Essential Queer Reads

Recently, I’ve covered the LGBT+ books and authors that I want to read, but I wanted to take some time to celebrate the queer books I have read and which I would emphatically recommend to you. This list is incomplete because I have a lot more reading to do, but here are my favorites in the genre right now.

The Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer

I saw the Broadway revival of this a few years back and it emotionally destroyed me. That is no exaggeration. The Normal Heart is about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and how painfully slow federal reaction was–which, of course, helped the epidemic get worse. As such, this play covers the full spectrum of emotion from hope to despair, love to loss, pride to shame, joy to fury, and more. The protagonist is a stand-in for Kramer himself, who had a sort of complicated place in the gay community. He was one of the most outspoken activists the community had, but his frequent unwillingness to compromise when it comes to equal rights has gotten him labeled a sort of killjoy. The Normal Heart is about so many things: it’s about getting love and acceptance from your family, it’s about the devastating psychological impact of AIDS coming along just as gay people began claiming their own sexuality, it’s about science and how bureaucracy can get in the way of progress, it’s about love–I could go on and on and on, so suffice it to say that if this ever plays near you, see it. Barring that, read it.

Unfortunately, the sequel, The Destiny of Me, is … not great. It feels like Kramer trying to exercise a lot of his own personal demons in a sort of flashy, melodramatic way that doesn’t live up to the greatness and universality of The Normal Heart.

Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan

Sometimes, you think you’re really open and cool, and then something happens that shows you how much work you still have left to do. For example, I was at a conference for transgender youth last summer and one thing they did is cover the gender designations for the bathrooms. I thought that was no big deal, but then on the second day of the conference, I walked into a bathroom and didn’t see any urinals on the wall. In my head, I screamed to myself “it matters!” and backed out of that room as quickly as I could. I couldn’t get passed the idea that I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, which taught me a lot about how a transgender person feels every single day.

This book also taught me a lesson because when I saw this ARC at Book Expo, I immediately thought to myself “I can’t be seen reading this.” I was particularly worried about the subway. I almost didn’t pick up a copy of the book because of this. Part of me was worried about offending someone–because I had internalized this idea that love that isn’t straight needs to be hidden away. Coincidentally, that is exactly what this YA book is about. It’s a couple of storylines that intersect around Harry and Craig, two ex-boyfriends who want to break the world’s record for longest kiss. Each storyline deals with acceptance and openness and the book is narrated by a chorus of gay men who died of AIDS. I know that sounds weird, and there’s no denying that it’s a gimmick, but I think it works because it puts the history of the gay rights movement alongside the present. By the time I got halfway through the book, I was proud to be reading this book and I didn’t care who knew it.

The Laramie Project, by Mois├ęs Kauffman and the Tectonic Theater Project

The interesting–and different–thing about The Laramie Project is that it’s a play comprised of hundreds of interviews the Tectonic Theater Project did in Laramie, Wyoming following the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in 1998. What results is a story of tolerance and intolerance that feels urgent on both a personal and national scale. It is a beautiful portrait of Matthew Shepard from the people who knew and loved him, and it’s also an unyielding portrait of how hate crimes happen. It does not condemn anyone, but it does encourage the audience to question how this tragedy happened, if it could happen again, and how we can do better.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz

I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent posts that the YA market is a great place to find inclusive storytelling. I went into this not quite knowing what would happen, so I don’t want to talk about it too much so you can have the same experience. All you need to know is that Aristotle and Dante are loners when they meet and become friends. That unexpected friendship teaches them to open up to the world, and some important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be. It is wonderful.

The City and the Pillar, by Gore Vidal

Jim is a handsome All-American athlete type who feels shy around girls. When his friend Bob graduates from high school, he and Jim have an unexpected night of passion. Bob thinks of that night as nothing but kid stuff but for Jim, it begins a personal odyssey that leads to a genuinely shocking conclusion. You see, when Jim graduates a year later, he goes off on his own in the world to find Bob, who had signed on with the Merchant Marines. During his odyssey, Jim meets many people and comes to terms with his attraction to men, building up his relationship with Bob to a sort of unrealistic ideal that becomes an obsession for him.

The City and the Pillar is not a happy novel in any sense, but it is a great book and an urgent read about what happens in a time when straying from the “traditional” path is unacceptable.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

Like The City and the Pillar, Giovanni’s Room is not a happy book. It’s about an American man in Paris who finds himself caught between the conventional life he strives for and the passion he feels for other men. When he meets an Italian bartender named Giovanni, they end up on a collision course with tragedy. We know nothing good is going to happen because we know that Giovanni is on death row from the beginning as the story flashes back to show us what happened.

Pretty much anything James Baldwin wrote was incredible and Giovanni’s Room is no exception.

Maurice, by E.M. Forster

I’ve talked about this book a lot because it is without a doubt one of my all-time favorites. The premise is actually similar to The City and the Pillar to a point, but for me this one was so much more resonant (even though I liked City and the Pillar a lot). As the book opens, Maurice Hall is a university student who begins a discreet relationship with a fellow male student, Clive Durham. Maurice hopes they can find a way to make it work, but Clive devastates him by marrying a woman and encouraging Maurice to adapt to what society wants him to be in order to find happiness. The main part of the book is Maurice trying to be someone he is not, and ultimately coming to terms with himself and finding love.

I know at least one person who complained that they thought the ending was a bit pat and unrealistic, but for me it was the message I needed at the time I read it–and I think it ties in with a lot of Forster’s writing. It’s the idea that there are many ways of defining happiness–there isn’t just one way to live your life. You can find the happiness you want if you just go for it.

Call Me By Your Name, by Andre Aciman

There’s a movie adaptation of this and a sequel coming later this year, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it–just do yourself a favor and read it. Here’s my elevator pitch if you haven’t heard me discuss this before: an unexpected romance on a summer holiday in Italy leads to a charged, erotic exploration of first love, obsessive desire, the burden of expectation, and the power of intimacy.

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Elevator pitch: a powerful graphic memoir of growing up in a funeral home with a closeted father who may have committed suicide, and how different his life was from the author’s as an out lesbian.

Full Circle, by Michael Thomas Ford

Elevator pitch: a man born in 1950 lives through the tumultuous change in gay lifestyle, from the closet to the furtive gay subculture in New York City to the AIDS epidemic to the modern era of gay activism.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne

Elevator pitch: similar to Full Circle, a man born in the mid-20th-century experiences profound societal change as his native Ireland moves from a restrictive Catholic country to a progressive nation–with a wicked sense of humor like a fusion between Dickens and Roald Dahl.

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

Elevator pitch: a gorgeous, heartfelt look at how trauma ripples through time and humanity in times of great crisis. My favorite read from 2018.

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