Hi all! As you may or may not know, it’s LGBT+ History Month! The celebration takes place in February in the UK because Section 28, which forbade any promotion of LGBT+ material, was abolished in February 2003. What better way to celebrate this anniversary than by reading some LGBT+ literature? I’m going to recommend you some LGBT+ books that I’ve read - almost all authors included in this post are part of the LGBT+ community!
Let’s start with classics.
1) E. M. Forster, Maurice (1914 / 1971)
If you haven’t read Maurice yet, I can’t recommend it enough. It was published posthumously in the 70s, but Forster wrote it much earlier and dedicated it to ‘a happier year’. It tells the story of Maurice Hall, a student at Cambridge, who realises he’s gay and learns to come to terms with it. Remarkably - and despite hardships - the story has a happy ending and it also deals with class difference and has a wonderful arc of self-acceptance.
2) Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)
I will warn you straightaway that this one is a lot sadder than Maurice, but it is also heart-wrenchingly good and one of the best books I’ve read. It is an incredibly brave fictional account of a woman named Stephen Gordon, who is a lesbian. Throughout the novel Stephen, like Maurice, struggles to understand her identity and what it means. The novel continually defends her right to exist and is an important historical account of the times Hall lived in:
“You're neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you're as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you're unexplained as yet--you've not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don't shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely.”
3) Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt / Carol (1952)
You might be already familiar with this one, especially because of the movie, but in case you haven’t read it I’d say it’s worth it! In a nutshell, the protagonist Therese becomes fascinated with Carol, which causes her to confront her newly discovered sexuality. The two women go on a road trip across America, and the novel then deals with relationships and expectations of self and others. Highsmith was known for writing psychological thrillers and although this romance novel is very different, it still has an almost cold and dark feeling to it which is interesting and not a negative feature at all.
4) Mary Renault, The Charioteer (1953)
This is one of my favourite books. It’s set during World War II and it tells the story of Laurie who is wounded at Dunkirk and stays in a military hospital. He meets a conscientious objector Andrew who works at the hospital, and later becomes reconnected with a man from his past. I loved the characters and Renault’s writing; she writes in a way that drops you right into the story and doesn’t over-explain things, which can sometimes get confusing but mostly it made the book feel unique.
5) James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956)
This one has a sad ending, but the book will already tell you that in the beginning. The story takes place in Paris, where David, an American man, meets the Italian Giovanni. Through their relationship and the Parisian gay community, the book explores internalised homophobia, toxic masculinity, identity, and societal pressures. Although the plot is rather bleak, Baldwin’s writing is almost poetic in its beauty.
Content warning: Bear in mind that all of these classics include period typical homophobia, sexism, and often self-hatred. They don’t handle things in ways we’d expect or hope today, but they’re still definitely worth reading.
And now for some contemporary recommendations:
1) Sarah Waters’ books (1998->)
I’ve read the first four of her books (Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch), and I’d recommend all of them. Most of these are set in London and are historical novels featuring female protagonists (except The Night Watch features multiple points of view). She has her very own way of writing; her settings are often cold, dreary, and mysterious, and her sympathetic characters often have secrets or strange adventures. She also describes everything in great detail, which makes her stories more immersive. I think Tipping the Velvet is a good one to start with if you haven’t read her novels, because it’s more lighthearted compared to the others and the plot moves faster. The rest of them have great plot twists, especially Fingersmith!
2) Fiona Shaw, Tell it to the Bees (2009)
This story is set in a small town in the 1950s and tells the story of Lydia Weekes, a recently divorced mother, her young son Charlie, and the town’s doctor Jean Markham. Charlie befriends Jean and as the two women become close, rumours start to fly around the prejudiced town. The chapters alternate between the points of view of Lydia, Jean, and Charlie, and I can promise that it doesn’t feel contrived. The story is at times sad and has that stifling feel of a cruel small town, but it’s also immersive, well-written, and the story unfolds in a calm way.
3) Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War (2019)
Someone on Goodreads summarised this aptly: “Killing Eve but they are time traveling pen pals”. This is indeed a sci-fi novel featuring two ‘time agents’, Red and Blue, who are meant to be enemies but start competing and sending each other letters in various barmy ways. Their time agencies both want to secure different kinds of futures, and they try to accomplish this by competing various chain-reactions across timelines and parallel universes. It was a lot of fun; it’s not very scientific but instead very imaginative and focuses more on setting different and interesting scenes rather than over-explaining things. So it does get quite nonsensical at times, but I think that’s what makes this so much fun!
4) Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2015)
This one is a sci-fi novel as well, and I’m recommending this to give you a very different option. Unlike all the other novels recommended in this post, this one doesn’t focus on LGBT+ romance or identity, but instead it has a refreshingly non-heteronormative world with a couple of LGBT+ protagonists. It tells the story of a group of people whose job is to construct wormhole tunnels through space. This one has an established world with its unique history, and things are explained to the reader more. I think the worldbuilding and all the invented cultures and alien races in this book are excellent. There are more books in this series from different/new characters’ points of view, which I haven’t read because this one works as a stand-alone, but if you’re interested in fun sci-fi I’d recommend delving into the world of Becky Chambers.
5) Darryl W. Bullock, David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music (2017)
I haven’t read as much non-fiction as I’d like, but I’d like to recommend one of the ones I have read because this one looks at LGBT+ history through the lens of music. Bullock covers a wide range of genres and tells about the history of music industry and shows how LGBT+ musicians have always been there!
Finally, although I’m rather unfamiliar with poetry, I’d like to recommend you two important poets that I do know.
1) Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
Oliver is a very easily approachable poet because she uses simple language to describe every-day life. What I like about her is that she focuses on nature and what it means to be alive, and that her simplicity doesn’t mean that her poems are devoid of meaning or depth.
2) Audre Lorde (1934–1992)
“A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.” – the poetry foundation
I’d like to warn you that Lorde handles very heavy topics in a graphic way at times! But give her a go if you can. Her work is very powerful and passionate.
I’d like to add this list from Goodreads that includes trans representation as I realise that the books that I’ve read are pretty cis-centric. Bear in mind that I haven’t read the books that are on this list yet, so that I can’t guarantee what they’re like! I hope you find something good. https://www.goodreads.com/genres/transgender
If you’re wondering where to find any of these books, Sir Duncan Rice has a couple of these titles. I also recommend checking out:
- Gay’s the Word (a LGTB+ bookshop in London) https://www.gaystheword.co.uk/bookshop
- and Category is Books (LGBT+ bookshop in Glasgow) https://www.categoryisbooks.com/book-orders
They both do online orders!
Also, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/ has a lot of poems that you can read for free.
If you’ve read everything on this list and want different recommendations, leave a comment. I can also give additional content warnings for the books if you want. Feel free to recommend me some LGBT+ sci-fi as well!
Thanks for the recommendations Laura. I have read quite a few, and will add a few more to my list. Not sure this is really sci-fi, maybe more fantasy/magical realism, but What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi is amazing!
Thank you Louisa!! :-) I've noted that down on my to-read list, I'm into fantasy too!
Thanks for this great list, Louisa! I'd have dozens to add but if you want sci-fi, in particular, Jeannette Winterson's Stone Gods is a good one.
Fantastic list, Louisa! It's currently Pride Month here in Canada! I work at Queen's University, one of Aberdeen's international partners, and I am definitely going to circulate this list among my colleagues. Thank you.