We love TV and movies at AfterEllen.com, but we also love books — for many of us, our first encounters with a lesbian or bisexual character were in the pages of fiction, not on the big (or small) screen. And since summer, with its hot afternoons on the beach or lazing around in your back yard, is perfect for reading (OK, the rest of the year is good, too!), we thought we’d put together a list of some of our favorite fictional lesbian and bi characters.
The list is limited to 13 characters, which means we’ve left out a lot of memorable women. You may have heard of some of these characters, but some of them may be new to you. They were not necessarily chosen for their significance to literature in general — otherwise we definitely would have included Stephen Gordon of The Well of Loneliness. These are books and characters we’d revisit and reread; characters we’ve loved spending time with.
Of course, we probably left out some of your favorites. Take a look at our list (LeeAnn Kriegh, Heather A. O’Neill and Scribe Grrrl all contributed their favorites) — presented in chronological order — and let us know who we missed.
Hélène Noris — The Illusionist by Francoise Mallet-Joris (1951)
In a provincial town in France, 15-year-old Hélène Noris falls in love with Tamara Soulerr, a bisexual Russian emigrant who is not only two decades older but also her father’s mistress. None of this stops Hélène, and the two begin a passionate affair that quickly becomes sadistic. Hélène’s transformation under Tamara is remarkable as she goes from independent and spirited to obsessive and vulnerable.
But in the end, Hélène manages to turn the tables and emerges triumphant: “I looked at her with disgust. On that face I had loved and admired so desperately, that had been my sun, my horizon, the very incarnation of beauty, cruelty, voluptuousness and suffering, all equally delicious, there was painted that odious humility of beggars and beaten women, that cowardice or irresponsible people, that same weakness that I had hated in myself and that she, unknowingly, had taught me to hate. … She seemed to me almost ugly. She had not known how to vanquish me, this time. I no longer admired her.” — Heather A. O’Neill
Therese Belivet — The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price Of Salt became a lesbian cult favorite the instant it was published in 1952; Highsmith has since become best known as the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Price of Salt is about the sexual awakening of Therese Belivet, a young postgraduate living in New York City and trying to break into the world of theater as a set designer. The object of Belivet’s adoration is Carol Aird, an older woman married with a child.
The relationship gets complicated when Aird’s husband threatens to sue for full custody of their daughter by outing his wife, and the two women depart on a spine-tingling road trip. It is on this trip that Belivet’s burgeoning insights into her sexuality truly begin to take shape.
Here, in a hotel room in Waterloo, she records her first intimate experience with Aird: “And now it was pale blue distance and space, an expanding space in which she took flight suddenly like a long arrow. The arrow seemed to cross an impossibly wide abyss with ease, seemed to arc on and on in space, and not quite to stop. Then she realized that she still clung to Carol, that she trembled violently, and the arrow was herself … and she did not have to ask if this was right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.” — Heather A. O’Neill
Jaret Tyler — Happy Endings Are All Alike, Sandra Scoppettone (1978)
Published in 1978, Happy Endings Are All Alike is the first young adult book with a clearly lesbian main character. And — surprise — Jaret Tyler’s not a closeted and confused soul. She comes out in the first line of the book: “Even though Jaret Tyler had no guilt or shame about her love affair with Peggy Danziger she knew there were plenty of people in this world who would put it down.”
Even as the late 1970s world does its best to send her into a lifetime of therapy, Jaret stays out. The Radcliffe-bound future lawyer perseveres through verbal, emotional and physical assault, remaining strong even as her girlfriend wavers in the face of family and small-town prejudices. The disco-era language may make you laugh, as Jaret deals with some heavy and far-out issues, but the book is a classic — both because of its author’s and Jaret’s remarkable courage. Scoppettone went on to write a popular series of mystery novels featuring lesbian detective Lauren Laurano. — LeeAnn Kriegh
Arden Benbow — Faultline (1982) and Southbound (1990) by Sheila Ortiz Taylor
This first novel from poet, author and teacher Sheila Ortiz Taylor is the first lesbian novel featuring a Chicana main character: Arden Benbow, a lesbian involved in a custody battle — with a twist. Faultline, Ortiz Taylor’s first novel, is told through the different perspectives of witnesses at the custody hearing, and is memorable not only for the quirky characteristics of Arden Benbow but her numerous rabbits.
“I realize that my three hundred rabbits are the most serious piece of material evidence against me,” Arden says. “People will think only an unstable mind could not only produce but sustain that kind of absurdity. … But I am going to ask something more of you. I am asking you to keep your eye on the rabbit without forgetting the silk top hat from which the rabbit must eventually emerge.”
In the sequel to Faultline, Southbound, which was published 18 years later, Arden returns — rabbits intact — and heads south with her children and her partner. Reviewing Faultline in 1982, author Jane Rule wrote: “This is a first novel, but it introduces us to an already authoritative voice in our presence whom we will welcome with the celebration she has offered us.” Ortiz Taylor has gone on to write several more novels with Chicana lesbian characters, became Francis G. Townsend Professor of English at Florida State University, and was a recipient of a Fulbright Award. — Malinda Lo