Literature’s LGBTQ Characters: an Update

In honor of June 2019’s Pride Month, I’m going to revisit LGBTQ characters in fiction — LGBTQ of course standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer.

I previously wrote about this topic in 2013 (a year before starting this blog) and mentioned a number of novels with openly, closeted, or maybe-they-are/maybe-they-aren’t LGBTQ characters in lead or supporting roles. Among those books were Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Colette’s Claudine at School, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Margaret Drabble’s The Sea Lady, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

This blog post will mention some of the novels I’ve read since 2013 with LGBTQ characters.

Despite the cruel right-wing intolerance in the U.S. and elsewhere that’s setting back various kinds of human rights these days, LGBTQ people are generally more accepted in many places than decades ago. This is reflected in recent literature — where there are more LGBTQ characters (from both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ authors), where these characters are usually treated more positively or at least more three-dimensionally than in the past, and where in many cases a big deal isn’t made of these characters; they’re one of the many parts of the human mosaic. That’s a good thing.

The five-person Lambert family that Jonathan Franzen focuses on in The Corrections (a great novel I also mentioned last week) includes daughter Denise, who’s had a bisexual life but is almost certainly lesbian. Her portrayal is satisfying and convincing partly because her sexual life is depicted as just one of many aspects of her — she’s also a conflicted daughter/sibling, a strong personality, very smart, a star professional chef, a hard worker, generous at times, unkind at other times, etc.

In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy — which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the brilliant, abused, troubled, brave, vengeance-seeking Lisbeth Salander is bisexual. The most memorable character in those three riveting novels.

Among the many memorable characters J.K. Rowling has expertly created, from her Harry Potter series to her crime fiction, have been LGBTQ ones. For instance, in The Cuckoo’s Calling novel written under Rowling’s Robert Galbraith pen name, Guy Somé (pictured on the right in the above photo) is stereotypical in certain ways (he’s a fashion designer) but is depicted as a fairly complex person devoid of several other gay stereotypes.

The Secret History‘s Francis Abernathy is gay but that’s not overemphasized in Donna Tartt’s compelling debut novel. Her emphasis is more on the insularity and strangeness of the small group (including Francis) that protagonist Richard falls in with when he goes to college.

It’s not secret history that there’ve been LGBTQ people throughout time, and one example of this is in Philippa Gregory’s excellent novel Earthly Joys. Set in the 17th century, it features a master royal gardener (John Tradescant) who’s married to a woman but ends up having a same-gender sexual dalliance with a charismatic “bad boy” duke.

A novel that sort of/sort of not fits this blog post is Abigail Tarttelin’s excellent Golden Boy, which — like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex — features an intersex character. The hermaphroditic gender confusion embodied in protagonist Max Walker has echoes of what transgender people face.

Your favorite novels featuring LGBTQ characters in lead or supporting roles?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which comedically compares my town in 2019 vs. 1796 — is here.

65 thoughts on “Literature’s LGBTQ Characters: an Update

  1. Dave ” In One Person”, by great John Irving , what an amazing book, covers everything from homosexuality, AIDS epidemic and what not !

    Irving was writing as Billy Dean , the book covers when Billy was 13,and follows Him when in mid 60`s and a well known Novelist.
    Young Billy had a crush on the librarian Miss Foster. She was actually Big Al, undefeated wrestling champion, 6-foot-2 in her socks, Billy loses his virginity to her knowing she was a woman.
    Billy had a lost Father, grew up with his mother in Grandpa`s house.who was a female impersonator all his life.
    Billy grew up to be a bisexual, then came AIDS epidemic in 80`s.One of his friend cheated on his wife and gave her the disease..and so on…

    Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It’s what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for mentioning that novel, bebe! A John Irving book I’d like to read; I really enjoyed his “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” You described “In One Person” very well! Sounds quirky, intriguing, and (as you said) tolerant — three qualities for which Irving is widely known!

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  2. For those like myself, who count among his guilty pleasures detective fiction, I recommend, in keeping with the week’s theme, Joseph Hansen, author of a series of novels featuring Dave Brandstetter, a gay insurance investigator.

    And, in keeping with that theme, I mention Dashiell Hammet’s character, Joel Cairo, gay, swindler and thief among those vying for possession of “The Maltese Falcon.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! I remember those Joseph Hansen novels being mentioned here at one point. An online search tells me the first book in the Dave Brandstetter series was “Fadeout”; I’m going to look for it at the library next week.

      And a great mention of Joel Cairo! I read “The Maltese Falcon” about five (?) years ago, and totally forgot about that character when writing this week’s column.

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        • Good to know, jhNY. And Wikipedia tells me that the first Dave Brandstetter mystery was published in 1970 — definitely putting that series in the early part of the modern boomlet of novels with LGBTQ characters.

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  3. Jean Genet provided the world a demi-monde of gay characters and settings, often carceral in nature. He was, as a man and as an author, transfixed by beautiful criminals, though he was himself small and unremarkable in appearance. His doings, before he found he could write, put him in proximity with such types, and often behind bars. Genet’s prose style is poetic, idiosyncratic, and his themes are dependably perverse. He makes for somewhat uncomfortable reading, as by the power of his artistry you feel drawn in to places and circumstances images and insights you would not have otherwise chosen to dwell in, or even visit. And yet, by the power of his artistry, there you are. His first novel, and most famous work, is “Our Lady of the Flowers” (1944), published, thanks in part, to the efforts of Jean Cocteau, who, if I remember things correctly, was himself desperately busy that year on a film starring his own lover, candybox-handsome Jean Marais– the immortal “Beauty and the Beast”.

    Arthur Rimbaud, author of “A Season in Hell” ,”The Illuminations” and “The Drunken Boat” left the surly bonds of the Parisian literary scene and poetry itself at a tender age, but not before becoming infamous for his farcically disastrous and, for the times, outrageous affair with a fellow poet, the older and married Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud spent the remainder of his short life in deliberately remote places in North Africa, attempting several cynical careers in mostly elicit trade in items such as smuggled rifles, all of which earned him little but wounds, from which he died after returning prodigally and sunburnt to his family home. As the first-person dominates his poetry, he is himself a gay character in literature, and the most impactful poet of his age.

    Last, I would like to mention Walt Whitman, another homosexual poet, not so much for he wrote, but for the man he was when at his best. I happened to be watching Antiques Roadshow one night, and a person bearing a letter from a relative who died during the Civil War appeared on the program. In the corner of the letter was a note that said, more or less, that the letter itself was taken down by a Walt Whitman, who had offered his service as scribe to the dying man– a kindness rendered by the poet during the period he volunteered himself as nurse, first to his own wounded brother, and after, to those in need.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Informative/descriptive mentions of Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, and their work!

      I read a biography of Whitman a number of years ago, and he did indeed acquit himself impressively well during America’s Civil War. And when one reads his “Leaves of Grass” with the knowledge that he was gay, certain elements of that opus clearly have at least a subtle gay subtext.

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      • Two other classic novels treating homosexuality, if a bit obliquely:

        Andre Gide’s The Immoralist”(1902), and “The Well of Loneliness”(1928) by Radcliffe Hall– perhaps the first example of a novel whose major character is a lesbian. (I’ve got a first edition here, though there seem to be a few editions claiming themselves to be first.)

        Just for the fun of it, I’ve hoped, without looking into it, that someplace somebody has named a residential property Radcliffe Hall. But then again, I’m the guy who very nearly bought a fan whose Chinese manufacturer had dubbed the Lady Windermere…

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        • Thank you, jhNY! “The Well of Loneliness” might possibly have been the first novel whose major character was lesbian, but one wonders if there were other such novels before that that were less known. Clearly, there were earlier books with supporting characters who were lesbian or possibly lesbian — including Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” (1859) and Colette’s “Claudine at School” (1900).

          Ha! One would think Radcliffe College would have a Radcliffe Hall, but I came up empty in a Google search.

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  4. Hi Dave,

    Many years ago I used to have a cleaning lady. One day I came home from work to find about 15 books on my dining table with a note from her saying she didn’t want them anymore. One of the books was part of the “Isles of Glory” trilogy. The protagonist is a half-breed woman who is shunned from society due to her bastard and half-breed status. She doesn’t have a nice childhood, but grows up to become a very powerful bounty hunter. At one point she’s trying to rescue the princess who she falls in love with. There are two other books in the series which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as the first novel “The Aware” but I have very fond memories of discovering a fun fantasy tale, and am grateful to the cleaning lady for introducing me to the works of Glenda Larke.

    Not so much fun was the death of the gay soldier in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. If I remember correctly, he never got to ‘come out’ as gay so that his secret shame died with him.

    Oh, I think I just thought of a really obvious LGBTQ story that maybe isn’t really LGBTQ. When “Brokeback Mountain” first came out as a movie, I was discussing it with a gay friend of mine. Neither of us had seen the movie, but were both pretty dismissive of some girly, sappy, gay romance. My friend said all his gay friends were talking about it, and it was often described as just a romance. It has nothing to do with being gay. And we both thought Please! It’s about two guys doing each other away in the mountains. Of course it’s about being gay. But of course, I shouldn’t have had an opinion until I actually saw the movie, which is a beautiful and romantic and tragic love story that just happens to be about two men, but has very little to do with being gay. I think about this mostly as a movie, but I’ve also read the Annie Proulx novella so that means I’m allowed to gush about the movie, right?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Loved the memory of you getting those 15 or so books. 🙂 Glad you liked “The Aware,” which is now on my (long) to-read list.

      I think “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” — which you recommended to me — is a terrific novel! And, yes, it includes a very closeted gay character. Understandable closeting given the place (southern Europe) and time (World War II era).

      And, yes, “Brokeback Mountain” — which I should read. Great description of it!

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  5. Just wanted to jump in and mention a book I’m reading right now and enjoying the heck out of. “The Priory of the Orange Tree” is what I’d call high-brow epic fantasy, and features a number of same sex relationships. “The Gardener’s Hand” series does too, and is also very much worth a read if you enjoy that kind of more literary fantasy.

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  6. I’ve seen a lot more LGBTQ in my recent reads – which I think is an excellent step towards where we need to be. I do feel that literature is often a reflection of the times, and it can often pave the way for change for the better. “American Pop,” a book which I mentioned on this page awhile back, has a very sad story line with a gay character who struggles with his identity. A book I’m about half-way through at present, “the Librarian of Auschwitz,” also has a surprise and heartbreaking LGBTQ side story in it, and the nightmare that it was to be any form of “different” during the Nazi years. Also, on the movie front, I just saw the movie “Rocketman,” which broke all kinds of barriers in that regard, and is EXCELLENT, I might add.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      “I’ve seen a lot more LGBTQ in my recent reads” — glad to hear that, even though a couple of those books were very sad.

      I’d love to see “Rocketman” eventually; I was a big Elton John fan years ago. Changing times certainly helped make him at least somewhat comfortable about eventually coming out. Great that it’s such a good movie!

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  7. Dave what a timely and appropriate column of today in the eve of another Presidential election.
    Who would imagine the Mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg , 37 year old Harvard graduate , Rhodes Scholar , a war veteran of Afghanistan would be a serious contender for 2020 Presidency..
    A polyglot who speaks seven languages, the Mayor is so fascinating that every news channel wanted to feature him. Mayor Pete is gay and perhaps will not win but his cool countenance is so comforting as he is never out of words to say the right thing at the right moment.

    In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy — which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is a bisexual woman, abused and neglected was left for dead , came out intact and fought for human rights. Always risked her life to save another in trouble and never forgot anyone ever showed their kindness toward her.
    The author and creator Stieg Larsson died suddenly after the trilogy so we never knew if Ms. Salander ever united with the one man she saved and loved Mikael Blomkvist .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! It’s good to do a timely post once in a while. 🙂

      Yes, Pete Buttigieg is a serious presidential contender — which would have been unimaginable not that long ago. I’m sure there are still plenty of Americans out there who sadly and narrow-mindedly would not vote for an openly LGBTQ person, but I guess a lot of them would never vote for ANY Democrat. As you know I have some mixed feelings about Buttigieg’s politics (not liberal enough for me), but he is certainly an impressive person.

      Lisbeth Salander is indeed such a fascinating character. I would have loved to see what happened to her after the third novel, but I refuse to read the books by the late Stieg Larsson’s “successor.” They can’t be as good as Larsson’s trilogy, and I’ve heard Larsson’s longtime partner did not approve.

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    • Hi bebe and Dave. I’ve been watching a lot of Jeopardy lately, and the final jeopardy question the other night had to do with the poet Tagore. I said to Bill, I know who Tagore is from my friend bebe, however I didn’t get the answer right which was the Taj Mahal. All the contestants got it, which I thought was impressive.

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  8. Thanks for mentioning some great books there, Dave! The Color Purple is a particular favorite of mine.

    I have to bring in some Russian works that deal with this topic. Probably the best in my opinion is the “Girlfriend” cycle of poems by Marina Tsvetaeva. Unpublished during her lifetime, it describes her passionate affair with sister poet Sophia Parnok. Tsvetaeva was deeply conflicted about her bisexuality, as she was about many things, and also wrote in “Letter to an Amazon” about the conflict between love for a woman and the intense desire for children.

    From about the same time (early 20th century), Mikhail Kuz’min wrote the novella “Wings,” about a teenage boy who has an affair with an older man, and the poetic cycle “The Trout Breaks the Ice,” about the pain of “the love that dare not speak its name.”

    More recently, Vladimir Makanin’s “Caucasian Captive,” which was adapted to film under the name “Captive,” is a reimagining of Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” set during the recent Chechen wars and featuring a budding romance between a Russian soldier and his Chechen POW.

    If you’re interested in Russian LGBTQ writing, these are all excellent places to start, although with the caveat that Russian works on the topic tend to be a lot less, um, wholesome than contemporary US works. The sex itself tends to be so understated that it might pass a lot of readers by completely, but the relationships themselves often feature large age gaps, unequal power dynamics, and tragedy.

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    • Thank you, Elena, for that VERY informative comment. I had no idea there was a good deal of Russian LGBTQ fiction, recent and less recent. All of what you describe sounds like interesting reading, even with plenty of self-censorship and/or depiction of repression. Actually, those kinds of restrictions can help lead to fascinating fiction if the writer is skilled enough.

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      • Yes, as fiction it’s often brilliant, although it has social/political aspects that might make some western readers uncomfortable. It’s often used as a way to explore what is taboo or Other, rather than feel-good celebration.

        As an interesting aside. since most Russians are not on the lookout for “gay” behavior the way a lot of Westerners are, apparently it’s possibly to be comparatively open about it there while still flying under the radar. Certainly a number of my friends had no trouble there. It’s normally only a problem if you engage in overt political activism, at which point things can get very ugly, very fast.

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        • Interesting, Elena. Well said! A shame that LGBTQ content by Russian writers is often not “feel good,” but, as you say, it still seems very much worth reading.

          I’ve definitely had the impression that Russia is among the European countries less tolerant of LGBTQ rights than a number of other European countries. Glad under-the-radar LGBTQ people don’t have too many problems there. Under Putin, overt political activism of any kind — LGBTQ-related or otherwise — is pretty much taboo. But of course, the consequences in many societies are often worse for LGBTQ than non-LGBTQ people.

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  9. I suppose the good thing, Dave, is that I can’t really remember LGBTQ characters in books I’ve read, because sexual orientation isn’t that important any longer. I’m not saying it’s trivial, just more accepted, which is good. Who would have thought we’d have a presidential candidate who is openly gay and married to his husband. even appearing together on the cover of Time magazine not long ago? I didn’t even remember that Lisbeth Salander was bisexual. I know there are still many people across the world who still think this is a sin against whatever God they believe in, and as Bill Tammeus says below, there is still a ways to go.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! You make an important point — one I also briefly made in my post — that fiction writers depicting LGBTQ sexual orientation in a what’s-the-big-deal way is one positive indication of how far (some of) society has advanced in accepting LGBTQ people.

      And, yes, the candidacy of Pete Buttigieg — and the somewhat successful nature of it so far — would have been inconceivable not that long ago.

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      • The only book I really remember was “Brideshead Revisited,” by Evelyn Waugh. His main character was involved with two of the Flytes’ family, Sebastian and Julia. There was also homosexuality on the campus of Oxford when Ryder attended there. As usual, I remember more from the DVD of the miniseries than the actual book.

        I spend most of my time now watching the MSNBC News, because it is both informative and funny. They had yesterday a senator from North Dakota who said that his constituents were most concerned about immigration status. I laughed out loud when he said that — who are they concerned about,– the Canadians! Ha!

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          • “Brideshead Revisited” is a great example, Kat Lit! Thank you!

            Hilarious/sad about that North Dakota politician. Most of the far right is hardly concerned about immigration of white people (though of course Canada is not all white). It’s almost all about racism for those sorry officials. Maybe that ridiculous pol feels some immigrants from south of the border will eventually settle in ND? As some have.

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            • In my late career with a major healthcare professional company, I worked with many folks who lived in ND and in that area. I never had a problem with any of them, and especially their language. I do admit that I’ve got a problem with understanding people from India or other countries, but I don’t hold that against them. I’m sure they have problems with understanding me!

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    • You’re welcome, Bill — and thank you very much for that link! A long essay, but “must reading” that outlines your tolerant, highly informed religious (and secular) thoughts about LGBTQ matters in 1993 and more recently.

      This statement of yours sums it up: “I’ve been astonished at the rapidity of change for good in the world for LGBTQ people, though we’re clearly a long way from where we need to be.”

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