9 Groundbreaking Books from LGBTQ Literary History

October 14 2016

These LGBTQ favorites represent just some of the brave and influential events on the cultural barometer of twentieth-century gay literary history. From where we stand now, with marriage equality in the United States, they all seem deeply historical. Some were written in countries when it was illegal for gay people to exist openly, never mind marry.

All of them spell out liberation and relief in some form particular to the time of their publication, but also echo forward to future readers. Who of these authors would have believed at the time they were writing their courageous words that we would come to where we are now in the U.S. with LGBTQ civil rights?

Angels in America
by Tony Kushner

The poetic and political scope of Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA was perhaps the first voice to place gay people and gay relationships at the critical center of everyone’s life and times. He depicted how repression is harmful to everyone, not just those who are targeted. This two-part play about angels watching over our limited past and expanding present is long, complex, operatic, and mythical. Published in 1993.

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Angels in America
Tony Kushner

The poetic and political scope of Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA was perhaps the first voice to place gay people and gay relationships at the critical center of everyone’s life and times. He depicted how repression is harmful to everyone, not just those who are targeted. This two-part play about angels watching over our limited past and expanding present is long, complex, operatic, and mythical. Published in 1993.

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The Swimming-Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst

Everyone knows that Britain is obsessed with class. This book walks through nearly a century of British class issues through the lens of men’s love for men. There are plenty of raw descriptions of sex, if that’s what you are looking for, and women are totally absent from the world of the novel. Published in 1988.

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The Swimming-Pool Library
Alan Hollinghurst

Everyone knows that Britain is obsessed with class. This book walks through nearly a century of British class issues through the lens of men’s love for men. There are plenty of raw descriptions of sex, if that’s what you are looking for, and women are totally absent from the world of the novel. Published in 1988.

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Zami
by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde’s poetic memoir winds its way through the gay girl bars of the West Village in the 1950s. “It was hard enough to be Black, to be Black and female, to be Black, female, and gay. To be Black, female, gay, and out of the closet in a white environment...was considered by many Black lesbians to be simply suicidal.‎” Published in 1982.

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Zami
Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde’s poetic memoir winds its way through the gay girl bars of the West Village in the 1950s. “It was hard enough to be Black, to be Black and female, to be Black, female, and gay. To be Black, female, gay, and out of the closet in a white environment...was considered by many Black lesbians to be simply suicidal.‎” Published in 1982.

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Dancer from the Dance
by Andrew Holleran

It was a mere 11 years after the 1969 Stonewall Riots that gay men began to die of AIDS. Holleran wrote one of the last waltzes through the liberated and gritty 1970s before the AIDS onset of the ‘80s. DANCER FROM THE DANCE exquisitely documents the New York nightlife scenes of St. Mark’s Place and Fire Island and celebrates the full spectrum of men’s eroticism while also exploring the existential risks of sexual liberation. Published in 1978.

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Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran

It was a mere 11 years after the 1969 Stonewall Riots that gay men began to die of AIDS. Holleran wrote one of the last waltzes through the liberated and gritty 1970s before the AIDS onset of the ‘80s. DANCER FROM THE DANCE exquisitely documents the New York nightlife scenes of St. Mark’s Place and Fire Island and celebrates the full spectrum of men’s eroticism while also exploring the existential risks of sexual liberation. Published in 1978.

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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
by James Baldwin

James Baldwin was quintessentially a New York writer whose stories were set in Harlem and Greenwich Village. He wrote bravely of white and black, gay, bisexual, and straight experiences during a very repressive time. This is the tale of one Leo Proudhammer, who rises out of a childhood in Harlem to enter the world of New York theatre and his brother, Caleb, who ends up in prison. Published in 1968.

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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
James Baldwin

James Baldwin was quintessentially a New York writer whose stories were set in Harlem and Greenwich Village. He wrote bravely of white and black, gay, bisexual, and straight experiences during a very repressive time. This is the tale of one Leo Proudhammer, who rises out of a childhood in Harlem to enter the world of New York theatre and his brother, Caleb, who ends up in prison. Published in 1968.

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The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield may have been romantically confused, but her writing certainly is not. Mansfield’s first romantic relationship was with Maata Mahupuku, a member of Maori royalty whom she met at boarding school in New Zealand. Mansfield wrote about her in several short stories before she died at the age of 34 in 1923. Published in 1945, 1974.

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The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield may have been romantically confused, but her writing certainly is not. Mansfield’s first romantic relationship was with Maata Mahupuku, a member of Maori royalty whom she met at boarding school in New Zealand. Mansfield wrote about her in several short stories before she died at the age of 34 in 1923. Published in 1945, 1974.

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Nightwood
by Djuna Barnes

NIGHTWOOD is both gothic and modern, and its form poses questions about narrative fiction itself using irony and reflection. Barnes introduces a strange amalgam of characters, including the depiction of a transsexual who delivers babies and performs abortions while pretending to be a doctor. Published in 1933 (1937 in the US).

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Nightwood
Djuna Barnes

The fiery and enigmatic masterpiece—one of the greatest novels of the Modernist era. Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (Times Literary Supplement). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes' novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe's great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous.

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Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

ORLANDO was perhaps the first transsexual novel, and it is perhaps the most accessible of Woolf’s fiction. Orlando is a poet who changes from a man to a woman (with varying amorous inclinations) during sleep and lives for 300 years. This book is one of the most famous works by a woman that directly addresses the subject of gender in history and literature. Published in 1928.

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Orlando
Virginia Woolf

ORLANDO was perhaps the first transsexual novel, and it is perhaps the most accessible of Woolf’s fiction. Orlando is a poet who changes from a man to a woman (with varying amorous inclinations) during sleep and lives for 300 years. This book is one of the most famous works by a woman that directly addresses the subject of gender in history and literature. Published in 1928.

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The Complete Claudine
by Colette

The French have been, shall we say, frank about sexuality. Colette introduced twentieth-century readers to a homoerotic coming-of-age story with insouciance. Claudine was a brazen 15-year-old who knew what she wanted and was not going to be foiled by the power of her instructors. Published in 1900.

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The Complete Claudine
Colette

The quartet of Claudine novels follows the coming-of-age of a girl not unlike Colette herself, growing up in rural France and eventually moving to Paris as a young wife. Rich, sensuous, and full of an almost unbearable nostalgia, they are wonderfully escapist reading.

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