BEST GAY BOOKS: DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
We wanted to know what various members of the Dallas gay community were reading — now and in their formative years. What books most influenced them in their youth and affected their coming out process? What holds up even today as a classic of gay lit? Or for that matter, what are they reading now, whether gay or not, and are they enjoying it? Here’s what some said.
First up: Local attorney Rebecca Covell, pictured left. (Look throughout this issue and online for more lists.)
Lesbian/Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. I read this in the mid 1970s, which I had wrapped in plain paper so I could read it anywhere. It was a different and scary time then, but the book provided an eye-popping chronicle of how far we had come. I quit whining about how closeted and hard my life was and swelled with pride and gratitude.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. This was the first lesbian coming-of-age novel I’d read. It was funny, affirming and thought-provoking. Goes to show we’re all on that Kinsey continuum of orientation.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of the few books I’ve read twice (so many books, so little time). It is such an elegantly written novel of an intersexed protagonist who explores genetic vs. nurture causes of upheaval in his life.
I’M READING NOW: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. A fabulous novel set in New York in the late 1930s, it follows a delightful protagonist, Katey Kontent, as she seeks success in the Big A. I’m delighted it was this month’s selection for the Pussy Galore Book Club. Katey is self sufficient, insightful and delightful. Too bad she seems to bat for the other team.
BEST GAY BOOKS IN HISTORY
My huge favorite from history is Herodotus. The usual comment on him is he’s “the father of history,” but I think he’s also the father of travel writing. And he must have been an absolute charmer of both men and women — he traveled from Halicarnassus (now Bodrum, Turkey) to the Sahel, all across the Middle East, all over Greece, and finally settled on a Greek isle with a male “friend.” Surely the most varied life of anyone who lived in the 5th century B.C. Also, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People — like every LGBTQA person, they all grew up with a sense of otherness, and the overt and covert sexuality in their writing is undeniable.
I just finished Paul Russell’s The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. Very gay, lots of sex scenes. It’s the sexiest, most absorbing, best written book I have read in a very long time — maybe ever.
BEST GAY BOOKS
There was so little gay themed stuff out there when I was in my formative years, but as far as fiction goes, I read Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner about four times, along with the follow ups, Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy, but I also remember Dancer from the Dance (another one I read several times). Armistead Maupin’s Tales from the City had a tremendous effect on me.
As far as nonfiction, a friend who knew before I did handed me a copy of The Best Little Boy in the World without saying a word — smart friend!
In the world of theater, I was, of course, also struck by Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, but I remember hearing scenes from The Killing of Sister George at high school speech tournaments and wondering if these girls had any clue as to the subject matter they were dealing with. I was intrigued by the gay themes of both Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (and how the film versions soft-soaped them), neither of which particularly depict being a gay man as a good thing! Come to think of it, neither Boys in the Band nor Sister George made being gay seem good! I was drawn to all of Joe Orton’s work, just because of the crazy openly gay life he led. Finally, I remember reading in French class about the relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud, and I had to read everything they had written. Poems of love from one man to another…? It blew my mind.
WHAT I’M READING
I’m currently reading Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics by Jose Esteban Munoz and Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art by Thelma Golden. I wanted to be prepared for the lecture on Munoz’s book and Glenn Ligon’s art exhibit at The Modern.
These books are informing my creative investigations around the subject of black male identity. I’m writing a piece called “For My Own Protection,” about my quest to understand myself as a black gay man in American in light of the Brandon White story in Atlanta, the situation with my pastor and friend, conversations about the aesthetics of black gay male relationships of our generation, Trayvon Martin and hate crimes in Dallas. These two are really helping to identify and focus on some of these notions within myself.
3 MOST IMPORTANT LESBIAN BOOKS
Carsen Taite, pictured right, is a Dallas-based author of lesbian fiction. Her next mystery novel, Slingshot, will be published in June (the first in a series involving a bounty hunter); Beyond Innocence (a romance centered around a death penalty appeal) follows in November. CarsenTaite.com.
J. M. Redmann’s Micky Knight series (Death by the Riverside, Deaths of Jocasta, The Intersection of Law and Desire, Lost Daughters, Death of a Dying Man, Watermark, Ill Will). Michele “Micky” Knight is a hard-boiled detective who lives and works in New Orleans. Lesbian mystery lovers who were drawn to independent women detectives crafted by the likes of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky finally found a dyke dick worthy of their love in the unabashedly out, rough and tumble Micky. The mysteries are current, issue-driven and exciting, but it’s the depth of Micky’s character that keeps us coming back for more.
Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon. Bannon broke new ground in 1962 in this pulp fiction novel by introducing a young butch lesbian, living openly in New York City. The most remarkable thing about Beebo is that while she does suffer some tragedy, she herself (unlike many lesbian characters in books of that era) is not a tragic character. She doesn’t live on the fringe of society, but in the thick of it and she bravely presents as exactly what she is: A butch woman who loves women and who will not compromise her desires in order to conform.
Beggar of Love by Lee Lynch. While I enjoy character-driven books, I think plot is equally important, but when it comes to naming the most important books, strong characters that reflect us as a community stand out in my mind. Amelia Jefferson is an anti-hero whose reckless journey through life causes us to admire and despise her by turns. We rejoice her relentless pursuit of happiness, but reject her selfish methods. Lynch doesn’t pull any punches — Jefferson isn’t the kind of character who gets a traditional happily ever after (which I happen to enjoy), but instead we witness how moral issues, like addiction and internalized homophobia, can shape both the development and disintegration of one of us.
I’M READING NOW: Ill Will. A great stand-alone mystery, tackling issues relating to healthcare, but also a rich addition to the Micky Knight series.
MY ONE GAY BOOK
My partner is the one who reads all the books. I read like two a year, because most of my reading comes from blogs or forums. The only gay book that did have its impact on me is Poppy Z Brite’s Drawing Blood. I was inspired by the fact that the main character, Trevor, could come from such a tragic past. His father murdered his entire family when he was a child and he battles with it throughout his entire life, eventually confronting it. He manages to meet a hacker by the name of Zach and they fall in love as they run from the law because of Zach’s hacking. The book ties it together quite well, but it is really dark and gory and filled with sex and drugs.
These books had an impact on me as a gay man:
Some Dance to Remember by Jack Fritscher. A novel set during the beginning of the AIDS era really resonated with me. The plot revolves around a bodybuilder and a man who idolizes him and life in the Castro. Some call it the Gone with the Wind of gay novels and I would agree. It’s great fiction with a historical setting to boot.
Faggots by Larry Kramer is the East Coast equivalent to Dance. The story sweeps from Christopher Street to Fire Island and reads like a time capsule of high risk behaviors the gay community was steeped in during the ’70s and though it has been condemned by some for being negative, I think it is a fair treatment of that wild era. Both document a time and place that were key in gay culture and history.
More recently, I found Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring to be a treasure chest of gay and leather culture. Steward was a college professor who had a penchant for rough trade. He systematically cataloged all his tricks with details on index cards. To feed his lust, Steward become a tattoo artist known as Phil Sparrow and was influential in the art of tattoos and lastly he wrote gay pulp novels under the pen name Phil Andros. It’s a fascinating historical account of someone who might have gone unknown had not his notes been found by the author.
My favorite books changes a lot because I read pretty voraciously, but my current list includes these.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is nifty and unexpectedly quirky fiction about a circus that opens only after dark and has the most unusual array of acts imaginable. The Evolution of Faith by Phillip Gulley is an easy read yet thoughtful book by a Quaker pastor who wrote If the Church Were Christian. It challenges readers to reexamine their beliefs. Full Service by Scotty Bowers is a Hollywood tell-all by a legendary “arranger” of illicit rendezvous. And the John Carter book Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is just your classic Martian novel.
Three gay books that have had the biggest influence on me are Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett, The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst and Carnivorous Lamb by Augustin Gomez-Arcos. Oddly enough, all three are contemporary fiction and not historical. (I really like historical gay fiction. There’s just something about it for me that I much prefer it to contemporary gay fiction.) The only exception would be Lamb, which is set right after the last Spanish Revolution. It’s been years since I read the book, but the writing is so lyrical. It was controversial because of the love affair between two brothers.
I’M READING NOW: White Rose of Night by Mel Keegan. The story is set in the Middle Ages involving a love affair between a knight and his squire.
Reading gay fiction for me is a fantastic way to feel a sense of community as a gay man, but allows for greater freedom than the typical trappings and expectations of current gay society. It allows me to have a historical perspective of the essence of what everyone wants: To find love, but to understand the challenges of finding love in a same-sex relationship. Understanding the struggles in the past can help with the struggles of today. For me, reading fiction is a key to way to do that.