9 LGBQT+ figureheads on their favourite queer literature

Home / 9 LGBQT+ figureheads on their favourite queer literature

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Fifty years ago this year, the police waged a violent raid on the Greenwich Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn. Such attacks happened all too frequently, but this time the LGBTQ+ community fought back harder than ever before – marking what is widely considered the birth of the gay rights movement. A young Englishman by the name of Ernest Hole was in New York at the time and remembers a “strange” but optimistic atmosphere. “If gays and transsexuals, tired of harassment, could confront the police, then anything was possible,” he says. During his six-month stint in the city, he frequented the now defunct Oscar Wilde Bookshop – the first bookstore devoted to gay and lesbian authors in America – and befriended the owner Craig Rodwell.

Hole was so inspired by the shop that on his return to London, he decided to open a similar establishment in Bloomsbury. Gay’s The Word, which takes its name from the Ivor Novello musical, turned 40 this year making it one of the oldest gay book stores in Europe; it remains the only gay bookstore in England. Such spaces are becoming increasingly rare (London has lost more than 50 per cent of its LGBTQ+ venues in the past decade), but are more important than ever. Why? As Hole puts it: “Gay bookstores aren’t places that just sell gay books, they are a gay place open to all and part of the community, a place to be proud of.” They are also often places of great cultural significance – Rodwell was a one-time lover of Harvey Milk, who would later become the first openly gay politician elected to public office in California, and he is said to have radically influenced Milk’s politics. And it was within the walls of Oscar Wilde Bookshop that the Gay Liberation Front mapped out the inaugural NYC Pride march in 1970.

As for what’s on the shelves, LGBTQ+ literature is a space in itself. The words on the page provide a sense of discovery, inspiration, togetherness and hope. On that note, asked nine figureheads of the LGBTQ+ community to discuss the queer literature that has played a pivotal role in their lives.

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Laverne Cox

In 2014 the star became the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award and appear on the cover of magazine. Since then the Alabama-born actress has continued to break down barriers on all fronts, citing writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s writing on intersectionality as a major influence in her campaign for better representation.

“Feminism, for me personally, has always been intersectional because I discovered it through black women authors like bell hooks and black lesbian and queer authors like Audre Lorde. That’s what I love about Lorde’s collection of essays, – it talks about queerness in relationship to feminist identity and race. It taught me to think about my position in the LGBTQ+ community as not being divorced from my blackness, my womanhood and all other aspects of who I am.

“There’s one particular essay in that I keep returning to, in which Lorde writes: ‘Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’

“Although she doesn’t mention trans women, this pride month, after Zoe Spears became the 10th trans woman reported murdered in the US this year, Lorde’s essay serves as a reminder that trans women still stand outside of what is considered to be an ‘acceptable woman’ and that we need protection.

“When, in 1979, Lorde delivered this essay as a speech at a feminist conference held in honour of the 30th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s book , she was urging the women in the audience to interrogate their own racism and homophobia. Without addressing our internal biases (conscious or unconscious) in doing liberation work, we are attempting to use the master’s tools. That’s not liberation. Lorde is calling for the use of new tools to build paradigm shifting houses, which can become homes where we are all welcome.”

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Jeremy O. Harris

Before the 30 year old had even graduated from his final year at the Yale School of Drama this year, he had two critically acclaimed plays ( and ) showing in quick succession off Broadway and a film – , starring Riley Keough – in production. Oh, and there was a lead role in a video campaign for Gucci too. Here the precocious American playwright and actor describes a chance encounter with fellow writer Robert O’Hara in an elevator.

“ is an episodic play about the world (both internal and external) of a black gay writer and his bootycandy (his mother’s childhood euphemism for his penis). It is vaguely autobiographical. It was one of the first uproarious and audacious pieces of theatre about the life and times of a queer black man I’d encountered. From its title to its subject and its energy, it represented where black gay theatre could go.

“I encountered it in 2014 during its first run at the Playwright’s Horizons theatre after running into the author and director Robert O’Hara in an elevator. After expressing my sadness that the show was sold out, he reached into his pocket and handed me a ticket and told me not to be late. I ended up seeing the play three more times. The fact of its existence makes me inspired because for so long I didn’t see myself – not just my identity but my sensibility – represented in the theatre. So I didn’t think I belonged. Post I knew I had a chance to do this and it became a formative moment for me.

“In a time when our lives are desperately on the line across the world, I think that radical expression can feel difficult or out of our reach. Then we get tepid and polite queer work. This work dares to choke an audience and then dares them to like that sensation. We need more of that.”

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Mj Rodriguez

Known for her role as Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista in the agenda-setting FX series , the New Jersey native is among the largest cast of transgender actors in TV history. The work of American playwright Larry Kramer has been central to her development personally, as well as on screen and stage, she says.

“When I was 17 I went to see Larry Kramer’s play and after that I thought, ‘Man I’ve got to get inside this man’s brain.’ I researched his work and came across this article he wrote In the 59th issue of (March 1983) titled . It spilled the whole truth about individuals dying from AIDS and caused a lot of controversy at the time.

“I love the way he wrote it so eloquently and intelligently. He also gave a lot of hard facts and statistics to support his argument on what needed to be done. The opening line reads: ‘If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble.’ It’s the ultimate call to action.

“‘There are now 1,112 cases of serious Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,’ he went on. ‘When we first became worried, there were only 41.’ For him to have the numbers like he did shows how much work he was doing in the community. I was in when I first read it was so important to that role but more than that it’s informed the activism I do now on reducing the stigma and raising awareness around HIV and AIDS. I never imagined I would run into an essay like that and I never thought my whole life would be influenced by one man.

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Beth Ditto

The former Gossip frontwoman – muse to Jean Paul Gaultier and designer of her own eponymous clothing line – is a prominent supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and has spoken candidly about her tough upbringing in Arkansas, including abuse at the hands of her uncle, which long went unpunished. Ditto says Dorothy Allison’s autobiographical novel helped her reconcile these early traumas and restore her relationship with her own mother.

“Queer author Dorothy Allison’s is a story that I feel is parallel in many ways to my own. It’s set in South Carolina and told from the perspective of a 12 year old girl called ‘Bone’ Boatwright, whose mother gave birth to her when she was very young and so she doesn’t have the life experience to bring up a child yet – she doesn’t know how to relate to her own daughter. Bone’s biological father dies and her mother remarries, to a man that turns out to be abusive towards Bone. Even though the mother is made aware of the abuse, and repeatedly leaves her husband, she keeps going back to him. Throughout the book, the daughter tries to shed light on why her mother continues to make these mistakes, and work out how she won’t make these mistakes herself. It’s a really hard but beautiful story of forgiveness and putting into perspective the struggles of women, specifically Southern and rural women.

“I was angry at my own mum for so long, now I realise she just made poor choices and it brought us to where we are today. It made me realise how important choices are in life. Happy people make happier children. Happier children make better decisions. I’ve read twice now and I think it’s such a queer narrative because we love to talk about what we can do to not be our parents or make the same mistakes again. We look at the world think ‘what can we can do to make it better?’”

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Troye Sivan

Through his songs, the Australian teen vlogger turned pop star has brought the everyday experiences of young gay men into the mainstream, amassing some 10.5 million Instagram followers along the way. The 24 year old describes reading Hanya Yanagihara’s novel as a life-affirming experience.

“ by Hanya Yanagihara is one of my favourite books ever. It tore my heart out with its pain, but also showed me how powerful love can be. The story is about four men moving to New York to live their lives – delving into their pasts, futures and their relationships with each other. I read it for the first time only a few weeks ago after my manager gave it to me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. My boyfriend [the model Jacob Bixenman] is about three quarters of the way through it now. Reading the stories of maturing LGBTQ+ relationships is important to me. I feel that’s one area of representation we could work on a little. The whole world should read because – warning – although it’s sad and troubling, it will leave you feeling changed.”

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Isaac Julien

The Turner Prize-nominated British artist and filmmaker is currently the subject of two solo exhibitions at the Victoria Miro Gallery (until 27 July) and Tate Britain (until 17 November) in London. Essex Hemphill’s book of poetry formed the basis of his film (and subject of his Tate Britain show) – an exploration of black queer desire.

“ is my favourite book because it contains within its compendium structure ‘Conditions’, which existed as a self-published, monograph-edition book by Essex Hemphill. It is about black gay subjectivity and hopes of finding love during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

“I first heard ‘Conditions’ read by Hemphill himself in Los Angeles in 1986. I must have read it over a thousand times since… there is always something new and fresh that emerges. It influenced the making of (1989) and became a primary text for the film, in which authors performed poems live, allowing me to create images, which became a vital source of inspiration throughout my career.

“It embodies a voice that has become less heard in our culture nowadays and it is provocative, like our fight for equality must be. The whole world should read this work to ensure the next generation knows its history.”

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Although Holland’s career seems to have skyrocketed overnight, literally – his debut single received over a million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours – as K-pop’s first openly gay idol, the odds have been stacked against him. The 23 year old describes LGBTQ+ issues in South Korea as “very taboo”, making it hard to get his music in the public domain. He credits André Aciman’s with having helped him come to terms with his sexuality.

“Reading André Aciman’s helped me look inside myself and overcome feelings of shame. I acted on desires I had previously hidden and was finally honest with myself. In my own words the story is about the protagonist and narrator, Elio Perlman, finding his identity, recognising he is attracted to another man and his family embracing him for who is. Like many Koreans, I first came across the work as a movie. I liked the actors, music and visuals, and so felt compelled to read the book. There are many passages that have stayed with me, but the part where Elio says: ‘We had the stars, you and I. And this is given once only,’ is especially powerful. The words made me fall in love and feel jealousy and grief. As a whole the book expresses relationships without a moment for stereotypes or cliché.”

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Matthew Michael Lopez

by E.M. Forster is a pillar of the American playwright’s bookshelf – it laid the foundations for his four-time Olivier Award-winning play , an exploration of gay men’s lives in recent history opening on Broadway in the autumn. But when it comes to literature, his greatest love is by James Baldwin, which he says “served as the touchstone to my earlier play, ”.

“The obvious choice from James Baldwin’s work might be , which is a much more explicitly gay novel, but to me there is no greater queer novel than . It’s one of the first truly intersectional novels, published decades before the term was even coined.  

“The book follows a group of friends, lovers and strangers in the aftermath of the death of a character we’re initially led to believe is the novel’s protagonist. His death sets these people (his sister, his friends, his former lovers – both male and female) on a collision course with each other in a New York that is far less integrated that it pretends to be.

“Throughout the novel, Baldwin pairs his disparate characters off – whether it’s romantically, sexually, creatively or through tenuous friendships. Men and women, black and white, they all begin to populate each other’s narratives (and each other’s beds) as they hold more and more sway over each other’s destinies. Baldwin uses the crucible of the bedroom to tie these people together as if to say, ‘We are all cooking in the same stew, baby. Might as well try and make it taste like something.’ It’s truly sexy as fuck.

“As a work of literature, it teems with thrilling, almost electric language and complex, vibrant characters. It is an alternative view of a fabled time in a vanished city. It is an angry book, at times even a ferocious one. But above all, it is a deeply compassionate book. You finish it feeling renewed, transformed, washed clean. The last paragraph leading to the final image is one that will stay with me forever. It’s rare that a book has the ability to send you out into the world with the perfectly turned final phrase. Also, the fact that it was published in 1962 is mind-blowing. He writes the American future by simply writing the world as he experienced it. It explodes the myth that Stonewall was the beginning of our visibility.”

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Cynthia Nixon

The star may not have won her bid to become Governer of her hometown of New York last year, but it was perhaps the loudest demonstration of her mettle as a true leader to date. For more than two decades, she has been a consistent advocate for public education and campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights. Her fire was “fuelled”, she says, by the work of playwright Tony Kushner.

“I was in the original production of in 1993 and performed it for over a year, so it’s a work of art that has really lived in me. There were a series of performances I remember particularly vividly that June during Pride 1993 when the audience was almost exclusively LGBTQ+. It was like performing overseas in the United Service Organizations during wartime – the audience knew you were performing specifically for them.

“One of the great things about the play is it puts that terrible moment in LGBTQ+ history – the 1980s AIDS crisis – into context in American history and chronicles our ongoing fight from the left for a more progressive world. There are Mormon characters and Jewish characters, and, as much as it is about a gay identity, the play is also about the struggle and the effects – positive but mostly negative – religion can have on us: the fear of God, the fear of being damned and the power that holds, especially when you’re trying to come out to the world. It essentially dares to ask whether we are going to evolve or regress as a culture.”

“In the final scenes, the central character, Prior Walter, says: ‘We won’t die secret deaths anymore, we will be citizens.’ showed people living with and dying from AIDS as prophets. The crisis added fuel to the fire that is our ongoing fight for equality and gave us a sense of tremendous urgency. The gay community was dying, it felt like AIDS was trying to quietly eradicate us and society saw us as expendable, so in an act of survival we came screaming out of the closet in droves.

“In the last few years, the play has gained even more personal significance for me since my transgender son Sam, who is an actor, playwright and director, became a huge fan of it. Now he knows the work inside out, too – all seven hours of it. I think his dream is to stage it himself one day.”

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