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[GUEST POST] Catherine Lundoff on LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy in the 1970s

Catherine Lundoff is a former archaeologist, former grad student and former bookstore owner turned professional computer geek and award-winning author and editor. She is a transplanted Brooklynite who now lives in Minneapolis with her wife and the two cats which own them. Silver Moon (Lethe Press, 2012) is her latest book and “Medium Méchanique” in Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam (2013) and “The Light Fantastic” in Luna Station Quarterly (2013) are her latest stories. Visit her online at her website, facebook and Twitter as @CLundoff.

LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy in the 1970s

by Catherine Lundoff

As I noted in my previous post, things had begun to improve for SF/F/H readers looking for more positive portrayals of LGBT characters and complex perspectives on sexuality and gender in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. That trend accelerated in June of 1969 when a police raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City triggered several days of rioting by bar patrons and other LGBT people. These riots are considered to be the beginning of the contemporary Gay Rights Movement in the U.S. because they had huge political implications for the visibility and subsequent legal status of LGBT people.

One result of that visibility was an upsurge in depictions, positive and negative, of LGBT characters in science fiction, fantasy and horror. From Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany to James Tiptree, Jr., Elizabeth Lynn, Michael Moorcock and Marion Zimmer Bradley, the range of LGBT characters being written by SF/F and H authors was extensive and varied. The political and social ferment of the times influenced the field as well, with worlds and visions that were influenced by different strands of feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and other social change movements.

Some of those influences were examined in such themes as single-sex worlds which were de facto populated with gay or lesbian characters. Often the plot of these stories hinged on the arrival of astronauts or aliens of a different gender than the original inhabitants, and said original inhabitants seeing the error of their ways and embracing heterosexuality in some form.

But there were some extraordinary spins on this idea, including James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1976 story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” about three male astronauts who travel through time to a future in which all the men have died off and the surviving women have built a culture they are not interested in changing. Joanna Russ used the same theme for her story “When It Changed” (1972), with the significant difference that the male astronauts do succeed in bringing unwelcome social changes to the all-female society they encounter. In contrast, authors like Suzy McKee Charnas and Sally Gearhart envisioned worlds where the relationships between men and women were so highly polarized that they formed separate, hostile societies on the same planet.

Another theme that blossomed during the decade was the idea of worlds which possessed some form of sexual utopia, open to multiple forms of sexual expression, including homosexuality, bisexuality and polyamory. Sex in these works is an important part of both plot and character development. John Varley was one author who explored these themes extensively in his novels, beginning with Titan (1979), the first volume of his Gaea series. The series featured a wide range of sex acts and possibilities as well as developing a lesbian relationship for its protagonists.

Samuel Delany had a more dystopian take on the theme in Dhalgren (1975), which features a bisexual protagonist traveling through a dying city, having encounters with the inhabitants that are sometimes sexual, sometimes hostile. Author Michael Moorcock also explored the eroticism in this theme in his novel Gloriana: Or the Unfulfill’d Queen (1979), a fantasy about a bisexual queen in quest of an elusive orgasm.

There was also a substantial increase in works that explored gender on alien worlds where gender was changeable or beyond binary gender categories. The first of these works, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), is set on a world whose inhabitants are depicted as genderless with the exception of the several days per month when they may become either male or female.

Le Guin’s novel influenced a number of other authors, including David Gerrold, whose novel Moonstar Odyssey, featured a planet whose children did not choose a gender until adolescence. Samuel Delany’s Triton (1976) is set on a world where the inhabitants can change both sexual orientation and gender at will. On a more individual level, Tanith Lee’s novels Death’s Master (1979) and Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977) and Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man (1971) are amongst a number of works from this time period which feature protagonists who change gender at will.

Finally, of course, there were simply more LGBT protagonists as well as villains to read about. Elizabeth Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy, which debuted with Watchtower (1978), features gay and lesbian protagonists in a gradually changing feudal landscape. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Shattered Chain (1976) and The World Wreckers (1971) are amongst the volumes of her Darkover series which focus on same-sex relationships in a changing culture. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975) includes multiple protagonists, one of whom is a lesbian, experiencing an intriguing and complicated sfnal take on the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement.

The 1970s were a decade which brought a wealth of good writing about sexuality, sex and gender to the genre, including sophisticated examinations of how we as humans construct and experience those crucial elements of our daily lives. In addition to Russ, Delany, Varley, Le Guin and Tiptree, writers like Thomas Disch, Tom Reamy, Elizabeth Lynn and others moved the genre in new directions and influenced new generations of writers. These works also encouraged a new generation of LGBT fans and writers to envision themselves in new futures and different lives, no longer limited to being either a villain or a victim.

To learn more, I recommend Uranian Worlds by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Alternative Sexualities and Identities in Fantasy and SF Booklist and the Feminist SF Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender SF bibliography.

14 Comments on [GUEST POST] Catherine Lundoff on LGBT Science Fiction and Fantasy in the 1970s

  1. “Houston Houston Do you Read?” was definitely for me the sharpest story in this subgenre. I didn’t even think of Gloriana or Titan as being LGBT fiction, but the Tiptree story held no illusions.

    And it still rocks as a story, today.

  2. I do like that one too, though I think the Russ and Delany works are stronger as queer fiction. I agree that the bisexuality in “Gloriana” is not the single biggest focus of the book, but I definitely think of Varley’s series as queer.

  3. There’s a plot development in Haldeman’s The Forever War that would qualify it. Delany and Russ are just plain confusing.

  4. Very nice article; thanks. I’m old enough to have read Russ’s “When It Changed” when it came out, and damn, did that story ever expand my mind for me. (My mind being pretty young, narrow and much in need of expanding in those days.) And it’s a beautifully written story that totally stands up to a contemporary reading, too.

    • Catherine Lundoff // January 15, 2014 at 1:36 pm //

      Thanks! Russ was such a many-layered author that I find myself trying to reread selection of her works, as well as Delany and Tiptree’s, every few years to see what I missed the last time.

  5. Great series! Thank you.

  6. Excellent article, thank you! Definitely added some books to my TBR list. I’m particularly interested in books where gender is fluid and changeable. I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness but not the others you mention.

    • Catherine Lundoff // January 15, 2014 at 1:33 pm //

      I hope it makes for interesting reading. The Tiptree Award long lists (honor as well as winner) might also yield some gems on genderfluid representation.

  7. Just bought 3 books. It would’ve been 4, except Amazon told me I owned the David Gerrold already. Whoops. 🙂 I’ve got some reading to do.

    • Catherine Lundoff // January 15, 2014 at 1:29 pm //

      I should buy stock. 😉 Fair warning, I am working on one for the 1980s when I get back from Arisia.

  8. Kai in NYC // January 17, 2014 at 12:20 pm //

    I went through Uranian Worlds when I was about 12 or 13, and wrote down the name of every single highly recommended book on a piece of paper I kept on me always for about a decade– for any time I found myself in a used bookstore. So I’ve read all the books you’ve mention, except Gloriana. (Must look it up!) In 8th grade, I got in terrible trouble for reading Varley’s “Demon” in class under the desk–it was a Catholic school. I’d love to read a list of books of LGBT-interest published since the millenium, if you feel so moved. I’ve kept my eyes open and read quite a few; but I’m sure there’s many more that I’ve missed. Great article–thanks!

  9. The 70s was also the decade when slash was invented in fanfic. “A Fragment Out Of Time” by Diane Marchant came out in 1974 and featured Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock though not by name. It was called slash because K/S was used to categorize those type of stories then expanding to other characters, movies and TV shows.

    I think MZB’s real breakthrough came with her “Heritage of Hastur” (1975) and her non-SF novel “The Catch Trap” (1979) about a young trapeze artist who discovers he is gay.

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