February marks LGBT History Month, an opportunity to celebrate the rich and diverse writings of the LGBT+ community. Here, we take a look at some of the most exciting and inspirational LGBT-themed reads…
Every year when LGBT History Month rolls round, I am eager to highlight some of the exceptional work written either by LGBT writers, or by authors honing in on LGBT themes – and always I am struck by the notion that, in all cases, these books have an appeal that stretches far and wide. In much the same way that pets aren’t just for Christmas (stay with me here…) LGBT books aren’t just for LGBT History Month or, indeed, just for LGBT people.
There are riches to be found at every turn. One of the novels that captivated my teen imagination with its literary quality was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the sensual opulence of Wilde’s language evocatively codes LGBT themes as mysterious, enigmatic, dangerous… where homosexuality is equated with London’s murky opium dens and hidden back alleys, where same-sex desire “dare not speak its name.” In the Wildean world, homosexuality is therefore both a clandestine affliction and a private members’ club.
It’s fascinating, then, to look to the novels of Sarah Waters; similarly set in Victorian England, but written a century later, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith wonderfully and emotively cast light on queer themes and identities in a way a book like Radclyffe Hall’s seminal The Well of Loneliness, say, simply could not – by sheer virtue of its time. Indeed, Hall’s novel, published in 1928, features the line “she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover” – and it was this astounding declaration that prompted a legal sensation whereby a pearl-clutching British judge deemed the book “obscene” and the editor of the Sunday Express declared that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.”
It was a time where this very real aspect of human desire was either not taken seriously or was taken rather too seriously, where gay men could end up in jail and reputations could be left in tatters. It was a time where LGBT people’s identities were at odds with the society around them. It was a world where these LGBT writers driven to express their feelings had to be covert and cautious.
I think it’s interesting to view works of LGBT fiction through the lens of the pre- and post-legalisation era, and the changing moral codes of each passing generation can be traced through some of this writing. EM Forster’s Maurice, a tender novel of buttoned-up, quashed yearning, was written in 1913 but hidden away and only published after Forster’s death in the early 1970s, when homosexuality had been legalised and his career would not be in jeopardy. Some of the same-sex love poetry in the anthology Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s meanwhile is as beautiful as Wilde’s writing – implicit of course, and concealed behind sumptuous metaphors: gay desire as forbidden fruit.
In America, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, possibly the quintessential LGBT love story, represents a tangled maze of closeted desire, highlighting the segregation of gay people from a heteronormative society. Rich with complex depictions of masculinity, it’s the blueprint for modern-day LGBT fiction. Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, initially published under a pseudonym and later immortalised in the film Carol, is a similarly romantic and troubling account of same-sex love set against a backdrop of 1950s repression and stigma. And what about the novels and memoirs of Christopher Isherwood – glamorous, entertaining, but with a pulsating undercurrent of sorrow, loneliness, and isolation.
These books are both courageous from an artistic and personal viewpoint, but also important in forming our perceptions of a certain aspect of social history. Even in children’s fiction, you can find tales of LGBT repression and secrecy – one of my favourites is Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories, where the practical Too-Ticky is based on Jansson’s life partner Tuulikki Pietilä; on the dust jacket of her books, Jansson was described as “living alone” on an island in the Gulf of Finland, not, as she really was, in a committed partnership with Tuulikki. Jansson also created the characters Thingumy and Bob, two strange and indeterminate creatures who speak their own unusual language and carry a ruby hidden in a briefcase – a symbol of the love, Jansson intended, that they had to hide from society. Later, in her adult fiction, she wrote lovingly of same-sex relationships, especially in Fair Play, but it took until her sixties to be able to portray this part of her life.
The closet door was still firmly shut in most of these cases. It certainly gave writers the chance to couch the incredible emotion and conviction of their feelings in dense layers of imagination and symbolism… but how has this changed in contemporary fiction?
It’s fascinating to read contemporary LGBT fiction set in a previous era, almost as a kind of reparation – what would the voices that were silenced have sounded like? The aforementioned Sarah Waters is a prime example, but so too are books like Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, where a teenage boy’s sexual awakening in a tiny Italian enclave is described in detail, not in code; or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, which cuts between the pre-legalisation era and proud Eighties London with aplomb – and in the process highlights the different challenges faced by LGBT people in different generations.
I like seeing contemporary fiction that weaves in LGBT themes and characters as part of the natural fabric of the story; Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End succeeds by making the gay love of the main characters purely incidental – barely a sentence reveals the nature of their relationship, and their sexuality is not the driving force of the story. Then you get novels like Hanya Yanigahara’s epic A Little Life, where the fusion of different sexual and gender identities is so natural and intrinsic that it’s easy to forget there are “LGBT themes.” There are just themes. The LGBT community is assimilated into society more fully than ever before, and in much the same way as novels like Giovanni’s Room and The Price of Salt stand as social histories of their time, so too do contemporary novels like A Little Life or Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children.
One of my goals is to read more LGBT non-fiction this year. I enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City, a whistle-stop tour through gay London through the ages, with its pubs and bars and alleys and parks, its Polari and slang, and social change. Darryl Bullock’s David Bowie Made Me Gay chronicles the history of music made by LGBT people, while on the other side, John Browne’s The Glass Closet attempts to make sense of the history of LGBT people in the workplace. Then there is Juliet Jacques’ memoir Trans, a frank account of the transgender experience, and Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games, an accessible examination of contemporary gender identities.
You can’t talk about LGBT non-fiction without talking about the AIDS crisis; I heartily recommend Tony Kushner’s bewitching and powerful play Angels in America, where the stark realities of the 80s AIDS epidemic are evoked through exquisite dialogue, memorable characters, and bizarre fantasias. David France’s How to Survive a Plague, meanwhile, is a moving account of how activists and scientists worked tirelessly to develop the drugs to turn HIV into a manageable disease.
It is also heartening to see a proliferation of LGBT-themed children’s books that work to normalise diversity and difference; take Marcus Ewert’s 10,000 Dresses, about a transgender boy who cannot find anyone to make him a dress, or Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three, about a penguin chick brought up by two loving dads. And as far as young adult fiction is concerned, novels by David Levithan and Patrick Ness tackle LGBT themes adroitly, and Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal examines transgender issues in teens.
Ultimately, while LGBT History Month is of course a wonderful opportunity for celebration and evaluation, it’s also a chance to reinforce that LGBT themes are, at their core, human themes. These books can, in the true spirit of diversity and acceptance, be enjoyed and related to by everyone. They speak of all the things that are core to the human experience. All these books can be borrowed from Warwickshire Libraries – why not try one this LGBT History Month?
Do you have a favourite LGBT book or author? We would love to hear your recommendations in the comments below…
If you fancy heading over to our library catalogue and having browse, here are Some others to investigate:
Virginia Woolf Orlando – rip-roaring transgender time travel
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series – fun and vibrant San Francisco culture
Yukio Mishima Forbidden Colours – sad, spare Japanese prose about an inter-generational relationship
Michael Power Shadow Game– politicised gay love in 60s South Africa
Michael Bloch Closet Queens – gay politicians forced to live double lives Quentin Crisp The Naked Civil Servant – a classic memoir Meg John Barker Queer – LGBT history in a graphic novel