Between the covers
Gay and lesbian books: Out of the closet and off the shelf
While searching for Before Night Falls,by Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas, in a local bookstore, I couldn’t find it filed under “A” in the main literature section. Disappointed, I thought they didn’t carry it. Then I saw a sign saying, “Also see Gay/Lesbian section.” And there it was—one copy tucked away in a small corner by the Law and Sociology section. Arenas’ book, an acclaimed literary memoir, was stuffed between books with titles like Hard and Talking Cock. “Sheesh,” I thought to myself, “Even the books are in the closet.”
These are good books. Not just good gay or lesbian or bisexual books (which they are), but good books. Some are even great. Most have to do with freedom and identity, and last time I checked, those are pretty universal themes.
Another Country by James Baldwin (GB)
Baldwin is a stunning writer, whose raw, passionate words magnetically attract the reader’s attention. Centered on Rufus, a troubled Harlem musician, the book takes an unrelenting look at sexuality, race, love and hate. The other countries referred to in the title are literal (United States and France) and figurative—the border crossings between Greenwich Village and Harlem, black and white, male and female, of walking up the street and into a stranger’s house.
Excerpt: “Oh well. People do not take the relations between boys seriously, you know that. We will never know many people who believe we love each other. They do not believe there can be tears between men. They think we are only playing a game and that we do it to shock them.”
Becoming a Man by Paul Monette (G)
Monette’s National Book Award winner is a vulnerable, angry story of the denial and repression he went through before coming out at the age of 27. It begins with the shame he felt at 9 years old when his mother caught him wanking off with another boy to a staggering, almost exhausting number of hetero- and
Excerpt: So I told myself I would give it up, even prayed at night for it to be taken away, not knowing that “it” was love.
Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas (GB)
Before his AIDS-related death in New York City in 1990, Arenas wrote this account of his life, from his poor but happy childhood in Cuba to political, artistic and sexual oppression and imprisonment under Castro to his exile to the United States. Highly sexual, Arenas’ world is almost wholly populated by gay men and what he claims are thousands of affairs with them. Ultimately, the story and his life were about freedom and the refusal to give it up.
Excerpt: A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings.
The Complete Claudine by Colette (LB)
Colette wrote this series of novels—Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Anne—between 1901-03 under the urging (and pen name) of her first husband, Willy (said to have locked her in a room until she produced something). The flirtatious, sensual stories are based on her experiences with both young women and men as a school girl and an adult.
Excerpt: Mademoiselle Sargent was holding her by the waist and talking to her very low, with an air of tender insistence. … Aimee let herself be kissed and yielded graciously.
De Profundis by Oscar Wilde (G)
Wilde wrote a long, sad, insightful letter to his lover, the young Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, while imprisoned between 1895 and 1897. His crime, in essence, was being gay. More specifically, Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, accused Wilde of sodomy, a crime at the time. Wilde sued him for libel, withdrew his case and was arrested himself and convicted of “gross indecency.” The letter, De Profundis, was published in 1905, after Wilde’s death in 1900.
Excerpt: I have said to you to speak the truth is a painful thing. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf (TB)
At this novel’s beginning, Orlando is a young poet in Queen Elizabeth’s court in love with a Muscovite princess. At the book’s end, 400 years later, the same person is poet Lady Orlando. With great humor and imagination, Woolf considers gender identity, what is essentially male and female and how that’s changed over the centuries.
Excerpt: He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! We have no choice left but confess—he was a woman.
Queer by William S. Burroughs (GB)
Burroughs wrote Junky to chronicle his experiences (via protagonist Lee) while on heroin. He wrote Queer to chronicle his withdrawal from it. Queer has Lee harbored in Mexico, escaping heroin possession charges in the United States and dealing with a reemerging sex drive targeted toward men. He convinces one of these men to travel with him to Ecuador in search of Ayahuasca. Recovering junky, indeed.
Excerpt: Allerton disliked commitments and had never been in love or had a close friend. He was now forced to ask himself: “What does he want from me?” It did not occur to him that Lee was queer, as he associated queerness with at least some degree of overt effeminacy. He decided finally that Lee valued him as an audience.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (LGB)
From a childhood in the Pennsylvania backwoods to high school in swampy Florida to a hustling life in New York City, Molly Block has women following her slack-jawed, begging to be bedded by this sinewy, no-nonsense lesbian. Denied by her parents and her school, Molly goes to New York, where “there are so many queers … that one more wouldn’t rock the boat.” Molly’s life strongly parallels the author’s in this highly enjoyable novel.
Excerpt:“I hate to lie, too, but people will say we’re lesbians.”
“No, we just love each other, that’s all. Lesbians look like men and are ugly. We’re not like that.”
“We don’t look like men, but when women make love, it’s commonly labeled lesbianism, so you’d better learn not to cringe when you hear the word.”
Dave Sedaris (G)
Sedaris’ essays produce genuine laugh-out-loud, funny-because-it’s-true moments for his readers, whether he’s mastering his lisp as a boy in Me Talk Pretty One Day or visiting a nudist camp as an adult in Naked. Barrel Fever has more gay-related essays than any other, but there’s really no separating the gay from the man here, and you can’t go wrong with any of his books, no matter your sexual orientation.
Excerpt from Naked: We were finishing our 7:15 to 7:45 wash-and-rinse segment one morning when our dormitory counselor arrived for inspection shouting, “What are you, a bunch of goddamned faggots who can’t make your beds?” I giggled out loud at his stupidity. If anyone knew how to make a bed, it was a faggot.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (GLB)
Don’t let the cerebral-sounding title and French-sounding author’s name fool you. This is a light, funny novel set in 1970s San Francisco, in which most of the characters are gay or bi. With its irreverence for social and sexual barriers, it was highly scandalous when it was published in 1972. Among certain circles, it still is.
Excerpt: “A lot of guys who come here are gay … or at least bi.”
“Well, I’m not, got it? I have a well-rehearsed but limited repertoire.” Gently, he placed his hand on her leg. Gently, she removed it.
“All of us are a little homosexual, Brian. You must not be in touch with your body.”
“It’s not my body that I want to be in touch with!”