Each year, Publishing Triangle, the association for gay and lesbian publishing industry insiders, revises their list of the top 100 LGBT novels; an additional list of novels are chosen in a readers’ choice poll, with 88 chosen in the 2009 poll. The novels chosen by Publishing Triangle are often the standard bearers for LGBT writers and character depictions, while the readers’ choice category reflects a mix of newer selections alongside much-loved classics.
These are my 5 favorite LGBT books, some of which are not included on the Triangle list, but are wonderful nonetheless.
The Well of Loneliness – Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel is a semi-autobiographical account, told through the eyes of Stephen Gordon, the daughter of wealthy English and Irish parents. Stephen’s father was so convinced that the unborn child would be a boy that his wife conceded to allowing Stephen as a first name, though it is counter-balanced with a string of feminine middle names.
Stephen is granted the all the permissions a son would receive – her father encourages her athleticism and desires to cut her hair short and wear boy’s clothes, though he secretly studies some early research on homosexuality to better understand his daughter.
As an adult, Stephen opts to dress solely in male attire and serves in World War I as an ambulance driver. Many critics consider these details to be evidence thatThe Well of Loneliness is one of the earliest examples of transgender literature, in addition to lesbian literature. Her personal relationships are tumultuous; Stephen falls in love with a married heterosexual woman, and a young ambulance driver who can best be described as bisexual (though she and Stephen have a relationship, she ultimately marries a man).
Hall was put on trial under the Obscene Publications Act due to a campaign byThe Sunday Express, a newspaper that railed against the changing gender roles and presentations of the 1920s. The book was also challenged in American courts. Due to the controversy, the Bloomsbury Salon rejected Hall as a member; notable among those who were not fans of Hall are Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, who were also involved in – and wrote about – lesbian relationships.
Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder – Published in 1945, Evelyn Waugh captures the complexities of the Marchmain family, an aristocratic clan rife with resentment and secrets. The bright star of the family, the eccentric Sebastian Flyte, brings dandyism back to life in a way even Oscar Wilde would envy.
Sebastian’s antics are considered to be the whims of a young son abandoned by his father, though his alcoholic tendencies indicate deeper issues. Though he is a charming young man in good times, he uses that positive attribute to garner sympathy for his self-destructive behaviors.
Over the course of nearly two decades, narrator Charles Ryder details his relationship with Sebastian, his family, and his own internal conflicts. While it is clear that Sebastian is gay, Charles’ orientation is debatable. He does marry, though he later divorces, and he has an affair with Sebastian’s sister, but it has been suggested that Julia serves as a stand-in for Sebastian.
What makes Brideshead Revisited revolutionary is the depiction of a close male friendship. While romantic friendships between women were prevalent in the literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, similar relationships between men often resulted in those books being banned (once again, think Oscar Wilde).
Tales of the City series – Armistead Maupin’s series of seven novels was first published in serial form in San Francisco newspapers starting in 1978. The books bring to life the tenants of 28 Barbary Lane, a rambling apartment complex owned by the colorful, mysterious Anna Madrigal.
Midwestern transplant Mary Ann Singleton is thrown into a world of free love and secrecy as she learns about her neighbors – free-spirited Mona Ramsey, newly out Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and Anna, the aforementioned landlady.
Across the series, each of the characters experiences great love and loss. The later books deal with the growing AIDS crisis and the accompanying panic and suspicion cast upon the gay community.
In 2007, Maupin released Michael Tolliver Lives, a semi-autobiographical final chapter for Mouse. The novel shows life as a middle-aged man who has seen much of San Francisco’s history as a gay mecca and is forced to come to terms with his dying mother, who rejected him after coming out.
A similar follow-up for another character, Mary Ann in the Autumn, was released late last year.
Protagonist Nan Astley is drawn to a masher at her favorite Victorian era theater. Kitty Butler is a bold and flirtatious performer who invites Nan to join her act.
Nan finds unanticipated freedom in her menswear costumes, including the freedom to pursue Kitty romantically. After the relationship comes crashing down, Nan continues to earn money as a masher, though her venues are considerably seedier than the song-and-dance halls she once frequented.
From her rundown boarding house, Nan sells her sexual services dressed as a young soldier. One night, she is picked up not by a rich old man on the down-low, but a wealthy widow looking for a pet/escort. It seems like a pretty good deal at first, but Nan soon learns that she is more an object on display than a true companion.
Once again, Nan flees and rents a room from Florence and Ralph, unmarried siblings and socialist activists. Nan uses the skills she obtained as a performer to help Ralph bolster his public speaking skills; in turn, she finds cautious but deep happiness with Florence.
The book was turned into a highly popular BBC miniseries in 2002.
Anything by Jeanette Winterson – You absolutely cannot lose with Jeanette Winterson. I know it sounds like a cop-out to put an author’s entire body of work on the list, but I could have filled the list with just her books.
Born in Manchester, England, Winterson was adopted by strict Pentecostal parents who only kept 6 books in the house; among those books were the Bible, Cruden’sComplete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. She hoarded books purchased with pocket money, swapped with friends, or checked out of the library; some books were hidden in the family’s outhouse where young Jeanette would sneak out to read by flashlight. Other books were tucked under her mattress. She was caught when her mother noticed that her bed had mysteriously grown taller.
In spite of her erratic education, Winterson was accepted to Oxford University. Her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published when she was 24 years old. To date, she has published 12 novels, a short story collection, a comic book, and a collection of essays. She is also a regular contributor to several newspapers across England.
Winterson writes about characters with complicated personal and inner lives. Many of these characters are lesbians, though others are difficult to identify as belonging to the female sex, never mind the feminine gender. Her novels are interspersed with fantastic reinterpretations of history and mythology, which mingle with powerful contemporary reflections on surviving in our messy world.
If I had to narrow down Winterson’s body of work to only one recommendation, I choose Written on the Body for its artistic achievement, and Art [Objects]: Essays on Ecstasy and Affrontery for its academic value (really, it should be required reading for artists and art lovers of all stripes).