Out of the Past – LGBTQ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in the 1970s

Hello! Welcome to the second installment of my series of columns on the history of LGBTQ science fiction, fantasy and horror.

As I noted in my previous post, things had begun to improve slightly 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 after the events of June of 1969 when the police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The raid 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 LGBTQ characters in science fiction, fantasy and horror. From Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany to James Tiptree, Jr., Elizabeth Lynn, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch and Marion Zimmer Bradley, the range of queer characters being written by science fiction, fantasy and horror authors was extensive and varied. A number of these authors would also come out when the climate changed enough for that.

The political and social ferment of the times influenced the rest of the genre 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 also 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 that 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 that 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.

Alongside written explorations of LGBTQ science fiction and fantasy themes and characters, it’s worth noting that there was a lot of artwork, performance, film and other media that explored queer voices in the genre. Among these were performances like the Lesbian Art Project’s FEMINA, about a group of lesbian separatists who leave Earth for a distant planet and The Vampire Lovers (1970), a Hammer Studios film featuring lesbian vampires.

The 1970s were a decade that 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

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning writer and editor from Minneapolis. Her stories and articles have appeared in such venues as Respectable Horror, The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, The Cainite Conspiracies: A Vampire the Masquerade V20 Anthology, Nightmare Magazine: Queers Destroy Horror and SF Signal. Her books include Silver Moon and Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories. Website: www.catherinelundoff.com

5 Replies to “Out of the Past – LGBTQ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in the 1970s”

  1. Badger

    Really interesting post. I would have liked a bit more detail in terms of examples of what was being stated, but I guess that just means I’ll have to read all the books myself! Thanks for posting.

    Reply
  2. Jeff Baker

    Wonderful! Thanks! It says a lot about our modern age that we probably should have an updated edition of Uranian Worlds, the one of the three I have!

    Reply
    1. Catherine Lundoff

      Thanks, Jeff! I think an update to that book now would have to be Wiki or would have to have very focused volumes. It’s an invaluable resource for early work though.

      Reply

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