Aug 12, 2021
Fifty years ago, Canada saw its first large scale queer rights demonstration. In 1971, queer rights activists marched to Parliament Hill to demand legal and policy reform in what became known as the “We Demand” protest. In 2021, with a nod to the past, “We Still Demand” is the theme for this year’s Capital Pride. This theme is a rallying cry to the ongoing issues that still affect 2SLGBTQIA+ communities while also honouring the milestones met since this historic march.
In recognition of these fifty years of queer Canadian activism, the Ottawa Public Library is proud to offer a retrospective of 2SLGBTQIA+ literary landmarks over the last 50 years that are available in our collection.
The 1970s was, arguably, the start of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States and the world at large due to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. This decade would see the publication of some notable works that would serve as the foundation for future generations of 2SLGBTQIA+ literature to come.
For example, this was the decade that saw the 1971 posthumous publication of E.M. Forster’s Maurice, a story notable for the happy ending afforded to its gay leads. In the United States, Rita Mae Brown published her first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, a work noteworthy for its frank depiction of lesbianism. Later in the decade, Armistead Maupin would publish Tales of the City, the first in his eponymous series chronicling the lives of San Francisco residents. On the East coast, New York author Andrew Holleran would see the mainstream publication of his queer novel Dancer from the Dance.
The world of comics had a momentous landmark in this decade as well. The comic anthology Wimmen’s Comix would publish their first issue which contained the story “Sandy Comes Out” by Trina Robbins. This comic was the first to ever feature an openly gay character, which was unheard of at the time.
Moving on to the 1980s, queer communities were devastated by the AIDS crisis. The onset of the epidemic would draw media attention which led to an interest from the general public, and thus a market, for the stories of queer people (Nava).
Due to this interest, this decade would see landmark publications of queer youth literature. For example, Nancy Garden’s Annie On My Mindwas one of the first books published for teens featuring gay protagonists that did not end tragically (a previously common trope). Also, Lesléa Newman was credited as the author of the first queer picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies, in 1989.
The eighties also produced exemplary adult queer literature including Audre Lord’s feminist text Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, a groundbreaking work of feminist theory that explored Lord’s intersecting identities as a Black, lesbian woman. Another example is Alice Walker’s seminal The Color Purple, as well as Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, both published around this time, and followed shortly by Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.
And finally, the landscape of 2SLGBTQIA+ comics continued to evolve. For example, 1983 saw the syndication of Alison Bechdel’s, a lesbian comic creator, serial comic Dykes to Watch Out For, which prominently featured a cast of lesbian and queer characters.
Continuing into the 1990’s, more and more titles featuring intersectional identities were published. Some Canadian examples include: Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, and Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen.These books explored the voices of queer POC and Indigenous characters. In a similar vein, American author and activist Eli Clare’s collection of essays, Exile and Pride, would explore the intersection of their queerness and disability. Finally, the Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinsberg was published, now largely considered a classic in 2SLGBTQIA+ literature.
Elsewhere, queer titles continued to trickle out of the Young Adult market, averaging about seven per year in the 1990s (Cart and Jenkins xvi). One notable publication was Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, which featured an out and proud lesbian character, which was awarded the Printz Honor award in 2000.
And Marvel comics made a groundbreaking move by having one of their superheroes (named Northstar) come out as gay. Also, comic creator Howard Cruse published Stuck Rubber Baby a coming-of-age-story of a young gay man that drew heavily on Cruse’s own life experiences growing up gay in the Southern US.
The millennium saw a building momentum for queer Young Adult books which led to an “explosion of LGBTQ+ YA literature by some of the genre’s most prolific authors of today” (Waters). These include Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys series; Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan; Keeping You a Secret by Julie Ann Peters; and Malinda Lo’s Ash. Other noteworthy books include Sarah Ryan’s Empress of the World which followed a bisexual teen girl protagonist and Peters’ Luna, that featured a straight and cisgender protagonist learning that their sibling is a trans girl. The latter was the first Young Adult book to feature a trans character (though it has since been criticized that they were only seen from the point-of-view of their cisgender sister.)
Meanwhile, in Canadian literature, authors such as non-binary author Ivan E. Coyote (Close to Spider Man; Bow Grip) entered the scene alongside notable authors Darren Greer (Still Life With June), and Emma Donoghue (Landing). Finally, renowned science fiction author Octavia E. Butler would publish her boundary-breaking speculative horror novel Fledgling in 2005.
Children’s literature was also expanding its repertoire of 2SLGBTQIA+ titles. Picture books like Todd Parr’s The Family Book and Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three represented and normalized same-sex families. Meanwhile, Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray’s 10,000 Dresses had a transgender main character, one of the first picture books to do so.
Mainstream comics publishing saw its first gay wedding between superheroes Midnighter and Apollo in 2002 and the publication of DC Comics’ Gotham Central which featured Renee Montoya, an out lesbian. Outside of mainstream graphic novel publishing, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki published their debut graphic novel, Skim, and transgender comic creator Sophie Campbell began publishing the Wet Moonseries, while Alison Bechdel also published their seminal graphic memoir, Fun Home.
As we move closer to the current day, more and more 2SLGBTQIA+ literature is exploring queer identities outside of the gay and lesbian designations. Some examples include Nevada by Imogen Binnie, a book about a young punk trans woman living in New York; Redefining Realness, a memoir by transgender author Janet Mock; A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett, a collection of short stories prominently featuring trans women; and the Tensorate series by non-binary author Neon Yang, a fantasy “silkpunk” series set in a world where children are born without gender.
Young Adult literature would follow these footsteps and see publications like Pet by Akwaeke Emezi; If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo; the memoir Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews; Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy; Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann; and I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, to name a few. Middle Grade stories also followed this trend with titles such as George (now Melissa’s Story) by Alex Gino; Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker; Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo; and Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee.
And the comic scene continued to see more queer titles by mainstream publishers. Greg Rucka wrote the DC superhero Batwoman as a lesbian character in Batwoman: Elegy while Northstar (from back in the 90s!) was married to his same-sex partner in the pages of Astonishing X-Men. Trans, non-binary, and genderqueer stories would see representation in works like Gumballs by Erin Nations and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Queer graphic novels for younger readers would gain wider recognition and prominence with the publication of Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters and Noelle Stevenson; The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill; and On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, as examples.
2021 and Beyond
As we move towards the future, we look back to the past. This historical overview demonstrates that a lot of progress has been made with the representation of queer characters and voices in literature but, arguably, a lot of work still needs to be done. As rightfully highlighted by Capital Pride, “We Still Demand” is still relevant as 2SLGBTQIA+ communities and allies demand wider and more inclusive representation in literature.
Please consider supporting queer books and authors by reading their work! This post only scratches the surface of 2SLGBTQIA+ literature that the Ottawa Public Library has to offer. Also, the OPL has a myriad of lists to peruse where you can find recommendations and place holds. Check them out here:
What are your favourite 2SLGBTQIA+ reads? Please let us know in the comments below!
Cart, Michael, and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969–2004 (Studies in Young Adult Literature Book 18). Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Nava, Michael. “Creating a Literary Culture: A Short, Selective, and Incomplete History of LGBT Publishing, Part II.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 June 2021, lareviewofbooks.org/article/creating-a-literary-culture-a-short-selective-and-incomplete-history-of-lgbt-publishing-part-ii.
Waters, Michael. “A Brief History Of Queer Young Adult Literature - The Establishment.” Medium, 26 Jan. 2019, medium.com/the-establishment/the-critical-evolution-of-lgbtq-young-adult-literature-ce40cd4905c6.