LGBT+ History Month: The books that made me

By Alice Phillips
Research and Evaluation Coordinator, Bristol SU
Bi Rep on the LGBT+ Staff Network and LGBT+ Rep for University of Bristol Unison Branch

For many of us, fiction gives a unique opportunity to explore one’s queer identity before anyone else knows it, before having to face the world and be “out”. The shelves of a local library or bookshop (perhaps now the pages of the Kindle store) give us a chance to delve into the LGBT+ world in private. In reading the stories of our most beloved characters we can see the possibility of a queer life for ourselves. There is great comfort to be found between such pages.

For LGBT+ History Month, I wanted to share some of the novels that have had a profound impact upon me. Some of them are historical in theme, some of them are modern, but all of them form part of my LGBT+ history.

And don’t worry – no spoilers ahead.

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
Not one book but a series of nine novels that are simply a joy to read. I found lovely, worn out copies of the original six novels on my mother’s book shelf. Funny, moving, occasionally shocking, and full of twists and turns, it is easy to tear through one of these in just one sitting. Originally published as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1978, the books feature characters from the whole spectrum of LGBT+ experience. Tales of the City follows the tenants of eccentric landlady Anna Madrigal at 28 Barbary Lane, as well as their lovers, friends and acquaintances in San Francisco. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Anna, Mary Ann, Mona and Michael (Mouse) – based on Maupin himself. Maupin actually came out to his own family through the character of a Mouse, in a very moving letter to his fictional mother. There’s a good TV adaptation, and I’d recommend Maupin’s memoir Logical Family as well.

Fingersmith/Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters is one of my favourite authors, and this is largely down to these two novels. They are very different, though both set in Victorian England. While Tipping the Velvet is a fairly light romp, Fingersmith is darker and more of a thriller. Tipping the Velvet follows Nan Astley, who falls in love with male impersonator Kitty Butler and joins her show. The novel then follows her fall from grace and numerous love affairs. Fingersmith meanwhile centers on a dastardly plot by protagonist Sue and con artist Richard Rivers to steal a heiress’s fortune. Fingersmith is my favourite of the two, but they are both superb, and I have read them many times. Both had very good BBC adaptations, which can be viewed on Box of Broadcasts. Fingersmith was also transplanted to 1930s South Korea for 2016’s The Handmaiden, which is also very good.

The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst
I’m not sure at what age I started devouring Alan Hollinghurst’s books, but I was almost certainly a bit young. I came upon Hollinghurst’s early novels during my exhaustive searches for gay literature in Bath Central Library, and found them to be gripping, seedy and a little shocking. But the Line of Beauty takes Hollinghurst’s writing to a whole other level. A beautifully written novel that utterly envelops you into its world, it is a story of love, sex and class in Thatcher’s Britain, set under the spectre of AIDs. It really is an astonishing work, reflected in its Man Booker win. The BBC made a good adaptation too.

My Summer of Love – Helen Cross
My Summer of Love is a strange, dark and clever book that leaves the reader deeply unsettled. Its small town/rural backdrop is notable given how many queer stories are set in the big city. The heatwave setting of the summer of 1984 creates an almost other-worldly atmosphere. It is a romance of sorts, but a rather twisted one. It has interesting themes of class difference, with working class teenager Mona, who is a heavy drinker and addicted to the fruit machines at her family’s pub, falling for upper class Tamsin. I didn’t immediately warm to the book, but as I read, I got sucked in. There’s a good film adaptation starring Natalie Press and Emily Blunt as well.

Sugar Rush – Julie Burchill
Oh Sugar Rush, what can I say about you. This was probably the defining novel and TV series for teenage me. Now, to be blunt, the book really isn’t very good. It is trashy and fairly entertaining, and follows teenage Kim falling for bad girl Sugar at school. It’s relatable, but a great work of literature it is not. The TV series however is fantastic. Olivia Hallinan are Lenora Crichlow give wonderful, heartfelt performances, and it really was a groundbreaking show. I can’t think of another programme on British TV since that has had two young lesbian/bisexual women as the leads. Basically, what I’m saying is don’t bother with the book and watch the show (all on All4), but I couldn’t really omit it from this list.

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