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History of Pride and its Evolution in Literature - Shaleen Shukla and Samhitha Sudharsan

Throughout history, literature from various cultures has depicted and explored diverse expressions of love, desire, and relationships, including those within the LGBTQ+ community. From ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary times, the representation of LGBTQ+ characters and themes has evolved, contributing to a better understanding and acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

The earliest speculated mention of queerness in literature dates back over 5,000 years to Mesopotamia. In the Almanac of Incantations, an ancient Mesopotamian text, there is a prayer for the well-being of same-sex couples, specifically male partners. While there are no conclusive records regarding relationships between two women during that time, the Code of Hammurabi references the term “Salzikrum,” believed to refer to lesbians.

Both ancient Greek and Roman literature displayed a more accepting attitude towards same-sex relationships. In these societies, there was no significant social or class distinction based on sexual preference, except in regard to the role of a passive partner in a relationship, often associated with femininity. For instance, Aristophanes’ play “The Knights” features a lowborn protagonist who openly admits to being a passive partner. Greek mythology, including interpretations of the Iliad by ancient Greek philosophers, portrays the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as deeply emotional and intimate. The renowned poet Sappho from Lesbos is thought to have written about her love for other women, although only a fraction of her poetry has survived.

Roman literature, influenced by Greek culture, frequently explored themes of love and desire between men. Poets such as Catullus, Lucretius, and Ovid depicted homoerotic themes in their works. The epic poem Aeneid by Vergil portrays the love between Nisus and Euryalus as noble and in harmony with Roman ideals. Satirical writers like Gaius Lucilius and Martial emphasized the popularity of passive homosexuality among Roman men. Even Lucian mentions same-sex relationships among women. Notably, the Satyricon by Petronius is renowned for its depiction of male-male attraction. Roman literature also referenced instances of cross-dressing as a means of political criticism, religious symbolism, and mythological representation.

In the context of modern literature, LGBTQ+ representation has significantly increased, reflecting the growing acceptance and recognition of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Contemporary American literature features themes of PRIDE in a huge range of novels, short stories , poetry and memoirs. These works often delve into the personal experiences, struggles, and triumphs of LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as broader societal issues related to identity, discrimination and love.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer is a 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that follows the journey of Arthur Less, a gay writer who embarks on a trip around the world to avoid attending his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Another piece of wonderful literature is “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. This graphic memoir tells us the story of the author’s journey to understanding her own sexuality and her complicated relationship with her father, who was also gay. The book explores themes of family, identity, and coming out. The LGBTQ characters are depicted with depth and humanity, allowing readers to connect with their stories. They are often portrayed as fully realized individuals with their own desires, fears, and complexities. They have hopes, dreams, and struggles that extend beyond their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Throughout history, LGBTQ+ representation in literature has also emerged in different cultures. In ancient China, letters and poems shed light on the existence of same-sex relationships. The anecdote known as “The Cut Sleeve” portrays Emperor Ai and his lover, Dong Xian, in an intimate moment, becoming a metaphor for same-sex relationships. In Japan, one popular case of queer representation in literature is in Ihara Saikaku’s ‘Koshoku Ichidai Otoko’, written in 1682, that translates to ‘The Life of an Amorous Man’. The main protagonist reminisces about more than 3,000 women and almost 900 men as his lovers. In the collection of stories ‘Koshoku Gonin Onna’, he explores the love lives of five feisty females and in ‘Nanshoku Okagami’, he focuses exclusively on love between men. Also, Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji focuses on the hero who seduces the younger brother of the woman he is trying to court, but he is not regarded as less than for doing so.

Contemporary Chinese and Japanese literature often explore the intersection of LGBTQ+ identities with other aspects of a character’s identity, such as race, ethnicity, class, and ability. Few famous novels are “Fengshui and My Love” by Ching Yeung Russell, “The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition” by R. Zamora Linmark and “The Surrogate” by Chen Xueli.

“Fengshui and My Love” is a novel, published in 2018 that tells the story of two men who fall in love while exploring their Chinese heritage and cultural traditions. It weaves together LGBTQ+ themes, family dynamics, and the clash between traditional and modern values. Although the author is of Filipino descent, “The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition”, published in 2018, explores the experiences of LGBTQ+ characters within the complex social fabric of Hong Kong. “The Surrogate” by Chen Xueli was published in 2019. This novel centres around surrogacy and queer motherhood in contemporary China. It explores the life of a lesbian couple and their journey to become parents, tackling themes of family, love, and societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships.

LGBTQ+ representation in modern Chinese literature is still emerging and faces some challenges due to censorship and societal pressures.

It is important to highlight contributions of Indian literature in representing LGBTQ+ themes. In ancient times, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures displayed a lack of explicit moral condemnation towards homosexuality and transgender identities. The Kama Sutra, compiled around the 4th century BC, acknowledged and described homosexual practices, recognizing the existence of the third sex (tritiya-prakriti), which includes several sub-types, like masculine and feminine. It also showcases diverse expressions of desire within same-sex relationships. The text depicted homosexual men forming deep friendships and even marrying each other. Additionally, it mentioned independent women, known as svairini, who engaged in same-sex relationships and rejected traditional marriage, emphasizing their sexual freedom and ability to engage intimately with their partners.

In contemporary Indian literature, “The Other Side of Silence” by Urvashi Butalia is a non-fiction book, published in 2000, which delves into the experiences of queer individuals in South Asia, shedding light on their stories, struggles, and contributions to society. “Funny Boy” by Shyam Selvadurai is another brilliant novel that centres around the life of a young gay Tamil boy in Sri Lanka. It explores his coming-of-age journey, self-discovery, and experiences navigating his sexuality in a conservative society.

LGBTQ+ representation in literature from diverse cultures and diverse eras helps to bring forth the voices of marginalized communities, promote empathy and acceptance and challenge societal norms, As literature has continued to change, it has always a powerful medium for exploring and celebrating the nature of human sexuality and identity, promoting inclusivity and representation for all.


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