The volume of openly LGBTQ literature has grown exponentially since the early 20th century, but the question has always been how and where to find it. From the earliest issues of the pioneering gay political journal One and the equally innovative lesbian journal the Ladder, the emerging LGBTQ press in the 1950s created forums for discovering literature that spoke to the lived experiences of sexual and gender minorities.
One magazine, which grew out of the work of the Mattachine Society in 1953, featured a book review column in its first issue. The Ladder—published by the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil rights group founded in San Francisco in the 1950s—began a book review column in its sixth issue under the heading “Lesbiana,” describing it as a “running bibliography of Lesbian literature.” The inclusion of fiction reviews in these early political magazines, alongside discussions of the social roles and legal rights of sexual minorities, points to the fact that the emergence of LGBTQ social movements has been as much about imaginative self-invention as it has been about civil rights.
These journals created forums to help uncover LGBTQ-themed literature, since libraries and most bookstores were not welcoming places for those seeking such books. Some found their way to the section of libraries with Dewey decimal number 306.76 (covering sexual orientation, transgenderism, and intersexuality) or HQ 74–78 in the Library of Congress classification (covering bisexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, and transexualism). But these call numbers have not always been presented neutrally. The Library of Congress classification has included call numbers for books related to homosexuality since at least the 1920s, originally under the rubric of Abnormal Sex Relations, while the Dewey decimal system began to distinguish such books in the 1930s but classed them under Mental Illnesses. These call numbers do not include fiction, which is generally shelved alphabetically by author in public libraries and by period and genre in the Library of Congress classification, used in academic libraries. For instance, Larry Kramer’s classic novel Faggots might be shelved under FIC Kramer in a public library or under PS3561 (American Literature, Individual Authors, 1961–2000) in an academic library.
Over the course of the 20th century, Library of Congress subject headings for LGBTQ issues evolved from the original Sexual Perversion to Homosexuality in the 1940s; in the 1970s, they began to include a range of terms, such as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. In recent years, a major issue has been the classification of transgender- and intersex-themed materials, as these communities have found their political and artistic voices. Subject headings have evolved from Transvestism to Transsexualism and Transsexuals, and then to Transgenderism and Transgender People, and from Hermaphroditism to Intersexuality.
BISAC subjects in bookstores are more limited but include classifications for Gay and Lesbian Fiction, Romance, Erotica, Poetry, and Drama, as well as a few nonfiction categories. This was, of course, not always the case.
The lack of visibility of LGBTQ-themed literature in mainstream bookstores led to the rise of gay and lesbian stores such as Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore in New York City, and the A Different Light chain in California during the 1970s. This growth in LGBTQ publishing, distribution, and audiences, in turn, doubtlessly influenced BISAC categories and promotion in mainstream bookstores.
Gay and lesbian bookstores once served as major centers for the discovery and distribution of LGBTQ literature, but most of them have closed as mainstream bookstores have begun to carry more LGBTQ books, and as book buying has moved online. Readers today find LGBTQ books through major online retailers, as well as on websites like Goodreads, which allow users to write reviews and tag books as “GLBT,” “gay,” “lesbian,” and “trans,” depending on their own their own evolving ideas of sexual identity.
Community promotion of LGBTQ books continues with events like the annual Rainbow Book Fair in New York City in April, and prizes like the Lambda Literary Awards each June. These programs help raise the visibility of LGBTQ literature and attract more small presses, mainstream publishers, and eager readers every year.
Jason Baumann is coordinator of collection assessment, humanities and LGBT collections, at NYPL.