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.
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:
- Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette, an unrivaled memoir about life in and out of the closet.
- The Tricky Part: One Boy’s Fall From Trespass Into Grace by Martin Moran, a haunting memoir of abuse and redemption.
- The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst, an erotic and beautifully written novel set in pre-AIDS Britain.
- The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs, a gay men’s guide to overcoming internalized shame. (Especially valuable to gay men who don’t think they have any.)
- Gay Spirit, Gay Body, and Gay Soul by Mark Thompson, a trilogy about the inner, spiritual, and physical lives of LGBT people.
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.”