Why LGBTQ+ Fiction Writers Need to Read LGBTQ+ History

by Adam W. Burgess
published in Reading

Why Should LGBTQ+ Writers Read LGBTQ+ History?

There are so many benefits to reading non-fiction to inform your fiction writing. Not only is history edifying, allowing us to ensure that we’re crafting stories that are accurate and plausible, but reading non-fiction is also a great way to expose ourselves to new ideas.

If you want to craft characters that are true to the time you’re writing in, develop logical and historical backstories and sub-plots for your main narrative, and take care to craft accurate representation, using accurate terminology, for diverse and under-represented people, reading history is an important foundation.

Added benefit: If you’re ever stuck for ideas, reading non-fiction can expose you to something—some time, person, place, or event—that you find incredibly fascinating and might want to explore further in your fiction.

For writers of LGBTQ+ fiction, being historically informed is especially important. First, it wasn’t until about the middle of the twentieth century that openly gay and lesbian writers were publishing openly gay and lesbian stories. Some of these texts did exist before the 1950s, but they were often printed with smaller presses and did not receive much publicity (or the publicity they did receive was not particularly kind). This means that contemporary writers who want to fill in the gaps of historical narrative also need to go to history books and primary source material to enter the conversation.

In addition, one aspect of being part of the LGBTQ+ community is that language is necessarily fluid and ever-evolving. This means a story set in the 1990s might use very different language and concepts than one set in 2021, not to mention one set in 1850!

Finally, as a marginalized community internationally, the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals in any place and at any point in time could be vastly different. Two lesbian women—or two asexual non-binary persons, or two transgender men—living in different countries at the same time, or in the same country at different times, might have experienced incredibly different lives, threats, and opportunities. History helps us navigate what would be true, possible, and probable for our characters.

If you are an LGBTQ+ writer or a writer crafting LGBTQ+ stories, there are some excellent texts in circulation that can help you broaden your understanding of and appreciation for LGBTQ+ history. Here are some suggestions for where to begin.

Recommended LGBTQ+ History Reading

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 by George Chauncey 

Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.

A History of Bisexuality by Steven Angelides 

Why is bisexuality the object of such skepticism? Why do sexologists steer clear of it in their research? Why has bisexuality, in stark contrast to homosexuality, only recently emerged as a nascent political and cultural identity? Bisexuality has been rendered as mostly irrelevant to the history, theory, and politics of sexuality. 

With A History of Bisexuality, Steven Angelides explores the reasons and invites us to rethink our preconceptions about sexual identity. Retracing the evolution of sexology, and revisiting modern epistemological categories of sexuality in psychoanalysis, gay liberation, social constructionism, queer theory, biology, and human genetics, Angelides argues that bisexuality has historically functioned as the structural other to sexual identity itself, undermining assumptions about heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America by Margot Canaday

The Straight State is perhaps the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today.

How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne J. Meyerowitz 

From early twentieth-century sex experiments in Europe, to the saga of Christine Jorgensen, whose sex-change surgery made headlines in 1952, to today’s growing transgender movement, Meyerowitz gives us the first serious history of transsexuality. She focuses on the stories of transsexual men and women themselves, as well as a large supporting cast of doctors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, judges, feminists, and gay liberationists, as they debated the big questions of medical ethics, nature versus nurture, self and society, and the scope of human rights.

The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson 

Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a “Lavender Scare” more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy’s Red Scare. 

Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram 

In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life: Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation’s imagination; Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and histor;. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater; James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic; Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist; and the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture. 

Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons 

Drawing upon untouched archives of documents and photographs and over 200 new interviews, Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons chart L.A.’s unique gay history, from the first missionary encounters with Native American cross-gendered “two spirits” to cross-dressing frontier women in search of their fortunes; from the bohemian freedom of early Hollywood to the explosion of gay life during World War II to the underground radicalism sparked by the 1950s blacklist; from the 1960s gay liberation movement to the creation of gay marketing in the 1990s. 

Faderman and Timmons show how geography, economic opportunity, and a constant influx of new people created a city that was more compatible to gay life than any other in America. Combining broad historical scope with deftly wrought stories of real people, from the Hollywood sound stage to the barrio, Gay L.A. is American social history at its best.

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele 

Activist-academic Meg-John Barker and cartoonist Julia Scheele illuminate the histories of queer thought and LGBTQ+ action in this groundbreaking non-fiction graphic novel. From identity politics and gender roles to privilege and exclusion, Queer explores how we came to view sex, gender, and sexuality in the ways that we do; how these ideas get tangled up with our culture and our understanding of biology, psychology, and sexology; and how these views have been disputed and challenged.

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II by Allan Bérubé 

During World War II, as the United States called on its citizens to serve in unprecedented numbers, the presence of gay Americans in the armed forces increasingly conflicted with the expanding anti-homosexual policies and procedures of the military. In Coming Out Under Fire, Allan Berube examines in depth and detail these social and political confrontation—not as a story of how the military victimized homosexuals, but as a story of how a dynamic power relationship developed between gay citizens and their government, transforming them both. Drawing on GIs’ wartime letters, extensive interviews with gay veterans, and declassified military documents, Berube thoughtfully constructs a startling history of the two wars gay military men and women fought—one for America and another as homosexuals within the military.

Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich 

Colonialism and Homosexuality is a thorough investigation of the connections of homosexuality and imperialism from the late 1800s—the era of “new imperialism”—until the era of decolonization. Robert Aldrich reconstructs the context of several liaisons, including those of famous men such as Cecil Rhodes, E.M. Forster, or Andre Gide, and the historical situations which produced both the Europeans and their non-Western lovers. Each of the case-studies is a micro-history of a particular colonial situation, a sexual encounter, and its wider implications for cultural and political life. Students both of colonial history and of gender and queer studies will find this an informative read.

Other Recommendations: Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman; When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan; The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini; The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World by Michael McConnel and Jack Baker; The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman; Charity & Sylvia by Rachel Hope Cleves; Beyond Magenta by Susan Kulin; A View from the Bottom by Tan Hoang Nguyen; Queer Diasporas edited by Cindy Patton and Benigno Sanchez-Eppler.

Thinking About It

Where do you go when you’re stuck with ideas for your fiction? How do you engage in the process of literary research—ensuring that your depictions of times and places, and descriptions of people, are accurate? Is it true that the “best writers are readers”? 

Adam W. Burgess is an English Professor at College of Southern Nevada. He has a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and is pursuing a post-doc writing certificate at the University of California, Berkeley. He loves engaging in all topics related to LGBTQ literature and craft.

You can find Adam on his website or follow him on Twitter.

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