The Best LGBT Books of All Time


Benoit Denizet-Lewis asked our country’s leading queer writers to suggest five indispensable books.

Of all the gay books on the shelves of A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco, I’m not sure why I left with Larry Kramer’s Faggots.

I certainly didn’t see myself as a faggot (I played sports, I was a top), but there was something about that book, with its yellow cover and audacious title, that made it irresistible as my first gay-themed book purchase. Still, I was sure to buy it alongside Dan Woog’s Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Male Athletes. Even in a gay bookstore with a blue-haired lesbian working the cash register, I was self-conscious about what people might think.

The year was 1997, and gay bookstores still existed in most big American cities. I was 21 and back home for the summer in my hometown of San Francisco, where a year before I had come out to my dad. “I guess this is what I get for raising you in San Francisco,” he’d said, slumping down in a chair as if he’d been shot.

My dad and I can laugh about it now while watching Modern Family, but at the time it struck me as a snotty thing to say. (What I really needed was a hug.) My dad had it all wrong, anyway. Growing up a few minutes from the Castro didn’t make me gay—if anything, it made me less likely to see myself that way. I couldn’t relate to AIDS or leather chaps, both of which seemed to be afflicting many of the gay men I saw on the corner of Castro and Market, where, in middle school, I had to transfer buses on my way home from school.

When gays from small Midwestern towns tell me how cool that must have been, I smile politely and don’t dare tell them I would have gladly traded places. Growing up near the Castro in the 1980s was confusing and occasionally frightening, and it probably delayed my coming out by a few years. “If this is what gay is,” I thought to myself, “then I’m definitely not that.”

I couldn’t really relate to the characters in Faggots, either, and I don’t think I even finished the book. But it’s still on my bookshelf all these years later, sandwiched between Scott Heim’s terrific novel Mysterious Skin and Frank Browning’s probing sociological portrait of gay life, The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today.

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I wish someone had given me a list of required gay reading when I was coming out. Gay men gave me a lot of things back then (porn, theater tickets, crabs), but no one gave me book titles. As a young gay man, I could have used a literary roadmap to help me put my experiences—and my feelings—in some historical and sociological context. As a young writer, I could have used being better read. Why didn’t anyone tell me that I needed to know who Paul Monette was?

In an effort to right those wrongs, and to do my part to promote gay cultural literacy in a time of vanishing gay bookstores and vanishing attention spans, I’ve asked some of the country’s most interesting and iconic LGBT writers—including Michael Cunningham, Edmund White, John Waters, and Patricia Nell Warren—to suggest five books that every LGBT person should have on his bookshelf (or Kindle).

I also came up with my own list, doing my best to choose books that didn’t appear on many others:

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Limiting important LGBT-themed books to a short list isn’t easy. “No single set of five books can possibly serve the diverse hungers and desires that make up LGBTQ,” Kate Bornstein, a transgender author and performance artist, emailed me to say when she turned in her selections, which include Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and the classic BDSM novel The Marketplace. Bornstein’s right, but the remarkable diversity of the books on these lists means that there’s a good summer read for just about everyone.

What’s the best gay book ever written? The work that appears on the most lists is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which is set in Paris’ gay subculture in the middle of the 20th century and which writer Alexander Chee selected as one of his five titles. “It’s a searing, perfect novel,” he explained, “with few if any rivals for the way it brings us into the mind of a closeted young man fighting both to love and not to love his one great love, and the cost of this battle within him.”

Other writers with books nominated multiple times include Jean Genet, Andrew Holleran, Alan Hollinghurst, Christopher Isherwood, Anne Carson, Herman Melville, Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf, Edmund White, Alison Bechdel, J.R. Ackerley, and Tony Kushner. Though author Michael Cunningham didn’t include Kushner’s play Angels in America among his five titles, he urged me to give it its due. “Although it is not prose or poetry, I can’t quite imagine a roundup of gay and lesbian literature that didn’t include it,” he wrote. “Angels in America is, to me, probably the seminal work to date about gay life (and so much of un-gay life at the same time).”

♦◊♦

Several writers I reached out to wrote eloquently about how discovering the books on their lists—often as fearful, closeted teenagers—had changed the trajectory of their lives. “I am not being hyperbolic when I say that Good Times, Bad Times saved my life,” Mississippi Sissy author Kevin Sessums emailed me to say about James Kirkwood’s little-known novel, which is set in a boarding school run by an evil headmaster. “I read this it thrice during my teenage years in which I suddenly began using words like ‘thrice.’ It’s about the nuances of male bonding as well as the price one pays for being different and, yes, defiant. Just typing these sentences makes me want to read it for a fourth time. I’m sure it will speak just as profoundly to me as an adult because somewhere deep within the truest part of myself is still that 16-year-old from Mississippi who longed for romantic love when what he was offered had to be defined as friendship.”

Many of the nominated books are not explicitly gay-themed but drip with homoerotic subtext. Patricia Nell Warren, author of the classic gay novel The Front Runner, emailed me to explain why she included T.E. Lawrence’s 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom among her selections.

“Few LGBT readers ever mention T.E. Lawrence’s war memoir, yet it deserves a key place among our historical classics,” Warren wrote. “Colonel Lawrence outed himself as thoroughly as a war hero and army officer could dare to do in post–World War I Britain. He never uses the word ‘gay,’ of course, but it’s crystal clear what he’s talking about. In the early 1950s, I read it in high school for a World War I book report, and cried my eyes out over the love story of Daud and Farraj, with its setting of the horrors of desert warfare. It was the first book that I ever happened upon that mirrored to me what LGBT identity is all about.”

Want to know what other books made Warren’s list? What follows are the literary favorites of some of our country’s most accomplished LGBT writers.

Before we get to that, though, I thought I would leave you with some terrific advice—too often unheeded in my own life, I’m ashamed to admit—courtesy of John Waters. “We need to make books cool again,” he said. “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

♦◊♦

Next: Michael Cunningham, John Waters, Edmund White

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About Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is an editor-at-large with The Good Men Project magazine, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, and the author of two books, including America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life.

Comments

  1. I can relate to Benoit’s intro on so many levels. I grew up in the sticks, but still was only shown the stereotypical version of gay men. Luckily, a gay man told me who Paul Monette was. However, I didn’t get crabs or porn, but instead just theater tickets. This summer is going to be a busy one reading!

  2. When will we realize when we call ourselves “queer writers”, “queer artists”, “queer scholars”, etcetera, we are just as ignorant as those who have historically used the Q-word to dispagage us? It cannot be proven that LGBT folk do not mean “queer” in a derogatory sense. In fact, I think the opposite can be proven. The term is used because it is trendily “edgy”, and if it isn’t bad, it isn’t edgy! Let’s clean up our language and answer to labels that truly reflect Gay pride.

  3. David Ciminello says:

    AT SWIM, TWO BOYS by Jamie O’Neill — the absolute BEST

    • Absolutely, David. I’ve read many of the books listed (and plan to read some of the others), but O’Neill’s book is simply one of the most moving, brilliantly written novels I’ve ever read. In fact, I’m planning on rereading it (after first reading it on publication) and recommending it for my (non-gay) book club.

      And while I wouldn’t say Kirkwood’s Good Times, Bad Times would qualify as an all-time best gay-themed novel (there’s a whiff of the closet to it, and the villain definitely has issues with his sexuality), I, too, read it as a teenager and it became one of my favorite books. So much so that I hunted down a used copy (it’s no longer in print) and promptly reread it after several decades and it still sucked me in. And made me laugh. And cry.

  4. Daniel Gillespie says:

    Sad to see Mary Renault left out. The Charioteer!

  5. I thought more Williams S Burroughs would be on the list

  6. AT SWIM, TWO BOYS by Jamie O’Neill is absolutely #1…followed by a nostalgic and beloved close 2nd of GOOD TIMES, BAD TIMES by James Kirkwood.

  7. Yes, obviously none of these brilliant and wonderful people have ever read “At Swim, Two Boys” by Jamie O’Neill, or they would know that it is simply the finest piece of gay fiction ever written. I reread it every year, find wonderful new treasures in it, and it touches me so deeply every time.

  8. Not a single Gore Vidal?!

  9. Steve Berman says:

    Mr. Denizet-Lewis, it does little good to link to OP editions of texts you laud, such as those by Mark Thompson. Far more helpful, to both Mark and readers, would be if you took some extra effort and discovered that White Crane Books has spent considerable time and money reprinting Thompson. You could have provided links to the new editions.

  10. isa kocher says:

    in lists of the greatest books of ALL TIMES, the selections are for the most part unbelievably, painfully narrow in scope. mostly american, mostly late 20th century. except for Satyricon. nothing from Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, American first nations, Japanese, Sanskrit, Hindi, Italian, African. One of the great M on M romances in history in Fahrettin Attar Conference of the Birds, the Book of Ruth, Death in Venice. Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi’s Mesnevi. Certainly Martial demands an mention.

  11. isa kocher says:

    hey guys. I am queer. and proud to say it. I haven’t got a clue what “gay” means. Go ahead be gay, but don’t damn dare tell me what I am. thank GOD I am a faggot! At Stonewall we were faggots and queers. I still am.

  12. Wharton Sinkler says:

    I would add, first as extremely helpful to me as a gay man coming out late in life, Will Fellow’s FARM BOYS — stories of boys who grew up on farms in the midwest who also were gay; and James Lord’s MY QUEER WAR, the story of his experience in World War II as a man of uncertain sexuality and humanity at the beginning and a person of glorious celebration of his sexuality and compassion at the end.

  13. So happy to see the more obscure but beautiful book, “A Folded Leaf” by William Maxwell on several lists. I have had a copy of it for 30 years, when i came out.

  14. alexandria says:

    “the elusive embrace” by daniel mendelsohn

  15. David K. says:

    Can’t believe no one mentioned Randy Shilts’ “The Mayor of Castro Street”. That book changed my life.

    I’m a big fan of Maupin’s Tales of the City, but his “Micheal Tolliver Lives” really hit close to home. I think it’s his best novel.

    Also, I’d mention: Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckenridge”; John Rechy’s wonderful “Numbers”; any of Genet’s novels; Christopher Bram’s “Gods and Monsters”; Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains”; Frederick Pohl’s “Gateway”

  16. Andre Gide is da bomb

  17. SmarterYankee says:

    Not a book, but how about a copy of Gurganus’ April 2006 op ed in the New York Times about how the Duke lacrosse boys are gulty of the rape they were accused of (while simultaneously lusting after their “abercrombie appeal”). It defines the “vicious queen” character even better than some of Proust’s characters.

  18. SmarterYankee says:
  19. Stephanie Roth says:

    Interesting after all these decades that we still see three times as many males asked to recommend books as females and more than twice as many authors recommended we male than female…and every time I was unsure of the gender for whatever reason, I gave the benefit of the doubt to females. (I have little knowledge of the percentages of transgendered people in recommenders or recommended.) I’m kind of surprised by how many men who were asked for their recommendations listed five males and while almost every woman recommended at least one male writer. We’ve still got a long way to go.

    • Agreed. It’s unclear to me if this article was meant to be a list solely of the best books of interest to gay men (which is fine) or if it’s really meant to be a list of the best queer books appealing to all queer folk. In which case, come on… Gay women and trans folk long for books reflecting their experiences as well.

      Also, why link to Amazon while simultaneously bemoaning the loss of gay bookstores? Amazon is actively trying to put gay and other indie/political bookstores out of business. Why not link to an independent gay bookstores? I know Amazon gives kickbacks to organizations that link to them, but most indie bookstores also have affiliate deals.

  20. I am surprised that none of Armestead Maupins’ books were mentioned.. His “Tales of… series are phenomenal!

  21. Some really good books on these lists.

  22. Fabulous lists! (Especially the lovely Brad Gooch’s)

    My Faves:
    a la recherche du temps perdu — Marcel Proust
    Sheeper — Irving Rosenthal
    Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli — Ronald Firbank
    Two Serious Ladies — Jane Bowles
    My Loose Thread — Dennis Cooper

  23. Glad to see some love for the marvelous Alison Bechdel (Fun Home is a quicker read than the massive opus of DTWOF), but let’s not forget Howard Cruse, especially Stuck Rubber Baby and Wendel.

  24. “I wish someone had given me a list of required gay reading when I was coming out. Gay men gave me a lot of things back then (porn, theater tickets, crabs), but no one gave me book titles. As a young gay man, I could have used a literary roadmap to help me put my experiences—and my feelings—in some historical and sociological context.”

    I can very much relate to this paragraph. Thank you for choosing to be person to give the titles of great LGBT books to young people like myself. I will definitely read many books on this list.

  25. I just briefly browsed the list, but I like that you asked a bunch of people to give their input. So relieved to see The Color Purple made a couple “Top 5s”. Interesting that no one lists “The Well of Loneliness” or “The City and the Pilar”…are these texts famous more for being firsts but not necessarily the best? One of my favs that doesn’t seem to get mentioned by anyone is “Passing” by Nella Larsen.

  26. Hey Benoit – did I miss the ‘L’ books on the list?

    • So I guess you missed all the Bechdel, Lorde, Woolf and Tea (among others)? This is a men’s site, so it makes some sense that there’s a bit more focus on Gay men’s lit. There’s also Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, but unfortunately that looks like the main test dealing with trans* experiences. Also, I’m not seeing much bi stuff, though I could be wrong, since I’m not familiar with all the texts.

  27. Can’t wait to check these books out! :)

  28. Great recommendations! I want to add one new title to the list – A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, just out this year from Beacon Press.

  29. I’m glad to see some of my favorites already mentioned — “We Two Boys” by Jamie O’Neil is deeply touching and supremely beautifully written; Tom Spanbauer’s “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon” continues to make me laugh and cry out loud every time I read it; James Kirkwood’s “P.S., Your Cat is Dead” gave me the first glimpse of being able to laugh about something I’d struggled with for too long; “Coming Out Gay,” by Don deserves mention as it helped a generation of men accept themselves; I feel that John Rechy’s books — particularly “Numbers” — saved my life by showing me that what I thought I wanted isn’t at all what I wanted; and similarly, if feel that Walt Whitman was my first lover as I held him in my hand and poured over his tender “Leaves” and his hints of what I did truly seek while those things were not yet available to me.

  30. Stephen B. Starr says:

    I am reading a new book by Madeline Miller, “The Song of Achilles,” a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. The relationship between Achilles and Patrclus is a rich imagining of love between two men and promises to make this book a gay-themed classic… at least on my list. Thanks for the terrific article. It’s great that in 2012 we don’t have to search obscure newsgroups and hunt for subtext to find the best gay reads.

Trackbacks

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