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Lockdown literature: LGBT history

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.

Same-sex love

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.

Trans rights

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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  1. Norah says:

    I can’t andd anything to the list, Anne. I’ve read a couple on your list, but not many, so perhaps I’ve got a bit of reading to do.
    I’m more than happy to recommend Sugar and Snails to other readers. It’s a fantastic book.

  2. TanGental says:

    A couple of authors I’ll add who’ve I’ve enjoyed giving their perspectives on the LGBT+ experience. Jeanette Winterton and Alan Hollinghurst. And i endorse Norah’s endorsement

    • Anne Goodwin says:

      Yes, I had JW’s memoir on my original list but I must be saving it for something else!! And yes to AH, another one on the political indifference to HIV / AIDS in the 90s. Thanks.

  3. I’m afraid I can’t add anything to the list, but what I will say is that we must not forget that both television and movies have also come a long way in touching on the lives of LGBTQI characters that were once considered ‘taboo.’
    Russel T Davies is one such writer who even weaved in a bisexual character into Doctor Who. It’s great to see that the character went on to become the main character in Tourchwood, a spin off show of Doctor Who. And it was good to see that although Davies hang up his keyboard on Doctor Who a few years ago, his bisexual character still occasionally pops up in new episodes of Doctor Who.

  4. Julie Anne Peters writes YA queer fiction. She tends to write lesbian fiction, but has also written some dealing with trans issues. She’d be a good writer to introduce to young lesbian or trans readers.

    Rita Mae Brown writes good lesbian fiction. I really loved her book Rubyfruit Jungle which I think is autobiographical.

    Sarah Waters writes lesbian historical fiction. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith are her most well known works.

  5. I highly recommend “The 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater. Based on a true story, well told. I read it a couple years back as a Middle School summer read. I enjoyed the conversations the students had around that book. I can’t think of any fiction off the top of my head (other than ancient times ancient Mary Renault) but more than ever middle and high schoolers need literature to have characters that reflect their kaleidoscopic selves. And I think there are many more diverse characters, main and otherwise, out there now but no titles are popping for me. Maybe that’s a good sign.

    • Anne Goodwin says:

      Thanks. I think you recommended 57 to me before (and to my shame I still haven’t read it). And yes, Mary Renault, whom I mention in a companion post to this coming up on the IQ blog next month.

  6. Jules says:

    Just as there are still people phobic about inter-racial or interfaith pairs (in or out of marriage) – there is much to learn about the acceptance of people and how they want to see themselves.

    Thanks for an enlightening post. I lived in New York City in the 1960’s. I never had an issue with gender differences because they were common place. And while I was taught not to be prejudice – several relatives held out their own personal phobia against people who weren’t like them.

    I think children of these times, while it is still difficult, it is easier. Some still might have to give up family for the support of those who will accept them for who they truly feel they are. Even religious communities have split because of choices of whom to accept an who to not support.

    All the major religions claim human’s to be made in the creators image, but all those images are human made. And until such time as one can prove or disprove those force images we will ultimately have to make our own choices of who we will support.

    • Anne Goodwin says:

      Thanks, Jules, and yes indeed, religion can often contribute to prejudice and discrimination. The novel I’m reading right now Ten Days isn’t about LGBTQ issues but it’s about an outsider meeting with an Orthodox Jewish family in contemporary New York.
      Now I’m bursting to do a Lockdown Lit post on religion. Having been raised a Catholic and now an atheist, it fascinates me.

      • Jules says:

        There was a limited TV series on Netflix (based on a book of the same title) called ‘Unorthodox’ about a woman basically escaping a very Orthodox Jewish home/community in New York. That also might interest you. – info about the person who wrote the book. That was the book the Netflix series was based on – thought there were some major differences between the book and the movie.

        I could have some wonderful discussions with you via email. More about personal views than books. Since I’ve had a varied background concerning religion.

  7. […] link up is HERE, thanks to our host Denise of GirlieOntheEdge. Author Anne Goodwin reminds us in a recent article that February is  LGBT+ History Month and can be acknowledged and celebrated through literature. […]

  8. Charli Mills says:

    In the US, transgender fiction didn’t come about until after 2000. When I was in high school I had several close male friends who were gay, yet it was still a dangerous time to come out. I think for lesbians, it was not necessarily more dangerous than already being female. We certainly didn’t read any YA books featuring LGBT characters. By the time my kids were in high school, they had transgender friends and bisexuality was more common, opening the door to experimentation. Yet, I think they read only one or two books with such characters. It’s important that literature offers the chance for readers no matter their age to experience diversity, especially around trans and gay issues.

    In 1998, the year I graduated from college in Montana, Matthew Shepherd, a college student in Wyoming, was beaten and tortured to death. I remember feeling so devastated and enraged. It was what I had always feared for my gay friends. Enough was enough. It was a catalyst that inspired protective legislation. I think that’s why, two years later in 2000, you start to see a rise LGBT literature (in the US). While I did write about Greek homo-erotica in college in the 1990s, I didn’t read any LGBT contemporary fiction in my undergrad studies.

    I’d add to your list: Close Range: Wyoming Stories (it includes the short story, “Brokeback Mountain” about secret cowboy love); The Whip by Karen Kondazien (considered historical transgender fiction about a true person who altered her appearance to become Charley Parkhurst, a famous stagecoach driver in California); Todd Mills Mystery Series by R.D. Zimmerman (not to be confused with my husband, the series’ Todd Mills is a gay crime reporter in Minneapolis); and the fabulous Night Quartet Series which is like a gay Marvel Universe by one of my favorite MFA profs, Jeremy Flagg. Oh — and Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony. Which I learned about from you!

    • Anne Goodwin says:

      Thanks for these reflections and additions, Charli. How could I forget Enter the Aardvark after raving about it so much? And yes I have seen the film of Brokeback Mountain but never actually read the story (latterly it tends to be the other way around for me).

  9. Yay! I’m especially interested in trans rights, so these books are getting added to the list!

  10. […] very well with the recent Carrot Ranch column! I loved the build. EAT YOUR HEART OUT, JK […]

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