Literature is one area in which homosexuality has not historically been a taboo topic. Homosexuals appear in literature extensively, although they have been usually cast as sinners or villains. After the American Psychiatric Association changed its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, homophobic references in literature gradually dissipated.
Since World War II, a serious gay literature has emerged. In 1948, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar became the first openly gay novel written by a renowned author and published by a well-known publisher. The gay theme caused controversy and tarnished Vidal's reputation. Because Vidal's two previous novels were war-themed, some accused The City and the Pillar of offending all men who were involved in World War II; The New York Times refused to publish advertisements for the book. Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the book became a best seller. It opened the door for other authors to write and publish books with overtly gay themes.
In 1950, James Barr published Quartrefoil, another gay novel that ended with the protagonist accepting his gay identity. Eight years later, James Baldwin found a publisher for Giovanni's Room, after many publishers rejected the novel because of its explicitly gay subject matter. That novel has endured as one of the most popular gay novels.
Even though gay men were pleased to find their experiences depicted in literature, the gay characters did not usually emerge victoriously from their problems. Early gay novels reflect the anguish of society's pariahs; the protagonists were often lonely and pathetic.
Society's acceptance of sexually graphic literature helped the cause of gay literature. Furthermore, the Kinsey Report of 1948 shocked America with its findings that 10 percent of the adult white male population is homosexual. Although subsequent surveys show that those findings were probably extreme, the notion became embedded in American culture. After the report's publication, morally condemning homosexuality became socially unacceptable in many circles.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s gave voice to gays, liberalizing social attitudes and paving the way for critical acceptance of gay literature. Moreover, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s brought media attention to gay concerns and legitimized the problems of the gay community.
Gay literature flourished throughout the latter two decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Coming-out stories are common as publicly proclaiming one's homosexuality is a pivotal point in most gays' lives. Telling the story of coming out of the closet helps gay people form their identities. Gay novels also help gays feel a sense of belonging.
In general, gay literature is comprised of three categories of male sexual desire: homoerotic, homosexual and gay. Homoerotic indicates desire without outright homosexual behavior. Homosexual connotes a conscious awareness of male-male sexual desire that might or might not be acted upon but does not require forming a new identity as homosexual. Gay indicates a self-conscious awareness of desire for other men as well as acceptance of a gay identity. Men could regularly take part in homosexual behavior without espousing a gay identity. The earliest gay literature contained homoeroticism and then developed into homosexual scenes, which gave way to activist gay literature.
Leslie Fiedler, in his 1960 treatise Love and Death in the American Novel, shook the literary world with the suggestion that homoeroticism is a major tradition in American novels. He points out that male relationships form the backbone of such classics as Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He postulates that the homoerotic myth of two men together in a lonely world, bound together by love, is a recurrent topic throughout American fiction.
Dennis Altman does not equate the latent homoeroticism in literature with homosexuality. He follows Freud in his belief that homosexuality is a part of every man, rather than a distinct class. In his view, books by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London simply reflect the polymorphous nature of sexuality.
Coming out is of greater concern to modern novelists. In Departure, Initiation and Return, Joseph Campbell discusses the unfolding of sexual identity as similar to the three stages of a hero's journey. In legends, the hero usually starts as a youth whose choices will affect his adult life. Likewise, adult sexual identity begins taking shape during youth. Later, the hero, like a gay man, has to question authority figures and depart from his familiar lifestyle. Last, the hero, like a gay person, returns to his former environment, confident in his new identity.