Groundbreakers in LGBT Literature

Rainbow colored brick wall

There may be no shortage of LGBT culture represented in today’s literary scene, but to say that was not always the case would be a criminal understatement. Prior to the ’70s, such fare was scarce, and the best of it was rarer still. Trying to tally the best of contemporary LGBT-oriented lit would be a daunting task to say the least, but the further back you go, the more clear it is just which books where the most seminal groundbreakers of their era.

To celebrate October as LGBT History Month, here’s a handful of heavy-duty tomes by and about the people who were busy breaking down barriers before many of us were born.

The Boys in the BandThe Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley

When Harvey Fierstein and Tony Kushner were probably still working paper routes, a bold playwright by the name of Mart Crowley changed American theater (not to mention American cinema) forever with his 1968 play The Boys in the Band. It was the first realistic and unapologetic portrait of gay life ever to meet the mainstream.

Both the show and the subsequent film adaptation are milestones in gay culture, but beyond the politics, the caustic character studies in this story about old friends gathering for a birthday party are undeniably gripping.

Giovanni's Room by James BaldwinGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

More than a decade before Boys in the Band, James Baldwin was exploring homosexuality in his second novel and first book of fiction. It follows the experiences of a bisexual young American expatriate in Paris, his relationships, his moods, and his missteps. What starts out as a relatively unassuming story gradually ramps up to an intense tale involving everything from maddening self-doubt to murder.

Baldwin may have only been at the beginning of his career, but he was already a masterful storyteller.

 

The Naked Civil ServantThe Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

Let’s take one more step even further back. Quentin Crisp’s legendary memoir may not have come out until 1968, but the events he documents go all the way back to the ’20s and ’30s in London. At that time it was literally against the law to be gay in England, and Crisp’s flamboyant refusal to hide his true nature was met with derision and violence.

Somehow, the sardonic raconteur managed to keep his sense of humor about him and it’s that keen wit that shines through the brightest here.

 

The Autobiography of Alice B. ToklasThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

One of the greatest autobiographies ever written isn’t actually an autobiography at all. Gertrude Stein wrote this account of her experiences with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, as a sort of stealth memoir, using the literary conceit of an autobiography by Toklas to tell the two women’s story.

Their life as American expatriates at the heart of the arts scene in Paris in the early 20th century is unforgettable, and their interactions with everyone from Picasso to Hemingway are the stuff of legend.

 

The Mayor of Castro StreetThe Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk By Randy Shilts

In the ’70s, LGBT culture was still underground even in San Francisco, only coming up for air in neighborhoods like the Castro, but out of the Castro street culture came a groundbreaking politician: Harvey Milk. Milk made history as the first out homosexual ever to be elected to a U.S. political office when he became a San Francisco City Supervisor. Even after Milk was gunned down by a crazed colleague his influence continued to grow.

You may have seen the cinematic version of Milk’s story, starring Sean Penn, but this biography digs deeper into what made Milk tick than any film could.

 

 

 

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