As the media landscape expands and new platforms are created to consume content, LGBTQ+ movies and TV shows are becoming increasingly important. Many queer-themed movies and TV shows are available on streaming services, while many LGBTQ+ documentaries highlight the struggles and victories of our community. Teen-focused LGBTQ+ content is also becoming more mainstream, a win for future generations who won’t have to grow up ashamed of who they are.
Literature is not lagging behind; novels to comics and graphic novels, queer stories are gaining traction in a field previously dominated by straight, cis, and mostly white romance. It’s not like queer writers never existed; on the contrary, literature was home to many queer personalities who expressed their aspirations and desires through their writings at a time when their inclinations were still frowned upon at best. From Oscar Wilde to Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf, many queer authors have risen to prominence, and a few have even become legends.
Yet even though some of these characters have managed to live their sexuality most of the time freely – Wilde and Whitman may even have lived more than a professional relationship, some say — others have remained in the sweltering safety of the closet, whether by choice or not. Writing was an opportunity to express their desires – unstated hopes and dreams – through a more ambiguous lens, masking their intentions behind a more digestible facade.
So, while one rarely finds an overt reference to homosexuality in classical literature, we may, every once in a while, come across a particular paragraph that makes us frown and wonder. Take, for example, Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel Little woman, expressing her empathy for older, single women. “Don’t laugh at old maids, dear girls, for often very tender and tragic romances are hidden in the hearts that beat so sweetly under sober dresses.”
Jo March is the perfect example of a queer coded character. She isn’t overt in her romantic feelings for anyone – not Laurie and certainly not Professor Bhaer, no matter how hard the narrative tries to bolster their ill-conceived romance. Indeed, Jo is more at ease with herself, expressing a sense of individuality and strength of will that few literary characters, classical or modern, possess. Whether or not Jo is queer is up to the reader’s interpretation, but the suggestion is there for anyone who wants to find it.
Many other female literary characters exist under the umbrella of queerness; the signs are sometimes subtle and sometimes not. Take Clarissa Dalloway, the titular heroine of Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is self-aware, restless and trapped, much like Woolf herself. She spends the novel reminiscing about a friend from her youth, Sally Seton. They shared a kiss, which Clarissa considers one of the best moments of her life, and often expresses her feelings for her. The book never outright declares Clarissa a lesbian, but it is absolute in describing her interest in Sally.
Beyond the rich and interesting ideas about sexuality and identity that she poses – indeed, Clarissa could be one of the first examples of a pansexual character in literature -, Mrs Dalloway is revolutionary in its portrayal of romance and romantic feelings. The narrative is indifferent to definition and instead presents the story and reflections of characters seeing themselves as individuals in love, indifferent to gender constraints.
Then there’s someone like Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennet’s faithful single friend in Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. In perhaps her most iconic quote, Charlotte defends her decision to marry Mr. Collins, telling Lizzie, “I’m not a romantic, you know. I have never been. I only ask for a comfortable home. Charlotte’s choices clash with Lizzie’s fiery, idealistic way of thinking and her romantic ending, but Austen does her best not to encourage pity for Charlotte. On the contrary, the author has a certain admiration for Charlotte’s pragmatic thinking.
Has been Charlotte a locked up lesbian or victim of fate, doomed to always appear less compared to the beautiful Bennet sisters? Maybe she was both. Queer-coded characters don’t exist in a box, often given a less compelling narrative than other more traditional characters. Ironically, in the ambiguity, they find freedom.
We may think other female characters are weird to varying degrees. NastyGlinda has intense feelings for Elphaba but rarely shows interest in the opposite sex. And what of Austen’s other beloved heroine, Emma, whose possessiveness over poor Harriet launched a thousand AO3 fanfics? Emma is famous for her reversal of gender reversal, so is the idea of a queer Emma Woodhouse so far-fetched? Even Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre can be seen through a queer lens, especially in her formative pre-Rochester experiences.
And what about men? Queer-coded male characters in literature are more common than one might think. Classical mythology is replete with homoerotic subtexts that most often become blatant ones – from Achilles and Patroclus to Zeus and Ganymede, to Apollo and his many, many, many male lovers. Timeless novels like Dorian Gray’s photo and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are famous for their creepy, unsubtle queer references, to the point where they’re almost considered LGBTQ+ literature, while characters like Wretched‘enjolras Where Gatsby the magnificent‘s Nick Carraway are prime examples of queer coded characters in well-known works of literature.
Enjolras, arguably the most charismatic character in Victor Hugo’s most depressing historical novel Wretched, shows several strange signs. Face of change and revolution from the reader’s point of view, Enjolras’ perfection is closely linked to her distinctive femininity, described by Hugo as having “long clear eyelashes”, “rosy cheeks” and “pure lips”. . He also shares a conflicted but tension-filled connection with the skeptical Grantaire, reconciling with him during their final moments and dying hand in hand.
The protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, Nick Carraway, is another prime example of a queer coded figure. Nick is Gatsby the magnificent, a character who continues to captivate audiences with his insight and sense of words. However, it was his intense attachment to Jay Gatsby and his observations of other characters – primarily Tom – that led to numerous authors interpreting gatsby through a strange lens. Nick’s appreciation for Gatsby comes from a place of idealization not far from where Gatsby comes from when it comes to Daisy. Whether Carraway wants to be Gatsby or be with him is up for debate, but the intensity of his feelings is strong enough to not only warrant, but actually encourage discussion.
Holden Caulfield of The Heart Catcher has several intriguing and potentially weird diapers. He interacts with men throughout the story, openly showing admiration for his roommate’s physique while being surprised by a physical gesture from his teacher, which he interprets as a sexual advance. Holden’s views on sexuality are immature, coming from a place of inexperience; he does not have a clear understanding of what he wants or likes because he is afraid of change and complexity. Holden strives for simplicity, something rarely offered to teenagers in coming-of-age stories.
In his article, “Nick Carraway’s Queering“, author Michael Bourne said: “I suspect Nick Carraway’s weird readings say more about how we read now than they do about Nick or Gatsby the magnificent.” In a way, he’s right. We live in a time where we are more aware than ever of the presence and impact of the LGBTQ+ community. We exist; we are here wanting to be seen and heard, especially after spending so much time hiding behind closed doors in shame and fear. Is it so far-fetched that we’ve spent years looking for any sign of representation in the literature we love and consume, settling for whatever ounce we find, no matter how weak? And is it wrong to think that we are interpreting new meaning in timeless classics now that we are open to a more inclusive way of thinking?
Writing can be tricky. As writers, we know our purpose and intent when we put our thoughts into words, but we have no control over them once we deliver them to the masses. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have our ideas read by others understand the double-edged sword of writing; once we post something, it ceases to be ours alone. Writers give their words meaning, but readers give them meaning. Audiences imprint on the writing, interpreting it from a place of intimacy, shaped by their own experiences and perceptions. And if those insights lead them to identify strange elements in a particular character, there must be something to justify it, because they understand better than anyone.
We can’t say for sure if these characters are queer, but we can interrogate and analyze, discuss, and contribute to their already rich legacies. And what’s wrong with that? The discussion can only benefit in the long run, especially when it comes to characters that mean so much to so many people. These characters have withstood changing times, changing ideas, wars, conflicts, book bans and everything in between; surely they can deal with a few homosexuals embracing them as one of their own. If an LGBTQ+ child struggling with their sexuality sees themselves in Jo March, who are we to say their interpretation is wrong?