Minority rights aren’t only deeply important for minorities. Like the canary in the coal mine, they can also indicate a society’s flexibility, respect and overall health. Equality benefits everyone, so LGBT+ History month in February is an opportunity for all of us to celebrate diversity. As with most things, we do so through the prism of fiction, so join us on a literary tour!
Sex and romantic love between males was highly valued in ancient Greek society (albeit with a dodgy imbalance of power). The Persian Boy by Mary Renault mixes fact and fiction to tell the story of Alexander the Great through the eyes of his young lover, Bagoas. Abducted as a boy, Bagoas was sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, before being taken into Alexander’s household to become the general’s lover.
Fast forward to Elizabethan times when the British Ambassador to Constantinople, after succumbing to fever, goes to sleep and wakes up female. Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando — a tribute to her lover, Vita Sackville-West — plays with concepts of gender across the ensuing three centuries.
In rural Albania, a woman can claim the rights traditionally denied to her gender by taking a vow of chastity and adopting male attire. In Elvira Dones’ novel, Sworn Virgin, Hana adopts this role to support her ailing uncle and to be free to travel without risking rape. On moving to America, however, she struggles to readapt to presenting as female.
Set among a community of oddballs in a Delhi graveyard, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy isn’t historical fiction. But, in its portrayal of an identity with no direct parallel in the West, it illustrates another piece of LGBT+ history. Unlike many other hijras, Anjum was born intersex and, although brought up as a boy and choosing to live as a woman, she sees herself as containing elements of both genders. This gives her a moral authority: she is “Indo-Pak” where India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads since independence.
I stumbled upon a similarly delightful way of being both via a Cree character called Ursula/Little Bear, a minor character in Patrick Gale’s beautifully tender novel, A Place Called Winter. In the early years of the twentieth century, Henry Crane flees upper-middle-class England to avoid a scandal, and probably prison, after the discovery of his affair with another man.
In the previously mentioned book, Henry Crane married a woman, as many gay men did through much of the last century. What was life like for their wives? Nick Hornby pays tribute to one such woman in his novel about 1960s celebrity, Funny Girl.
Back in Victorian Britain, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel, Fingersmith, examines pornography, patriarchy and lesbian love in a captivating literary crime novel. It’s been adapted for TV, stage and film, including a Korean version, The Handmaiden, set in colonial times.
While gender fluidity, in the social and psychological sense, is nothing new, physical gender reassignment has become possible only through medical advances. In 1930, Lili Elbe, a Danish painter formerly known as Einar Weneger, was among the first to undergo surgical transition. Her story is told in The Danish Girl, a novel by David Ebershoff, published in 2000 and now an award-winning film.
Michael Dillon, thought to be the world’s first trans man, had surgery in the late 1940s. Only a few years later, in 1952, six-year-old Mary Ward, the protagonist of the novel Sacred Country by Rose Tremain, realises she’s a boy and begins her struggle to have that acknowledged physically and socially.
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.
No account of LGBT history can be complete (not that this post has such pretensions!) without mentioning HIV/AIDS, especially now with contemporary parallels as many learn to live with coronavirus. Alan Hollinghurst’s 2004 Booker-prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty, and Michael Cunningham’s 1999 Pulitzer-prize-winner The Hours, (inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway), are stark reminders of the fear and prejudice that exist around the disease.
These titles are only a fraction of the novels about LGBT+ history. Now it’s your turn to add your favourites. Tell us in the comments below.
We’ve just partnered with Derbyshire LGBT+ to get books in the hands of folks who may otherwise not have access to diverse reading in a safe environment. So for every 10 books we sell through our site (including ebooks!), we’re donating 1 paperback to them. If you’d like to support us, you can browse through our bookshop right here on the IQ site or check out our range of LGBTQ+ titles below.