A host of LGBTQ+ classic titles, including books by Ali Smith, James Baldwin and E. M. Forster, laid over a yellow background.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

These are books that make you feel strange in the pit of your stomach; books that make you feel a part of something; books that make you feel like you belong to something bigger. They are also books that celebrate otherness and queerness. They are different, often groundbreaking. Some were written at times when being LGBTQ+ was something too dangerous to admit to. Others were written when being LGBTQ+ was finally something you could safely celebrate. Some point to a new wave of liberation.

Most importantly, they are about love. They are about being utterly and uniquely yourself.

This list certainly doesn’t seek to provide a detailed account of the queer canon, but rather to give you a starting point, or an ‘I need to read that again’ moment, or simply to remind you that there are lots of other folk in this world, folk who felt the same strange kick in the gut when they read Giovanni’s Room, or Genet, or Hollinghurst for the first time, or who recognised the oddly liberating sorrow of Jeanette Winterson’s coming out gone wrong in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, or enjoyed the comforting company of community in the inhabitants of Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco. To nab a phrase from Allen Ginsberg, we’re "putting [our] queer shoulder to the wheel", and we’d very much like for you, wherever you are in your journey, to join us.

How to be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

Eyes or camera? Which way will you read this labyrinthine, time-wandering, supremely inventive novel? Ali Smith's How to be Both is told from two unique perspectives. George, in contemporary Cambridge, is dealing with the loss of her mother. Francesco del Cossa, a Renaissance artist from 16th-century Italy, has to hide her gender to get by. The novel’s timeframe is as fluid as its approach to gender and, in some moments, sexuality. It's a wonderful, clever book and at its heart, a supremely human one.

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Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

"If you cannot love me, I will die."

Hugely significant, James Baldwin’s 1956 novel tells the story of David, an American in France, whose discomfort with his own homosexuality and his passionate love for a bartender named Giovanni leads to profound isolation. It is a deeply sad book, but one that everyone should read (at least) once in their lives.

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Maurice by E. M. Forster (1971)

"Publishable, but worth it?"

Concerns about public and legal attitudes to same-sex love stopped E. M. Forster from publishing this tale of young infatuation in his lifetime. Written between 1913-14, it was revised numerous times and wasn’t ultimately published until 1971, after the author’s death. Today it is considered a deeply important contribution to the LGBTQ+ canon. In spite of trying to 'cure' himself via hypnosis, the eponymous Maurice ultimately stays true to his notions of love, while those around him bow to the pressures of accepted society (marriage, children and so on). His relationship with Alec Scudder is a gratifyingly well-rounded one, made all the richer for the social context of the novel.

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The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

London, 1983. Will is young, beautiful and entitled. The novel takes shape after he saves the life of an elderly aristocrat after coming across him in a public bathroom. Said aristocrat is Lord Charles Nantwich, and Alan Hollinghurst’s rollicking tale charts the development of their relationship, as Will is asked to become his biographer and chart his life from a series of woven words and recorded memories. Thus, a second narrative unfolds, a tragic tale of repression and forbidden love that raises questions about Will’s own attitude to being a gay man in England at the time.

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Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig (1976)

Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel focuses on the conversations shared by Molina and Valentín, cellmates in a prison in Argentina. Molina, a gay film obsessive recounts the plots of his favourite movies, using his stark cell as a palimpsest for his memories. As he and Valentín become closer, we observe how their stories and their relationship develop clarity via the gentle rise and fall of two voices and two bodies sharing a confined space, quietly transcending their differences.

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Love Speaks Its Name edited by J.D. McClatchy (2001)

This wonderful collection of LGBTQ+ love poetry is a veritable who’s who of the queer canon, including voices from Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Federico García Lorca, Sappho and Hart Crane, to name but a few. These poems capture the full spectrum of love, from the heady moments when you first catch someone’s eye to the warmth and comfort of an established relationship.

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The Price of Salt (aka Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

"She thought of people she had seen holding hands in movies, and why shouldn't she and Carol?"

Patricia Highsmith originally published her 1952 work under the pseudonym ‘Claire Morgan’, using an alias as she didn’t wish to be branded a “lesbian-book writer”. Carol depicts the relationship of the eponymous heroine Therese Belivet, a young woman living in Manhattan. It is a world where lesbianism is used as a weapon in a custody battle and is enough to brand a woman an unfit mother. It is also a deeply romantic and compelling gay love story with an unprecedentedly nuanced, perhaps even happy, ending.

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City of Night by John Rechy (1963)

"Maybe I could love you. But I won’t. The grinding streets awaited me."

City of Night is a stark depiction of hustling in America in the 1960s. It follows a young man as he travels across the country - from New York City, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans - while working as a hustler.

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The Thief's Journal (Journal du Voleur) by Jean Genet (1949)

"Betrayal is beautiful."

A part-fictional autobiography that charts the author's journey through Europe in the 1930s. The novel is structured around a succession of love affairs and forays into male prostitution between the protagonist/author and a number of characters, from a policeman to a con man, a pimp to a criminal. It is widely considered to be Jean Genet’s greatest work. Dedicated to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Genet described it as a doctrine on ‘the pursuit of the impossible nothingness.’

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

Vast themes spill from the pages of Middlesex, which spans generations, cultures and gender. It is a bildungsroman, a ‘great American novel’, and a modern Greek Myth. Middlesex is the tale of three generations of a family, and how they deal with a mutated gene which provides them with female characteristics. The protagonist, Cal Stephanides (aka Calliope), is intersex and moves through their world like a kind of modern day Orlando. This is a transformative novel about transformation.

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All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson (2021)

LGBTQ+ memoir has changed dramatically in the past few decades; as queer communities have moved online, younger writers are finding and expressing themselves earlier. In this moving YA ‘memoir-manifesto’, author George M. Johnson tells the story of his young life a queer black kid, from childhood through adolescence and into his college years. From tales of being bullied to those of profound, tender connection with their grandmother, Johnson touches on a wide range of life’s moments that span tragedy to joy, touching on issues of inequality, consent, masculinity and family along the way.

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We Can Do Better Than This edited by Amelia Abraham (2021)

Subtitled 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights, this collection of essays addressing the question ‘How can we create a better world for LGBTQ+ people?’ shines a light forward via contributions from Olly Alexander, Pabllo Vittar, Naoise Dolan, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Beth Ditto, Owen Jones, Tom Rasmussen, Mykki Blanco and more. Whether it’s safety and visibility, gender and love, or discrimination and violence, these essays confront the urgent issues today in order for a better tomorrow.

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