As you’ve probably guessed, I have my own list.
In 2000, when Jay Byrd and I sold everything we owned, moved into a camper, and set out for a 2-year adventure in music, polyamory, heartbreak, and self-realization, we unloaded hundreds of books, sold them cheap in a big yard sale along with our furniture, clothes, dishes, everything, and took what didn't sell to Goodwill. I don’t miss many of them. But there are a couple dozen books -- my queer books -- that I miss terribly.
Some of them are out of print and irreplaceable. A few were possible to replace, and I have. But all of them were invaluable to me because they were either given to me or I bought them myself with the explicit intention of learning more about my people and myself and my place in history and culture. They were marked with my yearning. They were pieces of me, and I think about them very frequently.
1. Word Is Out
When I was a senior in high school -- in spite of my agonizing over how and when to come out -- apparently it was not news to my friends and family that I was homosexual. One of my closest friends, Laura Deer, gave me for my birthday a copy of Word is Out, the book based on the revolutionary documentary film. The film, which was re-released a couple years ago, never made it to Greencastle, Indiana, but I pored over that book, stared at the pictures till I felt like I was in them.
I was always a reader, and I worked in a library in high school, so by 17 I knew I wasn’t alone. Not alone, but also not happy. Word Is Out was the antidote to the Kinsey Report, the antidote to Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Word Is Out gave me my first inkling that possibly everything was going to be okay.
2. A Boy’s Own Story (Edmund White)
My first encounter -- the book came out in 1982 and I’m a little shocked that it was so late (I was 21) but I have to keep reminding myself how much times have changed in the last 30 years -- my first encounter with a gay character in literary fiction, and, at that, a story about a teenage boy’s sexual coming of age. All that pubescent desire (feelings that I recalled from my own puberty with deep shame) cast in beautiful lyrical prose. I read it several times. I learned what cornholing was.
My dear friend and roommate Joan’s best friend Matthew was an Isherwood fan. Matthew was an artist. He moved to Berlin in the early 80s. Joan followed him there. Matthew died of AIDS a few years later, but Joan stayed and made Berlin a second home for many years. Joan gave me a copy of Berlin Stories and soon I was obsessed, too. I love all his books, and I’ve begun replacing them on my shelves. But I only list this one because it is my favorite of his post-coming out books. Christopher and His Kind sets the record straight, adding back the homosexuality to his previous memoir-ish books in which he’d censored it. Knowing that there was a thriving community of deviants and outcasts long before Stonewall expanded the world for me. It was a model for the kind of community I wanted to be a part of.
4. City of Night (John Rechy)
The protagonist is a gay hustler with an insatiable need to be desired. Boy, could I relate. Parts of it, in fact much of it, out of context reads like porn. It’s not.
City of Night was my introduction to what I’ve posited before as a vast realm of male sexual compulsion that always exists everywhere just under the paper-thin surface of social control and pops out at the flimsiest suggestion of privacy. This is the realm -- bus stations, parks, alleys, beaches, anywhere that’s dark or shielded, abandoned or avoided by respectable traffic -- the realm that gay culture doomsayers predict will disappear once we’re all allowed to marry and bring up our brats in the suburbs. I say, relax. In a death match between horniness and respectability, my money is on the sex.
5. Our Lady of the Flowers (Genet)
Okay, now I’m in art school in New York, can you tell? Transgressive sex, ecstatic violence. No turning back now. The deepest, darkest, stuff in the pit of your soul can be beautiful, can be art.
6. Maurice (E.M. Forster)
But it’s not all about fetishizing our marginality, worshipping our deviance, there’s also love pure and true and innocent. The perfect book to bridge my love of everything queer with my love for big romantic novels. I read Maurice and Our Lady of the Flowers around the same time. We have never, ever been able to decide if we’re radical outsiders or just like you. I’m still keeping my options open.
7. Macho Sluts (Patrick Califia nee Pat Califia)
In which I learned that porn can change your mind and still get you off. Or I should say that it can change the way you think because it gets you off. Also, gender fluidity is incredibly hot. This book planted the seed of my hypothesis that gay issues are not only necessarily allied with trans issues but that “gay” is a trans identity.
Seminal book of essays on what we used to call leather culture. I was very drawn to this stuff for a while in my late 20s but eventually realized it was too much of a commitment, like having a really expensive, time-consuming hobby with lots of rules to memorize. The clubbiness of it was a turnoff. But, this is a fascinating and surprisingly moving book -- what stuck with me most is a lengthy, somewhat scientific explanation of why getting fisted feels so good. Useful information.
9. Modern Primitives (RE/search Publications)
Essays, interviews, photos, all about tattooing, piercing, scarification, corsetry, pain rituals, etc., grounding these practices in history and culture. It came out in 1989. I bought it at St. Mark’s Books when it used to actually be on St. Mark’s. I think the story is that there was a bit of buzz about body modification starting to gurgle up but this book kicked it into high gear. So you can thank this book for the fact that every other suburban college kid has a bad fake tribal tattoo.
I got my first tattoo in 1989 and I had 10 holes in my ears and one in my nipple. An Austin firefighter took out the nipple ring when I was unconscious on the pavement after plowing into an SUV on my bike 5 years ago, and I took out the earrings because they were always getting infected. But I still have the tattoos.
10. The Motion of Light in Water (Samuel R. Delany)
The great science fiction writer’s memoir of the early 60s in the East Village. If you don’t read any of the books on my list, read this one. It's incredibly candid, which is I think why it's such a page-turner and so moving, but it crackles with insight into sex and love, blackness and maleness, poverty, art-making, memory, writing, the passage of time. I’d put it on my top 5 list of books of any kind. There’s nothing like it.