If there is such a thing as ‘gay writing’ or LGBT+ literature – and I am really not a fan of reductive categories – here is a look at its future.
For most of history, LGBT+ writing didn’t exist. Queer characters did not feature in literature. Some books had ‘homoerotic’ aspects – a term which, if you think about it, just shows how patriarchal our society is. If there had been more female writers, if women had been respected more as artists throughout the ages, then ‘homoerotic’ would never have been an issue.
In the 19th century, a few dashing Englishmen concealed their love for men in descriptions of handsome heroes, whether they fought evil or wild animals in Africa, or just looked into the mirror a lot. Some ended up in jail for it. George Meredith was one of the first to write novels from the viewpoint of ‘sensible males’ and D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster gave us a whole new vocabulary to write about atypical, sensual men. A few outspoken books were written about adoring male beauty, but none of them dealt with male love. It was all very much in the closet up until the 1970s.
The Stonewall generation of writers in America revolutionised the way gay men wrote about themselves. I consider Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance the most important proponent of that generation, because of the way it portrayed the LGBT+ life of the time: coming out, breaking free, descent into a world of sex and dance, and retirement in the South with wistful glances at the delivery boy; the closet life of discovery, delirium, and dispatch. Coming out and having sex are often the two most important things in a queer person’s life. Not because sex is so important, but because it’s really the only thing setting us apart from heterosexuals.
A few years on, writers showed us that we aren’t necessarily nice people. We often use each other; we can lead empty, sex-obsessed lives; and we sometimes take drugs. It was a step towards a more realistic form of ‘gay writing’ but it was essentially still about people in the closet, inhabiting dark niches whence they emerged once a week to hit the dance floor, or the opera box.
There has been nothing new since. Queer writing itself has stagnated after the AIDS generation: stories about loss, death, and self-doubt were the last meaningful wave. Since the late nineties, the ‘genre’ has been in decline. And for a good reason.
We are now at a very important junction in the development of our societies. We are seriously talking about same sex marriage. Same-sex marriage isn’t as much about two men or women living together in a state-sanctioned relationship as it is about accepting an alternative lifestyle and destroying the closet for good. Once same-sex marriage is just ‘marriage’, we can stop defining LGBT+ lives by the excesses of dance music and sex, and society at large can start seeing queer people as just plain fellow people.
Without the stigma, however, much of what we have written about in the last hundred years will be largely irrelevant. We won’t be suffering, suicidal, sex-crazed perverts anymore; we will be loving, caring, responsible individuals, even in the mind of the reading public. It may be some way off, but we are getting there. What then will happen to literature?
Literature at its best is a reflection of our lives in our times. It should be inspiring, give cause for thought and reflection, and make a lasting contribution to both the arts and society itself. In a world where same-sex marriage loses the ‘same-sex’ qualifier, in which queer couples are just couples, LGBT+ writing will just be writing. There will be books in which characters ‘happen to be queer’, but in which the LGBT+ theme is not the most important aspect of the book. LGBT+ writers will just be writers, and the general audience will learn to like stories because they are stories of love, or deceit, or crime, or fantastic worlds, even if they contain LGBT+ characters. The insulting, segregating categories on book websites and in bookstores will disappear. There won’t be a button for ‘gay fiction’ anymore. Men loving men, women loving women, and other arrangements of love and desire, will be part of what publishers for the sake of their accounting departments call ‘the mainstream’.
One of the earliest examples of what I mean was Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, a fantastic sci-fi novel featuring three men in a permanent relationship. Nobody would call it a gay book though. There is gay sex in Reginald Hill’s Price of Butcher’s Meat. Even so, it’s not in the gay category, because it’s not a gay book. And what is a gay book, once gay people aren’t special any longer? Is Hollinghurst’s The Spell about being gay, or is it about human relationships, the fascination of youth, and the Dorset countryside?
The path to such an artistic utopia is treacherous. My novel Gabriel was twice rejected by a major publisher because although he liked the overall story, the final chapter sees two men united in love. To get it published, I was asked to re-write the book so that they could just become ‘friends.’ The mainstream, the publisher explained, would not welcome a book which ends in gay love.
I believe that one day people will find this ridiculous. I believe that one day, Gabriel and books like it be seen as a story about animal rights, culture shock, the importance of learning from other cultures and dealing with the ill-effects of globalisation, and the fact that the protagonists are LGBT+ won’t matter at all.
Too much to ask for? I don’t think so. We have to read about straight couples all the time. Most of the movies we watch are about women and men falling in love in heterosexual, monogamous relationships. It is only the stigma of ages, the religious bigotry and financial considerations which keep LGBT+ characters out of the mainstream. Once same-sex or ‘gay’ marriage – the state seal of respect for a human relationship – is widely accepted, more people will come out of the closet. Everybody will know someone who is in a same-sex relationship. Relating to aspects of a queer person’s existence will be easier once we have done away with religious notions and biblical taboos. It will lose its strangeness, its otherness. Heterosexuals will stop finding it weird and dirty and sinful – it will just be another way of living. Entire categories and cliches will disappear. LGBT+ books will just be books, LGBT+ movies just movies.