As LGBTQ+ history month draws to a close, I have been reflecting on my favourite stories that have personally taught me a lot about queer issues and queer history.
From old to modern, funny to sad, fiction to poetry, these are my top ten pieces of writing that I hope will enrich you. All authors listed are queer and all works explore gender and sexuality in some way.
Zami, A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde (1982)
Black lesbian, Lorde, wrote the self-proclaimed ‘biomythography’ which examines selfhood, racism and female relationships with sensuous, lovely prose. She traces her life from childhood in Harlem to coming-of-age in the fifties in the Village gay scene, navigating through a well-meaning but problematic community. Lorde wryly discusses on occasion having the “bad taste” to bring her blackness up in conversation with other white lesbians, who reacted as though “she had breached some sacred bond of gayness”. This book is like a gift from an older sister, a euphoric ode to self-loving, female love and also is wise beyond words.
Another Country – James Baldwin (1962)
While Baldwin’s earlier novel, Giovanni’s Room rightly dominates many of these reading lists, I believe this three-part saga, which he took fifteen painstaking years to write, is too often overlooked. Set in Harlem in the 1950s, Baldwin follows a group of friends whose messy relationships brim with emotional intensity. He blurs the boundaries of love and friendship while crossing lines of gender, race and class. Love, lust and angst are mangled by intensely flawed characters. This book got under my skin, it was heart-wrenching, uncomfortable yet sublime.
Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (2014)
Evaristo is a skilled wordsmith. Girl, Woman, Other was in my top ten books of 2020, and her earlier work is just as remarkable. In Mr. Loverman, our protagonist is Barry, an elderly, closeted Caribbean man of the Windrush generation, who is married with two adult daughters. He has had a fifty-year affair with his male best friend (and soulmate). His decision to claim his sexuality marks a turning point and the effects on him, his family and his life are presented objectively and with humour. This is such a gem, even more so for its happy ending, which is not contrived, overly sentimental or unrealistic. Happy endings for extremely gay stories? More of these, please!
Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction – edited by Richard Canning (2007)
Vital Signs is an anthology of extraordinary short stories written in the 1980s and 1990s about the American AIDS epidemic. The men in these stories are scared, brave, helpless, angry, sick, dying, sad and joyful; they grapple with mortality in a world that is content to watch them be massacred. I found Edward White’s short, ‘An Oracle’ beautiful, as it explored survivor’s guilt, loneliness and the beauty of intimacy. Thomas Glave’s ‘The Final Inning’ was also a standout, focusing on the aftermath of an altercation at a funeral whilst shining an important light on the Black community’s response to gayness and the AIDS crisis.
‘Twenty-One Love Poems’ – Adrienne Rich (1974)
This is for the poetry lovers, Rich’s writing subverts traditional, male love poetry and portrays the body from a lesbian, female vision. Earlier pioneers are referenced in her work, influences of Emily Dickinson and Helene Cixous are clear. She captures the romance of lesbian love, writing ‘and I laugh and fall dreaming again”; this focus on the sleeping or dreaming body indicates vulnerability, intimacy and a quietness that disrupts the hyper-erotic, gazed-upon lesbian body. Vivid imagery is hued into every lovely word that makes up these gorgeously feminine poems.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrea Lawlor (2017)
This book is an explicit exploration of gender and self-discovery steeped in the American queer subcultures of the 1990s. Paul is a literal shapeshifter, with the power to change his body parts at will. He is a fluid fantasy, equal parts powerful and vulnerable. Queer sex is depicted (a lot) with unapologetic, frank authenticity. A delightful, humorous and nostalgic debut penned by non-binary author Lawlor.
Trumpet – Jackie Kay (1998)
This book follows Joss Moody, a transman who is outed upon his death. The discovery of anatomical female body parts leads society and his unforgiving adopted son to question his entire identity and role as father and husband. His poor wife’s grief and relentless harassment from the tabloids is hard to read but poignant. A little meandering at times, but a story that raises important questions – Why does society have such a destructive fascination with biological essentialism? How much has life changed for trans people since this was written? Why can’t our bodies belong to us alone?
Orlando – Virginia Woolf (1928)
Playful and described as the ‘the longest and most charming love letter in history’ from Woolf to her lover Vita Sackville-West. I am going to be honest, I have never enjoyed Woolf’s fiction – I find it mind-numbing. Yet, Orlando is totally unlike anything else Woolf wrote, not realist in the slightest, but rather containing a wacky plot which follows a poet who lives for centuries and changes sex from man to woman. Woolf strides through time with ease and embraces a bizarre mishmash of fictionalised biography, satire, with reflections on literature, society, and aesthetic-focused descriptions.
The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde (1890)
This gothic tale draws from the aesthetic and decadent movement, employing ideas of excess, beauty, hedonism and artificiality. Many believed it to draw on Wilde’s own life and indeed the novel was used against him in the Old Bailey trial, resulting in the charge of ‘gross indecency’ (homosexuality). In the original edition, before heavy editing to ‘de-gay’ the story, Basil tells Dorian: “I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman.”
Notes on Camp – Susan Sontag (1964)
Most recently known for being selected as the 2019 Met Gala’s theme, Sontag’s cultural criticism investigates the phenomenon of ‘camp’, giving definition to the aesthetic that had thus far gone uncommented upon. The publication of this essay legitimatised gay culture in a way that continues to resonate – camp was and is a predominately queer code that gay men use as both protection and provocation. This piece was a liberation document, it aided the groups agitating for gay rights and law reform while illuminating queer images and ideas in the mass media. Sontag’s writing is gloriously messy, arbitrary, and extravagant – camp in other words!
And thus concludes my modest reading recommendations to celebrate LGBTQ+ history month, read well, read with enjoyment, and read with education.