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Now that SF Signal is in the process of shutting down, I'll be moving all my LGBT science fiction and fantasy posts over here. See next posts on my thoughts for next steps and where this is possibly all going. Anyway, going in chronological order, earliest to latest.



LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy Before 1970



While portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) characters didn't become relatively common in science fiction, fantasy or horror until after the early successes of the Gay Liberation Movement in the 1970s, that didn't mean that there was no depiction of homosexuality in these genres before then. Of course, most of those early LGBT characters were depicted in coded terms, their identity only hinted at. Homosexuality was illegal nearly everywhere in the world and could carry severe legal and social consequences if it was discovered. Characters portrayed their same sex interest with a significant glance, a passing comment or a bit too much interest in another character, an interest that often turned villainous or fatal.

Early science fiction and fantasy writers who experienced what one of Oscar Wilde's lovers called "the love that dared not speak its name" and wrote fiction about it paid dearly for it. William Beckford, the gay author of the Orientalist fantasy The History of Caliph Vathek (1786), began his life as one of the richest men in England and ended as a bankrupt disgrace in France. A century later, Wilde himself, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), The Canterville Ghost and assorted fairy tales, would be imprisoned on sodomy charges and end his life a broken man.

In contrast, Sheridan Lefanu was able to write about a lesbian vampire in the classic vampire tale "Carmilla" (1872) to praise and acclaim, but Lefanu was heterosexual (as far as is currently known) and the lesbian relationship in his story is equated with death and destruction. Villains and monsters had no need to be subtle about their desires.

It would be another fifty years before bisexual author Virginia Woolf paved the way for   subsequent positive portrayals of LGBT characters with her time travelling fantasy novel Orlando in 1928. In Woolf's novel, Orlando changes genders from male to female, then chooses to present as male for much of the rest of her/his four hundred year long life. Both men and women are attracted to her/him on multiple levels, making it a groundbreaking work for SF/F, though it is generally classified as literary fiction.

Author Olaf Stapledon's superhuman protagonist John Wainwright in Odd John (1936), also has positive relationships with both men and women before embracing asexuality. This was one of the most positive portrayals of a queer character to appear during and shortly after World War II.

The negative portrayals, unsurprisingly, outnumbered the positive ones and, during the War, generally equated homosexuality with Nazism. One of the better-known examples, Katharine Burdekin's alternate history about the Thousand Year Reich, Swastika Night (1937), is a vision of a Nazi society built around homosexuality and misogyny. Another alternate history, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here (1935) touches on some of the same themes, linking homosexuality to Nazi totalitarianism.

The 1940s were, unsurprisingly, a bleak period for positive portrayals, corresponding with the overall attitude amongst pulp fiction editors and society at large that a character was better off dead than gay. Readers looking to find less dire fates for LGBT characters had to wait until the early 1950s when horror author Shirley Jackson included several sympathetic female characters who can be easily read as lesbians or bisexuals in such novels as Hangsaman (1951) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Theodore Sturgeon cast a ray of hope with his classic story "The World Well Lost" (1953) in Universe, about two aliens in love and the intolerance they face. It is considered to be the first openly sympathetic depiction of homosexuality in science fiction.

The later 1950s and 60s ushered in more positive portrayals of LGBT characters by such famous names as Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Pangborn and Robert Heinlein. The dramatic social changes of the 1960s impacted the science fiction and fantasy genres as they did everything else, inspiring a new generation of writers as well as creating new audiences. The decade also saw the early publications of the first openly gay and lesbian genre authors of the modern period, including Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ and Thomas Disch.

Their stories and novels, as well as those of other progressive writers in the field, paved the way for new perspectives on sexuality and gender in science fiction, fantasy and horror. If you're interested in learning more about the early years of LGBT SF/F, I recommend the excellent reference book Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, edited by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo (G.K. Hall & Co, 1990) which covers the topic through 1989.

Some recommended reading:

A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn (1954)

"Mr. Wilde's Second Chance" by Joanna Russ (1966)

"Aye, and Gomorrah" by Samuel Delany (1967)

"The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber (1968)

Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig (1969)


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Continuation of porting my posts over from SF Signal.

Catherine Lundoff is a former archaeologist, former grad student and former bookstore owner turned professional computer geek and award-winning author and editor. She is a transplanted Brooklynite who now lives in Minneapolis with her wife and the two cats which own them. Silver Moon (Lethe Press, 2012) is her latest book and “Medium Méchanique” in Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam (2013) and “The Light Fantastic” in Luna Station Quarterly (2013) are her latest stories. Visit her online at her website, facebook and Twitter as @CLundoff.


LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy in the 1970s

by Catherine Lundoff

As I noted in my previous post, things had begun to improve for SF/F/H readers looking for more positive portrayals of LGBT characters and complex perspectives on sexuality and gender in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. That trend accelerated in June of 1969 when a police raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City triggered several days of rioting by bar patrons and other LGBT people. These riots are considered to be the beginning of the contemporary Gay Rights Movement in the U.S. because they had huge political implications for the visibility and subsequent legal status of LGBT people.

One result of that visibility was an upsurge in depictions, positive and negative, of LGBT characters in science fiction, fantasy and horror. From Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany to James Tiptree, Jr., Elizabeth Lynn, Michael Moorcock and Marion Zimmer Bradley, the range of LGBT characters being written by SF/F and H authors was extensive and varied. The political and social ferment of the times influenced the field as well, with worlds and visions that were influenced by different strands of feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and other social change movements.

Some of those influences were examined in such themes as single-sex worlds which were de facto populated with gay or lesbian characters. Often the plot of these stories hinged on the arrival of astronauts or aliens of a different gender than the original inhabitants, and said original inhabitants seeing the error of their ways and embracing heterosexuality in some form.

But there were some extraordinary spins on this idea, including James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1976 story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” about three male astronauts who travel through time to a future in which all the men have died off and the surviving women have built a culture they are not interested in changing. Joanna Russ used the same theme for her story “When It Changed” (1972), with the significant difference that the male astronauts do succeed in bringing unwelcome social changes to the all-female society they encounter. In contrast, authors like Suzy McKee Charnas and Sally Gearhart envisioned worlds where the relationships between men and women were so highly polarized that they formed separate, hostile societies on the same planet.

Another theme that blossomed during the decade was the idea of worlds which possessed some form of sexual utopia, open to multiple forms of sexual expression, including homosexuality, bisexuality and polyamory. Sex in these works is an important part of both plot and character development. John Varley was one author who explored these themes extensively in his novels, beginning with Titan (1979), the first volume of his Gaea series. The series featured a wide range of sex acts and possibilities as well as developing a lesbian relationship for its protagonists.

Samuel Delany had a more dystopian take on the theme in Dhalgren (1975), which features a bisexual protagonist traveling through a dying city, having encounters with the inhabitants that are sometimes sexual, sometimes hostile. Author Michael Moorcock also explored the eroticism in this theme in his novel Gloriana: Or the Unfulfill’d Queen (1979), a fantasy about a bisexual queen in quest of an elusive orgasm.

There was also a substantial increase in works that explored gender on alien worlds where gender was changeable or beyond binary gender categories. The first of these works, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), is set on a world whose inhabitants are depicted as genderless with the exception of the several days per month when they may become either male or female.

Le Guin’s novel influenced a number of other authors, including David Gerrold, whose novel Moonstar Odyssey, featured a planet whose children did not choose a gender until adolescence. Samuel Delany’s Triton (1976) is set on a world where the inhabitants can change both sexual orientation and gender at will. On a more individual level, Tanith Lee’s novels Death’s Master (1979) and Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977) and Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man (1971) are amongst a number of works from this time period which feature protagonists who change gender at will.

Finally, of course, there were simply more LGBT protagonists as well as villains to read about. Elizabeth Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy, which debuted with Watchtower (1978), features gay and lesbian protagonists in a gradually changing feudal landscape. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Shattered Chain (1976) and The World Wreckers (1971) are amongst the volumes of her Darkover series which focus on same-sex relationships in a changing culture. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975) includes multiple protagonists, one of whom is a lesbian, experiencing an intriguing and complicated sfnal take on the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement.

The 1970s were a decade which brought a wealth of good writing about sexuality, sex and gender to the genre, including sophisticated examinations of how we as humans construct and experience those crucial elements of our daily lives. In addition to Russ, Delany, Varley, Le Guin and Tiptree, writers like Thomas Disch, Tom Reamy, Elizabeth Lynn and others moved the genre in new directions and influenced new generations of writers. These works also encouraged a new generation of LGBT fans and writers to envision themselves in new futures and different lives, no longer limited to being either a villain or a victim.

To learn more, I recommend Uranian Worlds by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Alternative Sexualities and Identities in Fantasy and SF Booklist and the Feminist SF Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender SF bibliography.


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