I didn’t originally plan this as a post for LGBT History Month. I actually only wanted to make this list because I read a book about gay teens set during the AIDS crisis that was written by a straight woman & that rubbed me the wrong way. But hey, what better time to publish it, right?
What this rec list won’t feature: books written by anyone but gay men.
What else this rec list won’t feature: non-fiction books. No memoirs, no biographies, no essays. Not because I don’t value those, it’s the exact opposite. But because I had a clear goal in mind and that goal was to show you what it looks like when gay men tell the stories and write the world as they remember it.
Also, I should come clean about a crucial fact… I’ve only read the first book on here, so really, this is a list for all of us. And it’s why I opted out of the “why should I read it?” section, given how my only argument would be the same for every book: it’s authentic.
You’ll notice that the iconic Angels in America by Tony Kushner & The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer are not on the list – I figured y’all already know about them (and I was right if you noticed the lack of them).
Like a Love Story
Rep: gay Iranian mc, gay mc
It’s 1989 in New York City, and for three teens, the world is changing.
Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to the city with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess the truth he can barely acknowledge about himself. Reza knows he’s gay, but all he knows of gay life are the media’s images of men dying of AIDS.
Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who devotes his time to activism as a member of ACT UP. Judy has never imagined finding romance…until she falls for Reza and they start dating.
Art is Judy’s best friend, their school’s only out and proud teen. He’ll never be who his conservative parents want him to be, so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.
As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart–and destroy the most meaningful friendship he’s ever known.
Related: our interview with Abdi Nazemian
The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House
John Whittier Treat
Rep: gay mc & li
Seattle, 1983. Frightened by the growing epidemic that has stricken his friends, Jeff flees New York for the Pacific Northwest, only to realize AIDS has a foothold in his new home. As he distracts himself with alcohol and one-night stands, Jeff meets Henry, an alluring younger man with a weakness for heroin. Despite the jarring contrasts in their personalities and backgrounds, the two are drawn inexorably together. But as their love develops, so do numerous complications. In an effort to halt their freefall into addiction, Jeff and Henry move in with Nan, a middle-aged divorcée who has turned her home into a sanctuary for gay men in crisis. The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House revisits the early years of AIDS in the Northwest with vivid detail, unrelenting honesty, and a profound compassion for a generation lost to the plague.
Rep: gay Puerto Rican character, Latino mc
In this vivid and compelling novel, Tim Murphy follows a diverse set of characters whose fates intertwine in an iconic building in Manhattan’s East Village, the Christodora. The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions.
Their neighbor, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict, becomes connected to Milly and Jared’s lives in ways none of them can anticipate. Meanwhile, Milly and Jared’s adopted son Mateo grows to see the opportunity for both self-realization and oblivion that New York offers. As the junkies and protesters of the 1980’s give way to the hipsters of the 2000’s and they, in turn, to the wealthy residents of the crowded, glass-towered city of the 2020’s, enormous changes rock the personal lives of Milly and Jared and the constellation of people around them.
Moving kaleidoscopically from the Tompkins Square Riots and attempts by activists to galvanize a true response to the AIDS epidemic, to the New York City of the future, Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself.
David B. Feinberg
Rep: Jewish gay mc
This is the story of two years in the life of B.J. Rosenthal: pre-AIDS 1980, when his only mission is to find himself a boyfriend; and in 1986, when a deadly virus pervades his world and attacks his friends and ex-tricks. Combining high-wire with genuine emotional resonance, David Feinberg creates a character whose controlled hysteria embodies all the contradictions of the 1980s gay scene.
Koolaids: The Art of War
Rep: Lebanese cast, gay mcs
Detailing the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war in Beirut on a circle of friends and family, “Koolaids” tells the stories of characters who can no longer love or think except in fragments of time, each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. Clips, quips, vignettes and hallucinations, tragic news reports and hilarious short plays, conversations with both the quick and the dead, all shine their combined lights to reveal the way we experience life today in this ambitious novel.
Plays Well with Others
Rep: gay mcs
With great narrative inventiveness and emotional amplitude, Allan Gurganus gives us artistic Manhattan in the wild 1980s, where young artists–refugees from the middle class–hurl themselves into playful work and serious fun. Our guide is Hartley Mims Jr., a Southerner whose native knack for happiness might thwart his literary ambitions. Through his eyes we encounter the composer Robert Christian Gustafson, an Iowa preacher’s son whose good looks constitute both a mythic draw and a major limitation, and Angelina “Alabama” Byrnes, a failed deb, five feet tall but bristling with outsized talent. These friends shelter each other, promote each other’s work, and compete erotically. When tragedy strikes, this circle grows up fast, somehow finding, at the worst of times, the truest sort of family.
Funny and heartbreaking, as eventful as Dickens and as atmospheric as one of Fitzgerald’s parties, Plays Well with Others combines a fable’s high-noon energy with an elegy’s evening grace. Allan Gurganus’s celebrated new novel is a lovesong to imperishable friendship, a hymn to a brilliant and now-vanished world.
Rep: gay mc
This haunting, magical, wildly original novel explores the lives of several characters entwined by The Wizard of Oz–both the novel written by L. Frank Baum and the iconic, strangely resonant 1939 film. It is the story of the “real” Dorothy Gale, an orphan living a hardscrabble life with abusive relatives on a Kansas frontier settlement, and of the kindly substitute teacher who decides to write the story of the life she ought to have had. Was is also the story of Judy Garland and her unhappy fame. It’s about Jonathan, an actor now dying of AIDS, whose intense attachment to Oz dates back to his troubled childhood. And it’s the story of Jonathan’s therapist, whose work at an asylum also unwittingly intersects the path of the Yellow Brick Road.
From the Great Plains to glittering Hollywood, Was traverses the American landscape to reveal the whirling funnel cloud at the core of our personal and cultural fantasies. It is a powerful, moving story about survival, and about the power of human imagination to transcend the bleakest circumstances.
Scissors, Paper, Rock
Rep: gay mc, gay side characters
For the first time since he left his birthplace in Kentucky for San Francisco, Raphael Hardin has returned home alone. Before, he had always brought men with him on his visits, lovers with whom his mother had been “civil, even flirtatious,” while his father retreated into his sacred woodshop. Now his mother has died and, at age thirty-six, Raphael has come back to see his dying father, who knows and disapproves of Raphael’s boyfriends but who is unaware that this, his youngest child, may be ill as well. Raphael’s halting, often painful attempt to reconcile with his father forms the centerpiece of Fenton Johnson’s astonishing novel. At times funny, at times heartbreakingly poignant, Scissors, Paper, Rock explores with wisdom and humor the many kinds of family, the infinite varieties of love. Through the intricately interwoven stories of the Hardin parents and children, Scissors, Paper, Rock contrasts the families we inherit — our blood ties — with the families we choose, our partners in love and our friends.
The Angel of History
Rep: Yemeni gay mc
Following the critical and commercial success of An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine delivers a spectacular portrait of a man and an era of profound political and social upheaval.
Set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psych clinic, The Angel of History follows Yemeni-born poet Jacob as he revisits the events of his life, from his maternal upbringing in an Egyptian whorehouse to his adolescence under the aegis of his wealthy father and his life as a gay Arab man in San Francisco at the height of AIDS. Hovered over by the presence of alluring, sassy Satan who taunts Jacob to remember his painful past and dour, frigid Death who urges him to forget and give up on life, Jacob is also attended to by 14 saints. Set in Cairo and Beirut; Sana’a, Stockholm, and San Francisco; Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives.
Rep: gay mcs
Afterlife is a haunting and unforgettable story of men facing loss and seeking love, movingly capturing the moment in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was completely devastating the American gay community. Here, National Book Award winner Paul Monette depicts three men of various economic and social backgrounds, all with one thing in common: They are widowers, in a way, and all of their lovers died of AIDS in an LA hospital within a week of one another.
Steven, Sonny, and Dell meet weekly to discuss how to go on with their lives despite the hanging sword of being HIV positive. One tries to find a semblance of normalcy; one rebels openly against the disease, choosing to treat his body as a temple that he can consecrate and desecrate at will; and one throws himself into fierce political activism. No matter what path each one takes, they are all searching for one thing: a way to live and love again.
Afterlife finds Paul Monette at his most autobiographical, portraying men in a situation that he himself experienced, and one that he described to critical acclaim in the award-winning Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir.
I won’t say “happy reading” because those are not that kind of books. But I will say: read them. Live our history.
And to finish it off I would also like to point you in the direction of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, which pays a homeage to the gay men who died because of AIDS and which will leave you feeling loved & hopeful.