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

Welcome! Out of the Past will be a regular column discussing the history of LGBTQ+ science fiction, fantasy and horror literature from the earliest years of the genre to the more recent present (many thanks to Queer Sci-Fi for hosting me and to Scott for suggesting it).

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 there there, ” to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein. 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. Most queer authors flew under the radar or paid the consequences. On the page, queer 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 ended in tragedy.

Early science fiction and fantasy writers who openly 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 that choice. 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 fantastic tales, would be imprisoned on sodomy charges and end his life a broken man.

In contrast, Irish author Sheridan Lefanu created a timeless lesbian vampire in his classic vampire tale, “Carmilla” (1872) and received praise and acclaim for it. But then, 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’s also worth noting that Le Fanu’s work lay pretty squarely in the Gothic horror tradition, which tended to be more open to queer characters, particularly if they were villains or monsters, and somewhat more open to queer creators. Beckford and Wilde were both quite successful until they got a bit too far out of the Victorian closet.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century also saw a large number of American and British women writing ghost stories and chilling supernatural suspense tales. This wave of supernatural fiction coincided with the peak and subsequent tapering off of the spiritualist movement with its seances, mediums and women speaking and teaching in public spaces. Many spiritualists were also involved in the movements for women’s suffrage and supported women’s education, emancipation and employment. The combination of social forces helped make these stories popular and women writers more socially acceptable than they had been for decades on both sides of the Atlantic.

Violet Paget, who wrote as Vernon Lee, was one of a number of female Gothic writers with “longtime companions” and many of her stories featured women who are easily read as queer in a contemporary context. Another queer author who was heavily influenced by the Gothic style was Daphne du Maurier, who is now best known for her novel Rebecca (1938), with its villainous housekeeper who openly loves and pines for her dead mistress. Du Maurier also wrote a number of ghost and supernatural suspense stories.

Prominent literary bisexual author Virginia Woolf helped pave the way for subsequent more positive portrayals of LGBT characters with her time traveling fantasy novel Orlando in 1928. In Woolf’s novel, Orlando changes genders from male to female and back, choosing to present as male for much of the rest of his/her four hundred year long life. Both men and women are attracted to him/her 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 literary fiction and horror author Shirley Jackson included several sympathetic female characters who can be easily read as lesbians or bisexual women 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 the magazine Universe. This was a tale 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)
  • What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
  • Valancourt Books line of classic Gay Horror reprints – http://www.valancourtbooks.com/

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

4 thoughts on “Out of the Past – LGBTQ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Before 1970”

Leave a Comment