Jesse Monteagudo

The 12 Most Important Lesbian and Gay Books of All Time

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | September 09, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: GLBT History Month, Lambda Book Report, lesbian, literature

As many of you know, I have acquired a reputation as an authority on gay and lesbian books. This came about because of my lifetime love of books; my personal collection of gay literature; my work with the Stonewall Library and Archives in Fort Lauderdale; and my book review columns, of which "The Book Nook" (1977-2006) was the best-known. And while "The Book Nook" itself is gone, I continue to write book reviews in a monthly column that appears in AfterElton.com. In 1999 I contributed to the "Lambda Book Report" a 20th Century's end list of "100 Books That Changed Our Lives," which I will send to any reader who e-mails me a request at jesse@bilerico.com.

The following list is limited to what in my opinion are the 12 most important lesbian and gay books of all time: It comes just in time for October, GLBT History Month.

1. THE BIBLE. More than any other book, the Bible has shaped Western Civilization's opinion of homosexuality. Taken out of content, the (mis)interpretation of several Biblical passages were used as an excuse to murder, torture, imprison, rape, batter, ostracize, deride, and discriminate against lesbians, gay males and bisexual people through the centuries. Less noticed are several passages of homoerotic passion: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Jesus and his "Beloved Disciple".


2. THE POEMS OF SAPPHO (circa 600 b.c.e.). The "tenth muse" wrote about the love of women, and in the process made her name and her home (the island of Lesbos) synonymous with female homosexuality. Though most of her poems were lost of destroyed, what remains influenced the works of Amy Lowell, Renee Vivien, Hilda Doolittle, May Sarton, Olga Broumas, Judy Grahn and almost every other woman-loving woman writer that lived. "Sappho floats across the centuries as an island in the sea of writers of the past, a solitary example of a woman writer attempting to define woman's desire for woman," writes Jane McIntosh Snyder. "Sappho," writes Evelyn Gettone, "gave lesbian love its classic literary expression."


3. THE SYMPOSIUM OF PLATO (circa 389 b.c.e.). Plato's classic dialogue is not only the best exposition of "Greek love" ever written but it almost made Plato's teacher Socrates as synonymous with male love as Sappho is to lesbianism. Socrates, and his dinner companions formulate a classic theory of male love: "I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover than a beloved youth." The Symposium, writes Byrne R.S. Fone, "is of ... paramount importance in the formation, context, and understanding of the homosexual imagination and its tradition." "[Plato's] legacy," writes Warren Johansson, "has shaped and even today informs the attitudes of Western man toward love of beauty and its sexual expression."


4. LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman, third edition (1860). The 1860 edition of Whitman's masterpiece first included the "Calamus" poems that "celebrate the need of comrades." These poems of democracy and brotherhood did more than venture into "paths untrodden." They launched the "homosexual tradition in American poetry" that continued with Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, Edward Field and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard. "The historical Whitman is of no literary interest," writes Robert K. Martin. "He can vanish and leave behind the spiritual Whitman, the eternal lover, the risen god of male love." To Edward F. Grier, Whitman was "the poet ... of a culture bound together by love and religious faith in which each person could fulfill his or her own sexual nature."


5. CITIES OF THE PLAIN (SODOME ET GOMORRHE) by Marcel Proust (1921). "Cities of the Plain" is Part IV of Proust's monumental "Remembrance of Things Past," "one of the greatest works of the twentieth century and of all time" (J.E. Rivers). "Proust," writes Warren Johansson, "was the first major novelist to deal extensively with the theme of homosexuality, and more than any other writer, he bears the responsibility for introducing the topic into the mainstream of modern literature". By expressing his own "personal, cultural, and aesthetic paradoxes," Proust took homosexuality out of the literary closet.


6. THE WELL OF LONELINESS by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Attempts by British and American authorities to censor this classic of lesbian love made it more famous than it deserved. Hall, herself a masculine woman whose friends called her "John," believed in the then-current "third sex" theory of homosexuality, and her hero, Stephen Gordon, evokes pity but not sympathy. "Despite its shortcomings," writes Jeannette Foster, "The Well of Loneliness made a heroic gesture for tolerance of lesbian relations among persons of integrity". Hall's novel, says Evelyn Gettone, "helped to move lesbianism into the consciousness of a public which ... had managed until 1928 to ignore the phenomenon almost entirely."


7. THE HOMOSEXUAL IN AMERICA by "Donald Webster Cory" (Edward Sagarin) (1951). Cory's Classic "is the result of a quarter of a century of participation in American life as a homosexual. ... The subjective approach of the book is intended not only to supply a reflection of the broader and more typical group, but to permit the expression of the opinion as seen from within that group." By doing so, Cory took the topic of homosexuality away from the "experts" and into the hands of those who knew it best: lesbians and gay men. According to John D'Emilio, "Cory's book not only provided gay men and women with a tool for reinterpreting their lives; it also implied that the conditions of life had changed sufficiently so that the book's message might find a receptive audience." Generation of Pioneer activists were energized by "The Homosexual in America."


8. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS by Allen Ginsberg (1956). The Beat Generation, says D'Emilio, "presented a significant challenge to the conformist pressures" of the 1950's. "Through the beats' example, gays could perceive themselves as nonconformists rather than deviates, as rebels against stultifying norms rather than immature, unstable personalities." Ginsberg dedicated Howl to his lovers, Jack Kerouac, William Seward Burroughs and Neal Cassady, and his poem is a "description of gay male sexuality as joyous, delightful, and indeed even holy". The authorities ensured the book's popularity by trying to suppress it, but Howl survived it all, paving the way for franker depictions of male love.


9. THE SONG OF THE LOON by "Richard Amory" (Richard Love) (1966). Amory's "gay pastoral in five books and an interlude" made gay history with its explicit depictions of gay male sex, its positive portraits of gay men and its poetic, almost mystical vision of a gay brotherhood that transcended racial and cultural barriers. Activist Jack Nichols called "Song of the Loon" "an important contribution to gay culture." Critic Angelo d'Arcangelo described it as "fantasy ... more taking than the Tolkien books and funnier", while gayrotic writer Carl Driver, perhaps taking the novel's mystical theme too far, called it "sacramental." Song of the Loon spawned a film, two sequels, a parody and the "Golden Age" of gayrotic literature (1966-1974).


10. LESBIAN/WOMAN by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (1972). Many "gay 101" books were written in the wake of the Stonewall Riots and the gay, l esbian and feminist movements. I chose "Lesbian/Woman" for several reasons, the main one being the authors themselves. Lovers since 1953, Martin and Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization, in 1955. "Lesbian/Woman," an early winner of the Gay and Lesbian Book Award, became the book that every lesbian read as part of their coming out process. Martin and Lyon write their way out of the closet and self-hatred, through gay male sexism and feminist homophobia, to demand (take that, Newt Gingrich) "Not Toleration [but] Lesbian Liberation". Though Del Martin has since left us, "Lesbian/Woman" remains as her literary monument.


11. CHRISTIANITY, SOCIAL TOLERANCE, AND HOMOSEXUALITY: GAY PEOPLE IN WESTERN EUROPE FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA TO THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY by John Boswell (1980). Though the late Professor Boswell's classic history is an undoubted masterpiece, I include it here for its influence on GLBT studies. Before Boswell, lesbian and gay history was the province of self-taught historians like Jonathan Katz. Boswell, who taught history at Yale University, took the gay science into the groves of Academe, where it has flourished. He and his book paved the way for Allan Berube, George Chauncey, John D'Emilio, Estelle Freedman, Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton and other lesbian and gay scholars.


12. AND THE BAND PLAYED ON: POLITICS, PEOPLE, AND THE AIDS EPIDEMIC by Randy Shilts (1987). Shilts was one of the first reporters to cover the AIDS epidemic, which eventually took his own life as well as that of too many other gay writers (including John Boswell). "Now a major motion picture," "And The Band Played On" is a powerful, though controversial, indictment of the denial, prejudice, apathy and foot-dragging that allowed AIDS casualties to mount. "'The Band succeeds," writes Jim Marks, "by weaving the events and people of the AIDS epidemic into a compelling narrative, an unfolding tragedy in which there are few heroes, much deception, and too many dead."


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Just FYI...

Editor's Note:

That was my mistake. The email address should have been "jesse@bilerico.com". I've fixed it now. Thanks!

Great list. I've only read The Bible and the Randy Shilts book, so I'm going to see if any of these are at my local library.

Frank Gurucharri | September 23, 2008 7:11 AM

Thanks, Jesse. You might want to check into Louis Crompton's "Homosexuality and Civilization".