Gay writing was an important element of the Harlem Renaissance. Gay and bisexual men—such as Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay—were vital presences in this literary movement. Locke, a professor of philosophy, mentored some of these men and published their work in his landmark anthology The New Negro (1925), including Nugent's short story “Sadji,” the earliest known gay text by an African American. A year later Thurman's Fire!! (1926)—a magazine whose explicit purpose was to shock the black reading public—appeared. According to folklore, Thurman and Nugent tossed a coin to choose as a subject either homosexuality or prostitution. Thurman got prostitution and produced the story “Cordelia, the Crude,” while Nugent contributed the semiautobiographical “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade,” the most explicit homoerotic text of the Renaissance. In 1932 Thurman published Infants of the Spring, which included several gay characters. Decades later the black gay British film director Isaac Julien used several texts by these writers in his controversial film Looking for Langston (1989), an exploration of homosexuality in the Harlem Renaissance.
Most Harlem Renaissance writers were not as explicit about homosexuality as Nugent or Thurman were. Instead, homosexuality is often referred to in code. Those readers familiar with homosexual coding might detect it in poems such as “Young Sailor” or “I Loved My Friend” by Langston Hughes and others might conjecture homosexuality in the recurring pagan imagery in Cullen's poems. However, it is often difficult to detect homosexual coding because the settings in which gay life occurred in the 1920s no longer exist. For instance, the now extinct bachelor subcultures that provide the setting for McKay's Home to Harlem (1928) were sites for gay life in the 1920s and 1930s. Analyses of this novel and others by McKay have yet to consider the full significance of the homoerotic settings in which they take place.
Gay writing was even more concealed after the Harlem Renaissance ended. The economy collapsed bringing on the Great Depression, the Second World War raged, and, after the war ended, the persecution of homosexuals increased. During the Cold War, in particular, the FBI targeted homosexuals as enemies of the state and many were imprisoned, fired from jobs, or forced to hide their identities. Nevertheless, during this period Langston Hughes denounced the persecution of gays and lesbians in his poem “Cafe 3 A.M.,” which first appeared in the 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Hughes's 1963 Something in Common and Other Stories also contained “Blessed Assurance,” his first short story with gay characters. During this post-war period Owen Dodson, a professor at Howard University, published plays, poetry, and the semiautobiographical novel Boy at the Window (1951).
James Baldwin's emergence in the 1950s as a leading writer was a watershed event for black gay writing. Shortly after emigrating to Paris, he wrote a defense of homosexuality, “The Preservation of Innocence” and published it in Zero (1949), a little-known Moroccan journal. He explored adolescent homosexual yearnings in the short story “Outing” and in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). In his next novel Baldwin took a strange course for an African American writer, and particularly for one well-known as a critic of American racism. In Giovanni's Room (1956) all the major characters were white, the setting was in Europe, and the plot concerned a bisexual love triangle. Giovanni's Room created controversy, but it earned Baldwin a major place in the gay literary tradition. He would explore gay and bisexual themes in future novels Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), and Just above My Head (1979).