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The library is open! 11 cult queer books to read this Pride

Because reading is gay

RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE – RITA MAE BROWN 

If you were a queer woman looking for representation in books up until – as Fran Lebowitz would put it – about five minutes ago, you either had to brace yourself for the most depressing novels ever written (shoutout The Well of Loneliness, see below) or wade through layers of thick, oblique subtext. Which is why Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle was such a revelation. 

When Rubyfruit Jungle was published in 1976, it was rare to get a lesbian character who wasn’t evil, hoodwinked, pathetic, or about to tragically die. Finding one as confident, unapologetic and funny as protagonist and self-described “full-blooded, bona fide lesbian” Molly Bolt was unheard of.

She is explicit in her queerness – at one point she tells a friend that “women are thick and rich and full of hidden treasures and besides that, they taste good.” That’s not to say the plot is all smooth-sailing; she experiences poverty, homelessness, expulsion, disownment and misogyny throughout, but the humour of the novel, the relationships Molly is allowed to have, and the self-assuredness Brown instils in her main character all separate Rubyfruit Jungle from what came before and mark it out as a turning point in queer female representation. (AP)

THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND: WITNESS TO A LOST IMAGINATION – SARAH SCHULMAN

I picked up a copy of this last summer when Aesop temporarily revamped its stores into queer libraries – which was perhaps the only good thing any company has ever done for Pride. For those who can’t quite muster the strength to read the 505-page Let the Records Show, The Gentrification of the Mind is a gateway into the work of writer and activist Sarah Schulman, tracing the cultural impact of the AIDS crisis against the gentrification of New York. A personal and impassioned account of the 80s and 90s, Schulman argues that some 80,000 AIDS deaths gave way to major urban redevelopment, producing a kind of cultural gentrification where the subversive work of marginalised communities was smothered by mainstream consumerism and the emergence of “acceptable” gays. What struck me is how much of her thinking can be mapped onto today’s culture, which seems increasingly banalised and boring, eschewing genuine originality for homogenous reboots and algorithmic runways. (DR)

GIOVANNI’S ROOM – JAMES BALDWIN

An obvious choice but would be weird not to include it. This book is about an American guy called David who meets an Italian guy called Giovanni in Paris. It’s beautiful and depressing and kind of the inverse of something like Heartstopper because of how bleak it is. Well, I found it bleak. Maybe you won’t x (TS)

THE WELL OF LONELINESS – RADCLYFFE HALL

I first read this at uni and, initially, struggled to get through it. It’s depressing, incredibly bleak, and a bit long-winded in parts. That said, it’s a book I often go back to, and there are some really beautiful, touching moments in it.

Published and set in the early 20th century, The Well of Loneliness follows Stephen, an androgynous, tomboyish woman, who comes to realise that she’s a lesbian. Imagine a gay Jane Eyre – albeit with a more heartbreaking ending.

It’s understandable if you want to pass on a dated novel which essentially frames queerness as something tragic, but I still think The Well of Loneliness has its place. It was arguably the first overt depiction of lesbianism in English fiction, offered up valuable literary representation for queer women, and was essentially a powerful rallying cry for LGBTQ+ rights. And while the story itself is perhaps a little pessimistic about the queer experience, in hindsight, Radclyffe Hall’s bravery in publishing the book was actually a significant turning point and provided solace to many queer readers. “It has made me want to live and to go on,” one reader wrote in a letter to Hall following its publication. And there are small glimmers of hope throughout the book. As Hall writes in one such moment: “We’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognise this.” (SS)

ENIGMA VARIATIONS – ANDRE ACIMAN 

No one writes about desire like Aciman. I read this, as intended, on a late Summer holiday in the Mediterranean – sun-baked, adrift, and yearning for a love that wasn’t available. It’s not considered one of his best novels, but at the time I remember being completely consumed by it (I was feeling very frag at the time). It’s essentially a story of an author’s life, told through five of his most significant romantic relationships. We go from Freudian, adolescent passions to monotonous monogamy; from older men to magnetic, untameable women; from flash-in-the-pan love affairs to life-long infatuations. It’s a study of desire, and of a man who can’t help but surrender himself to it. Is he a brave and soulful romantic? Or a fickle, delusional moron? Who knows! The beauty lies in the mystery. (DS)

THE LINE OF BEAUTY – ALAN HOLLINGHURST

What would a gay literary listicle be without Alan Hollinghurst? The Line of Beauty is arguably Hollinghurst’s greatest work and takes us on a rip-roaring romp through Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain, touching on themes such as class, politics and sexuality. Nick Guest is our protagonist – a nice, gay, middle-class Oxford graduate who moves to London and quickly finds himself surrounded by the city’s elite, while coming to terms with his (homo)sexuality. It’s great – and incredibly beautifully written – but, trigger warning, he is a bit of a Tory (by which I mean he’s an actual fully-fledged Tory, not that he just “thinks the Queen has done a great job”) and at one point in the book even dances with Thatcher at a party. But listen: Tories are everywhere – even in gay literary classics. And maybe it’s good to read about them in stories to remember that they’re human. They’re just not humane. (AH)

CHELSEA GIRLS – EILEEN MYLES 

“The first woman put her head between my legs and the complete sin, the absolute moment of sex came back and I was all in one piece coming apart. I was willing to sacrifice all for that moment.” 

If you haven’t read Eileen Myles, you must remedy that immediately. Celebrated author and poet, Myles writes like they would stop breathing if they didn’t; their style is immediate, the events happening now, the words alive on the page. “I’m a poet, you fools, you asshole cops!” they shout in Chelsea Girls following being arrested for tackling a police officer, before blowing the recital of their poem “Roast Chicken” immediately after. Eileen is a mess. We are all a mess.

Chelsea Girls is a perfect entry point into Myles’s work. Published in 1994, the autobiographical novel sees Myles transform their life into art as they report from the inside their experiences as a working-class lesbian poet growing up in their 1960s Catholic Massachusetts community and then living in New York’s East Village in the 70s and 80s. After you finish Chelsea Girls, start reading everything else you can get your hands on from them. (AP)

AIDSAFARI: A MEMOIR OF MY JOURNEY WITH AIDS – ADAM LEVIN

Despite being queer, I admittedly hadn’t learned enough about LGBTQ+ history in my youth. It was particularly the AIDS epidemic that was elusive to me. The facts in bullet-point form were harrowing but unrelatable, and television felt too dramatised. I told this to my uni tutor; she suggested Adam Levin’s Aidsafari

It’s a searingly honest memoir by a man terrified of his AIDS diagnosis. It journeys through the self-blame and denial, while still managing to be self-deprecating and surprisingly hilarious. From his bedsit, Levin takes your hand through his life of hedonism, love and loss, while peppered with anecdotes from his new, mundane and sometimes grossly visceral day-to-day. Not once asking for pity, the account is gritty, real, and truly feels like a safari, first-hand from a man who has nothing to lose. (GP)

A SINGLE MAN – CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD 

Admittedly I came to A Single Man only after Tom Ford had adapted Christopher Isherwood’s 1960 novel of the same name, casting Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in leading roles and kitting them out in gorgeous costumes crafted by his own fair hand (or thereabouts), but don’t hold that against me. Telling the story of George Falconer, a middle-aged college professor whose partner of 16 years tragically passes away in a car accident, A Single Man begins with Falconer planning to end his life, only to find himself confronted with a plethora of reasons why it might be better to live, after all. Capturing the aching and precise-feeling of grief through his deeply moving prose, Isherwood’s book is a moving rumination on love and loss – of youth as well as relationships – with glimmers of joy throughout. Grab tissues. (ED)

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – JRR TOLKIEN 

Read this article about queer coding in the books if you’re wondering why. (Spoiler alert: Frodo and Sam are soulmates <3.) But if you need something more than two hobbits occasionally holding hands, then read...

THE SONG OF ACHILLES – MADELINE MILLER

...this. More explicit guy-on-guy action, with just as many swords and horses. It will destroy you. (TS)