A selection of books on queer studies from my own personal library
I’d like to use the library I curated for this site as a jumping-off point for me to go into detail and depth on various subjects that apply readily to activism in the modern age. The books are primers on very labyrinthine, complex issues, and I will use them to give the most condensed overview of a topic that I can using the literature and resources that I have. I am not an expert, and can only share what I have learned, which means I can’t and won’t always be able to know everything or be as completely representative as I’d like to be.
Click here for more recommendations – this report is by far an incomplete education, but it is a huge start. You’ll find more topics and diverse writers in the library, and find more places to explore that I haven’t covered.
No. 1 // March 2017 // Queer Studies
Mishima’s prose (which is technically fiction but there are arguments about its autobiographical nature) is spare and straightforward, so much so that it’s as if you were reading your own inner monologue or journal. I read it as a more vivid and nuanced version of Camus’s The Stranger – it’s a bit existential in the way that a lot of Japanese fiction that I read typically is. The story is simple: the protagonist realizes that he is a homosexual, but his hostile society is a force which compels him to hide his sexuality (his mask). Part of the draw of this novel is the biography of the writer: struggling with sexuality himself, he is also known for attempting a coup and committing suicide by seppuku. Mishima is just as complex and nuanced as the creations he left behind and there is little question that art imitated life, which allows us to use the piece as a way of looking at the realities of post-WWII Japanese sexuality and morality. For many that cannot come out of the closet, this will feel familiar, and it speaks to the alienation between self and society that gay people often experience.
When you’re just starting out, it’s always good to begin by trying a biography of a single person instead of a whole study – bulky histories can be really intimidating. You could choose one of many LGBTQ activists, but I’m using Harvey Milk because of his accessibility and prevalence in culture. (Yes, this is the book that inspired Milk.) Shilts is one of the best known chroniclers of LGBTQ history (he’ll pop up again in a moment) and he uses his characteristic style: lots of paragraph breaks, ultra-detailed, and panoramic. It’s rich and satisfying. It does read a bit too novel-y at times, though, leaving you to question how accurate some of the conversations are, but Shilts’s notes on his sources show his exhaustive interviewing and research of hundreds of people, so I am inclined to believe that the colloquial nature of the text is due to a determination to keep the book a panoply of voices rather than one singular speaker. Harvey Milk is everyone, and everyone is Harvey Milk. Like any martyr, he is a stand-in for a lot of things, but Shilts brings Milk back down to street level, as the title implies.
This is a helpfully brief account about the criminal justice system and how it serves (or hurts) members of the LGBTQ community. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of good news. Each chapter has an intriguing thesis (Chapter 5 is entitled “Caging Deviance: Prisons as Queer Spaces”) and most of the content is about policing, lawmaking, and imprisonment – all issues that have never been more relevant than they are today. In some ways, I see this as a queer counterpart to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Expect a very uncomplicated narrative that is heavy on statistics and empiric information paired with interesting allusions to pop culture. At a cool 158 pages, it’s a great, quick way to educate and arm yourself with facts.
And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
Shilts writes a socio-medical saga for the ages, epic in scope and covering the entire life of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. It is required reading, period. Every angle is touched upon; it’s a true kaleidoscope, dazzling and overwhelming. It’s a doorstopper. It takes about 0.0003 seconds to draw a connecting line between the treatment of AIDS patients with the treatment of other maligned groups throughout time. Indeed, the story of AIDS is the story of every intersection of disease and society. It keeps surprising me how close we are to the 80s, and how the Republican idolization of Ronald Reagan is the same Reagan that effectively ignored the crisis for so long. When I hear members of the GOP laud Reagan, my mind runs straight to gay rights and that queasy feeling arrives. Read this and learn. The epidemic and its repercussions set the stage for a lot of consequences (good and bad) that we are seeing now.
This is, I believe, the first encounter I really had with transgender issues. I was lucky to have stumbled upon the subject in the form of a memoir – it’s easier to understand and consume a first-person, real-life voice on a tough and nuanced subject (especially if you’re relatively young, which I was at around 12 when I read this). It is what it sounds like: the inside flap tells us that it is an autobiographical account of “…a man named James who became a woman named Jenny.” Published almost 15 years ago, there is an almost dated feel to it as I look over the pages after a decade-long gap. Though I am not transgendered, I get the sense that it might still reverberate and echo the anxieties and obstacles of transpeople today. (This book is geared more towards adult transitioning than to adolescent.)
You should probably know about Stonewall. It’s just one of those things that, as an American interested in queer studies, you need to understand. This list is all about the fundamentals and the building blocks. You need to understand the basics before you can get to the really complex stuff. Like the AIDS epidemic, the Stonewall riots are markers in homosexual American culture that forms a part of our collective identity. It’s been hard to find a good book on this event. There was a lot of whitewashing of its history and it has taken decades to unfurl what we hope is the truth. Some say that Carter does a great job with representation – others don’t. You’ll have to decide for yourself. (Also, it’s probably time to point out how interesting it is that many books about queer history [particularly Carter and Shilts] rely so much on oral accounts – this and many others have sections in their books dedicated solely to the sourcing of oral narratives.)
This is a must-have resource. It is my go-to recommendation for any person anywhere on the queer spectrum. The cover – an extreme close-up of the tooth-baring mouth of a gender-neutral person with glitter and bright red lipstick smeared all over face, teeth, and lips – is off-putting. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. This is a book for queers by queers about queers that is queer, and it won’t conform to comfortable standards. It’s Divine and Sappho in an exotic mix of self-reference and post-9/11 existentialism. Featuring interviews, essays, creative non-fiction, and mixed media, this is a literal smörgåsbord of unashamed and unquiet homosexual poetics, behavior, desire, and repulsion. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s very raw and real and advocates for the idea that queer-identifying people shouldn’t have to feel the need to assimilate.
Lillian Faderman is another well-respected LGBTQ historian, like Randy Shilts, who has achieved great success in this field (I’m jealous). Her name pops up a lot in scholarship. One of the defining ideas and themes of this book is Faderman’s essential assertion that “…lesbians themselves have [always] defied definitions” (307). This makes her book that much richer – but also elusive. Because gay people are all people, there is no easy way to categorize them, and thus identity becomes so tricky and fluid (and why we need to study it to this day). Thus, the book has the privilege to tell us EVERYTHING. Faderman is breathtakingly thorough, with forays into all of the little details you didn’t know you wanted until now. Odd Girls… is a great place to catch up on some of your LGBTQ vocab, too, like “Boston marriage” and “vanilla sex.” You close the book feeling vast and energized. It’s a sublime (yet dense) piece of work.
This is the textbook portion of this book report! Everything presented so far has been relatively specific and condensed to one manageable time frame, but Crompton’s long haul is the most classical composition on this list. Its traditional format and style is typical for a sweeping history. It is linear and chronological, and will give you bites that you’ll want to chew on longer, but will be forced to move past, because this is a capital-H history. Spanning from early Greece to the Enlightenment, Crompton gives you what you need to get a comprehensive look at how homosexuality has existed in people and societies since time immemorial, so to speak. Though primarily about Western society, Homosexuality and Civilization does have significant portions dedicated to China and Japan. But there isn’t much mention at all of any other part of the world, so this is primarily a source for European countries. Nevertheless, it is impeccably written and researched, with lots of illustrations and an extensive bibliography for further reading.
Faderman puts together a tour-de-force, but beware: this is not a book for casual reading. This is a big, weighty reference and resource. You can certainly read straight through – you’d be braver than me, and impressively ambitious. But typically this is an anthology of selections from hundreds of years of sapphic literature and history that is meant to be perused and used as a tool for research and learning rather than for narrative clarity (although there is of course usually a historical through-line). This is a good place to get context and literary analysis for the people and pieces you are encountering as you read through books like the ones on this list.
I thought I’d end on a lighter note. (And the fact that my “lighter note” is a story about struggling with sexuality in a funeral home gives you an idea of my personal taste.) The artwork isn’t striking at first. It is only as you get drawn into the story that you realize how important object placement, lines, and color are to the development of characters and themes. (Some visuals/motifs to look out for and think about: maps, handwriting, straight vertical lines.) The bildungsroman genre is perfection in Bechdel’s haunting but hilarious hands, and her perspective is unique while also being so damn relatable and universal. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I read and saw in these pages. It is packed with literary references and allusions to keep your head spinning and your heart pumping with nerdy glee. You could analyze this for days and days. It’s a smart and emotionally raw story of family disconnection and sexual bewilderment.
Photo: Changing autumn leaves in Williamsburg, Virginia