Little of gay life is taught in school, so it’s up to us to seek out great writers who have shared our history and expanded our culture. We’ve gathered 17 titles—fiction and nonfiction—to help you cover your literary bases.
Now get to reading, dear.
1. Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran
Anthony Malone, a repressed, clean-cut businessman moves to Manhattan and becomes the star (and ultimate trainwreck) of the gay disco scene. No book has captured the beauty and excess of pre-AIDS gay New York quite like Dancer.
And Sutherland, Malone’s guide through the underworld, is the queen of literary drag prophets.
2. City of Night by John Rechy
A young hustler wanders through 1960s New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Rechy’s unnamed hero is a cool and sensitive observer of the hidden gay corners and characters of the beat generation.
3. Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson and Sara Davidson
Davidson interviewed Hudson—and his inner circle—as the former Hollywood superstar was dying of AIDS. Davidson recounts Hudson’s decades of alcoholism, his anxiety over his fame, and his response to his illness and exposure, with an honesty rare in authorized accounts.
4. Too Much Flesh and Jabez by Coleman Dowell
In this Southern gothic tale-within-a-tale, a retired spinster writes a story about a farmer with an abnormally large endowment who starts an affair with his neighbor’s teenage son. Dowell’s novel has plenty of flesh, but it also illustrates the shifting masculine identity during World War II and the emotional dynamic of a gay May-December romance.
5. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
An Elizabethan aristocrat wakes up one morning immortal—and female—and goes on to observe the next 300 years of European culture. Orlando is a fairy tale of gender and sexual fluidity—through her hero/ine, Woolf observes and critiques the entire spectrum of human drag.
6. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo
Russo digs up every trace of LGBT representation in film—from the coded suggestions of silent cinema to the less ambiguous stereotypes of the 1970s. His extensive accounting shows that gay life has always been present and recognizable, even when it was reduced to a stereotype.
7. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
A butch lesbian looks back on her struggle to identify her gender and sexuality in pre-Stonewall America. Where gay male authors tend to focus on their own experience, Feinberg shows us a community where L, G, B, and T frequent the same bars and fight the same fights.
The novel bridges the era of butch/femme queer identity with contemporary sexuality that sees gender as a separate conversation, marking the LGBT community’s shifting perception of itself.
8. Dawn: A Charleston Legend by Dawn Langley Simmons
In her memoir, Simmons chronicles boyhood in England, her gender transition and adult life as a woman in America. Her story is an early account of re-defining several kinds of realness: Her marriage to a black man in 1969 was the first legally recognized interracial marriage in South Carolina.
9. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
Two soldiers during the English Civil War desert the army (and a wife) to live as lovers. Most historical fiction about gay men doesn’t go back further than the Jazz Age, but McCann’s sweeping romance dates to the 1640s – with sex scenes narrated in period language that are sure to “get your blood up.”
10. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
An American in Paris reflects on his stormy romance with an Italian bartender about to be executed for murder.
Aside from its considerable merits as a work of beautiful prose, Giovanni’s Room deserves recognition for Baldwin’s importance to the Harlem Renaissance (even if the book’s characters are white).
11. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey
Chauncey catalogs every hidden history of early twentieth-century gay life in the Big Apple, providing an extremely thorough—and yet surprisingly readable—history of cruising, gender impersonation and vice laws in the Big Apple. His chapter on “pansy” street fashion as sexual advertising reads like a walk through Chelsea today.
12. Maurice by E.M. Forster
A gay British man navigates privilege and oppression in the male-dominated cultures of Victorian England, from boarding school to the business world. Although Forster considered the novel “unpublishable” in his lifetime, Maurice has been required gay reading since its posthumous release in 1971.
13. Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television by Patrick Dennis
The fictional autobiography of actress Belle Poitrine’s self-deluded rise to fame. Even if Dennis’ novel is not about being gay, it is a camp classic. And unlike Valley of the Dolls, this parody of the celebrity memoir knows exactly how trashy it is.
14. In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz edited by Amy Scholder
Entries from the artist’s journals, from early childhood through his death in 1992, reveal that while Wojnarowicz was known primarily for his visual art, his skill as a writer was also considerable. Shadow runs the gamut, from poetic renderings of sex on the piers to brutal descriptions of the onset of AIDS.
15. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Smith’s memoir is a double portrait of herself and her intense friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In addition to documenting the druggy atmosphere of the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, Just Kids might be the quintessential portrayal of a platonic romance between a young straight woman and a young gay man.
16. Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants by Phil Tiemeyer
In this nonfiction account, Tiemeyer examines why gay men are attracted to particular professions and argues that being a flight attendant was the original geo-based sex app—set to “Anywhere.”
17. The Tragedy of Today’s Gays by Larry Kramer
The transcript of a 2009 polemic Kramer delivered at Cooper Union, Today’s Gays sees Kramer urging gay men to participate more actively in their political lives and behave more responsibly in their sex lives. Love him or hate him, he’s a crucial figure in the fight for equality and one of our only voices not afraid to be critical of gay culture.