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Out of the Past – LGBTQ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in the 1980s

The Northern GirlThe 1970s, famed as an era of free love, political protests and hallucinogen-fueled utopias, gave way to the era of punk and New Wave, AIDS, and the politics of Reagan and Thatcher in the more conservative 1980s. And science fiction, fantasy and horror followed suit, with hard-edged military science fiction, dystopian visions, anti-hero sword and sorcery, vampires and of course, cyberpunk. None of these, on the face of it, seemed any more LGBT-friendly than the sfnal works of the previous decade, yet the number of portrayals of LGBT characters over the course of the decade more than quadrupled.

This was due in large part to greater visibility and increased social acceptance of LGBT people in the U.S., the U.K. and other countries. In addition to LGBT characters, there were also more out lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans authors in the genre than there had ever been before. Melissa Scott, Geoff Ryman, Rachel Pollack, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, David Gerrold, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Jewelle Gomez, Jeffrey McMahan and other now familiar names joined Delany, Russ, Disch and Lynn.

Some of the fantasy novels with LGBT protagonists published in the 1980s included the last book in Elizabeth Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor series, The Northern Girl (1980), as well as Samuel Delany’s sword and sorcery series, The Tales of Nevèrÿon, which were released in multiple volumes over the course of the decade. The Silverglass series by J.F. Rivkin: Silverglass (1986), Web of Wind (1987), Witch of Rhostshyl (1989) and Mistress of Ambiguities (1991) featured a bisexual swordswoman and a lesbian witch in a series of swashbuckling adventures. Writers S. M. Stirling, Shirley Meier and Karen Wehrstein collaborated on the post-apocalyptic fantasy series The Fifth Millennium, which included The Snow Brother (1985), The Sharpest Edge (1986), The Cage (1989), Shadow’s Daughter (1991) and Shadow’s Son (1991), several volumes of which featured two bisexual women warriors as protagonists and partners in a poly extended family.

Ellen Kushner and Mercedes Lackey created very different gay protagonists in Swordspoint and Magic’s Pawn, both published in 1989. Lackey’s novel takes a more traditional fantasy route in this first volume of the Herald Mage series, creating a coming out story focused on a young gay magic user with psychic abilities. In contrast, the influential fantasy Swordspoint depicts established lovers, a swordsman and a young scholar, caught up in political intrigue in a European-style city that never existed.

Joanna Russ, Storm Constantine and Delia Sherman were amongst the authors who created stories and characters dealing with gender liminality and how alternative genders are perceived by others. Joanna Russ’ story “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman” (1982) features a protagonist who presents as a young gay man, but is, in fact, not what he seems. The young gentleman of the title is traveling with his teenaged female ward, who is also something else entirely. Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu books, which begin with The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (1987) is focused on a telepathic intersex species that presents as male. Delia Sherman’s Through a Brazen Mirror (1989) is based on the ballad “The Famous Flower of Serving Men” and features a protagonist compelled to disguise herself as a man and hide at the king’s court. Complications ensue when the king and the ladies of the court all fall in love with the man she appears to be.

The decade also saw a series of new versions of vampire legends, often interpreted as a response to the AIDS epidemic. Anne Rice’s popular Vampire Lestat novels and related works with their queer supernatural creatures were the best known, but writers like Jewelle Gomez were also creating their own takes on the tales. Gomez’ African-American lesbian vampire, Gilda, appeared in a number of her early short stories, which were later collected in their own book. Author Jeffrey McMahan introduced his gay vampire, Andrew Lyall, in several stories that appeared in his collection Somewhere in the Night (1989) and again in his novel, Vampires Anonymous (1991). Author Jody Scott featured a bisexual vampire who falls in love with a highly memorable alien in her novel I, Vampire (1984).

The Gomez and McMahan stories appeared in a small number of LGBT science fiction, fantasy and horror titles released by such LGBT presses as Alyson Press and Firebrand Books. Alyson also published the anthology Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Eric Garber, Camilla Decarnin and Lynn Paleo (1986). Naiad Press published Katherine Forrest’s lesbian science fiction novel Daughters of the Coral Dawn (1984) and her mystery and science fiction collection, Swords and Dreams (1987). Meanwhile, in the UK, Onlywomen Press published Carolyn Forbes’ lesbian science fiction collection The Needle on Full (1985) and Anna Livia’s lesbian SF novel, Bulldozer Rising (1987).

The LGBT presses primarily marketed books to the gay and lesbian communities, generally through specialty gay and lesbian bookstores. As a result, some of these books and authors never achieved recognition in larger science fiction and fantasy fandom. In contrast, authors Melissa Scott and Geoff Ryman, achieved mainstream success and won a number of awards for their portrayals of LGBT characters. Scott’s novels of the decade: A Choice of Destinies (1986), The Kindly Ones (1987), the Silence Leigh series and Armor of Light (1988), co-written with Scott’s partner, Lisa Barnett, all feature queer protagonists ranging from Alexander the Great to starship pilots and Christopher Marlowe. Ryman had several novels and short stories out during the decade, of which his Campbell-winning The Child’s Garden (1989) features a lesbian protagonist.

Author Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain (1988) combined elements of traditional fantasy (unicorns), with Native American as well as gay cultures in a novel that dealt literally and metaphorically with the impact of the AIDS crisis. Lois McMaster Bujold created the all-male planet Athos, in her novel Ethan of Athos (1986), where gay homosexuality is the norm and the titular character must cope with meeting and cooperating with the first woman he has ever met. Author and editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson, in addition to being one of the first science fiction and fantasy authors to come out as trans, introduced the bisexual female samurai Tomoe Gozen in her alternate history series Tomoe Gozen (1981), The Golden Naginata (1982) and Thousand Shrine Warrior (1984).

Young Adult (YA) books began to come into their own as a genre in the 1980s. Few featured queer protagonists or even secondary characters, but I’ll mention a few that did and have held up reasonably well. Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989) is the first book in a series of mythpunk/magical realist novels set in L.A.; the protagonist had a gay best friend before that became a thing and all the books touch on social issues, including coming out, AIDS, gay marriage (before that was a thing, either) and blended families. I missed Diane Duane’s Door into Fire, the first of her Tale of the Five series, published in 1979, so I fix that now since the series continued on into the 1980s and 1990s. Door features a bisexual male protagonist with a male lover in a fantasy rich with gods and magic. Along with the Mercedes Lackey books mentioned above, this book and the accompanying series is often one of the first books that LGBTQ folks who came out in the 1980s or shortly thereafter mention as their gateway to science fiction and fantasy as well as to positive portrayals of queer characters.

I’ve been focusing on LGBT portrayals in books above but wanted to end by mentioning a couple of works in other mediums. The Hunger (1983) is a horror film staring Catherine Deneuve as an immortal vampire and David Bowie and Susan Sarandon as her lovers. Love it or hate it, it remains one of the most glamorous vampire films with LGBT protagonists ever made. Also worth watching is Born in Flames (1983) in which filmmaker Lizzie Borden creates a documentary about a revolution led by feminist/queer/people of color revolution that never happened.

I also wanted to put in a plug for Mike W. Barr and Brian Boland’s limited run series from DC Comics, Camelot 3000 (1982-1985). Camelot is about the return of King Arthur and his knights in the year 3000 when Earth is threatened by an alien invasion, led by Morgan Le Fay and Mordred. Arthur’s knight, Tristan, is reincarnated as a woman, as is Isolde, and one of the subplots focuses on their relationship and conflicts, making it one of the first positive portrayals of a lesbian relationship in mainstream comics.

Two other excellent series with queer protagonists, Colleen Doran’s graphic novel series A Distant Soil and Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers, were also first published in the 1980s. Doran’s series is set on another planet and includes aliens, shapeshifters and telepaths among the main characters, while the early volumes of Love and Rockets feature bi protagonist Maggie Chascarillo as a rocketship mechanic, as well as elements of magical realism and pulp science fiction in its various storylines.

This is, of course, a high level overview, and some aspects of what we now associate with the science fiction and fantasy of the 1980s didn’t include LGBT protagonists until the 1990s. Early cyberpunk, for example, is remarkable for its absence of LGBT characters. Overall, the decade saw a remarkable growth spike in depictions, positive and negative, of LGBT characters in SF/F/H and for reasons of space and time, I haven’t touched on secondary characters or short fiction or fan fiction or characters who were incidentally bisexual, however positive the portrayal. For those interested in reading more, here are some resources and references. I particularly recommend Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror by Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, published in 1983. It is the most comprehensive work on early speculative fiction.

Some additional resources:

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis. Her stories and articles have appeared in such venues as Respectable Horror, The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, The Cainite Conspiracies: A Vampire the Masquerade V20 Anthology, Nightmare Magazine: Queers Destroy Horror and SF Signal. Her books include Silver Moon and Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories, both from Queen of Swords Press). Website:

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