What to Read: A Gay Books Primer

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 17 2010 2:20 PM ET

As we reach the end of National Library Week (April 11-17), the editors at The Advocate encourage you to locate that old library card, pay off those overdue book fees, and immerse yourself in the stacks. We pulled a handful of our favorite gay titles out of the hundreds that are out there. If we missed your favorites, please feel free to share your recommended titles in the comments.

Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence, edited by Marion Dane Bauer (published in 1995)

This collection of short stories from award-winning authors in the young adult market really helped me when I first came out. Nothing is preachy, gimmicky, or overtly sexual ... just good, old fashioned, life-affirming stories.

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And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (published in 1987)

This chronicle of the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS from 1970s Africa to the death of Rock Hudson is investigative journalism at its most compelling. This nonfiction masterwork reads like a great detective novel and should be compulsory reading for everyone, regardless of sexuality.

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B-Boy Blues by James Earl Hardy (published in 1994)
Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris (published in 1991)

Read concurrently during the summer of 1994, these books represent a major and definitive milestone in my coming-out process. While both very Jackie Collins, pre-chick-lit, chick-lit lite in their approaches and aspirations, to me they were the groundbreaking entries into my own personalized literary canon. Never before had literature spoken to, of, and about me and people who looked like me in such a powerful way. That is, until I went back to read Invisible Life.

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker (published in 1982)

This epic tale of friendship, love, womanhood, injustice, and life for black families in the old South has reached generations of women looking to find their voices.

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Faggots by Larry Kramer (published in 1978)

Intensely graphic, Kramer’s novel about the sexual exploits of gay men in 1970s New York, which I’ve often thought of as our equivalent of Portnoy’s Complaint, retains its power to shock all these years later. Yet what really makes the novel a favorite is the way Kramer’s often-unappreciated sense of humor spills into his prose.

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Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham (published in 1995)

A quirky and deeply touching family saga from the author of The Hours. Gay son Will is in many ways the heart of the troubled Stassos family, which includes his two sisters (one steeped in the counterculture, one trapped in conventionality) and his mismatched parents, all trying to cope with the changes and challenges of late-20th-century America.

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Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (published in 1956)

Having been very familiar with the writing of Baldwin since high school, I still arrived at Giovanni’s Room a bit late in the game but caught up and on very quickly. And it was set in Paris, so what more could you ask for?

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The Hours by Michael Cunningham (published in 1998)

Cunningham weaves together three unforgettable stories (all linked by Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Mrs. Dalloway) about three incredible women (including Woolf herself). In particular, the story of lesbian Clarissa and her relationship with her gay best friend (who is dying) is incredibly moving.

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Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (published in 2000)

Reading about Kinsey’s life made me feel less concerned about being so obsessed with the sex lives and histories of other people. He broke all the rules and made new ones to be broken.

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Mr. Benson: A Novel By John Preston (published in 2004)

The first contemporary gay smut I read that took my breath away when it first serialized in Drummer magazine in the '70s. It changed the face of gay porn.

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Mysterious Skin and We Disappear by Scott Heim (published in 1996 and 2008, respectively)

While reading Heim’s debut novel, Mysterious Skin, I found myself compulsively turning the pages as quickly as possible, awaiting the disturbing truth to be revealed when the paths of a teenage hustler and a young man obsessed with alien abductions converge. However, Heim's most recent novel, the psychological thriller We Disappear, which sort of riffs on that great but underappreciated 1964 film Seance on a Wet Afternoon, trumps his debut.

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Naked by David Sedaris (published in 1997)

All of Sedaris's essay collections are full of laughs and recognizable moments, but this one has several standout entries, including the very special holiday story "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" and "The Drama Bug," the most hilarious tale of community theater this side of Waiting for Guffman.

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Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson (published in 1973)

Thank God my mother gave me this book to read in my late teenage years. It helped me throw out a bunch of old school concepts about gay and straight. It also helped me understand my own family immeasurably.

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The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (published in 1952)

Writing under a pseudonym, Highsmith delivered a lesbian May-December romance and an American road trip novel years before Nabokov published Lolita. Ahead of its time and very much of it, Highsmith's high-pulp novel telegraphed a queer sensibility and a slice of Americana that would be echoed in fiction from Cheever to Didion and would be studied in queer theory classes for decades to come.

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Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (published in 1973)

It's as though Brown, in her beloved debut novel, personally sent us the message, "Hey, you know all those really crazy things you did as a kid to figure out who you are as an adult? Yeah, you're not alone."

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The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis (published in 1987)

I totally identified with the bisexual character Paul Denton and could read the book openly without causing too much commotion.