Inventors of Gay: E.M. Forster

By: Christopher Harrity

E.M. Forster
January 1, 1879 – 7 June 7, 1970

Forster became known in the early 20th century for his novels that deeply examined class differences and the complexities of evolving human relationships. These novels gained a resurgence of popularity in the late 20th century in beautiful film versions: Howard’s End, A Room With a View, and Passage to India all met with critical and popular acclaim.

His long-suppressed novel, Maurice, was finally published posthumously in 1971 and it dealt primarily with both a homosexual relationship and the possibilities of breaking down class barriers. Forster sat on the work for nearly sixty years, revising and rewriting it. He showed it to close confidants, and Christopher Isherwood tried for years to have it published.

The publication of Maurice, relatively soon after the tumult of Stonewall, opened the door to a new honesty in publishing— especially in biographic work. Until the ’70s, very few biographies of gay men and women dealt openly with their relationships and sexual lives. Isherwood noted that the publication of Maurice would make all previous biographical writing about Forster obsolete.

Forster practiced what he preached. He did not have his first sexual contact until he was 38. But soon he began, while on service in India during WWI, to have discreet affairs and connections with Indian men. After WWI when he returned to England, he became more open with his other gay friends about who he was and what he wanted.

He found after writing Maurice that anything he wrote that was less than authentic in its dealing with his own theme—that of male/male love—was harder and harder to write. He began to create a large collection of private erotic writings that he only shared sometimes, and only wth single individuals.

While never openly proclaiming his orientation he was extremely brave about standing up for victims of homophobic laws and censorship in his later years. He spoke on behalf of Radclyffe Hall, protesting the censorship of her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, even though privately he thought the writing itself not worthy of defense. He also made statements on behalf of friends and acquaintances who were targets of homosexual sting operations and raids.

His longest and most enduring relationship was with Bob Buckingham, a London policeman; they're pictured here, Forster on the left and Buckingham on the right. Buckingham eventually married and had children. In Forster’s particularly humanist way, the couple evolved into a trio and then into a family. Forster had his own room in the Buckingham house and it was Buckingham’s wife who was with Forster at the end, holding his hands as he lay dying.

The 1987 Merchant Ivory film version of Maurice (above and below, right) helped launch the careers of Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, and was one of the first novels and films to depict a gay relationship with a upbeat ending.


Friends with:
Christopher Isherwood
W. H. Auden
George Platt Lynes
Paul Cadmus
Lincoln Kirtstein
Dr. Alfred Kinsey
D.H. Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence

Why we care:
Forster moved the needle of acceptance of same sex love forward by his insistence that it was normal and healthy, often meeting the most resistance with his other gay friends. His essay, "What I Believe," states that he does not believe in creeds; but there are so many around that one has to formulate a creed of one’s own in self-defense. Three values are important to Forster: tolerance, good temper, and sympathy. He goes on to posit that human relationships make a path to transcendence and transformation.

"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.