In his essay, "Gay Lit 101," scholar and poet J. Neil C. Garcia posits that there two kinds of gay literature: the  self-conscious one and the  unconscious one. The first form, according to him, is easy enough to tell. These are literary works that are explicitly about gay subject matters, usually written by gay authors, and are written for a largely gay audience. The books of David Leavitt and the literary works that pepper the groundbreaking Ladlad anthologies (edited by Garcia and Danton Remoto) are great examples of this form. He writes: "... [T]hese literary texts frontally -- and sometimes even, obscenely -- tackle questions of gayness, they qualify as a kind of self-conscious homosexual production..."
The second form, however, according to Garcia is more problematic, but for me also the most interesting. Of what makes up subconscious gay literature, Garcia writes:
The absence of patent homoeroticism in a male-authored text does not imply that such a text cannot be read as an example of homosocial (that is to say, most probably homosexual) writing. There are stories that were written by such early-twentieth-century gay writers as Henry James and E.M. Forster ... that treat the intimacy of men in largely metaphorical terms. And of course, the ubiquitous ménages à trois in the literature of the period lends itself to a homosocial reading as well: the rivalry of two men for the same beloved woman is actually a product of a detour of their proscribed desire for each other. Lover A desires Woman C, less because of her own intrinsic attributes than because he imagines Lover B to be desiring her as well.
And then there are those stories where one male character exhibits hatred for another male character, a hatred that is both unmotivated and underexplained. I am thinking of a particular story (“You May Safely Gaze,” by James Purdy) in which a man dwells on his dislike for two of his officemates, an obsession that he openly (albeit unselfconsciously) relates to another co-worker over lunch. And certainly, after some time, the lunch partner turns suspicious (and so does the reader) of what his friend actually feels about these officemates, since he seems rather fixated on them, and has obviously been paying them—including their well-built bodies—a little too much finicky attention
Stories of male friendship -- like that David and Jonathan in the Bible -- can justly be read as metaphors with a homoerotic subtext. And ménages à trois stories -- like Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love -- clearly cackle with the unspoken desire between the competing men, a mechanism of repression elaborated in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and Epistemology of the Closet.
And sometimes, a non-gay story or narrative spouts off sublimated signals that gay men and women clearly understand to be codes for further queer reading -- even if these stories and narratives do not readily make it obvious. Popular culture is replete with examples: Spongebob Squarepants, Batman and Robin, Bert and Ernie in Sesame Street. The last example has found such gay resonance, to the chagrin of its copyright owners, that when The New Yorker celebrated the Supreme Court's historic rulings on gay marriage in 2013, the magazine opted for this now iconic cover:
In other words, anything can be read in a gay way -- but the reading has to have legs. The best example of this is Disney's Mulan. Don't gasp too hard. Of course it is not a gay movie -- and I'm sure Disney did not intend it to be read in a gay way. But reading alas flies beyond the intentions of the original makers of the narratives; it is completely in the province of the reader. And in Mulan, the sapphic reading is manifested strongly in the figure of the titular character who comes off as tomboyish right from the get-go. When the honor of the family demands that her father must go to war for the emperor, Mulan leaps at the chance to replace her ageing father -- by pretending to be a boy and volunteering for the army.
The gender fix is not enough to justify a queer reading, however; for me, what clinches and justifies the reading is the song Mulan sings after making a complete fiasco of her presentation in the Chinese equivalent of a debutante's ball. She had been made up, gowned, and elaborately prettified to assume the social expectations of being "lady-like," and when she botches that, she runs away to her refuge, and by her lonesome, she sings "Reflection."
Take a look at the song's lyrics, and note the pregnant lines:
Look at me, I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I'm not meant to play this part? Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself, I would break my family's heart.
Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don't know? Somehow I cannot hide
Who I am, though I've tried. When will my reflection show, who I am, inside?
How I pray, that a time will come,
I can free myself, from their expectations
On that day, I'll discover someway to be myself,
and to make my family proud.
They want a docile lamb, No one knows who I am. Must there be a secret me, I'm forced to hide?
Must I pretend that I am someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show, who I am inside?
When will my reflection show, who I am inside?
And then, in the very next sequence, she transforms into a "boy."
And I can only imagine how many closeted lesbians or trans men saw this film and felt a stirring deep within themselves, and said: "That's me. That's my story. I'm Mulan -- but Mulan as the embodiment of my secret self, the one I have to hide deep inside."
Sometimes, however, the gay subtext in a piece of popular culture comes about because of restrictions that prohibit express gayness in the material. And so the creator instead subsumes the gayness into codes, something perfectly hidden that a heterosexual audience will never be able to read (unless they are clued in), but a homosexual one can readily see and lap up.
The best example of this (and also the best example of Garcia's last contention of subconscious gay literature -- e.g., "where one male character exhibits hatred for another male character, a hatred that is both unmotivated and underexplained") is William Wyler's Ben-Hur, the 1959 Biblical epic starring Charlton Heston as the title character and Stephen Boyd as Messala, Ben-Hur's erstwhile best friend turned nemesis. The gay subtext of the film is explained by novelist Gore Vidal, one of Ben-Hur's screenwriters, in the fantastic documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995), directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Here's the clip of that full revelation:
Garcia ends his essay with this caveat and plea: "Who isn’t gay, then? While I do not wish to claim that the homo/hetero distinction has suddenly turned false in every way, I hope that the testimony of the different literatures we take up in class renders our easy conceptions of our own—as well as of other people’s—sexualities somewhat too simple to be true. Sexual desires are rather complex realities that all at once straddle both choice and accident, nature and nurture; they are also extremely malleable human attributes that have the potential to vary from culture to culture, and from history to history. Moreover, despite the fact that these stories may be gay (because they discuss conscious and/or unconscious gay experiences), they nonetheless talk about things that are never so different from the experiences of non-gay readers that they cannot be understood from just anyone’s own unique perspective. The primary motive of the subject may therefore be summarized as one of negotiating the tricky crossovers between sameness and difference. Every time my students are able to identify with a gay character’s joys or tragedies, I am quick to remind them this character’s specific situation and therefore his undeniable difference. When a particularly raunchy or violent story drives a painful wedge between the 'aberrant' character’s life and my student’s own sheltered lives, I make a plea for sameness in the name of the universally human feelings of loss, suffering, and love."