Growing up queer, especially in a conservative culture, there aren’t many places for a young LGBTQ+ person to find themselves represented. However, for myself, and for many others, there are titles in the world of literature that provide a safe space and, often, a hard-hitting glimpse into what it means to be queer.
In celebration of this past month’s historic Pride 2020, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Pride and the birth of LGBTQ+ marches and rallies around the world, we’ve put together a list of must-read books featuring LGBTQ+ narratives—some classic and not-so-classic titles included.
1. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
As Ocean Vuong’s heart-shattering first novel, written as a letter from a Vietnamese American narrator to his mother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reveals a daring showdown of storytelling magic. Every page is saturated with yearning and ache as Vuong continues to explore the pain of being queer, a refugee and a member of a working-class family that was deeply impacted by the Vietnam War, in this deeply poetic and poignant portrait of family and queer love.
2. Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
By now a classic in queer literature, this reflective novel by André Aciman powerfully captures the intensity of first love, and all the confusing desires that come along with it. Written with gutting clarity, Call Me by Your Name is more than a coming-of-age story—it’s a window into many gay youth experiences that live in the lingers between glances and in the dreams that life can be more beautiful.
3. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
The inspiration behind the 2015 film Carol, Patricia Highsmith’s enthralling read was originally marketed as “the novel of a love that society forbids.” More than a lesbian love story, The Price of Salt narrates the pain of infatuation and the freedom that comes with escaping society’s rules. Published in the 1950s, it’s regarded as the first lesbian novel to portray a happy ending—and to feature fully formed characters that aren’t stereotype-fuelled caricatures.
4. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Published in 1928, Orlando was written as a tribute to friend and lover Vita Sackbville-West. A study in gender fluidity across time, this novel follows an Elizabethan nobleman from England to Constantinople, through intense and indulging love, and a gender change. Not just a commentary on the limitations that society places on women, Orlando was one of the first books known to echo the experiences of those who lead a life in a different gender than when they were born. The 1992 film adaptation by director Sally Potter features Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp, an iconic voice in queer history, is well worth the watch as well.
5. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Another book with a film adaptation, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was nothing short of beautiful even before designer Tom Ford decided to make it into his 2009 film. The book narrates a day in the life of George Falconer who is slowly coming to terms with life after the sudden loss of his partner in a tragic accident. While other books on this list highlight the possibilities of queer love, this novel demonstrates the power to stay alive and move forward after losing what we loved the most. Another one of Isherwood’s queer classics is Berlin Stories, which was later adapted into the musical Cabaret.
6. The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I’ve Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance by Matt Ortile
A book of essays by one of this generation’s most potent voices, The Groom Will Keep His Name demonstrates Matt Ortile’s honest brilliance—and brilliant honesty—as he describes what it feels like to find oneself in a culture that urges him (and others like him) to keep his head down, be the model minority and prove that he deserves to be there. This book delves into life as a queer person of colour in a culture where whiteness and masculinity are revered—and how one person matured and lived his truth in the face of it.
7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Even though its narrator is supposedly straight, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is hands-down one of the most romantic, if not secret, gay love stories of all time. A classic tale of the rise and fall between two college friends, this stunning book offers a portrait of the curiosities and intricacies of same-sex relationships in Britain before World War II. The time-old questions of “are they, or are they not” continue to follow this book—the author himself a closeted man—as it makes its way through as an iconic title in queer literature.
8. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Another prolific and tragic love story for the list, this time by African American writer James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room examines Baldwin’s own identity as a gay man through the eyes of this book’s narrator, David, and an Italian bartender named Giovanni in 1950s Paris. Sometimes dark, sometimes optimistic, and always spectacularly written, Baldwin’s novel follows a life that, caught between desire and morality, pursues love at all costs. Like Baldwin described during an interview in 1980: “Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.”
9. The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini
The first LGBTQ+ history book to make it onto The New York Times’ Best Sellers list, The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini unfolds queer history through the life of Frank Kameny, a US government astronomer (turned activist) who was fired for being a homosexual at the height of the 1960s Space Race. Based on first-hand accounts, recently declassified FBI records and 40,000 personal documents, The Deviant’s War shares forgotten moments from a time before Pride, revealing a secret history of the fight for gay rights that began a generation before Stonewall. Though it’s a story of an America at a cultural and sexual crossroads, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in taking a glimpse into the lives of those who paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights around the world.
10. Maurice by E. M. Forster
Written in 1913 by E. M. Forster, this benchmark gay novel wasn’t published until 1971, until after the death of its author. In its pages, the reader returns to Oxford and turn-of-the-century Britain for a love story between classmates-turned-lovers Clive and Maurice. Maurice is a tale of love, of abandonment and ultimately of survival. It’s devastating and heart-aching and reveals the great lengths we go through to live our truths in whatever time and place we’re in. And the film adaptation starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves definitely deserves a viewing.
11. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book starts with one of the most iconic first sentences of all time: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” While this line powerfully prefaces Jeffrey Eugenides’ intersex coming-of-age story, the story itself has received its fair share of criticism over the years. However, without giving too much away, like many other books on this list, Middlesex has emerged as a landmark in queer literature.
12. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
No collection of modern literature would be complete without Hanya Yanagihara’s profound novel called A Little Life. Though the book itself is not-so-little at over 700 pages, the story within its pages offers a moving tale about four college friends as they navigate life, love and trauma in New York City across the span of three decades. While its characters challenge conventional representations of gay identity and queer narratives, this monumental novel moves even deeper, often blind-siding its reader with clarity into the hardships of friendship, the evolutions of these relationships, and ultimately, what binds them together.
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