Tue
Mar 16 2010 4:52pm

Queering SFF: First Experiences

The more I think on where to start talking about the idea of queering SFF, which is something in between a reclamation and a recognition process, the more I realize there’s no concrete place to begin. To be queer is to be strange, fantastic and outside the normative box. Considering how easily those words apply to speculative fiction, it’s not surprising that some writers of SFF have engaged in a great deal of play with the concepts of gender, identity and sexuality. But how far back could we say the tradition of speculative fiction goes? If we answer “for as long as people have been telling stories,” then when did they start telling stories that questioned the social designations of gender and sexuality? I can’t pick a text to point to and say “yes, this! This is where it started!”

Instead, the best place to begin might be with individual experience. Everyone has a different story about the first book they read with a queer character who wasn’t just the villain or the guy who died in the first chapter. It was mind-blowing and unbelievably freeing to hold a real, published book in my hands and realize that the main characters weren’t straight. I have two examples for my starter books, both read when I was around thirteen: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and, on a totally different end of the spectrum, Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite.

 

There’s a big academic tangle over The Picture of Dorian Gray (is it gay? Is it spec-fic?) that I’m going to avoid entirely. When I read it for the first time, I thought that Basil was in love with Dorian and Dorian had a thing going on with Henry. Nowadays, I could argue ‘til the world ends about whether it’s just homoerotic or actually gay, but that first read was pretty eye-opening. Not only was this a real, published book, it was a classic about “the love that dare not speak its name.”

Wilde’s only novel is occasionally too verbose (there’s a shorter original version which is also much more blatant in its eroticism), but the moments of high dramatic tension in it will still steal a reader’s breath. When Dorian shows Basil his aged portrait, wrecked by vice, it’s hard not to shiver. Basil’s murder at the hands of the man he loved drives home the intensity of Dorian’s fall from grace. The emotional connections between the characters are the strongest part of the story, though; Basil’s hopeless devotion to Dorian is heart-wrenching, doubly so when the reader considers how impossible that love was in their time.

The influence The Picture of Dorian Gray has had on generations of readers who’ve gone on to make movies, music and new stories based on the tale is undeniable. The book’s main narrative concern is not actually romance, but the subtext is rich with implications that make it a worthwhile read for anyone considering the history of queer characters in speculative fiction. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it before: it’s just one of those books that everyone should try at least once.

On the flip side, Poppy Z. Brite’s Drawing Blood is clear as glass: it’s spec-fic, it’s gay, and it’s not shy about it. The world of Drawing Blood is constructed to hook it into a cultural continuum. There are references to Neuromancer, Naked Lunch, R. Crumb and Charlie Parker—all of which firmly place the book in with the things it calls to mind. It’s a legitimizing affair almost as much as it is a way to make the reader identify with the characters. By placing the narrative in a recognizable space, Brite asserts the book’s right to exist in that same spectrum. I would hardly call it a perfect book, as there are some passages of awkward writing that one can generally expect in an early novel, but I’ve still read it more times than I can count throughout my life. Part of this is that the references mentioned above really did resonate with me and still do (I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of cyberpunk). Much more, though, it’s how enthralled I was the first time I read the book. That feeling of pleasure hasn’t ever worn away completely.

Trevor’s side of the plot, a haunted-house story, is intense in a creative and under-stated way for the majority of the book before it erupts into the madness of the ending. Zach’s hacker yarn is just as much fun for the kind of reader who really, really liked the movement in the days it seemed like a viable and fascinating future. I’m not sure how that will have aged for new readers from the millennium generation, to be honest, but anyone who was growing up in the ‘90s will appreciate it. The way their lives collide and combine is somewhere between romantic and crazy.

There actually isn’t much sex in Drawing Blood in comparison to later books like Exquisite Corpse, and where it does play a part it builds the romantic narrative between Zach and Trevor. The scenes are fairly explicit which was in and of itself a new experience for the younger me. I had the internet, so it wasn’t like I was unaware of things like slash fandom, but to read an actual sex scene between two men in a book was sort of a “level up” experience from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Men weren’t just allowed to love each other in books: they could act on it, too. The scenes have a kind of strange, rough tenderness that is common to Brite’s work and that makes them seem real. The physical attraction between Zach and Trevor is treated as natural and erotic. That is what I always hope for from queer romance in spec-fic and Brite manages it well. I’m not sure if I would necessarily recommend Drawing Blood—the nostalgia factor makes it hard for me to weigh the book’s actual relevance—but I still like it. At the very least it can be a guilty pleasure. (Brite’s later books, which are commercial fiction about the New Orleans kitchen scene, have better writing and stronger characters. They’re a very different sort of animal from the horror novels, though.)

There are so many more books to consider, but for now, that seems like a good start. I know that both of these books dealt with gay men, but I didn’t run into much good lesbian SFF until later. It’s always seemed harder to find. I’m not sure if that’s my bad luck or not, but I’d like to find more books with queer female or female-performing leads. Or, even more under-represented, intersex characters. So far the only place I have encountered any has been Elizabeth Bear’s “Promethean Age” series.

To conclude: those were my first experiences, but what were yours? Suggest however many books you like. I could always use more to read.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

57 comments
hagelrat
1. hagelrat
I always thought Basil was in love with Dorian too, makes what happens so much more poignant. I also love Poppy Z Brite and I don't think gay or straight really falls into it sexuality in her books is so fluid in some ways.
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
Try Bujold's books in the Vorkosigan universe. Ethan of Athos centers on a planet of gay men and the adventures of a doctor when he has go to off-planet; and one of the main characters though the entire dozen or so book series -- a ship's captain and close friend of the main character - is a hermaphrodite.

Rob
hagelrat
3. vcmw
I think the earliest books I read that had that feel for me were some of Tanya Huff's early stuff - in general I really like the way she handles gender and sexuality.

Niccola Griffith (whose non sff mystery novels are awesome too) wrote some wonderful sf with queer female characters - she won at least one Lambda, if I recall.
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
There is also the Wheel of Time. A fair amount of "pillow friend" activity among the women (mostly discussed in matter of fact fashion) and a couple of disturbingly abusive female power/sex relationships (especially involving a woman and her captive in the latter books in the series). Curiously, no guy-guy relations openly discussed (although the author always stated they were there off screen).
hagelrat
5. nor3
" It was mind-blowing and unbelievably freeing to hold a real, published book in my hands and realize that the main characters weren’t straight."

You know... I've been wracking my brains, and I've realised something... I've never had that moment... Which is really odd, since I can find a gay subtext almost anywhere (seriously, I've found meanings in almost every song on my iPod that the writers NEVER intended), and yet, somehow, I've never read a book and gone "OMG! This character is gay! I can totally identify with him."

Closest ones I can give you are Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the myriad of "pillow-friends" in the Wheel of Time. But I don't really count either of them, since Dumbledore wasn't outed untill after the whole series was done and dusted, and I never really identified with all the WoT lesbians because a) most of the lesbians "grew out of it", and the ones who didn't are mostly villains and b) I felt their presence merely highlighted the absence of gay male characters, who I would have had a much easier time identifying with.
hagelrat
6. nor3
Also, now I totally have to read A Picture of Dorian Gray.
hagelrat
7. ArtfulMagpie
For lesbians in dark fantasy/horror-type SFF, try Caitlin Kiernan's work. I've only read 2 of her novels (Silk and The Red Tree), but both have starred lesbian characters in main roles.
hagelrat
8. Ouranosaurus
Certainly not the first story I read, but The World Well Lost by Theodore Sturgeon is still a bit of a surprise for its publication date, 1953!
hagelrat
9. reattmore
Delany's Triton made a very shocking impression on me when I was 14 . . .
Brit Mandelo
10. BritMandelo
@hagelrat

Especially in Drawing Blood--Zach is bisexual and Trevor is Zach-sexual. She plays a lot with how we construct sexuality and gender, which I found and still find awesome.

@vcmw

I like Tanya Huff--we'll be getting to some of her stuff. I need to check out Niccola Griffith!

@RobMRobM

The Wheel of Time books turned me off of them VERY hard with the way the women were written, especially the relationships. @nor3 about sums up how I felt about them. I do like Bujold, though.

@nor3

I know what you mean about subtext. I can find it just about anywhere, too--but for me it's less about "I can identify with the queer character!" than it is a pride and pleasure in an author actually writing about people in a realistic and forthright way. It's a way of saying "this is part of my world and it is part of yours." There's definitely a little identifying on a character level. I think it's just more important for me that the author is recognizing people like me are out there in the world, you know?

But yes, Picture of Dorian Gray is fun.

@ArtfulMagpie

"The Red Tree" is totally on the review pile for these posts. I like Kiernan, who I was introduced to via Brite, interestingly enough.

@Ouranosaurus

I'll have to check that out; haven't read it.

@reattmore

Delany came way later for me, I managed to miss him entirely for years. I still haven't read Triton. (Dhalgren is on the review pile though.)
hagelrat
11. synaesthete
First-ever books with queer characters: probably Rubyfruit Jungle, The Color Purple, back a hundred years ago. In SF/F-landia - Delany, Octavia Butler (I love the treatment of the aliens' gender in Lilith's Brood), Lynn Flewelling, Nicola Griffith (already mentioned). Also, re: WoT: I have to admit to many years of wistful daydreaming about what really went on amongst the Maidens of the Spear. More recently, Jay Lake's 2009 book _Green_ includes an absolutely fabulous order of what he's called "teenage lesbian ninja nuns," who kick some serious ass (and sometimes have fun doing so).
Liza .
12. aedifica
Brit @ 10: Ooh, I'll be keeping my eye out for the Dhalgren review!
Brit Mandelo
13. BritMandelo
@synaesthete

I have Green on my to-read pile for pretty much that exact reason. *g*

I have this awkward relationship with Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series: fun books, but there are so many bad!writing stretches in them, but they were so fun to read... Argh. "The White Road" comes out this year and I'm interested in revisiting the world she made.
Elizabeth Bear
14. matociquala
Lesbian and bisexual women as protagonists--

Suzy McKee Charnas has lesbian societies in WALK TO THE END OF THE WORLD and its related novels. Gael Baudino, GOSSAMER AXE. Nicola Griffith, SLOW RIVER. Laurie Marks, Elizabeth Lynn. Joanna Russ. Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Melissa Scott (the awesome and adorable).

Oh, Diane Duane's DOOR INTO... series. The first one starts off with a prince off to rescue his lover, another prince, from a tower where he is held captive... second book has a bisexual female protag. Also, they're just darned good.
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo
@matociquala

Awesome list, thanks! I've read Joana Russ, but mostly short fiction. I'll be checking out the rest of those authors ASAP. (Especially Nicola Griffith, she's popped up a lot in the comments.)
hagelrat
16. Anonymous 213425
Ursula Vernon's take on the matter: Mercedes Lackey is the thing.



Brit Mandelo
17. BritMandelo
@Anonymous 213425

That made me laugh. I never got into Mercedes Lackey, but I went to school with plenty of girls who did. Maybe it created a more open-minded SFF youth culture?
Dan Layman-Kennedy
18. maestro23
Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint was my watermark queer fantasy novel, the first time I recall reading something genre and having that wide-eyed "OMG these characters aren't straight hooray!" moment. (And representing more than the two ends of the spectrum, which was an especially nice discovery for my 17-year-old Kinsey-more-or-less-two self.)

Later, I was delighted to discover that Clive Barker's work was visionary in queerness as well as in every other way; he has heroes who are gay (Sacrament), bisexual (Galilee), and even a virulently straight male who falls in love with a hermaphrodite shape-changer (Imajica, one of my Desert Island Books).
Brit Mandelo
19. BritMandelo
@maestro23

Oh, Swordspoint. I love Swordspoint and I will totally be talking about it here when I can. *g* Barker's good, too; "Mister B. Gone" made me sniffle like a baby by the end.
Jake Miller
20. jakebradley
Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald-Mage trilogy was my moment. Reading those gave me the sort of hero I could identify with as a gay teen growing up. I think I still read fantasy because I'm searching for that experience again. It's been a long search.

As part of this column, I'd love to see a reading list of great queer sf/f. I'm already taking down names as they're mentioned.
hagelrat
21. LynBen
Swordspoint was the eye-opener for me. Followed--of course--by Mercedes Lackey.

But two of my all-time faves are Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams by Melissa Scott & Lisa Barnett. Not only are those books great fantasy, but there's a sweet and understated gay relationship. I really like the way they've constructed their world.
Brit Mandelo
22. BritMandelo
@jakebradley

Good idea! I'll start trying to compile at least a small beginner list for the next post. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites have been:

Sarah Monette's "Doctrine of Labyrinths" (4 books: Melusine, The Virtu, The Mirador and Corambis. The first two you'll have to buy used, because Ace let them fall out of print despite the fact that book four just came out last year to good reviews... Argh.) are absolute favorites of mine. So is her other book, "The Bone Key."

Elizabeth Bear is pretty much a winner in every sense of the word, too. I've yet to be disappointed in any of her books, though the Promethean Age series are my favorites. (Blood & Iron, Whiskey & Water, Ink & Steel, Hell & Earth.) Those last two are about William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe having adventures. Ahem. *g*

Some others: "The Steel Remains" by Richard Morgan, "The Lions of Al'Rassan" by Guy Gavriel Kay, "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin, "Swordspoint" by Ellen Kushner, and maybe tack on there a little Neil Gaiman for his frequent mentions and subtexts in books like "American Gods" and "Good Omens." Above, "Green" by Jay Lake was mentioned, but I haven't gotten to read it yet.

Man, there's so many more. This list might take a bit. *g*
Brit Mandelo
23. BritMandelo
@jakebradley

Oh, and can't forget my fave for this year's SFF Lamda: "Palimpsest" By Cat Valente
hagelrat
24. Benjamin Wald
Chris Moriary's books "Spin State" and "spin control" are awesome science fiction, and feature a bisexual main character without ever once making an issue of the fact that she is attracted to both men and women. It's well handled by the very unremarkability of it.
hagelrat
25. peachy
Probably my first encounter with a straightforwardly non-straight relationship was in the Drake/Stirling series "The General." (It's a complicated relationship - bi & poly both - but it's presented matter of factly and causes very little comment from other characters; at least those who aren't on the outs with those involved for unrelated reasons.)

Turtledove's first Videssos series also has a gay relationship involving two of the major secondary characters, though given the setting it's a little more discreet.

Finally, for a really un-straightforward take on sexuality, I recommend Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil. It was pretty mind-blowing when I read it at nineteen or twenty.
Kendall Bullen
26. kendallpb
As a bi F/SF fan, I'm surprised I don't know for sure when I first found GLBT positive/main characters in F/SF. It should've been a "WOAH!" moment, but either it wasn't or I don't remember it as such. Anyway, I believe it was Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Heritage of Hastur (the first Darkover novel I read).

At some point, also, I did the math re. Pern dragonriders--back before there were any GLBT in Pern novels (or comments from McCaffrey, at least that I ever read). So this doesn't count; plus I dunno if I read Pern or Darkover first, or when I did the math and realized "hey, there's same-sex hanky-panky in the weyrs!" But honorable mention to McCaffrey since this lead to my pre-Internet BBS handle, "Blue Rider." ;-)

Occasionally, I'm still startled when I run across a GLBT major character or protag in F/SF. It seems to me that while a het connection is frequently stated in jacket copy or what-not, a same-sex connection in a similar book usually ISN'T mentioned. (eyeroll) Again, that's my impression....
Ashe Armstrong
27. AsheSaoirse
My first experience with this was Poppy Z. Brite's contribution to the Crow franchise, The Lazarus Heart. I still have it. I bought it when I was 13 and the setting was mindblowing for a Christian kid from Oklahoma. I've never read it again (but there's so much to read that I haven't even touched that I own, who can blame me). The visuals were so powerful that it's stuck with me though.
hagelrat
28. theTchy
I think the first one for me was reading Holly Black's Tithe when I was about thirteen or maybe twelve. It's not the main character in that one who's gay, but one of her close friends, and he's fairly blunt about it (not to mention has the most hilarious coming-out story ever). And a whole bunch of the rest of the characters in that one seem to be pansexual, or at least just don't care.

At that point I already knew about gay people, and was already questioning my own sexuality, so it wasn't a huge revelation for me--at least not in that way. But on top of that being the first book I remember with gay people in it, it was also the first book I clearly remember reading with real swearing, and a teenage protagonist who was a smoker and a delinquent. It's still one of my favourite books to the day, and not just for the nostalgia.
hagelrat
29. Joanne Hall
Colin Harvey's "The Silk Palace" is fantasy with a lesbian relationship at the core, it's very good. And this discussion has reminded me I have to read "Swordspoint", it's been recommended to me by so many people!
Gray Woodland
30. Greyhame
Intersex characters: the conjoined-twin protagonists of Sheri Tepper's Sideshow were born intersex, but have been surgically and socially reassigned so as to play the role of boy and girl.

Mary Gentle's Ilario is a hermaphrodite at large in an alt-Renaissance Mediterranean world of rigid gender-roles and power-structures. I haven't read that one myself, since Gentle's last work before it left a cloud of gloom over me like her Carthaginian Penitence; but here's a review by somebody who has.

My own breakthrough books (as a straight man who started out with some heavy, junk-religion induced visceral squick towards anything remotely queer):

- Marion Zimmer Bradley's Forbidden Tower, in my early teens, which was first to present bisexuality and polyamory as positive aspects of really likeable and admirable characters;

- Diane Duane's Door into Fire, at eighteen. A far more attractive milieu than Darkover, to my temperament, and the first book with a central gay male romance that just drew me straight in without blinking. Heartily second matociquala's recommendation!
Lucas Huntington
31. L.P.Huntington
I am something of a collector of LGBT sci-fi and fantasy, I guess its a hobby. I've spent more time digging through Amazon for these books than I should probably admit, lol.
Some of my favorites include:

-Kirby Crow, particularly her Scarlet & the White Wolf trilogy
-Astrid Amara, The Archer's Heart
-Ricardo Pinto, The Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy

There are lots of others. I saw someone mentioned Barker's Mister B. Gone in the comments and how they sniffled...it made me sniffle too!! It wasn't what I was expecting and blew me away. How could a little demon be such a compelling character?

I can't really remember my first book with LGBT characters. I started looking for them after reading an AWFUL stock fantasy book by a well known author and thinking that the romance was its only saving grace, but I couldn't even dig that cause the man and woman in it were soooooo typical and cardboard. I think that after that, I read Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald Mage trilogy, and it snowballed from there with Lynn Flewelling and Ellen Kushner. I've been both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised on my journey into queer spec. fic since then. There are some writers of quality I should mention, like Steven Harper with his Silent Empire novels. Of course Richard Morgan with The Steel Remains was awesome, Perry Moore with Hero, Jaida Jones Havemercy, and many more. My acquiring these books has begun to outpace my reading of them though, so I although I have things like Heritage and Exile by Bradley, and Tanya Huffs Blood books, and Diane Duane, and some Heinlein and others, I haven't gotten to them yet. I have started with Elizabeth Bear though, and she is incredibly gifted.
There are some good resources for finding good books in this niche, like Amazon, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, and now the Outer Alliance.
Great post! I wouldn't have expected to see this on Tor but thanks :)
Also, really, really read Crow, Amara and Pinto!! They were awesome.
Marcus W
32. toryx
I was pretty late to finding speculative works that had genuinely authentic queer characters. The Wheel of Time never impressed me as such since it was so subtle that it felt tossed in.

So my first time came when I was 20 and a friend recommended that I read Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald-Mage trilogy. I was really impressed with how honest the relationships appeared to be and it really had a pretty profound affect on my viewpoint of gay relationships.

That was followed several years later by Delany's Dhalgren which really blew me away. That book probably changed my worldview on human sexuality more than any other after Heinlein's work (especially Stranger in a Strange Land).

What strikes me as most significant about fiction with queer main characters is that it was my first genuine insight into the thought processes and personalities of non-traditional people. I'd certainly had a lot of friends and acquaintances with non-straight lifestyles before that (particularly after living in Berkeley and San Francisco) but they never really talked about what went on in their heads and hearts. Books helped to bridge that gap and give me an understanding I might not have otherwise had.
Lucas Huntington
33. L.P.Huntington
I just gave a copy of Dhalgren to my boyfriend for his birthday and he seems to really like it. It looked like a tough read, so I haven't read it myself :) He seems to like challenging reads!

I haven't read Stranger in a Strange Land yet, but it is on my bookshelf nagging at me. SOOOOO much to read, so little time!!
hagelrat
34. Rachael F
My first book with queer characters was Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy...which was a disturbing, thought provoking read for a 16yr old.

I've also enjoyed: Everything by Elizabeth Bear, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, Slow River and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, Solitaire by Kelly Eskridge (Griffith's parter), Black Wine by Candace Dorsey, The Steel Remains by Richard K Morgan, The Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Palimpsest by Cathrynne Valente

Books still to read: Green by Jay Lake, and Ash by Malindo Lo (a lesbian YA retelling of Cinderella)

Genderbenders: Glasshouse by Charlie Stross, Wraeththu by Storm Constantine

I also thoroughly enjoyed the asexual nature of the main character in The Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon
[da ve]
35. slickhop
Pleased to see that so many of the books I wanted to mention are here, especially at #34, but some thoughts I had ... The first Last Herald Mage books by Mercedes Lackey was, indeed, the first book I was reading where I stopped in my tracks, read back and few pages, re-read and then went, "Whoa." I may have actually realized I was gay because of that book. And of course it all ends tragically (surprise surprise).

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman .... exquisite. Valente's books have a lot of sexual diversity. Storm Constantine's books, all of them, deal with gender in really refreshing ways. The lesbian thriller books by Nicola Griffith are smokin. Swordspoint was a breath of fresh air. The books by Ricardo Pinto are pretty great, but I'm dying for the third to come out.
Kate O'Hanlon
36. KateOH
I remember vividly being thirteen, sitting in the back of my parent's Campervan as we drove through Europe, reading a Clive Barker book (I can't for the life of me remember which) and getting to an extremely graphic (to my 13 year old straight girl self anyway, maybe if I went back to it now it would seem tamer) gay sex scene.


I had zero parental oversight on my reading choices so I'd been reading age-inappropriate stuff for years but never anything concerning two men together or anything like. I don't think I'd ever really thought about gay people before, except maybe in a well meaning live and let live but nothing to do with me. I don't think I'd ever been so shocked before or since.
I was freaked out by my reaction which was I suppose just intense curiosity at this whole world out there that I hadn't been aware of and that had nothing to do with me (of course, as an awkward, bookish 13 year old the world of hetero sex didn't really have much to do with me either).

Oh, and Jeanette Winterson (whose books are fantastic) is more or less responsible for a fairly complicated lesbian affair I had in college (but I'm sure I'm not the only person who can say that).
Rob Munnelly
37. RobMRobM
@34. "The Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb." Love the books but to whom are you referring? If it's Lord Golden, dang if I know whether he is a he or a she and whether his interest in the protagonist is straight or gay. I've read Farseer, Liveship and Tawny and I can't figure it out. Genderbending at its best. R
Kate O'Hanlon
38. KateOH
@37 I thought the third Farseer book made it pretty clear that the Fool identified as and was physically male, with his threat to show Starling his 'proof'.
Brit Mandelo
39. BritMandelo
@L.P. Huntington

If you like "Havemercy" I recommend you read Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths. I actually couldn't finish "Havemercy" because there were so many--uh. Let's say really really really similar characters, setups, personality types, plot twists, etc. I was a little uncomfortable at exactly how similar "Havemercy" was, considering it came out later.

@Rachael F

I just read "Woman on the Edge of Time" like, two weeks ago. It was so interesting.

Everybody else:

Wow, you guys are blowing up my to-read list. I'm excited!
hagelrat
40. Tegan
Most of the books that come to mind (especially Swordspoint and Lackey's Last Herald-Mage) have already been mentioned, but there are a couple of others I've read.

In Fantasy: The Iron Council by China Mieville has a gay viewpoint character and his story is driven by being in love with a man who seems to be bisexual. It's not really a teen friendly book since it's mostly about economics and political revolution.

In SF: the Gaia trilogy by John Varley features a central romantic relationship between two of the female protagonists. I liked how their dysfunctional romance is treated absolutely seriously, not as gratuitous "lesbian" titillation.

Also, I can't believe nobody's mentioned The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's about a planet of hermaphrodites.

The Hwarhath series by Eleanor Arnason is excellent, but obscure and hard to get a hold of since it's mostly made up of short stories published only in magazines. The Hwarhath are humanoids who've developed a culture based on normative homosexuality. It's a matriarchy with strict gender roles (men hunt and war, women rule politics) where clan alliances through shared children are important. The lack of heterosexual love affairs lets matriarchs control almost all reproduction so they can use it for political means. All of the stories include M/M and F/F couples, and one of them is about a forbidden love affair between a man and a woman. The one novel in the series, Ring of Swords, has the Hwarhath coming into contact with humans and contrasts the warlike, honor-based, gay society of male Hwarhath with our own culture and attitudes about queerness.

Greg Egan is another science fiction writer with frequent gender and gay themes. In his short story Oceanic, people are treated socially based on the gender they are born with, but switch who has which genitals each time they have sex. Reading this when I was about thirteen was a total "aha!" moment for me. Some of his other stories have queer protagonists.
Michael Grosberg
41. Michael_GR
I don't quite remember what my first experience of queer SF was. I think it was a throwaway line in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, _The Songs of Distant Earth_, alluding to the fact that one of the characters (a boy) was very popular (as a sexual partner) with both girls and boys. I was impressed with how matter-of-fact it was handled, as if it required no further explanation.

As a Delany fan I'd like to add another title to the list of works mentioned previously. The Neveryon sequence - comprising four volumes - is Delany's only work in the sword and sorcery genre, and it's a VERY odd one. Within the frame of a tale of dragons, barbarians, princesses and merchants, Delany discusses postmodern philosophy, gender, growing up, freedom, sexual fetishism and even the AIDS epidemic. The tale of Gorgik the liberator, a gay barbarian freedom fighter, is probably the most pertinent part of the sequence. It's in the first Book, tales of Neveryon.

Lastly, lesbian SF: for some reason I see more lesbians than gay men in SF, probably because straight male writers find them more comfortable as characters.
Gray Woodland
42. Greyhame
Michael_GR @ 41:

Lastly, lesbian SF: for some reason I see more lesbians than gay men in SF, probably because straight male writers find them more comfortable as characters.

I certainly find this with my straight male amateur scribbler's hat on. I've had lesbian and bisexual women in my stories' foreground, and sometimes as main characters, for about twenty years. Gay and bisexual men have mostly been way backgrounded, and the one major exception... let's just say, was neither an artistic success nor a pleasure to write. I can tell you with some accuracy the moment when I first started writing a story with a gay male romantic lead, and enjoying it as I enjoy reading about Duane's Herewiss and Freelorn. That would be 'two weeks ago last Monday'.

Writing is so much more intimate a relation to a story than reading it! As per your suggestion, the comfort zones differ correspondingly - which suggests in turn a possible gap between what fandom wants to read, and what even writers with typically similar tastes can write for it.

Now I'm wondering what other aspects of storytelling are susceptible to the same sort of read-vs-write pitfall. Few or none to anything like the same degree as sexuality, I'm thinking.
Wesley Parish
43. Aladdin_Sane
FWLIW, one of the first books I read with a (from the Western European viewpoint) bi-sexual or non-heterosexual viewpoint, was The Symposium by Plato, while I was growing out of my conservative early years. I'd been reading C.S.Lewis quite intensively a few years earlier, and he was a neo-Platonist, so I thought I'd better find out what Plato (and Socrates) were all about, and found myself neck-deep in "the use of male homosexual bonding as birth control" - it's explicitly said so by Aristotle in one of his books, The Politics.

Then there was Tom Keyes' hilarious "Battle of Disneyland"; its "Fighting Fairies" came in for some good-natured ribbing, particularly as one of their front-line leaders isn't himself gay.

While I am no myself gay, I've written gays into the some of my stories, making a Greek/Asmat homosexual male bonding a central part of one of the stories - it's a way of binding the city's quarreling factions together, and presenting a coherent balance of power.
Blue Tyson
44. BlueTyson
Here's a couple from a similar era :-

Interview With the Vampire - Anne Rice

Imperial Earth - Arthur C. Clarke
hagelrat
45. ofostlic
The first one I read would probably have been Mary Renault's trilogy about Alexander the Great. If that's not SFF enough, probably Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.

Recommendations:
- Melissa Scott, especially "Trouble and her friends" for an example where sexual orientation is an issue, and "Burning Bright" for an example where it isn't. And her YA novels "Point of Hopes" and "Point of Dreams".

- EBear's Carnival

- China Mountain Zhang

- At least the first of the "Door into.." books by Diane Duane. For my taste the deus ex machina level gets a bit high later on.

- Emma Bull's Bone Dance is relevant even though the character is neuter, not gay.

PS: one of my verification words was 'carrot', which made me think of the dwarves that come out of the closet as female in the later Discworld books.
hagelrat
46. PhoenixFalls
My queer SFF first was one that's already been mentioned -- Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Forbidden Tower (and as already mentioned, it portrays a polyamorous M/F/M/F relationship really wonderfully). About half of her Darkover novels feature some sort of queer relationship -- the three Renunciate novels feature lesbians, and they're in the background in Hawkmistress!, The Heritage of Hastur has M/M relationships, and The World Wreckers has a human male falling in love with a hermaphrodite character (that begins the novel in 'male phase').

Another one of Bradley's that I loved (and found early on) was her collection of short stories featuring Lythande -- in Lythande's world to become a mage you had to have a secret that you kept from the world, and that was the source of your power; Lythande chose to hide her sex, so she was a woman but could never reveal herself as a woman to a man or she would lose her magic. I think she could reveal herself to women, so she had close female friends. . . nothing was ever on screen (it was in the Darkover novels, but not here) but I definitely got the impression that there was lesbian hanky-panky going on, and of course there was the playing with gender roles bit too.

Like someone else, around the same time I did the math on Anne McCaffrey's Pern, but I hesitate to recommend them because the stuff I've heard about McCaffrey's views on homosexuality makes me want to bash my head into the wall. Much later in life I discovered Elizabeth Bear's A Companion to Wolves and loved it -- she forefronts the whole conflict between a strongly patriarchal society that only telepathically binds human males to the animals and the inevitable repercussions when mating season comes around. . . and once I found that I started reading all of Bear's work, and thus far I haven't found a single novel of hers that doesn't have some sort of non-hetero-normative relationship in it. . .

And another early author for me was Orson Scott Card, who somehow wrote quite a few stories featuring protagonists questioning their sexuality, even though I have to close my ears now to any mention of his politics on the issue. . . one that definitely stood out from his catalog was Songmaster.

Other high points: Swordspoint, which has also already been mentioned; and I believe the other Riverside novels also feature gay/lesbian protagonists, though I haven't read them yet; Farthing, by Jo Walton, which is an alternate history mystery in upper crust 1929 England and like half the characters are gay or have had homosexual relationships (they have some cool coded references to it too -- I didn't twig to that fact until like 50 pages in); and some of my favorite books of all time, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series -- a world where "love as thou wilt" is the only religious precept, so all the different varieties of love are celebrated, there is a very definite poly- bent, and the treatment of sado-masochism is sublime (literally).
hagelrat
47. Steve Berman
What I find fascinating is how many of the respondents cited their first books (or even recommendations) by female authors. I feel a bit overwhelmed that not many male authors writing queer spec fic were mentioned.
hagelrat
48. Lee Thomas
So mention some, Steve! :)

My interest is in horror, so Barker's Books of Blood were the first for me. The stories that dealt with gay characters did so without apology or degradation, and his novel Sacrament explored the gay experience (for one man) like none I'd read before. Straub brought in a strong gay character, Tim Underhill, in his book Koko and revisited the character in several later books. Those were the kick-offs for me. Most everything I'd read before those that included gay characters did so in a negative, often ridiculous, way. More recently, Michael Rowe's Queer Fear anthologies are well worth checking out - some amazing stories in them.
Brit Mandelo
49. BritMandelo
@Steve Berman

Interesting - I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. There's a lean toward woman writers. I wonder if that's because many of these "first experiences" for people came from authors who wrote other, non-queer works first (Bradley, or Lackey, etc)?

Then again, I see a lot of mentions of Samuel Delany through the list, so maybe not. Hmmm.

ETA: Reading back through the comments, I see Arthur C. Clarke coming up, too, for male writers, as are several others like Greg Egan and John Varley. So maybe there's a lean toward women writers, but I think there are several men mentioned, also.

@Lee Thomas

Oh, Clive Barker; I have fond memories of him. I found him shortly after Brite and devoured most of his books. Haven't read any in recent years, though.
hagelrat
50. Steve Berman
"In the Hills, the Cities" by Barker was instrumental to my understanding how gay characters could be in a story without it being a "gay story."

And I remember when Jeffrey McMahan's Vampires Anonymous released. I had never read a gay vampire book before.

I do adore Swordspoint by Kushner.

I think one of the reasons why we see so many female authors in this list is because readers of the column are primarily involved in fandom and the spec fic world.

If this blog was attached to a gay culture website, I think more respondents would have answered with authors like George Nader (Chrome), the anthologies Kindred Spirits and Worlds Apart, David Gerrold (Jumping off the Planet), Jonathon D'Etange (Dark Brotherhood), Lewis Gannett (The Living One) -- same year as Brite's Lost Souls, or Jay B. Laws (Steam).

Outside of Gerrold, most of the above authors never considered themselves part of the spec fic community but rather the gay community. And, sadly, this trend continues today - I think of the many gay writers who are penning queer spec fic and how few have ever heard of Readercon, WisCon, etc. And I don't think they would feel comfortable there.

I remember how Elizabeth Bear poorly treated Peter Dube at last year's Readercon. Very rudely. Why would he ever go back?
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
51. tnh
Steve Berman @50, it's best not to retail loose convention gossip to a general audience, especially when you're the sole source of the story. I can't pass judgment on the story itself, because I wasn't there. Thing is, neither were the other readers.
Lucas Huntington
52. L.P.Huntington
Wow a good conversation going on this piece a year after it was published (gossip aside). I have seen and taken part in a long, long discussion on Amazon.com about female writers of gay fiction. Some of the opinions displayed are fascinating...and frequently melodramatic. I think the thread was called "Should female writers of gay fiction use male pen names?" Or something like that, if you're curious.
I had not really ever given much thought to the gender of an author who wrote whatever book I was reading. For me, a good book is a good book. Some people have enormous heaps of talent and skill to bend to their will, some have one or the other, and some have very little of either.
But my guess as to why, in this discussion at least, we are seeing more women than men listed goes back to a couple of previous comments about the author's own comfort level with their material. I'm not even a bit surprised that female authors have a greater tendency to feature queer characters, especially in the SFF community. But I also think that is changing with the times, when you consider relatively recent works like Richard Morgan's Steel Remains, and Mark Charon Newton's Nights of Villjamur. And Clive Barker, though not new, certainly never shied away from...well, anything.
But in general, in my own observation at least, women are typically more comfortable with queer stuff (people, themes, situations, encounters) than men.
Actually, not to go on and on and on here, but this topic touches on several issues. Because one of you also commented on which "community" the author primarily considers him or herself a part of (gay community, or SFF community? how does it impact their work?). Because I sometimes wonder about the division of the "GLBT" section at bookstores. Is it good or bad? Or both? I want to say its just good, but then I think that some books which are REALLY GOOD! Won't get the attention or notice that they deserve, because they got stuck on the GLBT shelf, where even many gay people aren't going to browse.
Whatever, I AM rambling...and I'm shutting up now.
Lucas Huntington
53. L.P.Huntington
Chrome, wow! I can't believe someone mentioned Chrome. That book was certainly...interesting ;) I feel kind of torn about it actually, cause on the one hand I thought it was TERRIBLE! But on the other hand...ummm...interesting. Yeah, yeah, interesting :)
hagelrat
54. QueenKk
I just felt like including my 10 cents.

Last Herald-Mage by Mercedes Lackey was possibly my first Queer novel, I didn't have a TV from age 8-14 and thus just devoured my library, and I remember the "Oh wow" moment of reading the relationship forming and found it so lovely.

Possibly at the same time, or maybe a bit later I read Kerry Greenwood's Cassandra, which has Amazons and magic, as well as Cassandra herself ending up in a m/m/f relationship if I remember correctly. However it has been many years and it's very hard to get a hold of her novels. *Must find them, since more have been written in that series!!!*

But I too have noticed the rareity of female bi or lesbian characters in Fantasy novels, I hear jokes about "Chicks in Chainmail who bed down with a different bar wench every night" but have never actually managed to find any, not that I think they'd be my thing. I loved in the Arrows series by Mercedes Lackey one of the best friends of the main protagonist is lesbian and you hear that it would have been a f/f/f relationship had circumstances not prohibited. But not for titilation, but a true lifebonded sort of relationship.

To be honest, I'm fairly vanilla in my tastes, I don't like anything too kinky, rose coloured glasses are fine for me, but I'd love to find some sweet slow developing romances in fantasy that also happen to be queer. Any suggestions would be fantastic!
Brit Mandelo
55. BritMandelo
@QueenKK

Actually, do you read YA? Because a lot of the good, more romantic and less kinky lesbian romances I've read recently have been YA fantasy - like Malinda Lo's "Ash" (lesbian Cinderella!) and "Huntress" (Chinese-inspired quest fantasy). It's a good genre for sweet, developing romances.
hagelrat
56. bachaboska
Oh, somebody should take all rec from this comments and creat reading-list for all queer-fantasy/sci-fi hungry readers ! So many amazing recs! Don't even know where i should start...

'Swordspoint' E.Kushner was probably my first q-read and i think i couldn't have start with better book! I love all Kushner's books but this one...oh this one is just a pure perfection!
hagelrat
57. Mgariii
I haven't even managed to read through all of the comments on this post yet, which is fantastic because I'm still discovering more and more queer SFF to read, but as you were discussing Dorian Gray--which is one of my favorite novels of all time--I recalled that Carmilla by J.S. LeFanu is essentially about a lesbian vampire. Written in the 1870s. It doesn't exactly send a great message about lesbians, but it's fascinating because it, unlike Dorian Gray, doesn't even attempt to hide the female/female attraction.

Sorry to comment on such an old post, but I just discovered the "Queering SFF" series and it's so exciting to me! Thanks!

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