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American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall  
 
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In the years directly after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a number of books--more journalism than literature--appeared that mixed autobiography with reflections on the political and cultural changes gays were experiencing. The most noteworthy were John Murphy's Homosexual Liberation: A Personal View (1971), Donn Teal's The Gay Militants (1971), and Arthur Bell's Dancing the Gay Lib Blues: A Year in the Homosexual Liberation Movement (1972).

Each of these books suggests how important literature was to the authors' senses of what it means to be gay. Indeed, Bell writes how an important leader in the Gay Activists Alliance, the largest gay liberation organization of the time, missed the first meeting so that he could hear Allen Ginsberg read his poetry.

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If novelists and poets did not immediately respond to political changes, it was not because they were unaffected or uninterested in them, but rather because in many ways they had anticipated the views that were taking political shape. Nevertheless, gay critics at the time were frustrated by the range of American gay male fiction even as they applauded the breadth of American gay male poetry.

Fiction

Before Stonewall, novels that contained gay characters and themes existed in one of four categories. The first two categories contain novels primarily or ostensibly written for straight readers. In those novels, gay characters and themes played minor roles in works whose main concerns and characters are heterosexual, or they were sentimental and sensational novels in which gay characters lived lonely, tragic lives that ended in murder or suicide.

Heterosexual critics allowed for a small number of highly literary--particularly foreign--works to contain gay subjects; André Gide, Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann could have overt gay subject matter.

But the only novels clearly written for gay readers were by definition pornography. In Homosexual Liberation, John Murphy complained that he found that "the choice of books dealing with his sexual concerns are limited to a few serious 'classics,' some sensational popular novels, and pornography."

Nevertheless in the immediate years before Stonewall, a number of books were published that lay out a new direction for gay writers. Of greatest importance were Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964), John Rechy's City of Night (1963), and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959). These are very different books in style, technique, and point of view, but they maintain a gay perspective by not explaining, but assuming a knowledge of gay experience; they also avoid sentimentality.

Of these books, Isherwood's A Single Man was the most important since its gracefully lean prose assumed the reader would take on the perspective of its unremarkable, middle-aged, middle-class narrator and because Isherwood had already established an international literary reputation. A Single Man avoided the demonology, special pleading, and sensationalism of other gay novels.

But there were other fiction writers whose works avoided easy classification. Among the most prominent were James Purdy, Sanford Friedman, Hubert Selby, Alfred Chester, and Gore Vidal. Yet pre-Stonewall gay works did not represent a gay literary movement. They were published as individual volumes, not as part of a continuous gay list or publishing focus. No literary publisher--large or small--published a line of gay books before the 1970s.

The Emergence of a Gay Literary Movement

The emergence of a distinctive gay literary movement was built on the development of gay newspapers, magazines, and quarterlies. In addition, throughout the 1970s, gay bookstores began appearing across the United States. It is important to distinguish between gay bookstores whose chief purpose was to serve the political, social, and reading needs of the gay community and the legion of "dirty" book stores where gay readers found gay-related materials and illicit sexual encounters.

The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York opened in 1967 with only about twenty-five titles since the owner refused to sell pornography. When Lambda Rising opened in Washington, D.C. in 1974, it carried some 250 titles.

Today, Lambda Rising operates five stores, including venues in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. The newest member of the Lambda Rising family is the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City, which it acquired in 2003. Another chain of gay and lesbian bookstores, A Different Light, operates stores in San Francisco and West Hollywood.

Gay and lesbian bookstores flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian literature at the turn into the twenty-first century, and the inclusion of gay and lesbian sections in most general interest bookstores, the specialized bookstores have struggled to survive, as have most independent bookstores. A number of gay and lesbian stores have closed recently and many large American cities no longer have any specifically gay and lesbian bookstores.

Gay Literary Journals

Gay literary journals provided an important opportunity for young gay writers (and older ones as well) to find readers and practice their art. In 1970, Gay Sunshine began publishing as a radical newspaper from Berkeley, California. By 1973, it turned into a literary and cultural journal. It was joined later in the 1970s by Fag Rag out of Boston and Mouth of the Dragon in New York, as well as other smaller journals. Finally, in May 1976, Christopher Street appeared and for many years was the premiere venue for gay short fiction, essays, and poetry.

The Lambda Book Report, the most widely distributed journal focused exclusively on gay and lesbian books, was originally published by the Lambda Rising bookstores. Now it is published by a non-profit foundation, the Lambda Literary Foundation, which also sponsors the annual Lamda Literary Awards and publishes The James White Review.

Today, small press publishing has fragmented into a number of different regional and aesthetic movements, some like BLK serving gay black writers and readers, others like RFD growing out of alternative, communal, and rural experiences, and still others like The James White Review catering to a more mainstream readership.

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