June is Pride month! It is a month in which the U.S honors the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people have had on our society, culture, and national identity. While the U.S. and much of the world has a long history of shaming and oppressing LGBTQ+ individuals with social stigma and violence, Pride focuses on celebrating sexuality and gender diversity while positively promoting self-affirmation, dignity, and equality for LGBTQ+ communities.
In honor of Pride, we’re focusing on the stories of famous writers who not only shaped Western literature as we know it today, but also improved, altered, or inspired the discourse surrounding sexual identity and gender expectations. Enjoy the following four stories and famous quotes from LGBTQ+ authors!
1. H. D.
I will be free,
no lover’s kiss
to bind me to earth,
no bliss of love
In his Autobiography, poet William Carlos Williams describes H.D. as an intense woman looking to cast off the conventions of Victorian society. He describes how she would splash ink all over her clothes before she began writing to give herself the “feeling of freedom and indifference.” H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle in Pennsylvania) was an important part of the modernist movement whose work spans five decades from the Victorian Era to the Atomic Age. She focuses on love, war, death, and life through innovative perceptions of gender, language, and mythology. H.D.’s poetry uses images full of sensation so that you can almost taste the ripeness of the fruit in her “Orchard” or feel the oppressive heat in “Garden.”
Along with adding beautiful poetry to the imagist and modernist movements, H.D. explored her bisexuality openly and began important conversations in psychology about the complexity of human sexuality. H.D.’s first love was male poet Ezra Pound in the early 1900s. The couple’s passionate affair was controversial, but the couple decided to get married despite rumor and opinion. Pound saw H.D. as his muse and she imagined a bohemian lifestyle with her lover. However, as the relationship grew more conventional, H.D. began questioning traditional expectations of sexuality, gender, and marriage. She became disenchanted with being his muse and broke off the engagement.
It was around this time that H.D. met Frances Gregg, an intense, young, female poet who would become H.D.’s lover and muse. She saw Gregg as her “twin soul.” Though Gregg was possessive, H.D. felt the secret, forbidden relationship gave her freedom from Pound that inspired her to write prolifically. This intense poetic output came to a screeching halt when H.D. discovered Gregg and Pound had a secret intimate relationship; the erotic threesome left H.D. feeling betrayed and disenchanted.
H.D. eventually sought Sigmund Freud’s help her with her writer’s block. She came to understand her sexuality over the course of her sessions with Freud. It was his opinion that her writer’s block came from her own discomfort with her bisexuality. Freud’s analysis of where this discomfort came from an Oedipal obsession with her mother remains extremely controversial; however, unlike many of his other patients, H.D. pushed back against any diagnosis that she did not agree with. Namely, Freud’s theory that women’s issues came from envy of “man-strength” or their possession of a penis. She instead celebrated the erotic, spiritual, and assertive power of women and claimed that “woman is perfect.”
2. Oscar Wilde
Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.
Oscar Wilde is remembered for his bold personality, quick wit, and humor. His plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband made the face of theatrical drama more absurd, short stories like “The Canterville Ghost” satirized popular literary trends like the gothic, and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, challenged conventional perceptions of beauty, truth, and morality. You’ve probably seen his witty quotes on your friend’s Instagram pages:
- “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
- “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
- “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
But these witty remarks, his brilliant writing, and extravagant lifestyle are only part of Wilde’s story.
Wilde was the victim of stringent anti-gay laws in England in the 19th century. In 1885, The Criminal Law Amendment, or Labouchere Amendment, made “gross indecency” a crime in the United Kingdom. “Gross indecency” was a fluid term used to describe any kind of behavior that the court deemed harmful to society. It was disproportionately used to convict homosexuals when the court could not prove that intercourse had taken place.
In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted by this law and sentenced to two years in a hard labor prison. Wilde had been romantically involved with Lord Alfred Douglas, an aristocratic poet and political commentator. When Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, found out about the relationship, he left a note for Wilde at the Albemarle Club in London which labeled him a “Posing Somdomite,” misspelling his accusation that Wilde was committing sodomy. Wilde was furious. Though he was in a secretly gay relationship that everyone in his social circle knew about, sodomy was considered a crime punishable by life in prison. Wilde brought a lawsuit against Queensberry for public defamation. However, the courts almost instantly dismissed Wilde’s claims and instead used it as an opportunity to convict him.
Prison broke Wilde. He was subjected to poor nutrition, hard labor, and multiple untreated illnesses. Once, he was so ill and malnourished that he collapsed and ruptured his left eardrum—an injury that was responsible for the meningitis that would kill him only a few years later. He left prison broken, demoralized, and publicly hated. He exiled himself and went to Paris, where he stayed with a series of friends. Against the advice of his friends, Wilde rekindled his love with Douglass for a few short months in France, but their families tore them apart, threatening to cut them off from their allowances. He died of cerebral meningitis in 1900. He was only 46-years old.
In 2017, Wilde was posthumously pardoned along with around 50,000 other men when Parliament passed the Policing and Crime act of 2017, which automatically pardoned all men convicted of homosexual acts that are no longer considered criminal. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in the UK until 1967.
3. Walt Whitman
Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach.Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land.
Walt Whitman is one of the United States’ most renowned and respected poets. He embraced the American transcendental movement, which believed in the inherent goodness of people. His epic collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, is considered one of the central works of U.S. poetry, though it was initially condemned as too explicitly sexual.
Whitman’s sexuality has long been under debate among scholars. All evidence we now have of his homosexuality or bisexuality are second-hand accounts. Peter Doyle, Whitman’s inseparable companion for several years after their meeting in 1866, described their connection as one of mutual love and understanding: “We were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip—in fact went all the way back with me.” Whitman wrote about Doyle in his manuscripts using the code “16.4,” Doyle’s numerical initials in the alphabet. Whitman’s love poem “Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City” was originally written to a man—the pronouns being changed to address a woman when it was published. Even Oscar Wilde, who met Whitman in 1882, claimed “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” and insisted that Whitman was gay.
However, the poet himself vehemently dismissed all questions and claims that he had homosexual relations while he was alive. He even claimed to have fathered six illegitimate children, a claim that was never corroborated by an ex-lover, child, or birth certificate.
Whitman’s denials suggest that his sexuality was more complex than his society allowed it to be. Whitman lived from 1819–1892 in New York and New Jersey. Sodomy was a capital offense on the level of murder in the United States until 1962. On top of legal prohibitions, homosexual men were violently persecuted by the communities in which they lived.
Whitman’s beautiful, lyrical, and insightful poetry shows that he could find beauty and reassurance in the world. Even though he was born into a society in which he might have had to repress his identity and was denied the right to explore his own sexuality, Whitman focused on love, friendship, democracy, and the soul.
What I feel for you can’t be conveyed in phrasal combinations; it either screams out loud or stays painfully silent but I promise—it beats words. It beats worlds.
Much of what we know about Katherine Mansfield’s personal life is from the series of diaries she kept throughout her life. Originally born in New Zealand, Mansfield lived most of her adult life in England. She attended Queen’s College where she developed intellectual freedom and fell in love with the writing and lifestyle of Oscar Wilde. Though her parents expected her and her sisters to become upper-class socialites, Mansfield preferred to live a bohemian lifestyle. In her journals she writes that while with her family, she felt “a sense of unutterable loneliness pervaded [her] spirit.”
Mansfield’s life in London consisted of emotional and personal tumult and constant writing. She has a series of male and female lovers, one marriage, and two miscarriages or abortions. Her mother, Annie, ventured to London at one point and tried to check her daughter into a fancy hotel for an intervention. When Annie returned to New Zealand, she cut Mansfield out of her will. Mansfield said of herself that she was a writer “with a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse.”
Her most significant relationship was with Ida Baker, a woman whom she met at Queens College in 1903. Baker was intensely loyal and dedicated to Mansfield. She stayed with her through multiple relationships, illnesses, engagements, and a marriage. She was Mansfield’s confidante, doormat, housekeeper, nurse, and fan. It is unclear if their relationship was ever sexual in nature. In many writings, Mansfield seems violently angry at Baker yet in some ways depends on her to be there. Baker in turn seems to be infatuated with Mansfield, calling her “angel” and “love.”
Mansfield’s broad experiences during this time gave her the perspective to revolutionize the English short story, writing brilliant tales like “The Garden Party.” She presents complex personalities and rejects modern conventions of plot or endings to create portraits of characters interacting with moments. Her prose is not overly emotional; rather, her characters have sharp, resonant reactions to events. Mansfield explored sexuality, vulnerability, insensitivity, and the instability of the family. She drew power from painful or mundane experiences and was thus able to present the world with its messy complexities.