Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August 2013. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
Here’s the thing: “LGBT” is not a genre, but if you walk into any big chain bookstore, you’ll likely to find a “Gay and Lesbian” shelf in the literature section. Works of fiction that heavily feature queer themes are often ghettoized, only placing an unfortunate stigma on indelible pieces of writing that, while attracting a small group of readers, only serves to alienate others. While we’re still waiting for queer literature’s mainstream acceptance — The Great Gay Novel, if you will — there have been numerous novels and plays published in the last century that have illuminated the multifaceted queer experience among a diverse, wide-reaching community. While this list is no way a definitive canon of the best in queer literature, it does include some essential works that can provide entertainment, introspection, and comfort to those who identify as queer or straight.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner
This monumental work by playwright Tony Kushner — staged on Broadway in two three-hour parts, but collected here in a single volume — is one of the most important pieces of theatre in the last 50 years.
At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
Jamie O’Neill’s epic novel is a passionate love story that follows two teenage boys and their entanglement with an older man amid the Easter Rebellion in 1916 Dublin.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the self-actualization and sexual awakening of a young black woman caught in the post-Reconstruction South is a beautiful portrait of a nearly forgotten generation of African-American women.
Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
An introspective novel published in 1949, Confessions of a Mask follows the young Kochan as he grows up in Imperial Japan and learns what sets him apart from his peers: his obsession with masculine figures and his inability to achieve the masculine norms of society. As a results, he hides behind a persona — the mask — to fit in.
Valencia by Michelle Tea
A bible of sorts for young lesbians in the ’90s who identified more with riot grrrl than Lilith Fair, Tea’s autobiographical novel is the breathlessly told story of a blue-haired girl named Michelle whose life in the Mission is a beautiful mess of drugs, art, and especially women.
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
White’s third novel, the first book in an autobiographical trilogy, was considered an instant classic for its portrayal of a young man’s realization of his sexuality.
The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley
First an off-Broadway play, then an underrated film, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band was one of the first theatrical works that identified with heightened honesty the joys and pains of the gay male experience.
Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick McCabe
This Booker Prize-shortlisted novel concerns an Irish trans woman named Patrick “Pussy” Braden who escapes from her abusive foster home and goes out to search both for herself and for the mother who gave her up.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
If you grew up gay among religious fundamentalists, Jeanette Winterson feels your pain. Oranges, the novelist and critic’s 1985 autobiographical debut novel, follows an English lesbian girl coming of age in a Pentecostal community.
Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
Aciman is one of the few straight authors on this list, but his novel — a coming-of-age love story between two young American men amid the luscious backdrop of the Italian Riviera — is so affecting, sexy, and true that it’s commendable that Aciman could identify an experience outside of his own with such grace.
The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel about a young all-American boy who discovers his homosexuality was one of the first mainstream literary novels to deal with the taboo in such an unapologetic and thoughtful way.
The City of Devi by Manil Suri
Against the backdrop of a Mumbai on the brink of nuclear destruction, a Hindu woman, Sarita, crosses paths with a gay Muslim man, Jaz, as both journey through the nearly annihilated city in search of keys to their own serenity.
City of Night by John Rechy
City of Night follows a young male hustler across the United States — from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans — exploring through the men he meets the specific experience of gay nightlife and sex.
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Highsmith’s novel is a lesbian love story that broke conventional stereotypes of homosexuality and featured an at-the-time unprecedented happy ending.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
Rita Mae Brown wrote Rubyfruit Jungle decades before she became better known as for her cat-mystery novels. An autobiographical story, it’s widely considered to be the first lesbian coming-of-age novel.
Closer by Dennis Cooper
This dark, sometimes comic novel follows the interconnected sexual relationships of a group of gay men, whose obsession with sex does not bring them the connections they hope for.
Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran
Andrew Holleran’s indelible novel about gay nightlife in the ’60s and ’70s sheds a light on the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS experiences of gay men in New York City, featuring larger-than-life characters and gorgeous prose.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
This vastly influential novella follows a German man who falls in love with a young Venetian boy while vacationing in Italy, sacrificing his health to admire the young man from afar.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany’s masterwork is a rare case of a genre novel (in this case, science fiction) taking on heavy themes such as sex, gender, and identity in the service of an intriguing and convoluted epic.
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
The long-lasting ramifications of sexual abuse are explored in this beautifully written and critically acclaimed debut novel.
Empathy by Sarah Schulman
Sarah Schulman’s novel explores the fluidity of gender and sexual desire in her characters Anna O and Doc, who together represent the female and male sides of a complete person.
Faggots by Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer’s controversial and provocative novel trains a critical eye on the sexual and courtship habits of the urban gay man in mid- to late-’70s New York City.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
A love story set in Sri Lanka, Funny Boy examines the budding relationship between a Sinhalese Buddhist and a Tamil amid the growing violent outbreaks between the two groups in the early ’80s.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
A young American man living in Paris recounts his relationship with Giovanni, who is set to be executed for murder, in this classic and groundbreaking work of gay literature.
Hornito by Mike Albo
Mike Albo’s autobiographical novel is, in the tradition of Faggots and Dancer From the Dance, a funny, poignant, and endearing look at the lives of gay men in a postmillennial New York City.
I’m Trying to Reach You by Barbara Browning
A cerebral novel that blurs the lines of fiction and reality, I’m Trying to Reach You examines the connection between a male ballet dancer turned graduate student and an online performance artist.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, considered to be one of the greatest works of literature of all time, includes detailed examinations of homosexuality among both its male and female characters, and particularly shines a light on hidden sexual desires.
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
Two prisoners — a political activist and a flamboyant homosexual — bond despite their differences in this classic novel that inspired both an Oscar-winning film and a Tony-winning musical.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters
In this critically acclaimed young adult novel, teenage Liam transforms himself into the beautiful Luna at night, slowly revealing her identity to family and friends.
M. Butterfly by Henry David Hwang
The Tony-winning drama, based loosely on Madama Butterfly, follows the 20-year relationship between a French diplomat and his lover, a Japanese opera singer who, unbeknownst to him, is actually a man (and a spy).
Maurice by E.M. Forster
Published posthumously, the autobiographical novel Maurice is a straightforward love story between men as they age from adolescence to adulthood.
The Metropolis Case by Matthew Gallaway
Matthew Gallaway’s multifaceted, time-shifting urban mystery allows the reader to travel from present-day New York City and Pittsburgh to 19th-century Europe.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This Pulitzer Prize-winning tour de force not only explores questions of gender identity; it also features thoughtful ruminations on race and class in America, all while stuffed to the gills with beautiful, luscious prose and a multi-generational and globe-trotting plot.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon’s debut novel may be the most entertaining post-graduate coming-of-age story in recent decades, and it features a third-act sexual relationship between its bisexual protagonist and his gay friend.
Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim
Yes, another coming-of-age novel about a male hustler, but this one features possible alien abduction!
Narrow Rooms by James Purdy
The controversial Narrow Rooms is what earned James Purdy a cult following, and its unapologetic and explicit gay sex heightens this novel of obsession and desire, often compared to a modern-day Wuthering Heights.
The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer is the only author to appear on this list twice, and his autobiographical play tells the story of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, including the founding (and his ousting from) Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The Normal Heart solidified his status as a powerful activist who managed to put certain truths into literature at a time when most turned a blind eye toward the crisis.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s monumental novel is written like a biography, albeit one about a man who, overnight, becomes a woman. Woolf’s Orlando was ahead of its time in examining gender and sexual politics.
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Written entirely from Jean Genet’s prison cell, where he was serving time for burglary, this novel turns societal norms on their heads and imagines a world were sinners are saints and evil actions are considered honorable.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Stephen Chbosky’s novel about high school and college students has become a YA classic, as its Holden Caulfield-esque narrator resonated with a new generation of young readers. But it’s the supporting character, Patrick, who stands out as one of the most well-developed and honest teenage gay characters in modern fiction.
The Persian Boy by Mary Renault
This historical novel recounts the tale of the fictional Bagoas, a Persian aristocrat who is sold into slavery and becomes the young lover to Alexander the Great.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Isherwood’s novel takes place in a single day in the life of George Falconer, a professor at a Los Angeles university, who is unable to cope with his immense grief after the death of his partner.
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
Transgender activist Leslie Feinberg sets this novel in pre-Stonewall New York City, and it’s an indelible examination of butch and femme culture that doubles as a great lesbian coming-of-age story.
The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
A searing, wonderfully erotic ode to the sexual abandon of urban gay life — in this case, London — before the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic of the early ’80s.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Originally a newspaper serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, Maupin’s endearing novel is chock-full of intriguing and and entertaining characters who live within the walls of a San Francisco apartment building.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Imbued with a Dickensian sensibility, Waters’ coming-of-age novel features a young woman who falls in love with a male impersonator in Victorian London.
Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein
Fierstein’s collection of three one-act plays follows Arnold Beckoff, a New York City drag queen, through various stages in his life throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Tramps Like Us by Joe Westmoreland
Like a queer mixture of On the Road and Huckleberry Finn, Westmoreland’s novel chronicles the ups and downs of maturing during the brief period between gay liberation and the AIDS epidemic.
The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
Set in the summer after high school graduation, this young adult novel follows a closeted gay boy dealing with his infatuations with two of his peers in an Iowa suburb.
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
The first in Block’s Dangerous Angels series, Weetzie Bat is a provocative, yet sophisticated, novel for young adults that paints vividly a heightened version of Los Angeles, and deals frankly with subject matter considered taboo for young adults.