The Mary Renault Society

The Triangle Area of North Carolina

Teaching LGBTQI Literature at North Carolina State University

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

Two announcements began the November 3 meeting of MRS:

There will be a joint meeting with TAGS at Jack’s on December 14.

On Thursday November 7 Masha Gessen, a leading Russian LGBT rights activist, will discuss the rise of radical ‘Family Values’ in Russia; 5:30 p.m. in Nelson Mandela Auditorium of the FedEx Global Education Center between S Columbia St., McCauley St., and Pittsboro St. on the south side of the UNC campus.

On November 2, 2013, Mr. Gene Melton, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at NC State University, was our speaker.  Mr. Melton is from Rocky Mount; he got his BA in English and Radio-TV-Motion Pictures at UNC-CH (with honors in creative writing), following that with an MA in English Lit. at NC State in 1990.  He is has taught at NCS since 2001; and he is also working on a doctorate at UNC-G (specializations in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and African American literature and queer theory).  He is particularly notable to us because he is the teacher of NCSU’s first-ever course in literature by and about members of the LGBTQI community—with a ‘Q’ for ‘questioning, and an ‘I’ for ‘intersex’.  Changes in cultural attitudes over the last half century (especially the last 15 years) have made it possible to consider the possibility of ‘questioning;’ and research is piling up that sexuality is not simply a matter of X and Y chromosomes—hence ‘intersex’.  (The naming process for the course might even have included A for ‘asexual’ and ‘allies.’)

This presentation looked at a lot of aspects of the course, highlighting features of it that led to a lot of work, interest, and surprised discussion.  There were 10 students, revealed through self-identification—two lesbian, one bisexual, one straight, one transitioning, and five gays.  At the time the course was just taken for interest; in the fall of 2012, it was approved to fulfill diversity requirements and now has its own approved course number (and in November ten students had already registered for spring 2014).

The first surprise for them was that literature for the community actually exists—something that many have little idea of the background for.  Students were asked how they defined LGBTQI literature.  People came up with several names of American gay authors, and their image of ‘gay’ was young, white guys (Mr. Melton naturally wanted to represent women and people of color as well, and both James Baldwin and Cherry Muhanji’s much awarded Her were included). 

A surprise for Mr. Melton was that young people today are remarkably squeamish when it comes to talking or reading about sex acts.  They are also remarkably ignorant of the history of cultural interaction with homosexuality: the witch trials of the 50’s, the Mattachine Society, Stonewall—all were topics that needed introducing (most of the students hadn’t heard of Stonewall).

They were similarly ignorant of how the literature had developed from one with only vague hints to an art form that not only mentioned its name but honestly explored the topic.

Elihu Hubbard Smith (f; 1767-1852) wrote a poem about a relationship with a woman as a Utopian concept.  James Henry Hammond and Thomas Jefferson Withers wrote letters clearly showing the time they spent together (though Lincoln also often slept with a male).  Herman Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his character Ishmael spent a night with another guy (both homosexual and interracial!).  Billy Budd was an intergenerational text—a way to wake the students up.

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson were the two dominant figures for their 19th century period.  Dickenson’s most noted relationship was with her sister-in-law; but like male letters, women’s letters were often hyperbolic. 

The term ‘homosexual’ itself is a term only invented in the late 19th century by a German psychologist (from an ancient Greek root meaning ‘same’ and the Latin word sexus, ‘sex’).

Willa Cather (1873- 1947) dressed in male clothing; she was experimenting on her own gender expression… and she had relationships with two women. 

In Willa Cather’s Paul’s Case, LGBT readers see the main character as gay or bisexual. The narrative shows Paul’s home life as severe; he escapes through the spectacular world of the theater.  He steals some money, takes a train to New York, and puts himself up in the Waldorf-Astoria.  Ultimately he realizes that the story has reached the newspapers and his father has repaid the money and is coming to get him. Finally he throws himself under a train (the standard outcome for a homosexual at the time). 

Paul’s Case is a takeoff on Oscar Wilde (Wilde’s tombstone got so many kisses that they had to put a wall around it).  Cather’s story was in 1905, whereas Wilde’s trial was in the 1890’s.  Like Paul, Wilde pushed against the constraints of society.  When he went to trial, he had left plentiful evidence behind him. 

St. Sebastian is the beautiful, suffering icon of gay culture—Thomas Mann (1875–1955) devotes a lot of attention to the story of St. Sebastian. 

Things were more relaxed in early 20th century Berlin—okay, anything went—until fascism came in.  One Professor George Chauncey, studying metropolitan history in a 1994 book, pointed out that a strict regime of policing gays in the U.S. only began in the 1930s, forcing apparent homosexual behavior to go underground (he also said that tops were not gay[1]).

In spite of oppression, in the 50’s there was an explosion of gay/lesbian paperbacks—Satan was a Lesbian, Women’s Barracks, Lesbian Captive—these seemed written largely for heterosexual men.  Pulp Friction, Locker-Room Lover, Go Down Aaron—there were plenty of gay paperbacks too. 

Patricia Highsmith’s work is toned down; The Price of Salt (1952) is an intergenerational story, under a pseudonym (she was a well known mystery writer).  It’s a thriller as the husband goes after her.  It ends with the two women staying together.

Her The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)deals with a young sociopath who discovers he is sexually attracted to other guys.  He kills three guys before it ends with him achingly alone. 

Giovanni’s Room (1956) of James Baldwin is set in Europe and written by a black man who was in a gay relationship at the time.  At its time, white guys are gays.  Giovanni is European, gay, and eventually decapitated. 

Culturally, at the time a tragic ending for a gay character was obligatory.[2]  Just look at the 1960 YouTube video Boys Beware! Homosexuals are on the Prowl! [[ link to ]]  It pictures the homosexual as mentally ill and less than human.  The anxieties of the culture are evident.

In the politicized environment of the 60’s, U.S. Army astronomer Frank Kameny was dismissed from his job because of his homosexuality, beginning an increasingly militant struggle with establishment forces that contributed to removing the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder—but the ending was not ugly.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1978; many students read further Tales) began a series in which being gay was just another facet of character.  His stories allow the introduction of The Castro to the students

The play Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, appearing less than a year after Stonewall, focused on if only we could stop hating ourselves.  Most of the actors in the play (the most flamboyant of whom was a straight guy) ultimately died of AIDS.   

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 Dancer from the Dance explores the atmosphere of Fire Island, the equality of the baths, dance floors, drugs, the meat market… all without spiritual depth.  Larry Kramer talked about the club culture and its shallow, promiscuous gay relationships.  These all swiftly led to the AIDS crisis.  The play Angels in America by Tony Kushner (which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize) deals with consequences of AIDS.

The finale of the course was AIDS in the 90’s, when AIDS is, perhaps dangerously, no longer seen as the scourge it used to be.

In contrast with the standard earlier tragic endings for gay characters, endings now involve grown-up, more mature lives, and there is far more acceptance (you can actually choose gay relationships in video games now…)  And Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues is a novel about a woman who becomes a man.   Our society is fundamentally changing.

Alison Bechtel’s (2006) graphic novel/memoir   Fun Home; a Family Tragicomic, which was about her (gay) father, spent two weeks on the best seller list (her second graphic novel was about her mom).  The dominant reaction to it?  Students were scandalized by the single graphic sex frame in the book; they were uncomfortable with open depictions of sex. 

So, clearly we have not completely escaped our Puritan heritage.  But the times, they are a changin’…


[1] This remains the position of the Muslim faith.

[2] Though Xavier Irenaeus Prime Stevenson wrote the first gay novel with a happy ending in 1906.


Willa CatherWilla Cather - Paul's Case
Willa Cather
Patricia HighsmithPatricia Highsmith - The Price of Salt
Patricia Highsmith
Andrew HolleranAndrew Holleran - Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran


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