A Gay Pride Month special which I survey the LBGTQ writing that spoke to me most as a young reader and gave me a sense of what life outside the closet might be.
Today is the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the symbolic birth of the modern gay liberation movement. Like many gay men of my generation, I grew up in a conservative society where homosexuality was all but invisible. In a pre-Internet age, books became the way I learned about gay history and started to imagine what a gay community might look like.
While I created this blog to explore classic works of fiction that I’d not yet read, occasionally I’m tempted to revisit a much-loved old classic and see how well it’s held up over the years. Today feels like an ideal moment to recall ten of my most cherished reads from the LGBTQ canon. I’ve given myself a bit more leeway than normal in this blog, by allowing non-fiction and short stories as well as fiction.
In compiling this list, I went with books that felt like favourites, rather than trying to make an “inclusive” list of authors who represent a spectrum of gender, ethnicity and sexual identity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of my choices are about and by cis-gendered gay men, which is also who I am. What’s also evident is how many of them date from the early 1990s, which was when I was a teenager and first became aware of my homosexuality. Reading serves a variety of functions, but particularly when you’re young, it acts as a mirror in which you hope to find yourself – or at least the version of yourself you’d like to grow up to be one day.
I hope you enjoy these titles as much as I did putting the list together. Please feel free to add your own favourite LGBTQ works in the Comments section. Here they are, in order of first publication:
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855
The great gay granddaddy of the Western canon, Whitman pretty much invented modern poetry with Leaves of Grass, a rambling, kaleidoscopic collection of free verse celebrating the transcendental power of nature, the thrill of the city and industry and the glories of the human body. Almost uniquely in the history of literature, Whitman wrote candidly about sexual desire between men, long before Kraft-Ebbing and Freud had invented homosexuality as a coherent human identity. The honesty and eroticism of his Calamus poems earned him the wrath of contemporary censors but made him beloved of generations of gay men looking for guilt-free expressions of their own desires. I still remember fossicking through a dusty library copy (with an engraving of the young Whitman looking like the prototype for every bearded Soho Gay), turning the pages feverishly till I found these lines: “I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.”
Orlando, Virginia Woolf (1928)
I fell in love with Virginia Woolf in my first year of university, when the wonderful Jocelyn Harris taught a class on To the Lighthouse and recommended I read A Room of One’s Own, a crucial read in my coming-of-age as a feminist. I came to Orlando much later, after Sally Potter’s brilliant 1992 film adaptation starring androgyne goddess Tilda Swinton. Both novel and film are light and funny and effervescent, and present a now very on-trend view of gender and sexuality as a kind of performance. Woolf wrote Orlando as a tribute to her lover Vita Sackville-West, and something of that romantic infatuation pulses through the writing.
Maurice, E M Forster (published 1971)
Forster started Maurice in 1913, after having his bottom fondled by George Merrill, the hunky working-class lover of his friend gay rights activist Edward Carpenter. The sweetly sentimental tale of a Edwardian middle-class man who smothers his homosexuality, only to fall in love with a hunky young gamekeeper, was privately circulated in Forster’s lifetime, and is thought to have inspired DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Published after Forster’s death, it seemed rather timid and conservative in the new climate of sexual liberation, but time has been kinder to its reputation. Though it’s far from being a great novel, or Forster’s best work, it offered that most rare of LGBTQ narratives – a gay couple who meet, fall in love and live happily ever after, without either of them dying or committing suicide as punishment for their sins. Merchant-Ivory’s gorgeous 1987 film adaptation of the book, starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, is still one of my favourites.
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin (1978)
For most queers of my generation and older, the Tales of the City novel series are a cultural touchstone – a vision of bohemian 1970s San Francisco where everyone is welcome and where every little outcast and freak from Bible Belt America can find Home. Maupin’s greatest creation, the marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal, was one of the first openly trans (and most fabulous) characters in Western literature. Though it’s now a period piece – Maupin’s San Francisco no longer exists, overtaken by tech billionaires – the warmth, generosity and humanity of his writing makes this one of my most beloved reads.
A Boy’s Own Story, Edmund White, 1982
Edmund White is to contemporary gay literature what Germaine Greer was to feminism – a reporter of life in the good old bad old days, and a fearless chronicler of the new age of sexual liberation, told in dazzlingly eloquent modernist prose. His follow-up volumes, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony provide a cultural history of American gay life from the grim conservatism of the post-WWII Eisenhower years through the hedonistic 1970s and into the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.
The Swimming-Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst (1988)
Hollinghurst’s debut novel, about a promiscuous young aristocrat shagging his way through 1980s gay London, was quite an eye-opener when I first read it. Hollinghurst’s droll ironic style and graphic descriptions of raunchy condom-free gay sex seemed so shocking, especially in the virulent anti-gay atmosphere of late 1980s Britain, in the grip of AIDS and Margaret Thatcher’s anti-gay Section 28 law. His posh-boy protagonist Will seemed to embody every homophobic cliché about gays as irresponsible sex pests who deserved what they got (though Will’s money and privilege means he gets away with little more than a broken nose). Initially, I was annoyed with Hollinghurst for letting the side down, but he also showed me a world in which gay men lived (relatively) openly and had sex without shame. He also highlighted, with great comic dexterity, the long homosocial/homosexual tradition in the English upper-classes, a theme he returned to in his Booker Prize-winning masterpiece The Line of Beauty.
Dangerous Desires, Peter Wells (1991)
I have so much to thank Peter Wells for. As one-half of a filmmaking duo with his ex-partner Stewart Main, he put gay desire on the screen with the film A Death in the Family, one of the first and best explorations of the AIDS epidemic as it affected a rural New Zealand family, based on the death of his brother from AIDS in 1982. Their first feature film, Desperate Remedies, was a gloriously high-camp comedy set in a queered 19th century landscape, covering much the same period as Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries but more concisely and with much more flair. Dangerous Desires, a collection of short stories, made him the first openly gay New Zealand writer, breaking a very long silence about the existence of homosexuality in the culture, and was followed up with a second collection, The Duration of a Kiss. He was also a generous mentor to a generation of writers and artists following him, for whom he cheerfully blazed a flaming hot pink gay trail. In the latter part of his life, he turned to memoir, including Long Loop Home, which along with Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table counts as one of New Zealand’s greatest autobiography. I’m so sad that he’s no longer with us, and so grateful for everything he gave me.
At Your Own Risk, Derek Jarman (1992)
No one could be angry quite like Derek Jarman. At Your Own Risk, a collage of essays, diary entries, biographical anecdotes and polemic ranting, burns with indignant rage at homophobic Thatcher-era Britain and his own impending death from AIDS. For all its grim subject matter, Jarman’s warmth, wit and naughtiness make this a wonderful read. Jarman has been dead for nearly 30 years – he died of an AIDs-related illness in 1994 – and while his subversive indie legacy lives on through his former colleagues Tilda Swinton, Sandy Powell, John Maybury and Simon Fisher-Turner, no one’s quite been able do what he did with such assurance, aesthetic poise and haunting power.
Gay New York, George Chauncey (1994)
The first gay history book I ever read (and reviewed for the student newspaper), that opened up a world I never knew existed. Chauncey’s lively, funny and engrossing account of gay life in New York from the 19th century to the mid 1960s did much to counter the narrative that life pre-Stonewall was one long suicide note, or that we have the Baby Boomers to thank for inventing sexual liberation.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Witi Ihimaera (1995)
Witi Ihimaera, New Zealand’s best-known Māori writer, took a huge risk in publishing “Nights in the Gardens of Spain”, an autobiographical novel about a closeted bisexual man, which became a literary and personal coming out. These days, coming out stories are so common as to be almost passé, but in 1995 they weren’t, and certainly not in New Zealand, where homosexuality had only been legalised 9 years before. Like “Maurice”, it’s not Ihimaera’s best book and it hasn’t aged well, but it was deeply felt and written, and had a huge impact on me when I first read it – if only to show the type of gay man I didn’t want to become.
As I surveyed my bookshelves making my Top Ten selection, I noticed how many biographies of LGBTQ people I’ve collected over the years. Biographies are an essential part of LGBTQ literature, because they so often illuminate a central part of queer experience – living in the closet. Most of these subjects either kept their sexuality a secret or lived quietly and discreetly so as not to be destroyed by their homophobic societies. All of them, even the few who lived more openly, spent much of their lives interrogating and contending with their sexuality identity, in many cases being destroyed by the depression, self-loathing and drug addictions that are so often a part of LGBTQ experience. As much as we long for positive role models, it’s also important to remember how difficult life can be as a queer person: our struggles with rejection and alienation, the contortions we go through to make space for ourselves in the world; the precautions and defences we develop to protect ourselves and avoid danger; and the great art we occasionally create. I think of the LGBTQ people on my bookshelves as my spiritual ancestors, and so wish I could have known them. (Well, some of them).