In April 2022, PEN America reported that 1,586 books were banned in U.S. schools from July 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022. Of those banned books, the most challenged have been stories relating to LGBTQ+ people and people of color.
Topping the recent “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” from the American Library Association are three best-selling books that focus on LGBTQ+ themes. Gender Queer, a memoir by Maia Kobabe, is an autobiographical comic that centers on what it means to be nonbinary and asexual. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young gay bi-racial man who struggles toward the American Dream. All Boys Aren’t Blue is a “memoir-manifesto” by prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson.
Sexuality has always been one of the top reasons books are challenged, and historically books with even a hint of non-hetero love have been deemed ‘obscene’ – even without a trace of actual sex depicted. Below are classic books that paved the way for books being published and challenged today.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel by the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” wrote Oscar Wilde in the preface to the 1891 edition of the novel. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The novel went through multiple editions, from the original manuscript to serialization in a magazine to the final published novel. Even though there was nothing explicit or even concrete about Dorian Gray’s sexuality, changes were made to make it ‘more moral.’ The book met with much controversy upon publication and it was showcased in Wilde’s “gross indecency” 1895 trials, called a ‘perverted novel.’ Homosexuality was not only a societal taboo in England at the time but also a criminal offense. Wilde was found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to two years of hard labor. He died just a few years after his release, at the age of 46.
The Well of Loneliness (1928)
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall caused a serious scandal upon publication in 1928, with a trial in the U.S. and the U.K. courts declaring it obscene. The book was not banned for erotic content but because the author presented homosexuality as a natural state of being, something inborn. Some were afraid this would corrupt readers’ morals. One of the first books to openly discuss the realities of life in that era for “inverts,” the obscenity trials sought to suppress the book but did the opposite, launching it into the spotlight.
Virginia Woolf’s inspiration for Orlando: A Biography came from the family of her lover and friend, the poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West. The book explores the generation-crossing life of a poet who changes sexes and lives for centuries. Initially born a male nobleman during the reign of Elizabeth I, Orlando later mysteriously transforms into a woman. Throughout the rest of the novel, Orlando plays between genders and attractions. The book was celebrated upon publication and seen as an experimental form of literature. Woolf’s fiction was groundbreaking enough that she was able to explode stereotypes and evade the courts.
Considered a cult classic of lesbian literature and a critical modernist novel, Nightwood, by author Djuna Barnes, was first published by Faber and Faber in 1936. The story revolves around Robin Violent, who navigates complicated relationships with her husband, child, and female lovers, against the background of Paris, Berlin, and Vienna.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)
Harper’s Bazaar first serialized Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers in 1940, before Houghton Mifflin released the book in 1941. The story takes place on an army base in Georgia, where a young Private Williams becomes obsessed with a captain’s wife. The captain, meanwhile, is attracted to Private Williams. Reflections in a Golden Eye is the second novel McCullers published after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1940. McCullers wrote the novel in two months, at the age of twenty-three, while living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with her ex-Army husband, Reeves. The couple divorced shortly after the publication, and both pursued partners of the same sex before remarrying in 1945.
The City and the Pillar (1948)
The City and the Pillar is the third published novel by American writer Gore Vidal. In the book, the main character, Jim Willard, has numerous dispassionate affairs with other men, all while pining for a lover of his youth. It was the first post-WWII gay novel where the protagonist didn’t die or become heterosexual, and critics responded strongly to the book’s publication. Although the work was a best-seller, Gore’s novels went unreviewed for year.
Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)
Random House published Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote in 1948. The semi-autobiographical novel about a young teen boy looking for his father was published when Capote was just twenty-four and had already found success writing short stories. Capote, who died at the age of 59 in 1984, was openly gay, and his novel seemingly accepts his decision to hear ‘other voices’ and live in ‘other rooms.’ The story itself did not seem to cause as much of a stir as the erotically charged photo of Capote lounging on the back of the first edition.
The Price of Salt (1952)
Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), wrote the novel The Price of Salt under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan. Highsmith didn’t claim credit for the book until 1990 when it was republished under the title Carol. The novel was groundbreaking in that the same-sex couple the book revolves around is given a happy ending instead of the usual death or forced transition to heterosexuality. The Price of Salt was first published as a hardback but found success as a .35 paperback, advertised as “the novel of a love society forbids.”
Giovanni’s Room (1956)
Giovanni’s Room was the first published novel by James Baldwin, who hit literary acclaim in 1953 with his semi-autobiographical work Go Tell it on the Mountain. Giovanni’s Room is about a young bisexual American man and his affair with an Italian in Paris. It is one of Baldwin’s only works not to deal with race, focusing instead on the characters’ romantic relationships.
A Single Man (1964)
A Single Man is a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood. It revolves around George Falconer, an openly gay English professor living in Los Angeles, grieving the sudden death of his partner, Jim. In 2009 Tom Ford released a film of the novel starring Colin Firth. A Single Man was first printed by Methuen in London, unedited, and by Simon and Schuster in the U.S. in 1964 – slighted edited. Simon and Schuster removed one sentence on page 180: “His hand feels for a handkerchief from under the pillow, wipes his belly dry.” One collectible edition of A Single Man is the 1980 The Land Press special edition, a limited print run of 400 books signed by the author.
E.M. Forster began the novel Maurice in 1913-1914; however, he did not try to publish it during his lifetime because of public and legal attitudes toward same-sex relationships. The author, famous for A Room with a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924), died in 1970, and Maurice was published the year after. Forster was inspired by the poet, philosopher, socialist, and early gay activist Edward Carpenter and his partner George Merrill to write the book.
Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)
Rubyfruit Jungle was the first novel published by Rita Mae Brown, who went on to pen more than 50 books, including many famous mysteries. But Rubyfruit Jungle made her the first openly gay author to be a mainstream success. The largely autobiographical coming-of-age novel about a young lesbian leaving the South for New York City sold more than a million copies.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a novel based on the author Jeanette Winterson’s life. The book follows the life of Jeanette, a young girl adopted and raised in a fundamentalist Christian home by a zealous mother. She is on the path to becoming a missionary until she falls for another girl. Embracing herself and her sexuality, she leaves her family and church at sixteen to pursue her love.
Tipping the Velvet (2000)
The most contemporary novel on our list, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, explores the music halls of 19th century London to portray the glittering life and love between Nan King and Kitty Butler.
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Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.