Anyway, despite the sweeping title, that list was meant only to be a list of those books that I used to own and love, books that affected me, changed me, changed the way I feel about being queer in the world, and not just how I feel but how I am and what I do. If I were to make a list of Essential Books for Young Homos, I would add a few.
Of course, this is totally subjective. Tastes vary. And there are tons of other books that could easily be included but aren't because I've forgotten about them or I never read them. And then there are lots of unexpectedly wonderful books that loom large in my queer reading life mostly because of how ordinary they are. Like the Dave Brandstetter detective novels by Joseph Hansen that I discovered and devoured in my late twenties. They're just a great series of pulp detective novels with a main character who happens to be gay. Nothing all that radical, but they were.
Anyway, here's my list. Add these to the previous and you have my queer canon. I reserve the right to add when I remember the ones I've surely forgotten. (For the record, I think #1 totally makes up for #13 in the pretentiousness calculus.)
1. Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin), and its many sequels, if you enjoy the first one. They depict a 70s San Francisco that is embedded in the DNA of gayness but doesn't exist any more. The stories began as a serialized newspaper column about a group of young people who live in an apartment building and become a sort of family to each other, sharing in the ups and downs of each other's lives. This is what older gay people mean when they talk about "acquired family" -- a notion that becomes less and less important as it becomes less and less common for queer people to be rejected by the families they grew up in and as we're increasingly allowed to model our own families on the straight status quo, marriage, children, ec..
These books are nearly scripture, but they're also just a great read.
2. States of Desire (Edmund White). Travelog/guidebook of Gay America just before AIDS changed it so radically. It's a snapshot of the liberation we were certain we were on the brink of. Or I should say it is a snapshot of that brink. It's the world I came out into, it hadn't been there long when I got to it, and it didn't last very long after, which is probably why I'm obsessed with it.
3. The Joy of Gay Sex (Charles Silverstein and Edmund White). Also, just pre-AIDS. Unabashed encyclopedia of the pleasure that men can find in each other's bodies. I'm sure it looks a little cheesy now to our oh-so-knowing eyes, but you have to consider just how radical it was to even say the word gay in most places in the world in 1977, let alone assert that butt-fucking was a good thing. The illustration of rimming has stuck with me for 35 years.
4. Faggots (Larry Kramer). Now that Kramer has been officially gay-sainted, you should know where he came from. It might be hard to imagine a time -- now that we've bought wholesale the conservative argument for the normalization of homosexuality promoted by Kramer and then later Andrew Sullivan, et al., a view that has led to such a huge leap in the acceptance of homosexuals in society -- a time when its proponents were vilified and ostracized. Faggots was banned in the only gay bookstore in New York, kind of a breathtaking fact, not least because it's hard to imagine the community now caring so much about a book.
Faggots -- which introduced Kramer to gay America -- is moralistic and obvious and in the end very affecting, like a lot of Kramer's work. The takeaway, I guess, is that Kramer came out strongly against sexual promiscuity, and lots of us thought that was the wrong attitude at a time when we felt that celebrating our sexuality in the face of oppression was not only spiritually and emotionally healing but also politically important. We saw Kramer as self-loathing and anti-pleasure. So, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when he started shouting at us (literally) to stop having sex, his message seemed not far removed from Jerry Falwell.
5. Dancer from the Dance (Andew Holleran). Sort of the other side of the Faggots coin. Same milieu, post-Stonewall sexual freedom. I'm not sure you could say that Holleran is less negative about the drinking, drugs, and promiscuity, but this book was not reviled like Faggots. Holleran seems to love his characters more than Kramer, and his book -- which sort of has the same message, that a life of compulsive pleasure-seeking can be soul-crushing and lonely and no substitute for love -- is sexier. Read them together, or back to back.
6. A Single Man (Isherwood). Gore Vidal called Isherwood "the best prose writer in English." I will not argue. This is such a beautiful, moving novel. It's really just perfect. And I think it's one of the first books with a gay protagonist that is not about being gay.
7. Myra Breckenridge (Gore Vidal). Speaking of Gore Vidal. I didn't read this book until a couple years ago. It's weird and very funny. I'm not a big fan of Gore Vidal, I think his books are kind of bloodless, but this one is fun. It's one of those iconic queer books that you come across references to, and it's nice to know what people are talking about.
8. The Celluloid Closet (Vito Russo). There are not superlatives invented to suit this book. Because homosexuality has lived hand in hand with shame and fear for so many centuries, it can be difficult to unearth and de-code it in history and culture. This book looks at the entire history of film and teases out the gay. It's incredibly entertaining, moving, and provocative. Your Netflix queue will double overnight.
9. She's Not There (Jennifer Finney Boylan). This is a book that might change forever how you think about transgender experience. It did me. The subject can be a political minefield, and Boylan makes you feel safe. She's funny and warm. It's like sitting down with a transgender friend (okay, a very smart and articulate and funny transgender friend) who is willing to say, "This is what it has been like for me and this is how I understand it."
11. The Persian Boy (Mary Renault). My father gave me this book when I was in my twenties. It's told from the perspective of Alexander the Great's eunuch lover in the 4th century Persian Empire. Renault's most famous books are historical novels set in ancient Greece, and she deals with the male homosexuality straightforwardly if sentimentally.
12. The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin). You should read everything Baldwin ever wrote, but start with this one. I was going to put Giovanni's Room on this list, because it's his "gay novel," and it's good, but the essays and memoir are where you really get the meat of Baldwin's insights.
13. Against Interpretation (Susan Sontag), especially the essay, "Notes on Camp." To be honest, I'm not sure how well this holds up, but it was very, very influential. She describes a gay aesthetic that maybe hadn't been regarded so seriously before, but the problem for me is she posits it as amoral, or she says that it rejects a moral view. I believe the opposite. The reason I love drag (the most obvious example of camp performance) is that it is deeply moral, grounded in love. Read it to disagree.
14. Virtually Normal (Andrew Sullivan). Like him or not, you can't understand the breathtaking progress of the LGBT rights movement in the last 20 years without understanding the conservative argument for gay marriage Sullivan made in this book. This is the foundational text of the modern movement. Justly reviled in the 90s and 2000s (not just for his reactionary views about queerness, but for his cheerleading for Bush's invasion of Iraq) Sullivan's ideas by this time have been swallowed whole. We are all gay conservatives now.
In spite of my strong negative feelings about his politics, I found sections of this book very touching. He writes honestly and tenderly about himself, about the experience of growing up a gay boy, about how it feels to be gay and male, and about the emotional stakes in the struggle for simple acceptance by our families and communities. I am drawn to Sullivan as strongly as I am repelled by him.