Saturday 24 March 2018

Rainbow literature's bright and bold legacy

The Legacy of Gay Literature: What difference will marriage equality make

Iconic movie: Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', the 1961 Hollywood movie based on Truman Capote's novel of the same title.
Iconic movie: Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', the 1961 Hollywood movie based on Truman Capote's novel of the same title.
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Ireland's recent resounding affirmation of same-sex marriage energised a young electorate into political activism. Many first-time voters did not even know that homosexuality had been a crime until relatively recently. The road travelled to reach that defining moment on May 23 had been marked by prejudice and subversion.

Around the time of the referendum, a book was published on the aversion therapy used to 'treat' homosexuality in Britain. The book is 'Curing Queers': Mental nurses and Their Patients, 1935-74 by Tommy Dickinson. The 'therapy' ranged from chemical and electrical experiments, based on the assumption that homosexuality was not innate, rather, it was habit-formed. Some patients sought a 'cure' through their doctors. Some agreed to undergo the treatment in order to avoid jail upon conviction for homosexual activity.

One such was the computer pioneer Alan Turing, who, in 1952, was offered the option of oestrogen injections (chemical castration) or jail. Turing died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 - it is currently debated whether the coroner's verdict of suicide was correct. The secrecy, subversion and torture of the period is portrayed in The Imitation Game, a film based on Andrew Hodges' 1983 Turing biography The Enigma. The film came out earlier this year with Turing played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Homosexual activity had been outlawed in England (and the United States) as early as the Buggery Act 1533. In 1957, the Wolfenden Report was in favour of decriminalisation, but the law in England and Wales did not change until 1967. Twenty-six years later, homosexual activity was decriminalised in Ireland. But the narratives related before the referendum showed that many LGBT people still led secret lives, for fear of being ostracised or condemned. That state of 'otherness', whether it is homosexuality or some other indefinable sense of alienation, can produce a powerful sensitivity, expressed in many creative forms. The most often, in novel form. Historically, the novel is a fairly new medium, as is the current openness about homosexuality. It is hardly surprising then, that gay characters in literature are rare. But Plato explored the theme of love between men on a variety of different levels over 2,000 years ago in Symposium (385-370 BC).

Out of the darkness of the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment revisited the Greco-Roman Classical era "as a model for contemporary life". The appreciation of nudity, the male form and male friendship found expression in art and literature. As the punishment for sodomy was death, it was dangerous to publish anything with overtly gay themes, so coded narratives evolved. The Gothic genre helpfully sublimated homosexual themes in the works of Matthew Lewis and William Beckford. The 1749 novel, Fanny Hill, by John Cleland, one of the most banned books in history, features a rare scene of homosexual sex.

The moral revulsion was not confined to the British Isles. In her recent novel The Miniaturist, Jessica Burton portrays the sinister and profane atmosphere around homosexuality in the Dutch Golden Age.

In 1890, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray lifted the veil with his flamboyant and paranormal characters, playing to the ultimate demise of the deviant one.

Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) examined the infatuation of an ageing writer with a young Polish boy. The horror of war gave us the great poetry and love story of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. In France, Marcel Proust's À La Recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) and Nobel Prize-winner André Gide's The Counterfeiters (1925) more openly explore homosexual themes.

A Room With a View and Howard's End author EM Forster, wrote a bildungsroman in 1914, entitled Maurice, and not published until 1971. In order to conceal his homosexuality, he wanted it published posthumously. He said of it that a "happy ending was imperative...I was determined that in fiction anyway, two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows ... Happiness is the keynote." William J. Mann (biographer of Katherine Hepburn) says the main character in Maurice was "a refreshingly unapologetic young gay man who was not an effete Oscar Wilde aristocrat, but rather a working class, masculine, ordinary guy."

In America, it was still rare to publish a gay-themed novel. In the first half of the 20th-century there was Djuna Barnes' Nightwood (1936) and Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941). Truman Capote's Southern gothic Other Voices, Other Rooms about a young, effeminate 13-year old boy, was published in 1948. Ten years later, he published his charmingly coded Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was made into the iconic film with Audrey Hepburn.

Also in 1948, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, the first of its type where an openly gay protagonist is not killed off at the end for deviating from social norms. It caused a public scandal and The New York Times refused to advertise it. No major newspaper or magazine would review any of Gore Vidal's novels for six years.

The 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man, presented homosexuality as a human variation to be accorded value and respect, by associating the mistreatment of homosexuals with the discrimination suffered by other minorities in America.

In the 21st century, gay writers are being celebrated and translated on to screen for their wide-ranging narratives, including Alan Hollinghurst, Michael Chabon, Colm Toibin, Sarah Waters and Jamie O'Neill.

Irish women writers who have explored gay relationships in their recent fiction, include Nuala Ni Chonchuir in The Closet of Savage Mementoes and Yvonne Cassidy (herself an LGBT activist) in How Many Letters are in Goodbye? (both reviewed in these pages). Best-selling author Emma Donoghue's 1995 work Hood won the American Library Association's Gay and Lesbian Book Award, and was recently republished.

From the literature of antiquity to renaissance painting, poetry and sculpture to music, architecture, fashion, design, film, theatre and today's award-winning novelists, the love that dare not speak its name has given the world a vast and illuminating body of work. It remains to be seen how the legal and public acceptance of same-sex marriage will affect a literary genre that relied upon secrecy.

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