Pride at the EFL

To celebrate Pride this year, we’ve put together a display in the library exploring the different ways LGBTQIA+ literature and themes are represented in the library’s collections. You may have seen the display in the library, but if you haven’t had a chance to see it yet – or if you’d like to find out more about some of the ideas in the display – this is the blog post for you!

There are two parts to the Pride display. The first is based on the LGBTQIA+ acronym, highlighting books from the EFL’s collections featuring characters, themes, or ideas which link to each identity. The second part of the display focuses on queer theory from its emergence in the late twentieth century to twenty-first century scholarship. At the end of this post, you can find a list of resources which were used to put this display together, and which you might like to use as a starting point to find out more about these topics.

A capital-letter 'L' in the colours of the Lesbian Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: dark orange, orange, light orange, white, light pink, pink, dark pink.Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984)

The revolutionary writings of Audre Lorde gave voice to those ‘outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women’. Uncompromising, angry and yet full of hope, this collection of her essential prose – essays, speeches, letters, interviews – explores race, sexuality, poetry, friendship, the erotic and the need for female solidarity, and includes her landmark piece ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.  

Why is Lorde an interesting writer and thinker?

The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, and it’s often associated with Third Wave (late twentieth century) feminism. Lorde’s writing definitely fits the description of intersectional work: her thought encompasses race, sexuality and gender and explores how these combine to enact oppression, especially for non-heteronormative Black women.

A capital-letter 'G' in the colours of the MLM (men loving men) Pride flag. From top to bottom, the colours are: dark green, green, light green, white, light blue, blue, dark blue.Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets (2021)

Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man—a fellow slave—seeks to gain favour by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

What’s up with gay historical fiction?

Being gay is nothing new, yet it has often been hard to recognise and find out about people in the past who might today identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Into this gap steps historical fiction, offering an experimental space to explore both the past and the present constraints of academic queer literary studies. It’s important to remember that queer historical fiction – much like any other subgenre of historical fiction – often reveals the present as much as the past. We see this in The Prophets, which examines the damaging effects of the forced, violent imposition of a western Christian worldview on other practices, cultures and beliefs.

A capital-letter 'B' in the colours of the Bisexual Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: dark pink, purple, dark blue.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1991), originally published 1925

Nick Carraway is an aspiring writer; his cousin, Daisy, is married to the fabulously wealthy Tom Buchanan. Their neighbour, Jay Gatsby, throws extravagant and extraordinary parties in the exclusive and hallowed neighbourhood of West Egg. The entanglements between these four characters form the backbone of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest work.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

But Fitzgerald never says Nick is bisexual …

In 1979, Keath Fraser became the first scholar to suggest Nick Carraway was in love with Gatsby; many others have followed Fraser in arguing that Nick is either gay or bisexual (he mentions affairs and relationships with women in the novel). It’s significant that Nick’s sexuality is not explicit, but rather suggested through misdirection and elision. Considering that almost every social issue, from race to class and gender, overtly features in the narrative, the topic of sexuality is notable by its absence; indeed, ‘sexual transgression [is] the open secret of the novel’ (Froehlich, 2010).

A capital-letter 'T' in the colours of the Trans Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: blue, pink, white, pink, blue.Travis Alabanza, Overflow (2020)

Cornered into a flooding toilet cubicle and determined not to be rescued again, Rosie distracts herself with memories of bathroom encounters. Drunken heart-to-hearts by dirty sinks, friendships forged in front of crowded mirrors, and hiding together from trouble. But with her panic rising and no help on its way, can she keep her head above water?”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

What’s the link between Overflow and current debates?

Public toilets, and especially women’s toilets, have become a controversial focal point in debates around trans rights. Concerns about cis women’s safety in public toilets are frequently expressed, but what Alabanza shows in Overflow is that safety is just as much an issue for Trans women. The play centres around Rosie, who is hiding from would-be attackers in a public toilet, as she reflects on topics including the camaraderie that is often experienced in women’s toilets, whether cis women can extend that camaraderie to be allies of Trans women, and ultimately whether that’s something Trans women even want.

A capital-letter 'Q' in the colours of the Genderqueer Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: purple, white, green.(Gender) Queer: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (2017), originally published in 1969

“A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters.”

This summary is taken from the author’s website.

A capital-letter 'Q' in the colours of the Genderqueer Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: purple, white, green.(Gender) Queer: Andrea Lawlor, Paul takes the form of a mortal girl (2019), originally published 2017

It’s 1993 and Paul Polydoris tends bar at the only gay club in a university town thrumming with politics and partying. He studies queer theory, has a dyke best friend, makes zines, and is a flaneur with a rich dating life. But Paul’s also got a secret: he’s a shapeshifter. Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Paul transforms his body and his gender at will as he crossed the country––a journey and adventure through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

Are Le Guin and Lawlor talking about the same thing?

Both these novels reject gender norms, but Le Guin and Lawlor portray this rejection and its effects differently. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the inhabitants of Winter wholly reject binary gender systems rendering them wholly incomprehensible to Genly Ai, the human ambassador, who is equally alien to them. On Winter, gender is almost entirely unimportant and unremarkable. But for Paul in Lawlor’s novel, exploring all gender experiences is the whole point. These two novels may share a radical rejection of gender norms, but they do so in very different ways, showing the breadth and diversity that can be found in queer literature.

A capital-letter 'I' in the colours of the Intersex Pride flag. Those colours are a yellow background with a purple circle in the middleJeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2013), originally published 2002

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

“So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations. Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

What does it mean to write an ‘intersex’ or a ‘queer’ novel?

In Middlesex, Eugenides enacts a complete rejection of the body as a fixed measure of identity. This is manifest in Calliope/Cal changing from female to male, bringing into question the importance of gender as a marker of identity. But as well as this literal rejection of the body, Eugenides does the same in the novel’s narrative structure. Cal routinely inhabits the heads, thoughts and actions of other characters – even experiencing events which took place long before Cal was born. Consequently, what we see in Middlesex is queer themes alongside queer structures, amounting to a ‘queering’ of the novelistic form.

A capital-letter 'A' in the colours of the Aromantic Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: dark green, light green, white, grey, black.Jane Austen, Emma (1971), originally published 1815

“Oft-copied but never bettered, Jane Austen’s Emma is a remarkable comedy of manners. Austen follows the charming but insensitive Emma Woodhouse as she sets out on an ill-fated career of match-making in the little town of Highbury. Taking the pretty but dreary Harriet Smith as her subject, Emma creates misunderstandings and chaos as she tries to find Harriet a suitor, until she begins to realize it isn’t the lives of others she must try to transform.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website. 

Can you really say Emma is aromantic if Jane Austen wouldn’t know what that meant?

Austen’s novels are saturated with romantic love – but Emma Woodhouse seems to be the exception. She declares her disinclination for marriage, saying she has never been in love; she takes an exclusively rational approach to matchmaking; and she talks herself into feeling love, though she reasons herself out of love just as easily!

There are challenges when trying to apply modern terms and identities onto people (or in this case, characters) who wouldn’t recognise those terms. But aromantic readers still recognise their own experiences in the character of Emma. It’s interesting to note that these readings are generally coming from readers themselves, not from academia. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – after all, recognising our own experiences in fiction is a huge part of what reading is about! 

A 'plus' shape in the colours of the LGBTQ+ Progress flag. From top to bottom, the colours are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. The colours of the triangles coming from the left hand side, pointing to the right: yellow background with purple circle, white, pink, blue, brown, black.Books with LGBTQIA+ characters and themes are just one of the ways in which LGBTQIA+ literatures are represented at the EFL. We also have a number of works of queer theory, a field which emerged in the 1970s and 80s and which continues to grow and develop. You can find a few examples below – all but one of them are available as e-books too!

Late Twentieth-Century Queer Studies

Cover images, from left to right: Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick; The Apparitional Lesbian, by Terry Castle.In the late twentieth century, works of both historical and literary scholarship emerged which looked to a queer history, a lineage of queer lives, experiences and literary artefacts. The two examples here are Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985), and The Apparitional Lesbian by Terry Castle (1995). 

The context of the late twentieth century and developments within the LGBTQIA+ community is an important facet of these studies. ‘We’re here, We’re queer, Get used to it was the famous chant of gay activists in New York in the 1990s, a powerful assertion of queer presence. What scholars like Castle and Sedgwick were doing was asserting the long history of that presence. 

Twenty-First Century Queer Studies

Cover images, from left to right: After Queer Studies, edited by Tyler Bradway and E. L. McCallum; Queer Disappearance in Modern and Contemporary Fiction, by Benjamin Bateman. Compared to the environment in which Castle and Sedgwick were writing, twenty-first century queer studies is more secure as a field. That security is apparent studies like Benjamin Bateman’s work, Queer Disappearance in Modern & Contemporary Fiction (2023). Whereas earlier scholarship focused on queer presence – a political as much as a scholarly aim – Bateman turns to other ways of existing (or disappearing) ‘queerly’, as do others who, for example, consider queer experiences of time and rejections of ‘chrono-normativity’. Overviews such as After Queer Studies (2019) can similarly be read as testaments to the security of the field, as they reflect on the emergence of queer studies and, crucially, look to the future. 

Want to find out more?

If you’d like to find out more about queer studies, theory and literature, the Cambridge Companions and Cambridge Histories can be a great place to start. Each volume contains essays exploring different aspects of and debates within a given field and provide starting points for further research. What’s more, they’re available online with your Oxford SSO!

The books which feature in the display are The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies (2020) and The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (2014), but these aren’t the only ones relevant to queer studies and theory. Visit the Cambridge Core website to search across all the Cambridge Collections and see what’s available.

The 'Collections & Series' landing page of the website.

Search the Cambridge Collections & Series on their website. Copyright Cambridge University Press 2023.

And that’s it for this brief overview of some of the LGBTQIA+ literature and resources you can find at the EFL. As promised, you can find a list of sources and resources below!

Sources and Resources

Books used in this display (in the order they appear):

Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984). Also available as an e-book (2019 edition).

Jones, Robert, Jr., The Prophets (2021).

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby (1991).

Alabanza, Travis, Overflow (2020). Also available as an e-book.

Le Guin, Ursula K., ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, in Hainish Novels & Stories (2017).

Lawlor, Andrea, Paul takes the form of a mortal girl (2019).

Eugenides, Jeffrey, Middlesex (2013).

Austen, Jane, Emma (1971).

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Also available as an e-book (2015 edition).

Castle, Terry, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993).

Bateman, Benjamin, Queer Disappearance in Modern & Contemporary Fiction (2023). Also available as an e-book.

Bradway, Tyler, and E. L. McCallum (eds.), After Queer Studies: Literature, Theory and Sexuality in 21st Century (2019). Also available as an e-book.

Somerville, Siobhan B. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies (2020). Also available as an e-book.

McCallum, E. L., and Mikko Tuhkanen (eds.), The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (2014). Also available as an e-book.


Other sources and resources

This list includes resources used in putting the display together. It’s not a definitive list of resources relating to the texts or themes in the display, but you could use it as a starting point to find out more.

Bradley, Cerys, Transphobic Hate Crime Report 2020 (10 June 2020).

Freccero, Carla, ‘The Queer Time of Lesbian Literature: History and Temporality’, in Jodie Medd (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature (2015), 19-31.

Froehlich, Maggie Gordon, ‘Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in The Great Gatsby’, in The Space Between, 6:1 (2010), 81.

Herman, Daniel, ‘The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway: His Narration and His Sexuality’, ANQ, 30:4 (2017), 247-50.

Jackaman, Erick, ‘Overflow Review’, (16 December 2020). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Jaffe, Sara, ‘Queer Time: The Alternative to “Adulting”’, JSTOR Daily (10 January 2018). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Khong, Caitlin, ‘There’s A Place For Us: Aromanticism and Amatonormativity in Jane Austen’s Emma’, ArtsONE, 11 (2022). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Mullan, John, ‘Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides’, The Guardian (11 November 2011). Accessed 1 June 2023.

Murphy, Naoise, ‘Queering history with Sarah Waters: Tipping the Velvet, lesbian erotic reading and the queer historical novel’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 22:2 (2021), 7-18.

Parsons, Vic, ‘Travis Alabanza’s gripping new play teaches a powerful lesson about bathrooms, transphobia and female friendship’, PinkNews (16 December 2020). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Pearson, Wendy Gay, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon (eds.), Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (2008) [e-book].

Russo, Stephanie, ‘“You are, like, so woke”: Dickinson and the anachronistic turn in historical drama’, Rethinking History, 25:4 (2021), 534-554.

Santovec, Mary Lou, ‘The Necessity of Intersectionality: A Profile of Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw’, Women in Higher Education, 26:3 (2017), 8-9.

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