It’s a rite of passage for every young gay man to read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, the classic tale of a teenager coming to terms with his homosexuality. I first read it when I was 15 years old, hiding the book at the back of my wardrobe, terrified that anyone might find it and discover my terrible secret! It was dangerous, it was seductive, but it spoke to me in such a way that I felt sure it had been written for me alone, a conviction shared by many of its readers. White remains a hero, a stalwart, a champion for the ages.
Young female readers experienced similar self-recognition in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s witty and personal 1985 novel about a girl navigating the road towards self-acceptance in 1960s England. As with White, Winterson shares so many of her own experiences in the book that the reader feels a deep connection with the author.
Decades earlier, a generation of incredibly brave authors were writing about gay life at a time when newspapers and booksellers were reluctant to review or stock their books, but it’s impossible to imagine a literary landscape without Christopher Isherwood, Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin or Gore Vidal, each of whom helped to convince readers that the lives of others were just as interesting as the lives they recognised.
Because of them, many writers who might have been ghettoised as “gay fiction” have, through the quality of their work, successfully brought the counterculture into the mainstream. Sarah Waters, Philip Hensher, Emma Donoghue and Alan Hollinghurst are all hugely successful novelists whose work is read by readers of all sexualities. Thankfully, the days of EM Forster hiding the manuscript of Maurice under the mattress are long behind us.
A heterosexual writer who has been at the forefront of championing LGBTQ rights for many decades is John Irving. In The World According to Garp, we meet the former NFL footballer Robert Muldoon, now Roberta Muldoon, a post-operative transsexual. For a writer to explore this subject in the late 1970s took a lot of guts and the book was an enormous success, establishing Irving’s career. It’s a subject he returned to in 2012 with In One Person, a novel about someone who is bisexual, which features several transgender characters trying to survive in contemporary America.
In non-fiction, David France’s How to Survive a Plague has become the definitive study of the Aids epidemic and how it swept through a generation of young men in the 1980s and 90s. France writes about the terror that people felt as HIV and Aids took hold of communities, stealing the lives of so many, about the activists who brought it to public attention, the politicians who refused to speak about it, and the doctors and scientists who worked on treatments and cures.
Similarly, Lillian Faderman’s long and involving book The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle is an exhaustive and detailed account of the battle to win civil rights for members of the LGBTQ community and for those seeking same-sex marriages. Happily, young people in the west today face far less prejudice than those who went before them, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to recognise the bravery of those who fought, and sometimes died, in order to build a more inclusive world.
• John Boyne’s children’s novel My Brother’s Name Is Jessica will be published by Puffin in April. February is LGBT history month.