1. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is a series of 8 novels (I suggest you start at the beginning) which began life as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, following the lives of a group of young and beautiful people in 70s San Francisco. Though the protagonist, Mary Ann Singleton, is a straight woman, many of the supporting characters are gay men. Granted, their lives are sometimes hedonistic and sensational, and a contemporary reader is haunted by the impending catastrophe of AIDS (which the later novels address), but Tales of the City is ultimately a beautiful and honest story of gay lives lived openly. My mother gave this book to me when I was 12. I wonder what she was trying to tell me…?
2. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder is Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel. Written during the war as he recovered from a parachuting accident, Waugh’s (some say autobiographical) narrative is told by Charles Ryder, a world-weary soldier stationed at Brideshead, an imposing country house. Charles remembers his long relationship with the house’s owners, the aristocratic and staunchly Catholic Marchmain family, which began more than 20 years previously when he befriended Lord Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of Lady Marchmain, at Oxford. The kiss between Charles and Sebastian in Julian Jarrold’s (terrible) 2008 film adaptation is a liberty he has taken, but Waugh’s beautiful prose hints at far more between the two men, and his ultimate message is spelled out early in the novel: “to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom”.
3. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Much of James Baldwin’s work is known for its social critique of mid-century America, reflecting his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, however, is set in France. Baldwin charts the tumultuous relationship between David, a young American who is engaged to a woman back home, and Giovanni, a fiery Italian man who works behind in the Parisian gay bar in which they meet. Their relationship is doomed, blighted by David’s refusal to accept his sexuality, but the room of the title speaks of the private spaces in which gay men can be entirely themselves.
4. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
All of Hollinghurst’s novels explore queer themes in some way (for a terrifying story of homosexual desire, check out the Folding Star), but The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2004, is perhaps the most accomplished of his novels, and the first I read. A kind of Thatcherite Brideshead, the novel charts the life of Nick Guest, a young, middle class, gay man who finds himself lodging with the family of Gerald Fedden, a Tory MP. The politics of 1980s Britain during the AIDS epidemic are a stark contrast to his first forays into homosexuality, and are brilliantly juxtaposed in a passage where, having just snorted copious amounts of cocaine, Nick dances with Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady’s shameful attitudes to homosexuality decide the fate of many of the novel’s characters.
5. The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet
Jean Genet’s fictionalised autobiography the Thief’s Journal charts his journeys through Europe, working as a prostitute and petty criminal. While his appropriation of religious iconography to make virtues from his numerous vices acts foremost as a justification of his crimes, it also renders homosexuality as something spiritual and beautiful.
6. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys is set in Glasthule, just outside Dublin, in the year leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916. Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle are two teenage boys who fall in love while swimming together at The Forty Foot, the famous bathing pool. The two agree to swim together to the Muglins Lighthouse, but as the year passes, and growling political unrest sweeps through Ireland, Doyler becomes heavily involved in the Republican movement - a decision which alters their lives forever. At Swim, Two Boys is a story of sacrifice for both love and nation, and places gay men among the icons of the Irish Republic which so associates heterosexuality and heroism.
7. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
Mary Renault’s novel The Charioteer has often been praised for encouraging respect and tolerance of gay people at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. The story follows Laurie Odell, a wounded soldier, who finds himself torn between his attraction to two men, during the blackouts of wartime London. The two men, one a conscientious objector, the other a soldier, offer Odell different possibilities, and his experiences remind us of the fate of so many men who fought during WWII, only to be branded criminals on their return, where straight soldiers were deemed heroes. the greatest elements of the novel, however, are in its depiction of queer culture and community.
8. Maurice by E. M. Forster
Maurice was written in 1913, but not published until 1971, after Forster’s death. The relationship between the eponymous Maurice, a wealthy, upper-middle class man, and the working class Alec, is as problematic as their homosexuality. However, part of the reason Forster chose not to publish the novel was his fear that it would be problematic for his reader because it offers what so many of these novels do not (and precisely what so many young gay readers hope for): a happy ending.
9. Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood
Plenty of people have read Sally Bowles and Goodbye to Berlin, or seen Cabaret, the musical based on them, but few have read Christopher and His Kind. Isherwood’s autobiography charts his time in Berlin over the period which would later inspire these famous novels, but includes the gay subculture of the city which he largely left out in his fictional renderings of the time. Christopher and His Kind is most important, however, in its depiction of Berlin’s downfall, from a place of openness and acceptance during the Weimar Republic, to one of fear and discrimination under Nazi rule.
10. The Culture of Queers by Richard Dyer
A bit of a curve-ball for the final entry on the list. In The Culture of Queers, the only academic work on this list, Richard Dyer (lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London and my personal hero) explores every aspect of queer representation in the history of media. With chapters on topics as varied as vampire movies, matinee idols and hardcore pornography, if ever there was a text which revealed that gay men have always been here, this is it.