by Annabel Paulsen
“[Queerness] is not something to be ashamed of, and I’m coming from a place of privilege because I was not ashamed. I want [my students] to feel the same freedom, and that’s why in my teaching, in my writing, in the artists I have picked for us to examine, I need all of those identities to be apparent.” – Roya Marsh, 2017
It’s not uncommon to credit our high school teachers with the beginnings of our writing career, or at least its earliest encouragement. If we’re lucky, our English classes draw new maps for us; we see the world expand upon itself, and paths wind away toward the horizon, beckoning for us to follow. But the impact of those classrooms does not end with literary scholarship. Beyond analytical training and the Great American Novel, English classes have the ability to provide space for underrepresented identities. Any kind of student can find a mirror in literature—including queer kids.
This is still a relatively new development. Despite an existence spanning human history, queer stories have only really entered the mainstream market within the past couple of decades. For a long time, we only had a few archetypes by which to model ourselves; as with any identity, when we see more specific and nuanced representations of ourselves, we understand more possibilities for who we can become.
When I first began working on this project, I had narrowed my scope to the pedagogical Western canon, those works which have been imbued with significance by those who felt they could bestow it—mostly white, mostly straight, mostly upper-class, mostly cisgender. My goal was to explain that queerness in literature does not need to be sought out from the sidelines (though it is also an important exercise to read those writers who have not seen acclaim)—but that it exists within the confines of the traditional canon, which is brimming with works from LGBTQ writers already found on Advanced Placement reading lists. But this conception of “canon” is deficient.
A redefinition of the canon does not have to replace what already exists—instead, it broadens the scope. Human experience is expansive, and literature reflects that. A restrictive canon maintains exclusivity, not prestige. Our new canon has the potential to be as fluid as queerness itself, bending genre rather than bowing to it.
LGBTQ+ writers do exist within the Western canon. Their queerness is considered incidental, their writing respected for other reasons: voice, symbolism, imagery, narration. But often, a writer’s queerness seeps into the work, shrouded by other elements of style, though still unmistakable—if you’re looking for it.
Forster, Baldwin, Woolf, Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes: these writers produced stories, essays, and poetry that explored queerness explicitly. But even in their writing which was not plainly queer, it is possible, if not easy, to find threads of their identity. E. M. Forster wrote Maurice as a story of gay love, and did not seek to publish the novel during his lifetime, for fear of retribution; A Room with a View, more widely read, examines the murkiness of romantic feeling, and the secrecy it breeds (particularly in Edwardian England). Despite not being the “queer” novel, themes of queerness—of living with and hiding romantic feelings—overwhelm A Room with a View.
Teaching queerness in the classroom does not have to focus on sexuality. Instead, we can look at the work produced by queer writers, and deepen our analysis through various lenses. It is not about projecting identity onto literature—many literature students learn early on not to infuse a piece of writing with knowledge of its author—but rather, reading with intention. Identity is not incidental. It is foolish to assume we can ignore its influence.
Even without teaching a queer text, teaching queer writers creates a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students. It’s powerful, even now, to not only view but think critically about art created by queer people. We’re working toward a future in which queer writing is abundant and widely read. Until we get there, we have a wealth of literature ready to step into a new light.
Below is a reading list of works commonly included in the Western canon, supplemented by novels and collections which have been historically marginalized. More challenging than finding these texts is finding those which depict and explore queer lives candidly; like Forster and his Maurice, many queer stories have been hidden, augmented by editors for public reception, or discarded altogether. But here, we can endeavor to develop a holistic survey of queer literature, challenge genre, and oppose outdated standards.
Queer Canon Reading List:
Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
If They Come For Us, Fatimah Asghar
Another Country, James Baldwin
Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Patsy, Nicole Dennis-Ben
They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, Mark Bibbins
Poems, Elizabeth Bishop
My Ántonia, Willa Cather
The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee
The Awakening, Kate Chopin*
Plain Bad Heroines, emily m. danforth
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, emily m. danforth
A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
Howard’s End, E.M. Forster
Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998, Nikki Giovanni
Cleanness, Garth Greenwell
Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, Essex Hemphill
The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith
Mucus in My Pineal Gland, Juliana Huxtable
Good Talk, Mira Jacob
How We Fight For Our Lives, Saeed Jones
Haruko/Love Poems, June Jordan
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum
Gypsy Ballads, Federico Garcia Lorca
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden
The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
Chelsea Girls, Eileen Myles
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Violets and Other Tales, Alice Dunbar Nelson-Moore
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Jenn Shapland
Homie, Danez Smith
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz
The poems of Constantine P. Cavafy
The poems of Emily Dickinson
The poems of Audre Lorde
The poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
The poems of Frank O’Hara
The poems of Mary Oliver
The poems of Adrienne Rich
The poems of Sappho
The plays of Maria Irene Fornes
There is so much stunning queerness in contemporary literature that has yet to be canonized, if they ever will be—and the only way to ensure its growth is to read those LGBTQs+ writers who are living and writing now. Continue your reading with articles from our archives, essays and interviews from our Art of Teaching Writing series, and a selection of links for further recommendations.
From the Teachers & Writers Archives:
Teachers & Writers Interviews:
The Art of Teaching Writing Essays:
*Though Chopin did not identify as queer during her lifetime, I would be remiss to exclude The Awakening from this list, because of its rich lesbian themes.
Annabel Paulsen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She holds a BA from New York University, and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction through the New School. Her critical essays, which often focus on gender and pop culture, have been published in NeoText, Electric Literature, Document Journal, and Riot Fest Mag.