Could We Be Gay (and Gay) in the 1920s?

Book covers via Tordotcom and Fairlight Books, respectively.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby entered the public domain at the end of 2020, sparking plenty of jokes about the new legality of Jay Gatsby/Nick Carraway fanfiction. Set in New York at the height of the Jazz Age, the novel points a finger at the so-called American Dream and calls bullshit. Of course, this all but guaranteed it would spawn an entire party theme that encourages binge-drinking, debauchery, and severe bob cuts. Try as we might, barely anyone looks good in a flapper dress!

But I digress. The release of Gatsby to the masses has prompted many reconsiderations of its impact, including Fitzgerald’s skill at imbuing his work with homoerotic subtext. In the original, Nick, the “everyman” narrator, is so smitten with the mysterious Jay Gatsby that he’s willing to help him win over his cousin, Daisy Buchanan. Cue the lavish West Egg parties, clandestine meetings, and easy hatred for Daisy’s husband Tom. 

Naturally, many adaptations have focused on this relationship. But the cream of the crop, The Chosen and The Beautiful, hands the narration over to Jordan Baker — tennis star, socialite, and seemingly jaded friend of Daisy. Written by Nghi Vo, the 2021 novel reimagines Jordan as a bisexual Vietnamese American who sees through Jay, Nick, and Daisy, but loves them anyway. 

Vo’s 1920s New York brims with demons and magic. Jordan can cut things out of paper and bring them to life. Jay literally sells his soul to obtain his nouveau riche fortune. Daisy drinks demon blood-infused cocktails to survive the confines of marriage and a baby. 

The Chosen and The Beautiful features the same deliciously doomed yearning as Gatsby, but it centers the relationship between Jordan and Daisy, who have known each other since childhood. Jordan uses her power to get her friends out of trouble, but faces new threats as the Manchester Act, an anti-immigrant bill, approaches law. When the characters’ various dreams spiral out of control, Jordan must learn to put herself first before it’s too late. 

Vo transforms the women of Gatsby from aspiring “beautiful little fools” to hyper-aware anti-heroines. “Men had no idea how careless the women of their set weren’t allowed to be,” Jordan remarks. 

Those craving a darker depth for their “Gatsby parties” would do well to pick up a copy of The Chosen and The Beautiful. Vo has woven an energetic story of love, heartbreak, and decay.

But if you’re tired of Art Deco sconces and romanticizing Long Island, A Good Year might better quench your thirst for historical LGBTQ fiction. Set during the twelve days before Christmas in 1925, A Good Year is a folklore-laden novella by Polis Loizou which follows a married couple in rural Cyprus. 

Loukas and Despo are expecting their first child, but outside forces — the kalikantzari, gossiping neighbors, the British — put pressure on the existing cracks in their relationship. Like The Chosen and The Beautiful, the novella invokes the supernatural as Loukas finds himself attracted to a British newcomer and Despo fears for her child. 

Its isolated setting and tense countdown give A Good Year the quality of a “scary ghost story…of Christmases long, long ago.” But the burgeoning queer love at its heart sets it apart from A Christmas Carol or The Little Match Girl. Loukas must decide between maintaining his heteronormative life or running towards something uncertain but truer. It’s a decision many real queer people faced in the nineteenth century, imbuing the brief horror story with dramatic realism. 

In another refreshing move, Despo’s story is given the same amount of space as Loukas’. An orphan desperate for a family, she does everything in her power to protect her home. With or without Loukas, she is determined to be a good mother. (Her depth is neatly mirrored by the scorned wife of a gay politician in Dance of the 41, a David Pablos film set in 1901 Mexico). 

Loizou, who is also a playwright and performer, was gracious enough to answer my questions about A Good Year, which debuted at the beginning of April.

“I wanted to highlight the complexity of their situation,” Loizou wrote in an email. “But there is another person in this marriage: Despo, a human with her own dreams and desires. I couldn’t let her simply be the cheated-on housewife; I wanted her to be a sympathetic (but not angelic) character.” 

He also understands the larger appeal of historical fiction for queer readers. “I think as we become more open about being LGBTQ, we start to look for others like us, even in the past. It’s a comfort to know we’ve always been around and important to remember that our stories were either erased, diluted, or never expressed out of fear.”

At a time when politicians and school boards in my home state are banning books by LGBTQ folks and people of color, it’s comforting to find new authors crafting honest and alluring depictions of queer history. And it seems the twenties, rife with secret speakeasies and rapidly changing politics, are a great place to start.

“But we also can’t pretend that being LGBTQ was always an empowering thing – for many around the world, it’s still an aspect of you that could put your life in danger,” Loizou wrote in the same email. “I’m not a fan of whitewashing history, even in fiction. We’re still not free of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and we owe it to our community to acknowledge that. But I hope more queer writers turn to historical fiction – we’ve always been around, so let’s put ourselves back in the narrative we’ve been erased or excluded from.”

Recommendations

    • A Good Year (2022) by Polis Loizou is available April 1 from Fairlight Books. 
    • The Chosen and The Beautiful (2021) by Nghi Vo is available now from Tordotcom. 
    • Dance of the 41 (2020) directed by David Pablos is currently streaming on Netflix.
    • InfrequentMusing’s video essay about LGBTQ films created in the 1910 – 1920s, many of which were destroyed, censored, or lost.  
    • Jordan Baker is Fucking Sexy, a 3.5 hour playlist subtitled, “the great gatsby but whoops no it’s the chosen and the beautiful.”

Trope This Finds You Well is a love letter to all the ways films, TV, and fiction can infuriate, surprise, and delight us through the use of controversial, subverted, or well-worn tropes. Written for all the Beautiful Dead Girls and all the pianists who stop playing at the precise moment a stranger walks into the saloon.

The Meeting (1922)

By Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

 

She flitted by me on the stair –

A moment since I knew not of her.

A look, a smile – she passed! but where

She flitted by me on the stair

Joy cradled exquisite despair;

For who am I that I should love her?

She flitted by me on the stair – 

A moment since I knew not of her!

Source: Donoghue, Emma. Poems Between Women. Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 113.

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