I’ve wanted to do this for years, compile a subjective list of what I think are the most important books for a young gay person to read, or maybe better to say a list of the books that have been most important to me as a gay man. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, so I reserve the right to revise the list, and as you’ll see it skews heavily toward men and books about men (I said “subjective”).
So here it is, take it for what it’s worth — My Gay Canon:
Sexual Behavior In The Human Male (Kinsey) — literally how I learned I was not alone. Found it in the DePauw University library, where my mom worked, when I was about 15. i can’t think of a more powerful instance of the emotional impact of hard data.
Word Is Out (the book based on the 1977 documentary by Peter Adair) — a dear friend in high school gave this book to me when I was 17. Looking back it was an obvious attempt to get me to come out to her, but I didn’t take the bait. Interviews with real people, not just statistics and case studies. I already loved the hippie vibe, or aesthetic, of this book and the people in it, and now I connected hippies with West Coast lefties and radical politics and, especially, with gay sexuality.
A Boy’s Own Story (Edmund White) — I don’t have quick words to describe how life-changing it was to read a book in the voice of a gay teenager. This is the beginning of my Different Light Bookstore years, when I first moved to New York and started just picking up books and reading them if they looked interesting, which always led to more books and more books. Compared to now, there weren’t a lot of “gay books,” but at A Different Light I realized there were many many more than I had realized.
City of Night (John Rechy) — anonymous sex, promiscuity, loneliness, isn’t being gay fun?
Our Lady of the Flowers (Jean Genet) — dangerous, ecstatic, all the things I wanted my life to be at 22.
The Naked Civil Servant (Quentin Crisp) — I knew who Crisp was but hadn’t read this book until maybe around 1989. I met a man in Stuyvesant Park and we’d gone to his place, which was just one small room with a shared bathroom in the hallway in a building on I think E. 4th Street. Afterwards, I was leaving, and I passed Crisp coming up the stairs as I was going down. He said a very bored hello. I thought I’d better read his book.
Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration Of Leathersexuality (Geoffrey Main) — the gay leather lifestyle’s influence on American and world culture can’t be overestimated.
Macho Sluts (Patrick Califia, nee Pat Califia) — groundbreaking lesbian erotica, which I found very hot, which maybe is not surprising since Pat, who identified as a lesbian at the time this book was written, has transitioned and is now a trans man. Anyway, sexy stories.
Christopher and His Kind (Christopher Isherwood) — Isherwood is my touchstone for everything I do as an artist. I would put all his books in my canon, but if I have to choose, I guess this is the essential one.
Maurice (E.M. Forster) — of course. Maybe the first gay novel with a happy ending ever written.
Tales Of The City (Armistead Maupin) — I saw the BBC series in the 90s, but I didn’t read this until just a few years ago. I think I regarded it as too conventional or something when I was young. Only recently have I recognized its power and importance.
Leaves of Grass (Whitman) — the Calamus poems especially, but all of it. I read them when I’m feeling strung out and need to be moved by something beautiful.
Death In Venice (Thomas Mann) — bleak, transgressive, depressing, all my favorite things.
Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (Jonathan Ned Katz) — Everything gay in America from the 1500s to the 1970s, this book never fails to make me tear up when I open it. Just the fact that someone would undertake such a massive, comprehensive project — Katz is a hero.
The Motion Of Light In Water (Samuel R. Delany) — Delany’s memoir of his years as a young science fiction writer in the East Village of the 1960s, and his marriage to the poet Marilyn Hacker. Beautiful book.
Fun Home (Alison Bechtel) — maybe more famous in its Broadway musical adaptation, also beautiful. A story of a lesbian girl and her homosexual father, but really a story about everything. This book broke my heart.
Stuck Rubber Baby (Howard Cruse) — funny that I have 2 graphic novels on this list when I’ve probably read a total of 6 graphic novels in my whole life, but this book is important and wonderful. Connects the modern gay rights movement, and gay identity really, to the broader cultural movements of the 1960s (which, think of it, is what we’re all arguing about now as we try to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and come to some agreement about its legacy). It’s also the best kind of memoir, achingly intimate, and revealing of the world in which the personal story was lived. I love this book.
Dancer from the Dance (Andrew Holleran) — you can’t be gay and not read this book. Holleran, to my mind, is one of the very best writers of fiction of our time.
The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds — Written but not published (or even finished) in his lifetime. This is the earliest known instance of consciously homosexual autobiography. A frank chronicle of the discovery of his same-sex attraction at a time and place (mid-19th century England) when there were barely words for it, or maybe rather when the words we now use for it originated. It’s an incredibly vivid experience of the past. Talk about time travel.
Gay New York (George Chauncey) — About gay life in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — a truly amazing recent book showing that our journey toward freedom has not been linear.
Edward Carpenter: A Life Of Liberty And Love (Sheila Rowbotham) — out homosexual radical in 19th century England. Carpenter is kind of gay ground zero, and this is a wonderful biography.
Ragged Dick (Horatio Alger) — This is probably my most unexpected pick, but it’s a proposition at the heart of the musical I’ve been working on for 2 years, that the story most associated with, you might even say the story that created, the American Dream myth, is a queer story.