This blog post is a companion piece to the Read with Pride video presentation, now available on Gwinnett County Public Library’s YouTube page.

A Delicate Balance

The first author we will mention – though his work falls just shy of the 20th century – is one essential author whose enormous impact on the culture extends to the present day.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Wilde has long been considered a pioneer in modern LGBTQ+ culture and writing. His works are some of the most revered in western literature and feature considerable gay subtext. In 1895, he was arrested and convicted in a London court for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. He later died – exiled and penniless – in Paris in 1900.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” – Wilde, during his 1895 trial

Essential Wilde:

After Wilde, important LGBTQ fiction appeared frequently in the early part of the 20th century, but until the late 1950s, authors and publishers could be prosecuted for writing openly about homosexuality. Society’s vehement moral condemnation of homosexuality created an atmosphere of self-loathing and the gay and lesbian characters in these books often met grim fates – desolation, suicide and murder.

Great Reads (1900-1940)

Many of these works are still available in libraries and bookstores today. Their impact was tremendous and set the stage for the next few decades where LGBTQ+ writing begins – slowly – to emerge from the shadows.

The Immoralist by André Gide (1902)

A young man discovers a new freedom in seeking to live according to his own desires.

Three Lives by Gertrude Stein (1909)

Three working class women face the challenges of race and sexuality in society

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912)

Available at GCPL

A novella that take a piercing and sensitive look at one man’s obsession with age and beauty.

Maurice by E.M. Forster (1914)

Available at GCPL

An intense affair between a Cambridge student and a stable hand, shattering the conventions of both romance and class. Actually written in 1914, but not published until 1971, a year after Forster’s death, as per his wishes.

The Fox by D.H. Lawrence (1922)

A World War I soldier upsets the balance of a delicate relationship between two women.

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1928)

Available at GCPL

Rollicking, subversive story of a multi-gendered character who lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history.

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

Available at GCPL

A young women heroically challenges society to accept her non-conforming passion and sexuality.

Strange Brother by Blair Niles (1931)

Explores gay life among African Americans in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem.

Better Angle by Forman Brown (1933)

A young gay man’s sexual awakening that miraculously manages to give the protagonist a rare romantic happy ending with another man.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936)

Available at GCPL

Depicts female sexuality in Europe between the world wars.

Pillars

Great Reads (1940-1970)

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet (1943)

A largely autobiographical account of a young man’s journey through the Parisian underworld, populated mostly by homosexuals on the fringes of society.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

Available at GCPL

The British aristocracy, during the golden age just before the second world war. While the dynamic between the two friends Charles and Sebastian is homosexual in nature, it is not explicitly sexual.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (1945)

Available at GCPL

This novella explores the lives of expatriates living in Germany during the early years of the Nazis’ rise to power, quite oblivious to the political horrors to come.

Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal (1968)

Gore Vidal returns… and he came roaring back with this novel, probably the biggest selling book on this list. In this story, the hero, Myron, becomes the heroine, Myra, by undergoing a clinical “sex change” [1968 wording]. An irreverent satire of late 1960s America, and one of the first novels to address pansexuality.

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (1948)

Available at GCPL

Two young men explore a brief amorous encounter that changes both their lives forever. Significantly, the original 1948 ending featured a major character being murdered, but in 1965, Vidal himself voluntarily revised the ending and the character lived.

Notably, Vidal detested labels and was deeply opposed to phrases like “gay writer” and “gay literature.” He once said “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing acts, not people.”

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)

Available at GCPL

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams (1955)

Available at GCPL

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams (1958)

Three plays featuring powerful dialogue, larger-than-life characters, and inventive subtext. Williams’ bold and innovative works of art focused on desires both heterosexual and homosexual.

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers (1941)

Available at GCPL

McCullers debut novel, a controversial look at oppressive masculinity in both the U.S. military and America’s deep south.

Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima (1949)

Available at GCPL

The story of Kochan, an adolescent boy tormented by his burgeoning attraction to men.  A giant of Japanese literature, Mishima struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his sense of masculinity and honor.

City of Night by John Rechy (1963)

Available at GCPL

This daring novel introduced readers to the underground world of male prostitution, drag queens, and street denizens. A surprise bestseller that provoked curiosity and outrage.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

A tender depiction of a secret romance between a suburban housewife and a young salesgirl. Adapted into a popular 2015, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett

Olivia by Dorothy Stracey (1949)

Love story about a young British girl’s infatuation with her French headmistress.

Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule (1964)

Two women, separated by age and background, meet at a boarding house and fall in love. A classic of romantic lesbian literature.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)

Available at GCPL

An American man living in Paris must explore his feelings and frustrations with other men in his life.

Another Country by James Baldwin (1962)

Available at GCPL

More Baldwin, one of the first activists and authors to write openly about the gay African American experience. Set in Greenwich Village and Harlem, New York City, in the late 1950s, its many themes, taboo at the time, shed light on infidelity, bisexuality and interracial couples.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)

Available at GCPL

Twenty years after Berlin Stories, Isherwood published this daring and poignant portrayal of a day in the life of a lonely middle-aged gay man in California.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton (1965)

Explores the long passionate life of a woman-loving artist.

Midnight Cowboy by James O’Herlihy (1965)

The lives of the outcasts and hustlers on the streets of New York City, were eventually made into an X-rated (now R-rated) film in 1969. One critic said that reading the book “would turn people homosexual”

A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt (1966)

Featuring the first gay African American detective.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote (1948)

Available at GCPL

Southern Gothic noted for its isolation and decadence, the story of 13-year-old Joel Knox’s coming-of-age in rural Alabama.

Pulp Fiction (Mid-20th Century)

A popular genre at the time – though not one that necessarily portrayed LGBTQ+ characters in a positive light. The pulp fiction books of the 1940s and 50s were cheaply-produced paperbacks with sensational themes, mostly available in drug stores and dime stores. Lesbian characters and lesbian-themed stories were especially popular, though the books were on the salacious side and mostly mass-marketed to capture the voyeuristic sensibilities of heterosexual men. There was one considerable bright spot… and her name was Ann Bannon.

Bannon was one pulp fiction author who actually wrote pulpy lesbian fiction for lesbians. Here Beebo Brinker Chronicles remains a favorite; the series explored the lives and loves of Laura, Beth and Beebo as they navigate uncharted territories of desire.

Assimilation and Activism

The isolation, guilt, and tragedy of earlier novels were replaced by narratives of courage and defiance that dealt with LGBTQ+ characters in more frank and positive ways. Similar to mainstream heterosexual fiction, white gay male characters sometimes dominated the canon during these years, often precluding works by lesbians and people of color.

This era saw the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ+ community (mostly transgender and people of color) in response to police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. This event marked the beginning of what was then referred to as the Gay Liberation Movement.

One consequence of Stonewall was the emergence of a period in literature when less ambiguous gay and lesbian characters began to appear with increasing frequency and would soon be a reflection of the dominant culture.

Great Reads (1970-2000)

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (1973)

Available at GCPL

Many women felt this novel reflected their own lives and experiences. It is the story of Molly Bolt, the adopted daughter of a poor Florida family, who embraces her lesbianism from an early age.

The Best Little Boy In The World by Andrew Tobias (1973)

The best little boy in the world: always top of his class, honors mom and dad, defers to elders, excels in sports, is a model IBM exec, and… he’s gay. A classic coming-out story.

The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren (1974)

A daring, passionate love story between a college running coach and his star athlete, noted for being the first contemporary gay romance to achieve mainstream commercial and critical success (selling over 10 million copies).

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig (1976)

Available at GCPL

Depicts the relationship between two cellmates in an Argentine prison – Molina, a gay hair dresser and Valentin, a Marxist radical – and the intimate bond they form in the process.

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinburg (1993)

The journey of a young butch lesbian in the pre-Stonewall gay drag bars of a blue-collar town.

Feinberg’s fiction and non-fiction helped to lay the groundwork for much of the language and awareness around modern gender studies, bringing the issues to a mainstream audience.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978+)

Tales of love, lust, and friendship among the eccentric inhabitants of an apartment house in 1970s San Francisco. This is the first book in a wildly popular 9-volume series that continued through 2016.

A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White (1982)

Available at GCPL

The unnamed narrator coming of age amid conformity of the 1950s struggles to embrace his sexuality.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (1982)

A fierce love letter to the strong women and “downtown gay girls” in her life. Lorde, one of the first writers to explore intersectionality, considered this book to be a “biomythography” – combining history, biography, and mythology. – a “biomythography”

Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel (1983+)

Cult-favorite comic strip about the lives, loves, and politics of a cast of characters, most of them lesbian, living in a midsize American city. Ran serially in many LGBTQ+ newspapers for 25 years and was one of the earliest representations of lesbians in popular culture.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)

Available at GCPL

A sensitive British teenager rebels against the conventional values of her Pentecostal community.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1985)

Available at GCPL

The lives of Black women in 1930s rural Georgia, featuring a tender love story between two main characters Shug and Celie.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg (1987)

Available at GCPL

Cult-favorite comic strip about the lives, loves, and politics of a cast of characters, most of them lesbian, living in a midsize American city. Ran serially in many LGBTQ+ newspapers for 25 years and was one of the earliest representations of lesbians in popular culture.

The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis (1987)

A satire of sexuality – gay, straight, and bisexual – set in a New England college at the height of the Reagan 80s.

The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

Available at GCPL

Gay life in England before the rise of Thatcherism and the devastation of AIDS.

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham (1990)

Childhood friends redefine the definitions of love and family.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez (1991)

Available at GCPL

The experiences of a black bisexual heroine in these stories challenges assumptions about the vampire myth.

Faggots by Larry Kramer (1978)

Available at GCPL

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran (1978)

Available at GCPL

These two classics of gay literature are probably the most sexually – explicit gay novels ever published up to that time. Both were bestsellers and at the same time vehemently criticized and even condemned by members of the gay community for what many considered to be negative portrayals of gay men.

Just the mere use of the word “Faggots” in the title of a book released by a major publishing house represents the tremendous change that was taking place in this era. It is a perfect illustration of how ambiguity really was disappearing from LGBTQ+ literature – titles do not get any less ambiguous than Faggots.

Basketball Jones by E. Lynn Harris (1994)

Available at GCPL

The story of a closeted basketball star who decides to marry a woman so the media and his teammates will not find out he is gay. Harris was best known for his depictions of race, bisexuality, and self-acceptance.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1998)

Available at GCPL

A Dickensian adventure, set in 1890s England, about a woman’s erotic journey through London and her relationship with a male impersonator.

The Impact of AIDS

In addition to the tremendous progress brought about by the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement, you can’t discuss post-Stonewall fiction without discussing the impact of HIV/AIDS. The era produced some remarkable writing from members of the LGBTQ+ community – while simultaneously snatching sway the lives of thousands of promising writers. Here are some of the essential works documenting the devastation of the era:

Afterlife by Paul Monette

The Darker Proof edited by Edmund White and Adam Mars-Jones

Eighty-six ed by David Feinburg

The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket

People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman

True Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Genre, Inclusion, and Diversity

These days, being known as an LGBTQ+ author does not bring one the notoriety it once did. The vast availability and diversity f titles published since the previous decades seek to redefine the modern LGBTQ community. More diverse characters, stories and authors give visibility to previously ignored communities, giving storytellers the opportunity to go beyond sexual orientation to address themes of family, identity, age, race, gender, and more.

Here are a few to check out:

Great Reads to Consider: