Gay Pride month is about so much more than just waving rainbow flags, dancing on boxes and trying to keep drag from melting in midday sun. Every June, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of the cultural contributions our LGBT brothers and sisters have made to society, the plays, novels, poems and works of nonfiction that continue to challenge readers and change minds every time someone picks up a book (or downloads it directly into their eye or however the cool people are reading these days).
Below are some classics written by LGBT authors. Some of these works expressly deal with gay identity, some of the earlier works allude to LGBT themes and some of these don’t explore gay subject matter at all; they’re just brilliant pieces of writing that were created by LGBT authors who, regardless of the subject matter, always wrote from that unique gay experience. Remember: there was a time when being gay meant you were probably more cultured and sophisticated than the average person. Yes, it was a stereotype, but it was a good stereotype, so read a few of these selections and let’s help perpetuate it once again.
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde
Feminist, Caribbean-American, civil rights activist and lesbian Audre Lorde is a must read for anyone who loves poetry, doesn’t read enough poetry, thinks they don’t care for poetry or just breathes oxygen. Lorde confirmed her sexuality with the poem “Martha” in Cables to Rage. “We shall love each other here if ever at all,” she says to the title woman. Even if you only explore a poem a day, you’ll be glad you did. Lorde’s words are so rich and layered that you could read the same poem over and over each day and still find deeper meanings.
Resident Alien, Quentin Crisp
Englishman, wit and self described “naked civil servant,” Crisp is at his very best and brightest when describing the wonders of his new life in New York City, undertaken when the author was in his seventies. Crisp ogles skyscrapers and the accepting culture of the United States, which he describes as a world of relief after seventy plus years as an outcast in England for both his homosexuality and his indiscreet femme style of dress.
“A man saw me on the street today and said ‘My, haven’t you got it all on today,’ ” Crisp related in one story, letting readers know the approach included a smile and a good natured laugh. In England, Crisp tells us, the comment would have included a sneer and an accusation of “Who do you think you are?”
The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde
You can’t go wrong reading anything by Oscar Wilde. The plays are flawless, the novels brilliant, but for me Wilde was at his truest with his fairy tale The Selfish Giant. The lonely giant, whose greedy heart is melted by the goodness of a child playing in his garden, always seemed to be a metaphor for the way LGBT people had to outwardly harden themselves to not to be persecuted for their same-sex desires in a time where “the love that dare not speak its name” wasn’t just frowned upon, it was criminal. If you can read the story’s conclusion without shedding a tear, you’ve got a harder heart than the selfish giant himself.
White Girls, Hilton Als
If you’re not familiar with New Yorker contributor Hilton Als’ work, White Girls is the perfect introduction. The essay collection explores subjects as varied as silent film icon Louise Brooks and author Truman Capote, while never keeping silent about what it means to be a bold queer man of color in the 21st century. Among the best (and most surreal) essays: an imagined critique of Virginia Woolf by Richard Pryor’s sister.
Angels in America, Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning, epic two-part play Angels in America is like watching gay history being written across the sky in lightening. Set in the early, fatal days of the AIDS epidemic, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroka” straddle heaven and earth in a story about humanity, divinity and survival. Read the play so you don’t miss any of the great gay cultural references in the dialogue (from The Wizard of Oz to A Streetcar Named Desire) and then see the HBO film version since plays should always be seen.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
One of the bisexual author’s best works, To the Lighthouse frequently takes a backseat to Mrs. Dalloway when it comes to popular culture recognition. The story spans a number of years at the Ramsay family’s summer home on the Isle of Skye and concludes with a journey to the titular lighthouse. The characters of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe take much of the author’s focus, as Woolf compares and contrasts the attitudes of the “domestic angel” Ramsay to the more liberated artist Briscoe. For me, the character of Lily Briscoe has always had a strong lesbian undercurrent, her insecurities as a painter have always mirrored Woolf’s own struggle with her art, and the character’s admiration of the quietly feminine Mrs. Ramsay spoke to the author’s own complicated feelings towards her sex.
Palimpsest, Gore Vidal
The first of literary lion Gore Vidal’s two memoirs (followed by Point to Point Navigation), Palimpsest focuses on the writer’s early life in Washington D.C. and his first literary successes in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The acerbic, prolific and highly political writer (best to catch his views on American politics in this volume rather than some of his later essays) also details his early affair du coeur with St. Albans prep school classmate, Jimmie Trimble. Trimble, the undisputed star of his school’s baseball team, who was scouted by the Washington Senators, was killed in action in 1945 during WWII, but Vidal kept a photo of him on display at his homes in Ravello, Italy and Los Angeles the rest of his life.
Conundrum, Jan Morris
When Welsh travel writer James Morris began transitioning into life as a woman in the 1960s, it was still a pioneering time for transgender people. Jan Morris’s frank, colorfully written memoir tells the story of her transition in a funny and candid way, while still reminding us of the great personal fight she had to wage to be the person she was meant to be. Beyond the surface question of gender, what Conundrum really asks is “Who am I?”
Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
This groundbreaking novel by trans activist Leslie Feinberg became an underground hit upon publication in the 1990s and went on to mainstream success in the 2000s. Stone Butch Blues tells the story of Jess, a working class Jewish butch, who runs away to gay life in pre-Stonewall NYC. The novel explores constructs of gender, sexuality and identity, while never ceasing to offer a vivid portrait of the butch subculture of the 1960s.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
One of the greatest collections of American poetry is also the gayest. Walt Whitman’s 1885 masterpiece is not only an epic ode to the wonders of the natural world and manifest destiny, but also celebrates (or “sings of”) the sensual qualities of “the manly love of comrades.” “We Two Boys Together Clinging” from the Calamus section of the collection is one of the greatest examples of the overt sexuality and beauty in Whitman’s work.
We two boys together clinging
One the other never leaving
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming, air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.