Lesbian Literature includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that feature same sex women’s love, relationships, and themes. While there is a history of lesbian literature before the 20th century—most notably Sappho of Lesbos—most of the literature offered only subtle lesbian themes. The first explicit lesbian novel published in English, The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall was deemed obscene by British courts and was banned for decades. It appeared in the United States only after surviving several legal challenges. Getrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) soon followed. However, before the publication of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), readers could only surmise whether literary characters were lesbian.
The personal and professional risks were dire for lesbian authors who not only had to contend with the sexism that undervalued women’s creative power, but also with the homophobia that forced them underground.
For instance, while most readers today understand Willa Cather as a lesbian, writing lesbian-themed novels, her My Antonia (1918) featured a main character, Jim Burden, who is now generally understood as a cover for Cather herself. In life, Cather was compelled to conceal her relationships with women, including 12 years with Isabelle McClung, and 40 years with Edith Lewis.
The feminist and gay rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped opened the closed doors of lesbian life and love in literature. The first lesbian publishing house, Naiad Press, appeared in 1978 and was founded by Barbara Grier, Donna McBride, Anyda Merchant, and Muriel Crawford. Their first publication was The Latecomer (1974) by Susan Aldridge.
Allison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006); Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1936); Emma Donoghue, Hood (1998); Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (2004); Nancy Garden, Annie on My Mind (1982); Jewelle Gomez, The Gilda Stories (1991); Andrea Gibson, Pansy (2015); Ibis Gomez-Vega, Send My Roots Rain (1991); Rosa Guy, Ruby (1976); Barbara Harris, Lover (1976); Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952); Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name—A Biomythography (1982); Maryjane Meaker, Spring Fire (1952); Isabel Miller, Patience and Sarah (1969); Achy Obejas, Memory Mambo (1996); Nina Revoyr, Southland (2003); Aiobheann Sweeney, Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking (2008); Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982); Sarah Waters, Affinity (2002); Monique Wittig, Lesbian Body (1986).
E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, eds. The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (2014)
Meredith Miller, Historical Dictionary of Lesbian Literature (2006)
Bonnie Zimmerman, Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Literature 1969-1989 (1992)