Six LGBT Authors on the Books That Inspired Them to Come Out

Six LGBT Authors on the Books That Inspired Them to Come Out

Saturday October 11th is National Coming Out Day and to mark the occasion we asked some of our favorite Open Road LGBT writers to share books that were meaningful to them when they were coming out.

The Front Runner, Patricia Nell Warren

Like many gay men of my generation, I’d have to say that Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner had an enormous impact on me. I was 26 and in grad school when it was published in 1976. I had been out for a good seven years at that point, but Front Runner was the first openly gay-themed novel that caught my attention. I believe it came to me through Book of the Month Club, which is about as mainstream as it gets, so this seemed particularly groundbreaking. It also planted those first seeds of hope that someday I might publish a gay novel or two of my own. —Michael Craft, author of Flight Dreams

The City and the Pillar, Gore Vidal

Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, there weren’t any books for young people to tell us that it was possible for two men or two women to have a lasting relationship. While we found comfort in books like Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, these books were about characters who had to hide their homosexuality. For this reason, we wrote Double Life: A Love Story and have received letters from all over the world from people who’ve written that our book has helped them come out. We lived openly for over fifty years but we never “came out” per se. When we were told our life could be helpful to young people and their families to see that a long, happy relationship was possible, we “came out” by writing the book. —Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine, authors of Double Life: A Love Story

Good Times, Bad TimesJames Kirkwood

[Spoilers below]

Study hall, Kempsville, Virginia, 1970. “Look at this.” Laura Leigh Bond passed me a paperback, Good Times, Bad Times, opened to a scene. A teenager with a broken leg lies on his stomach and gets an alcohol rubdown from his drunken headmaster. The boy pretends to be asleep while the headmaster works his way down the kid’s back and pulls off his pajama bottoms. It was the sexiest thing I’d ever read. “Interesting,” I told Laura Leigh dryly as I returned the book. I went to Waldenbooks that very afternoon and bought my own copy.

This James Kirkwood novel is not great literature, but it spoke to me more directly than Andre Gidé or Thomas Mann, who I was also reading. The tale of a romantic friendship between two boys in prep school, it’s one of those having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too stories where same-sex love is fine but same-sex sex is bad. I didn’t mind; I was seventeen and not really ready for sex. But I badly needed hear about love between two boys. One of them dies, which often happens in romantic stories, gay or straight. I made up my mind that I would find love myself, one day, without anybody dropping dead. —Christopher Bram, author of Surprising Myself

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes

When I was fifteen I found Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood—a thicket of dense, thorny language where women and men walked through a shadow city stalked by their own longings, fierce or jaded, often with a sharp sense of humor. I almost had no idea what was going on, but I knew it described a lesbian relationship, hair in the moonlight so tangled it could become the heart’s noose. I was thrilled. Only a lesbian could have written a book like this. And this book was art! Artful, complex, full of metaphor, hope, and warning.

I used a line from it for the epigraph of my first novel,Riverfinger Women: “A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic, on her mouth you kiss your own. If she is taken you cry that you have been robbed of yourself. God laughs at me, but his laughter is my love.” When asked for permission to quote, Djuna Barnes sent me a postcard that I have managed not to lose for 40 years. Nightwood came from a different era—we all live in the sunlight now, right? But writing about it makes me want to revisit it, to learn from the shadows of our youth. —Elana Dykewomon, author of Beyond the Pale

One for the Gods, Gordon Merrick

I was a teenager when I spotted Gordon Merrick’s One for the Gods at my local Waldenbooks. The paperback cover of two men in white Speedos holding hands leapt at me from the shelf, and I had to have it. But I couldn’t buy it, of course: How could I take such a thing up to the cash register? I thought alarms might go off if I just picked it up. After reading a few pages, I impulsively shoved it down into my pants and walked out of the store. As I discovered reading the book under the covers at home, here were men who not only loved other men, but had sex with them, too, and boy, did Merrick know how to write a hot sex scene. But Merrick’s characters were also on journeys to self-acceptance, and it was that message that ultimately mattered more to me than the dog-eared sex passages. From there it was a quick jump to Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance andEthan Mordden’s novels and, of course, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. But it all started with a reckless act of teenage larceny and those two hot guys on the cover of One for the Gods, holding hands as if they had a right to. —William Mann, author of Where the Boys Are

Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran

When I was younger and discovering the malarial nature of love, I found an acute expression of this condition in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. Malone, the beautiful and damned protagonist of this novel, is a kind ofGatsby who takes great romantic risks against formidable odds, and his search for the transcendent experience of sex compounds the harsh reality of finding a relationship based on mutual regard and respect. The novel is narrated by a Nick Caraway-type who has wisely abandoned the rabid, sex-obsessed world of gay New York in the 70’s before that world destroyed him. And yet he longs for it with a compelling nostalgia. When I recently re-read the opening pages of this book, I realized how much it influenced my own novel,Nightswimmer, and how, like Holleran’s Malone, my own narrator aspires to compel the reader with a story of thwarted love. —Joseph Olshan, author ofNightswimmer


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