Three Queer Novels That English Teachers Should Assign

After nearly a decade of teaching, I remain unsettled that year after year homophobia, especially among boys, thrives in middle and high schools. Boys flaunt their heterosexuality insecurely while girls increasingly embrace — or at least remain apathetic to — LGBTQ equality. While teaching at an urban school in a low-income community, I frequently heard boys say “no homo.” When I taught at an affluent international school in Europe, I heard boys unanimously criticize the school’s decision to fly the LGBTQ pride flag outside the school building during Pride Month in June.

In each school, there was a small but devoted gender and sexuality alliance student group. In addition, teachers were openly in support of LGBTQ rights. The key, missing component was the discussion of LGBTQ identity in the classroom. Although students saw equality banners in the hallway and in classrooms, teachers did not discuss gender or sexuality in great depth or recurrence in the context of their subject areas.

The challenge of being a teacher is teaching content in a way that embraces equality and fairness. English teachers should lead the way by teaching classic novels that celebrate queer male identity. After all, homophobia and sexism originate from a common fear of femininity. Homophobia, like racism, comes from a fear of otherness. Specifically, three classic queer male novels also address sexism, racism, and classism.

  1. Maurice by E.M. Forster
Maurice kisses Clive.

How is the book queer? Despite his privileged status in early twentieth-century London, Maurice is very average in many ways. He is not the smartest or most cultured man. He develops into a fairly attractive man, but he is by no means a heartthrob. His family knows what they want him to be. From a very early age, Maurice understands that he will go to school at Cambridge, get a job as a stockbroker, and settle down with a wife and children. After posh Cambridge classmate Clive Durham breaks his heart, Maurice seeks cures for his homosexuality to no avail. Maurice eventually learns to accept his sexuality, and he pursues a romance that transcends social and class norms with Alec Scudder, Clive’s gamekeeper.

Why is the book important? Maurice addresses male queerness and male identity with great sensitivity, acknowledging a range of experiences. Forster portrays the misogyny that was pervasive during that era, even among closeted queer men, especially with regard to Maurice’s belittling of his sister’s ambitions. In addition, the author imagines both class tension and class deconstruction between queer men. Queerness takes different forms in the characters of gay Risley, gay Maurice, ostensibly bisexual Alec, and questioning Clive.

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway in a homoerotic scene

How is the book queer? Overt queer male themes and characters do not appear in The Great Gatsby, the story of Jay Gatsby’s unsuccessful bid to woo Daisy Buchanan. A careful reading of the book suggests that narrator Nick Carraway is queer and that he may also be an unreliable narrator, adding an additional layer to the male posturing so prevalent in this book. In fact, reading Nick as a queer character explains his singular devotion to Gatsby. Readers may also infer Nick’s queerness from his contrasting descriptions of male and female characters and a key scene in which he stands over the bed of a half-clothed man after a party.

Why is the book important? If one reads Nick as a queer character, he is a tortured and closeted queer character. Nick seems to lie to women about his desires, and he is a passive participant in his relationship with Jordan Baker. In contrast, Tom Buchanan is an open racist and misogynist, and Daisy is his willing enabler. Although Tom mistreats Daisy and his mistress Myrtle, Tom and Daisy continue their privileged existence together while Gatsby and Myrtle perish and Nick and George Wilson grieve.

3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Ishmael and Queequeg passionately share a bed.

How is this book queer? Ishmael is a sailor who seeks adventure on a whaling ship in the nineteenth century. The book follows his journey from New York to Massachusetts, where he boards the Pequod as a sailor. Before leaving, he meets Queequeg, a harpooneer from the Pacific Islands, who also boards the Pequod. The language itself is at many points extremely suggestive, but the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is overtly queer. Though initially afraid of Queequeg, Ishmael embraces him in the bed that they share at an inn. Melville describes Ishmael’s joy in kissing and cuddling with Queequeg in bed, and he characterizes their relationship as a marriage. Ishmael even shows great concern when Queequeg embarks on a religious fast.

Why is this book important? Ishmael undergoes a striking change at the beginning of the novel when the innkeeper tells him that he must share a bed because the inn is full. Ishmael is irritated and then scared to share a bed with a big, brown tattooed man from another country. Surprisingly his fear turns to unabashed love. Although Ishmael does not completely understand Queequeg’s culture, the two form a memorable bond. As racism exists even in the LGBTQ community, this episode from the book serves as a beautiful discussion point for intersectionality.

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