Queer Literature

Queer literature has long existed. However, its history has not always been widely celebrated. Queer literature themes explore sexuality and gender which can overlap in multiple other genres, such as feminist literature. It is a genre that focuses on LGBTQIA+ characters and themes and encompasses a wide range of narratives that challenge traditional gender roles and explore diverse sexualities. Queer literature can be poetry, novels, memoirs, plays, and other literary forms, offering representation and advocacy for queer communities. During the 20th century and beyond, queer theory also became a popular form of literary criticism. 

Queer Literature Queer Literature

Create learning materials about Queer Literature with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Contents
Table of contents

    Let's look at the definition and history of queer literature to discover its lasting impact and legacy in English literature.

    Queer Literature: definition

    Queer literature is an important genre of literary fiction, but what exactly is it?

    Queer literature are narratives that follow LGBTQ+ themes, symbolism, or characters. These texts will frequently feature ideas that go beyond contemporary views on sexuality or gender.

    Queer literature, therefore, refers to narratives that feature gay themes, symbolism, or characters. This is a broad category of literature, as no one piece of queer fiction reflects the same lived experience. It is important to remember that not all queer literature is written by LGBTQ+ people, and not all LGBTQ+ people write queer literature.

    Queer literature is not one standard genre, as lots of these novels and poems fall into other categories. This can include romance, regional fiction, feminist fiction, or horror, to name a few!

    The term queer in LGBTQIA+ discourse serves several important purposes:

    1. Umbrella Term: Queer is often used as an inclusive, umbrella term to encompass a spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities that don't align with heteronormative society. This includes individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, and more.

    2. Fluidity: The term queer acknowledges the fluid nature of identity, recognising that sexuality and gender can be dynamic and may not fit neatly into predefined categories.

    3. Reclamation: Historically, queer was used as a derogatory term against individuals who didn't conform to traditional gender identities or sexual orientations. The LGBTQIA+ community has reclaimed the term as an act of empowerment, transforming it into a positive identifier.

    4. Political Statement: For some, identifying as queer is a political statement, challenging societal norms and advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights and visibility.

    5. Academic Discourse: The term is also used in academic contexts, with queer theory being a field of critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women's studies.

    In all these uses, queer is a term of self-identification, and its use depends on personal preference. Some people embrace the term, while others may not feel comfortable using it due to its historical derogatory usage.

    Queer Literature, Rainbow Flag, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The rainbow flag is one of the symbols of the LGBTQ+ community.

    Queer Literature: history

    Although it has not always been widely celebrated, queer literature has a long and storied history.

    • The history of queer literature dates back centuries with early texts often needed to veil queer themes due to societal pressures and legal constraints.
    • The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw more overtly queer works, with authors like Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.
    • The post-Stonewall era in the late 20th century marked a significant turning point, with queer literature becoming a distinct and recognized genre, showcasing diverse LGBTQIA+ experiences.

    In 1533, King Henry VIII signed into law the Buggery Act. This legislation outlawed 'sodomy', and while it did not explicitly target homosexuality, the state killed men across England for this reason. These laws made it hard for queer literature to exist explicitly. It was not until the 19th century that queer literature became more visible.

    Queer literature in the 19th century

    In the 19th century, queer literature experienced a small boost in visibility. Authors and poets such as Walt Whitman and Matthew Lewis gained popularity for their works. Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla (1872) features what is thought to be the first lesbian vampire. However, despite the increased representation and visibility of queer literature, the century was still marred by homophobia. This was infamously seen during the trial and imprisonment of Irish playwright and author, Oscar Wilde. In 1895, Wilde was convicted of 'gross indecency' and sentenced to two years of hard labour.

    Queer literature in the 20th century

    During the 20th century, queer literature became a visible and important facet of English literature. The work of previous authors such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde led to queer literature becoming more accessible during the 20th century. In the UK, author E.M Foster published Maurice (1914), a novel that explored how a young middle-class gay man came of age in a homophobic society. During the Harlem Renaissance in New York, poets such as Langston Hughes published pieces that related the experience of being black and gay in America.

    In the UK in 1967, the Sexual Offenses Bill was passed. This legalised sex between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland would pass similar legislation 10 years later). Following the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 in New York, there was a new movement for equal rights for LGBTQ+ people.

    The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in the UK in 1970. However, in 1988 Section 28 was signed into law. This legislation banned any discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in areas such as education. It was scrapped in 2003; however, this legislation limited the publication of queer literature from 1988 to 2003.

    Queer literature in the 21st century

    The 21st century saw a number of successes for LGBTQ+ civil rights groups. Legislation such as the Civil Partnership Act 2004, the Gender Recognition Act 2004, the Equality Act 2010, and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013, all furthered LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.

    In the 21st century, queer literature is more popular and visible than ever. Many celebrated and widely read authors are openly LGBTQ+, such as Andrew Sean Greer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Less (2018). Queer literature has moved beyond adult literary fiction, and is now a popular sub-genre in the young adult fiction genre.

    Despite its increased visibility in English literature, queer literature is still banned in some schools and states in the USA.

    Gender and queer theory views in Literature

    Gender and Queer theory is a type of literary criticism that has gained popularity throughout the late 20th century and 21st century. This is a broad area of literary criticism that carries many meanings; however, there are some core, shared values.

    Queer Theory: A form of literary criticism that explores how dominant powers can oppress those who live outside of gender or sexuality norms.

    Queer Theory (sometimes shortened to QT) focuses on how ideas of sexuality, gender, and power are depicted in literature. This form of literary criticism focuses on how sexuality and gender are discussed in texts and, how the topic is taught to students. Critics examine texts that explore diverse sexual orientations and gender identities that deviate from heteronormative conventions. This includes narratives focusing on characters who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and more.

    This is why Queer Theory is often also seen as a political action. It is a combination of structure theory and close reading of different queer texts. It focuses on the power of language in a queer context. Queer Theory often overlaps with other areas of literary criticism, such as feminist theories.

    Queer Literature: themes

    Queer themes in literature typically explore non-heteronormative sexual orientations and gender identities. This includes, but is not limited to:

    • Experiences of coming out
    • Gender transition
    • Societal acceptance
    • Discrimination
    • Queer love and relationships
    • Intersectionality of queer identity with race, class, and religion

    Queer themes often challenge traditional gender roles and societal norms, while advocating for inclusivity and acceptance. Two of the main themes in queer literature are sexuality and gender.

    Sexuality

    Sexuality is at the core of all queer literature. In queer literature, sexuality is explored differently from heteronormative literature. Sexuality takes on many forms in queer literature; from proud and loving to shameful and resentful. The theme is essential to understanding the psychology of the text's characters and the environments in which they exist.

    In more contemporary queer literature, this theme is typically resolved in a happy ending, where the protagonist lets go of their internalised homophobia in some way.

    Gender

    Another critical theme in queer literature is gender. In queer literature, gender is not confined to a strict binary of male and female. Instead, queer literature explores the theme of gender as a spectrum, with people existing between the two main genders. This idea of gender as a social construct is a key theme in many pieces of queer literature. Gender is also explored through the concept of gender roles.

    Queer Literature: classics

    The 20th and 21st centuries saw a boom in queer literature as LGBTQ+ rights became more visible in society. Four examples of classic queer literature from these periods include James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Andrea Lawlor's Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, and Chinelo Okparanta's Under the Udala Trees.

    Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin

    James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room (1956) is widely viewed as one of the most successful pieces of queer literature of the 20th century. The novel follows an American man named David as he moves to Paris and has a romantic relationship with a waiter named Giovanni. The novel was initially banned for its exploration of sexuality and gender identity. One of the novel's central themes is shame, and how it can affect a relationship. Giovanni's Room is accepted as one of the most important pieces of queer literature of its time.

    Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf

    Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando (1928) as a love letter to her partner, Vita Sackville-West. Orlando (1928) follows its protagonist, a transgender woman, as she lives through three centuries, meeting various literary greats. Woolf wrote the novel as a form of therapy following the loss of her partner. It discusses themes of imagination, gender, sexuality, and conformity. It is widely acclaimed and is studied as one of the most influential pieces of queer and feminist literature of the 20th century.

    The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

    The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker discusses themes of racism, misogyny, abuse, and how the three intersect. The novel follows Celie, a black teenager in rural Georgia, as she writes letters to God. The narrative discusses oppression and a core theme of the novel is that women should have solidarity with each other in the face of abuse. For example, after being abused by the men in her life, Celie finds love with another woman, Shug Avery. The novel has been celebrated for its discussion of love, religion, sexuality, and gender.

    Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

    Jeanette Wilson's debut novel is a semi-autobiographical narrative that follows a young woman as she struggles with conformity in her church. The novel follows a protagonist of the same name as she comes to terms with her sexuality while living in the Christian Pentecostal Community. Jeanette is raised in isolation due to her mother's religion, however, she falls in love with a girl in her Bible study group. The novel discusses themes of religion, sexuality, and gender.

    Contemporary queer literature

    Queer literature is rapidly becoming one of the most popular fiction genres in the 21st century. Let's take a look at some texts that are being widely read today!

    Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017) by Andrea Lawlor

    The novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017) follows its titular character, Paul, who can shapeshift, and change gender at will. The novel was influenced by Orlando (1928) as Paul's relation to gender was inspired by how the theme is explored in Woolf's novel. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017) was widely praised for its depiction of gender and the trans experience in America. The novel further explores themes such as gender, sex, and love.

    Under the Udala Trees (2015) by Chinelo Okparanta

    Set during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), Under the Udala Trees (2015) follows a young Igbo woman named Ijeoma. The protagonist lives in an environment and culture that is hostile to homosexuality or queerness. This becomes a central theme of the novel, as Ijeoma struggles to accept her sexuality as a lesbian. The text ends on a poignant note, as it notes the impact of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014, which punishes homosexuality with death in Nigeria. The novel follows themes of religion, love, and sexuality.

    More queer literature examples

    Some more classic and contemporary examples of queer literature include:

    1. Stone Butch Blues (1993) by Leslie Feinberg - This novel is considered a seminal work in the field of transgender literature, examining the life of a butch lesbian in the 1960s who eventually transitions to a man.

    2. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde - While the themes of homosexuality are more implicit due to the time of writing, Wilde's only novel is often discussed within queer literature for its exploration of desire and morality.

    3. Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides - This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of an intersex protagonist navigating their identity.

    4. Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters - This historical novel is a coming-of-age lesbian love story set in Victorian England.

    5. Maurice (1971) by E.M. Forster - A novel (published posthumously) about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in a society that condemns it.

    6. Fingersmith (2002) by Sarah Waters - A historical crime novel with significant lesbian themes.

    7. Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer - A comic novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, following a gay man approaching his fifties who embarks on a journey around the world.

    8. Call Me By Your Name (2007) by André Aciman - A beautiful exploration of first love and desire between two young men during an Italian summer.

    9. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel - A graphic memoir that explores the author's sexuality and her relationship with her closeted gay father.

    10. Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown - A coming-of-age novel that was groundbreaking in its candid and affirming depiction of lesbian identity.

    11. Boy Meets Boy (2003) by David Levithan - A young adult novel that presents a utopian high school where all sexualities are accepted and celebrated.

    12. The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst explores the life of a young gay man navigating the complexities of love, politics, class, and sexuality during the AIDs crisis and conservative 1980s era in Britain.

    Queer Literature - Key takeaways

    • Queer literature focuses on LGBTQIA+ characters and themes and encompasses a wide range of narratives that challenge traditional gender roles and explore diverse sexualities. Queer literature can be poetry, novels, memoirs, plays, and other literary forms, offering representation and advocacy for queer communities.
    • Queer Theory is a form of literary criticism that explores how dominant powers can oppress those who live outside of gender or sexuality norms.
    • Queer literature explores themes of sexuality and gender
    • Queer literature can overlap with other literary genres such as feminist literature and regional fiction.
    • An example of queer literature is Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Queer Literature

    What is a queer book?

    A queer book refers to a piece of literature that follows LGBTQ+ themes, symbolism, or characters.  

    What are the main points of queer theory?

    This is a form of literary criticism that explores how dominant powers can oppress those who live outside of gender or sexuality norms. 

    What is the meaning of queer literature?

    Queer literature focuses on LGBTQIA+ characters and themes and encompasses a wide range of narratives that challenge traditional gender roles and explore diverse sexualities. Queer literature can be poetry, novels, memoirs, plays, and other literary forms, offering representation and advocacy for queer communities.  

    What is the purpose of queer literature?

    The purpose of queer literature is to challenge the readers' perception of sexuality and gender. Queer literature also serves the purpose of making LGBTQ+ themes and issues more visible.

    What are some examples of queer literature?

    Examples of queer literature include Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin, Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017) by Andrea Lawlor, and Under the Udala Trees (2015)  by Chinelo Okparanta.   

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: all pieces of queer literature reflect the same experience.

    Can queer literature be written by non LGBTQ+ people?

    True or False: Queer Theory often overlaps with other areas of literary criticism.

    Next
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Queer Literature Teachers

    • 14 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App