What’s in a name? Labelling books ‘LGBT’

Alice Mottram 12 February 2015

There are lots of books labelled ‘LGBT’. The typical gay bookshelf will comprise Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and anything by David Leviathan or Judith Halberstam. But it’s hardly clear what it means to ‘label’ a book anything, let alone to say that such a book can be stamped with the badge ‘LGBT’.

An initial theory might be that a book is LGBT if it’s written by a non-straight and/or non-cis author. Then what about James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, a stunning book about African-American evangelical religion that makes no mention of homosexuality despite Baldwin’s status as one of the few out-gay writers in the 1950s? If a trans person, or a lesbian, thinks that a traditional ‘straight’ book speaks to them, should it be included in our LGBT bookshelves? To what extent can supposedly straight, or merely non-oriented, literature be queered?

Rather than get too wrapped up in theoretical worries about whether there are any necessary or sufficient conditions for a book being apt for LGBT branding, it should be asked whether such a practice of labelling books is helpful. It is difficult to impose concepts of sexual orientation that arguably only make sense in the 21st Century context on to a wealth of literature that explores sexual desire in totally alien time periods and locations.

Nonetheless, the visibility of an ‘LGBT’ selection of literature can provide powerful inspiration for non-straight and non-cis people, especially for adolescents seeking to make sense of their sexuality and its place in the world. Labelling books ‘LGBT’ signposts certain texts as a potential refuge from the storm of confusion, homophobia, transphobia and social exclusion, and if it helps in reducing LGBT+ suffering, then surely labelling is helpful.

However, we shouldn’t pretend that most literature about queer lives isn’t tragic. There are very few happy endings for queer people in history, although there are some notable exceptions, including Forster’s Maurice and Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. There is a palpable risk that opening up the world of ‘LGBT’ literature to queer teens on the premise that characters in those books in some profound way resemble their own experience might result in such teens aligning their own lives with the catastrophic tragedies faced by queer people who came before them.

In the long-term, the labelling of books as ‘LGBT’ will hopefully cease to be necessary. As people outside the Cambridge Bubble start adopting the mantra that ‘sexuality and gender happen on a spectrum’, and as people start to actually internalise that mantra rather than sloganistically pay lip-service to it, then the marginalisation and denial of non-straight and non-cis expressions of identity will become increasingly untenable. 

Until then, ‘LGBT’ literature, provided it isn’t treated as something exclusively for LGBT+ people, is great where it helps queer teenagers. And let’s not forget that just therapeutically soothing queer people’s anxieties isn’t enough. It is in our collective power, queers, straights, trans and cis alike, to stop perpetuating those structures that serve to cause LGBT+ suffering in the first place. Let’s not let our fetishization of Walker and Wilde get in the way of that bigger imaginative vision.