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For most of us, any literature we were taught in high school came from heterosexual authors about heterosexual relationships. As “Don’t Say Gay” laws continue to be passed, this exclusion of queer authors telling queer stories will only get worse.

With this erasure, it’s easy to forget the early novels that paved the way toward representation. Since the education system fell short, we have compiled a list of historical queer novels everyone should know about. We’ve got to teach ourselves and share our stories, especially in times like these.

 

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Said to be the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, Carol (previously published as The Price of Salt) follows New Yorker Therese Belivet on her mission to become a theatre set designer. Caught in a stale heterosexual relationship, she meets Carol who, too, is stuck in a heterosexual relationship. The two embark on a whirlwind romance that goes against everything they have known, as the women are forced to risk exploding their lives in the pursuit of love.

 

Olivia by Dorothy Stracey

Set in the 19th century, the novel follows a young student’s developing feelings for her lively and charismatic French teacher, Mademoiselle Julie. Filled with the realities of a first love — the undying passion, the pitiful sorrows, and the chase for one’s desire — Dorothy Stracey’s first novel, published anonymously under the pseudonym “Olivia”, sets the scene for an epic sapphic love story that even went on to inspire André Aciman’s 2007’s Call Me By Your Name. (The 2017 film adaptation of that novel starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer inspired Lil Nas X’s “Montero” lyrics.)

 

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Rumored to be inspired by Woolf’s lover and friend, Vita Sackville-West, the queer classic explores the life of Orlando, who discovers changes sex from male to female and stops aging. Woolf’s fluid beliefs on sexuality and gender identity are explored in the masterpiece that has gone on to be studied by scholars across LGBTQ+ disciplines.

 

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

The coming-of-age novel follows Molly Bolt, an exceptionally beautiful girl who has a firm understanding of being a lesbian from the time she is young. Exploring Molly’s sexual experiences and her journey through New York City’s heterosexual and lesbian community, the novel explores themes of freedom, social constructs, and the intersections between sexuality and womanhood.

 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

Originally a column in the San Francisco Chronicle and later the San Francisco Examiner, the column-turned-novels follow the intertwined lives of the San Francisco tenants at Barbary Lane. Groundbreaking for its portrayals of queer and transgender characters in the years preceding and during the AIDS crisis, the psychological soap opera has captivated audiences since its initial release in 1978 and went on to become a Netflix miniseries co-starring Elliot Page.

 

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Costa B Pappas
Costa B. Pappas
Costa B. Pappas is a New York City-based writer focused on exploring the faucets of arts, culture, and social constructs. His work has been featured in The Observer, Fiction Writers Review, Narcity, Business Insider, and Newsweek. You can find him working on his debut novel in the Bowery Hotel lobby or on Twitter @CostaBPappas.