For decades, unsuspecting high school literature teachers assigned “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” by Oscar Wilde, for reading and discussion. Read between the lines and you will find a subtle gay thread. Not surprising, since Oscar Wilde spent time in a British prison for homosexuality.
“The Picture of Dorian Grey,” along with James Baldwin’s “Another Country,” are two of the earliest books that Lev Raphael, a former MSU literature professor and noted pioneer in gay and Jewish writing, recalls reading as a young man.
In 1996, Raphael published his first Nick Hoffman mystery, “Let’s Get Criminal,” featuring a gay professor and his husband. In 2018, Raphael sold his literary papers and his book collection to Michigan State University Special Collections.
“It’s a 40-year history of my writing and the full life of an author growing up in the ’50s,” he said.
The 54-box collection, which the author adds to each year, includes journals, fan mail and an unpublished manuscript, along with important association copies from other authors.
“This next semester a graduate student will be coming to study the collection and do archival work for his dissertation,” Raphael said.
“It’s exactly how I hoped it would be used,” he said.
When I was asked to put together a reading list for Pride Week, I began scouring Publishers Weekly and The New York Times weekly Book Review for ideas, but I also made a call to Raphael. He’s right in our back yard and is extremely knowledgeable about the genre.
Raphael compiled this list of 20 fiction and nonfiction and poetry titles:
“Tipping the Velvet,” by Sarah Waters
“Dancer from the Dance,” by Andrew Holleran
“Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer
“The Sea of Light,” by Jenifer Levin
“The Gilda Stories,” by Jewelle Gomez
“The Line of Beauty,” by Alan Hollinghurst
“Stone Butch Blues,” by Leslie Feinberg
“Giovanni’s Room,” by James Baldwin
“Funny Boy,” by Shyam Selvadurai
“Maurice,” by E.M. Forster
“Orlando,” by Virginia Woolf
Nonfiction & Poetry
“Reports from the Holocaust,” by Larry Kramer
“The Celluloid Closet,” by Vito Russo
“The Gay Revolution,” by Lillian Faderman
“Skin,” by Dorothy Allison
“My Lesbian Husband,” by Barrie Jean Borich
“The Road Before Us,” by Assoto Saint
“Borderland/La Frontera,” by Gloria Anzaldúa
“Ceremonies,” by Essex Hemphill
“Nice Jewish Girls,” by Evelyn Torton Beck
It’s amazing the breadth of titles that have come out since the first gay pride march was held in New York City 50 years ago this week. Just a few years earlier, universities like MSU and the University of Michigan were using undercover cops to entrap gays in restrooms, and the state’s Liquor Control Board still enforced a 1948 ruling that forbade establishments serving alcohol to become rendezvous for known prostitutes, homosexual and vagrants.
In addition to Raphael’s extensive list, I’ve added a few titles of my own and recommendations from other friends.
Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is another of those whisper and listen closely books with a gay thread running through it. Certainly on anyone’s list should be Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” which 50 years from now will still be a classic. Not to be left out is “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker, along with Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” and “The Price of Salt,” by Patricia Highsmith, who would become an exalted mystery writer. Another cult status book is “Rubyfruit Jungle,” a coming of age novel written in 1973 by noted mystery writer Rita Mae Brown, who began her career at “Rat” — New York City’s feminist liberation newspaper.
Recently two non-fiction entries in the genre are James Polchin’s “Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall,” which follows minor indignities and major crimes involving homosexual relationships throughout the years, as covered in newspaper crime stories. The other is a magnificent photographic history, “50 Years of Parades and Protests from the Photo Archives of the New York Times.”
Of course, I have to add to the list Alison Bechdel’s phenomenally successful graphic novel “Fun Home,” which was turned into a Tony-winning musical by Lansing’s own Lisa Kron in collaboration with Jeanine Teson.
There is also a flood of graphic novels with pride themes including “Magic Fish” by Trung Le Nguyen; “Bingo Love,” by Tee Franklin; “Liebestrasse,” by Greg Lockard; and “Flamer,” by Alden Navarro.
Also on the list are the play “Boys in the Band,” by Mart Crowley, “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” by Hubert Selby Jr., and “City of Night” by John Rechy, who is now nearly 90 years old.
Raphael, whose first book “Dancing on Tisha B’av,” won a Lambda Award, said that since he first started writing for publication, independent presses and self-publishing has resulted in a “lot more room for a lot more people.”