Five Classic Novels Exploring Gender and Sexual Identity

Panhuman Books — November 25, 2022

Although some may think that gender issues are a modern problem, these five classic novels exploring the topic and more in-depth themes of sexual identity crisis may change your mind. People have questioned and examined the topic for the entire history of literature.

Orlando: A Biography

by Virginia Woolf

First published in 1928, this satirical novel involves a fictional biography of a nearly immortal poet who changes sex from male to female. It is lauded more as a feminist novel than one exploring a sexual identity crisis. The adventures and experiences of Orlando as a woman are not stymied by the strict gender-role rules of the time. Among the host of official recognitions and allusions in popular media, this book is considered one of the 100 most influential novels by BBC Arts.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Series)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

This examination of the world in which gender rules and expectations do not exist was published in 1969 at the heart of the US feminist movement. It follows a classic science fiction plot with a strong foundation in how androgyny is met by civilizations who do not understand it. The author wanted to expose what was left after societal mores were erased. It is a tale of loyalty, betrayal, and interpersonal relations above all else.

Giovanni's Room

by James Baldwin

Another BBC recognized book as one of the "100 Novels That Shaped Our World", this 1956 classic explores the topic of LGBTQ+ life and social issues. It is ultimately the story of a man living in Paris who falls in love with another man. Classic themes of identity, what it means to be a man, alienation from acceptable social standards, bisexuality as a subject, and public safety are all well represented. This is one book from the well-known author that does not explore race specifically.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

This indisputable classic published in 1890 is the oldest book on this list and perhaps the most well-known. It began as a novella and was expanded by Wilde the following year into a novel. It tells the tale of a wealthy aristocrat who values his youth and beauty above all else. Although not specifically focused on sexual identity crisis or gender roles, it does stand out as an early example of gay fiction as the uncensored version has multiple homoerotic scenes.

To enjoy the full story, a helpful afterword by Ulrich Baer, and an in-depth biographical timeline, please choose the Warbler Classics edition put out on March 30, 2020.

The Well of Loneliness

by Radclyffe Hall

Also published in 1928, this is considered one of the earliest lesbian novels that tells the tale of an upper-class woman in England who enters a relationship that is not supported by society at large. It explores the themes of loneliness, on natural bars to happiness, and the view that people were born homosexual. Although this classic novel deserves a place on the list, it did come under fire from feminists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They spoke against the stereotypical portrayal of lesbians as only butch or femme and the description of homosexuality as an inversion.