender identity, we should care about LGBT rights. In February, LGBT+ history month provides the prompt to educate ourselves on how societal responses to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have fluctuated over time. It’s an opportunity to celebrate diversity and, lest we get complacent, arm ourselves against possible erosion of rights in the future. And the good news is we can do so through literature!
From ancient times
The ancient Greeks valued male to male romantic love and sexual activity (albeit often with a power imbalance we condemn today). Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles evokes the passionate love between Achilles and Patroclus beyond the battlefields of the Trojan War. While grounded in historical detail, the psychology of the characters renders this novel highly relatable for the contemporary reader.
The unnamed narrator of John Boyne’s A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom glides through history via multiple incarnations from biblical times to the election of Donald Trump. His tenderness and passion for projects traditionally the female province means he’ll never earn his father’s approval, while his sister, a better fit for the masculine stereotype, is ignored. Meanwhile, same-sex couplings, while officially non-existent and often invisible to the narrator, crop up again and again.
Traditions of gender fluidity
As far as I recall from my reading, John Boyne’s hero never lives as a hijra: a traditional male to female gender identity in the Indian subcontinent. The Parcelby Bombay-born Canadian writer Anosh Irani is by far the best novel I’ve read about the culture of India’s third sex. Madhu has fled her disapproving father as an adolescent boy to become one of the most celebrated prostitutes in central Bombay, but now she’s reduced to begging. And preparing trafficked children for penetrative sex, making this one of the most disturbing – but nevertheless important – novels I’ve ever read.
Fiction has also introduced me to cultures in which girls can pass as male, albeit to fulfil a social function rather than from personal preference. As I learnt from Nadia Hashimi’s novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, in the Afghan tradition bacha posh, a family with surplus daughters can give one a change of clothes and a haircut, and let her attend school, wrestle with friends and run errands to the market, while her sisters are confined to the home.
Sebastian Barry’s novel, Days Without End, which won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year Award, is a story of migration and massacre; of bravery and brutality; of family, friendship and gender fluidity told in the unique voice of an Irishman in 1850s America. Teenagers Thomas and John work in a bar dressed as girls until, at seventeen, they join the U.S. Army, remaining a couple through peace and war.
War can bring opportunities to those stifled by sexual convention. With the men away, World War II spelt liberation for some women. Sarah Waters’ 2006 novel, The Night Watch, is a love story told in reverse about three lesbian women amid the excitement and terrors of wartime London.
Sex between men, however, seems to have been punished just as harshly during that period. Duncan, another of Waters’ characters, is imprisoned for his sexual liaisons, whereas Alec, the Alan Turing character in Will Eaves’ novel,Murmur, winner of both the Republic of Consciousness and Wellcome prizes in 2019, is made to submit to chemical castration.
In the same decade that Turing underwent the treatment that led to his suicide, Britain’s first trans woman, racing driver and former Second World War fighter pilot, Roberta Cowell was preparing for surgery. In 1972, Jan Morris, a renowned Welsh journalist and travel writer who had also served successfully in the military, travelled to Casablanca for gender confirmation surgery, as recounted in her memoir, Conundrum.
My own novel,Sugar and Snails, shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize, contrasts the secrecy around trans issues in the 1970s small-town Britain with the increasing acceptance during the early years of the twenty-first century, and highlights the still contested issue of adolescent transition.
The final decades of the twentieth century saw the gay community devastated by a deadly disease. My reading features two books spanning Ireland and America. Anne Enright’s The Green Road encompasses various millennial issues through the stories of siblings whose mother wants them home for Christmas. Among the adult children is Dan, who, having ditched his original ambition to become a priest, grieves for friends and acquaintances lost to HIV/AIDS in New York. In Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a woman’s search for the son she gave up for adoption, leads to the US where the author confronts Reagan’s Republicans’ complacency about the crisis.
In these eleven books, I’ve only touched the surface of LGBT history. Now it’s your turn to add your favourites and tell me what I’ve missed.
Anne Goodwin is an English author and book blogger. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Throughout February, subscribers to her newsletter can read Sugar and Snails for free.
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