Unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde Sort: A Book List for Fifty Years of Gay Liberation in Britain
The month of June has now drawn to a close. June is widely recognised as Pride Month in LGBT+ communities across the world, but milestones in gay liberation come all year round. As we wave a fond farewell to 2017’s month of pride we welcome in July, which brings with it the 50th anniversary of the British Sexual Offences Act of 1967. This act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between men who had reached the age of 21, and was a momentous landmark in the fight for gay liberation in Britain. Fifty years is a long time, more than double the amount of time I have been alive, but the ramifications of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act sends emotional shockwaves through my life. I can only imagine what it is like to have your love criminalised but, as a part of the LGBT+ community, my awareness of our history is paramount to me. I will always want to hear the stories and the pain of the people that had to undergo this in my own country and the stories of men and women that still do every day across the world.
As I grew up, I slowly became aware that my feelings towards girls I knew or those I saw in the media ran deeper than admiration or a desire for friendship. This was scary for me - as I am sure it is for all other young people that grow up to have this realisation. As with all occurrences in my life, I turned to books for words of comfort, advice, and escape. They certainly didn’t let me down. Below you will find a list of books set in or about Britain that focus on the lives of men that love men and women that love women. All are ones that I hold closely to my heart and are either new discoveries or old favourites. I hope you will enjoy them just as much as I do.
- The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst Nick Guest, a recent Oxford graduate and aesthete, navigates the waters of his sexuality, politics, and the AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s from the guest room of a family home in Kensington Park Gardens. This novel is witty but profoundly moving, with Hollinghurst painting a fascinating image of a London in flux at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson While Winterson’s novels Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Sexing The Cherry are fantastic, this novel struck me harder than the rest. The mix of pain, nostalgia, and Northern Grit combine to make a memoir that I cannot recommend highly enough.
- The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureshi Set against the backdrop of suburban Greater London, and later Inner London, Kureshi calls into question our perceived notions of identity, from race to religion to gender to sexuality. The novel explores the position of different generations of immigrants in modern society – a topic that could not be more relevant in the current political climate of Britain – as well as 1970’s punk subculture, and the status of the artist.
- Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, Peter Ackroyd It seems wrong to have an anniversary list of books without including at least one focused on history. Ackroyd’s detailing of London’s gay life spans over 2,000 years and picks through the history of the capital with a swift pace. He goes from the very highest echelons of society (James I and his Duke of Buckingham) to the very lowest (male brothels of the Middle Ages in Holborn) with a detached yet celebratory tone.
- Maurice, E.M. Forster Undeniably revolutionary, Maurice is Forster’s post-humously published novel written between 1913 and 1914. It follows the life of a young Cambridge scholar who falls in love with other men. The novel is tinged with sadness as we acknowledge the lives of gay people that never lived to enjoy the freedom of having their love accepted and respected.
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters Set in Victorian London, Fingersmith is a mystery, a Dickensian romp, and a beautifully crafted novel - topped off with a lesbian romance. If you haven’t read this novel, then it is highly unlikely that you have read something like it before.
- How to be Both, Ali Smith In this novel, the stories of a grief-stricken teenage girl living in Cambridge and the life of a Renaissance Italian artist intertwine to make something quite special. The exploration of George’s sexuality is a tender one, with no attached expectations from writer or reader, making it a breath of fresh air in a world filled with media that sets strict requirements for young girls questioning their sexuality. Approach with a gentle heart and possibly some tissues.