Week 1- Introduction to Post-1945 American Gay Literature

Introduction to Post-1945 American Gay Literary Canon

by Allyson Burton

What is Gay Literature?

“literature about being gay, by men who identify themselves as gay” George Woods, a Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University, in his book A History Of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition 

 “…writing that represents, interprets, and constructs the experience of love, friendship, intimacy, desire, and sex between men over time” Byrne R. S. Fone XXVii, Anthology of Gay Literature

For purposes of this class, we will define gay literature as “literature concerning male homosexuality” with no distinction between the orientation or gender of its author . The problem of what “literature about being gay” means is a major part of the gay literary canon. Each work contributes to a larger definition of what being gay means. The gay literary canon can be explored through a historical, cultural, and biographical lens in addition to the texts themselves.

The chronology of American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America highlights major historical and cultural ideologies that have helped shape the American gay literary canon from 1945 to the present.  American biologist Alfred C. Kinsey’s books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) brought public attention to the existence of homosexuality in America. This initial attention was followed by the 1953 publication of the first national Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) magazine entitled ONE, which allowed works by lesbian, gay, and bisexual authors to reach a wider audience. Although pulp paperbacks, novels which portrayed homosexuality and were considered by some to be soft-core porn, were available in the 1950s and 1960s, they were generally not considered to have literary value. The 1960s continued this tread of increased readership with the opening of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop and the publishing of the Advocate, another LGB magazine, in 1968. The creation of LGB magazines and opening of bookstores also increased the visibility of gay authors and encouraged other gay authors to publish their work.

“While literary works are most often focused on, directed toward, and accessible to middle-class and elite persons, the novels dealing with homosexuality available before Stonewall were sought out by a wide range of people, whether from neighborhood lending libraries in urban centers in the 1920s and 1930s or as pulp paperbacks available in gas stations and drugstores across the country in the 1950s and 1960s.”


Perhaps one of the most important historical events concerning the promotion and visibility of gay literature in America is the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in June 1969. The riots occurred after a police raid of a New York City gay bar named Stonewall Inn led to several nights of unrest and national media attention. Due to this media attention and subsequent societal recognition of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community, George Woods argues that 1969 “is the point in cultural history after which, at last, we can unproblematically speak about a certain kind of text as ‘gay literature’” (Woods 9). Gay literature increasingly gained literary attention over the next few decades, leading to the 1990s which some called a “LGBT renaissance” because of the burst of influential works produced during this period, such as Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America in 1993 and the main reading for this presentation, Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” in 1997.

Annie Proulx was born in Norwich Connecticut on August 22, 1935 and grew up frequently moving from state to state. She wrote stories from the age of ten and worked as a freelance journalist for nineteen years, eventually becoming the founder and editor of a newspaper called the Vershire Behind the Times from 1984 to 1986. In 1988 she published Heart Songs and Other Stories, a collection that dealt with men’s emotional struggles in the New England Countryside. Most of her work concerns rural life, and while “Brokeback Mountain” takes place in a natural setting, it is categorized as a love story. “Brokeback Mountain” describes the complex relationship between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two men in Wyoming who fall in love while working together one summer. They are unable to be in an open relationship due to the homophobia prevalent in their society and must meet in secret a few times a year. The story received multiple literary awards and was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 2005 that received much attention due to its portrayal of homosexuality. The story’s subject of homosexual relationships and its resonance with both the gay and heterosexual communities places it as an important work within the gay literary canon.

Works Cited

“Proulx, Annie.” Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 1333-1337. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Works Cited

Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Marc Stein, ed. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 1424 pp. 3 vols.

“A Chronology of U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History.” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Ed. Marc Stein. Vol. 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. xxiii-xlvi. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Sonstegard, Adam, Karla Jay, and Julie Abraham. “Literature.” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Ed. Marc Stein. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 184-201. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Apr. 2012.

Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. Yale University Press, 1999. Print.


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