Queer travel is all about connection. From making new friends to exploring different cultures, LGBTQ globetrotters have a long history of using tourism as a means of building community. It’s how we grew gayborhoods in the centers of urban areas and colonized coastal summer towns. After hopping on planes, trains, and automobiles in search of kindred spirits, we brought home stories to our best Judys about the queer places we found. Today, the coronavirus pandemic is limiting our ability to connect in person, so while physical travel is off the table, consider filling that table with a stack of queer travel books.
This list of LGBTQ stories offers an opportunity to meet a variety of queer people around the world without leaving your home. Better than guide books filled with lists of top tourist destinations, each novel dives deep into a different area by connecting you to the sights, sounds, tastes, and tales experienced by people who’ve been there in person. Whether it’s a gender-queer romp around America or a sensual romance in Rome, these novels will help satiate even the antsiest wayfarer by allowing your mind to wander somewhere new.
Tip: Creating new ways to connect with friends in light of the pandemic will help ease feelings of isolation, so consider starting a queer quarantine book club. Discussing the works of Patti Smith and James Baldwin will be a welcome reprieve from fretting over current events.
Check to see if your local bookstore carries any of these titles and provides pick-up or delivery services. Companies like Amazon will survive the economic turmoil of this crisis, but smaller shops need our help. Remember to support your local businesses through this challenging time.
1. Just Kids by Patti Smith — New York City
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe grew into their artistic power as friends, lovers, and collaborators just as the Big Apple became the cultural epicenter of the world. Smith’s memoir, which chronicles their relationship as they reach the brink of fame, visits sacred sites in old New York where the two rubbed elbows with people like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allen Ginsberg, and Andy Warhol. Their bohemian life, from a ramshackle Brooklyn apartment to the hallowed halls of the Chelsea Hotel, invokes a bygone New York before finance bros colonized Manhattan and artists were the city’s shining stars.
Patti Smith gave a Bowie-style middle finger to gender long before queer identities were split into acronyms. Mapplethorpe explored sexuality with an artistic ferocity that eventually sparked debates over censorship in America. Their artistic triumphs left an indelible mark on queer culture as we know it today. Just Kids is a celebration of both the luminaries and the city that fueled their fire.
2. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann — Venice, Italy
This 1912 novella by Thomas Mann follows a 50-year-old writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, on an impulsive journey to the Queen of the Adriatic where he becomes obsessively enamored with a beautiful (and alarmingly young) Polish boy. During his stay, the city becomes the epicenter of a cholera outbreak, and Aschenbach’s irrational longing leads to his demise.
The parallels between modern times and Mann’s pandemic, based on a Venetian cholera outbreak in 1911, are frightening. It’s a timely reminder to stay home — even if you’re raring for a meet-cute with a Grade A slice of meat. Don’t be like Aschenbach. Both Venice and your virility will be intact once the coronavirus outbreak ends.
3. Less by Andrew Sean Greer — Mexico, Italy, Japan, Germany, Morocco, and many more
Andrew Sean Greer’s satirical send-up of a semi-successful writer on the dawn of his 50th birthday is a delightful beach read (i.e. an easy, breezy ray of sunshine). The story follows Arthur Less, “the first homosexual ever to grow old,” as he avoids attending a former boyfriend’s wedding by accepting invitations to events all over the world. Hilarity ensues as the lovable Less encounters unexpected hiccups throughout his journey, each one making him more endearing than the last. This feel-good queer travel book is just as poignant as it is side-splitting, a feat that earned Greer the Pultizer Prize for Fiction in 2018.
4. Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen — United States
In 2017, GLAAD Award-winning journalist Samantha Allen set out on a road trip to visit queer enclaves in conservative American states. Throughout her travels, Allen shares personal anecdotes about transitioning from a confused Mormon boy to a happily married trans woman.
From interviews with people like the executive director of Equality Utah and a black trans activist in Texas, Allen paints a rainbow-hued picture of areas often overlooked in favor of LGBTQ hubs like New York or Los Angeles. Her adventures in what many may consider flyover country are an eye-opener as to where queer Americans can find community in the 21st century.
5. When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan — Brooklyn, New York
When Brooklyn Was Queer is the LGBTQ history no one told you about because they were too busy discussing gay life in Manhattan (yawn!). Hugh Ryan’s rigorous research on New York’s hippest hood chronicles Brooklyn before Stonewall — when poets like Walt Whitman ruled the roost, and queer life flourished among the borough’s waterfront. Be it bourgeois Brooklyn Heights or the nefarious Navy Yard, Brooklyn has a long history as a gay hotspot, and Ryan’s astonishing account leaves no stone unturned in examining the evidence.
6. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrew Lawlor — United States
Twenty-three-year-old Paul has a special secret: He can transform from a boy to a girl at the drop of a hat, and he uses this sci-fi superpower to his sexual advantage. This gender-queer Bildungsroman travels all around America, proving that gender is fluid no matter where you go and playing with binary can be a whole lot of fun. There’s no one more suited to tell this tale than author Andrea Lawlor, a writing professor at Mount Holyoke College who identifies as non-binary.
7. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin — Paris, France
Many of the people and places explored in Giovanni’s Room were drawn from American author James Baldwin’s experiences while living abroad in Paris. Although much of the story takes place in the jail-cell style room of the protagonist’s lover, the story’s drag queens, hustlers, and queer cafes are all indicative of gay Parisian life in the 1950s.
The novel, which follows an American man named David in his life before, during, and after a lurid love affair with the eponymous character, mixes the elegance of Hemingway with the queerness of Vidal while exploring themes related to bisexuality, identity, and shame.
8. Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy — Berlin, Germany
Berlin is ostensibly the queer capital of Europe, and as evidenced by historian Robert Beachy, it was once the queer capital of the world. This non-fiction history lesson explores the origins of modern society’s understanding of homosexuality, starting in mid-19th century Berlin and leading to the Nazi raids that halted the city’s sexual revolution.
Reading about Berlin’s liberal past makes sense of its current place in the pantheon of queer destinations. Germany’s capital is the grand-daddy of LGBTQ culture, and Beachy’s book gives the city the praise it deserves.
If history books are too dry for your taste, Charles Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories offers a sweet snapshot of the city during Hitler’s meteoric rise. The series of fictional tales, used as the source material for the musical Cabaret, remembers the seedy side of queer Berlin right before the Iron Curtain came crashing down.
9. Find Me by André Aciman — Rome, Italy
If you haven’t read André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name — or at least seen the movie — chances are you’re living under a heterosexual rock. If so, start there. Find Me, the sequel to Oliver and Elio’s steamy Italian seaside romance, builds on the characters’ stories, so reading its predecessor is necessary.
Much like the first novel, Aciman uses his flowering prose to make each backdrop in Find Me (Rome, Paris, and New York City) appear more beautiful than the last. While the sequel may be a bit less buoyant than the first, it still whips up a series of love stories sweeter than a freshly picked apricot (yes, that’s a Call Me By Your Name reference). Although Elio and Oliver aren’t initially the central characters in this novel, it’s well worth the wait to read their second chapter.
10. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta — Nigeria
Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees chronicles the life of Ijeoma, a young lesbian forced to face her complicated relationship with sexuality in war-torn Nigeria. Although the story takes place in the 1960s, this 2015 novel is a sharp criticism of Nigeria’s current anti-LGBTQ laws. The year before Okparanta’s book was published, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill criminalizing same-sex relationships. This novel is a reminder of the atrocities faced by queer communities living outside liberal-minded countries in North America and Europe.
11. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee — San Francisco, California, and New York, New York
Getting lost in gay writer Alexander Chee’s collection of personal essays is easy. Whether it’s dressing in drag to strut down Castro Street in San Francisco or catering events at a Park Avenue maisonette in New York City, Chee’s powerful prose transports the reader to a new world with the opening line of each story. His memoirs are all chock full of wisdom — be it managing grief, tending a rose garden, or even writing a novel — but in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the essay “After Peter” feels most resonant. “The men I wanted to follow into the future are dead,” Chee writes in response to the friends and lovers he lost to AIDS. “I feel I owe them my survival.” With a book this exceptional, there’s no doubt his stories will live on long after we’re all gone.
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