8 Novels every gay man should read

Jamie Tabberer

From Orlando to Giovanni to Virginia, meet the vibrant LGBTQI+ characters who—whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or beyond—can help gay men understand themselves and their peers better

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Do we do great stories about same-sex love and relationships a disservice by labelling them? An argument for such a canon’s existence is the undeniable evidence of recurrent and often tragic themes. Among them, sadness and devastation, both certainly present in A Single Man, which, at 186 pages, is at least mercifully (and, if you’re not a big reader, accessibly) brief. 

In it, LA-based professor George grieves for soulmate Jim, and plans to end his life. As he falls in love with the world again, anyone who’s ever felt lonely—and particularly gay and LGBTQI+ men—will likely feel emboldened.

 

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Also common in the would-be canon: explosive depictions of sex, usually all the more satisfying because the characters face agonising obstacles getting to and/or having it. A euphemism for “cunnilingus”, the Victorian England-set Tipping the Velvet—exploring 18-year-old Nan’s infatuation with Kitty, a male impersonator whose mix of masculine, feminine and the worlds in between proves irresistible—is fantastically erotic. As someone who’s read a lot of gay male-marketed soft porn and Fifty Shades of Grey, I only wish all “litererotica” was this elegant!

 

The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

For Celie, a woman enduring heinous misogynistic abuse and poverty in early 20th-century Georgia, a secret sexuality burgeons—sparked by her glamorous and comparatively liberated friend, Shug Avery. 

An explosive and dynamic character, Shug will conjure memories of everyone you’ve fallen for before. Celie, on the other hand, will remind you of your own vulnerabilities. Although outwardly-silent, her thoughts and feelings are expressed bluntly but beautifully via prayer (each chapter begins with the words “Dear God”). But Celie could just as well be writing letters to her inner-self, as she documents her fascinating 40-year journey with uncompromising honesty. 

 

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando virginia woolfe

Conversations around gender may be wonderfully ever-evolving in 2020, but not in the 1990s, when Tipping the Velvet came out—and certainly not in 1928, when Virginia Woolf released Orlando. In fact, this zany, 300-year-spanning story, in which protagonist Orlando ages only 36 years and transitions (“Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex”) still feels trailblazing today. If you’re cisgender, absorbing this story might help you become a better ally for trans and gender-fluid/non-binary people.

 

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Despite being written by a man, no book has made me feel such empathy for LGBTI women’s struggles as The Hours. Another Virginia Woolf fanboy, Michael Cunningham’s sorrowful triptych follows a day in the life of three brilliantly intense women: Virginia herself, teetering on a breakdown in 1940s Sussex as she begins her masterpiece Mrs Dalloway; American housewife and pregnant mother-of-one Laura Brown, who reads Mrs Dalloway to escape her depression, and third, Clarissa Vaughn, a vibrant New Yorker and modern-day embodiment of Mrs Dalloway, who’s throwing a party for her best friend Richard, a famous writer who is dying from AIDS-related illnesses. Never have so many three-dimensional queer characters coexisted in one book—at least for me.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Lately bumping into a gay guy I hadn’t seen in years, I complimented his unchanged looks. “It’s the the portrait in my attic,” he replied: a queer literary reference I didn’t immediately fathom. Thus, I finally dove into Oscar Wilde’s spiky cautionary tale about a beguiling Londoner who achieves eternal youth as a secret painting of himself ages and decays with his every increasingly selfish and reckless act.

“We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to,” insists DG’s acidic corrupter Lord Henry. I’m glad I didn’t read this queer subtext-heavy yarn until my thirties, with enough wisdom to call BS on the Devil on Dorian’s shoulder. (And, similarly, on the many Mr Grays who permeate Grindr et al in the present day…)

 

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Now to sun-drenched 1980s Italy, and the tale of a sweeping love affair between precocious teen Elio and strapping, standoffish academic Oliver, and what might be the only book I’ve read where I’m actually glad I saw the film first.

Why? Because, while Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 interpretation was unequivocally lush and beguiling, in it, Timothée Chalamet’s Elio simpers, scowls and seldom speaks. Here, as narrator, you’re immersed in his private thoughts, his wonderful way with words. The story expands exponentially.

I always found the title, for example, annoying and nonsensical—sacrilegiously preferring, for a time, CMBYN!—until book-Elio explained its soul-merging meaning. This feels like it could somehow be a dictionary definition of love, and while there's sadness in it too, it's by far the most joyful ride on this list!

 

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni's room

In mid-19th century Paris, a repressed American, David, recounts his brief, tortured relationship with beautiful, isolated Italian bartender, Giovanni. Taking place mostly in Giovanni’s squalid, tiny bedsit—not to mention David's metaphorical closet—the men submit to doom and shame with consequences that still shock me many reads later.

The book stays with me for a few reasons. David’s toxic masculinity, for starters, and also the labyrinth-like layers of both character’s apparent bisexuality. There's the beautifully pure, happy image of the pair larking about like kids on Boulevard Montparnasse, “aiming the cherry pits, as though they were spitballs, into each other's faces”. Meanwhile, the rich descriptions of Giovanni’s body and soul are among the most sensual I’ve ever read.

But what really changed me was Giovanni’s harrowing descent, following his lover’s abandonment, into emotional and financial poverty. Baldwin called it a story about "what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody," and this makes it essential reading for anyone who takes for granted the freedom to be and love who they want—and anyone who, over 60 years later, is still heroically fighting for that freedom.


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