18 Classics of LGBTQ Literature

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UNITED STATES – JUNE 01: Author James Baldwin (Photo by Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

3. Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin, the author of Giovanni’s Room, was a man born before his time. Or, rather, he helped clear the way for gay rights in America and for generations of LGBT authors after him. Baldwin, you see, was a more-or-less out gay man in 1950’s America (Giovanni’s Room was published in 1956). He was also African American in a country that was struggling mightily with racism and civil rights. Indeed, Baldwin had such a difficult time that he eventually moved to France at the age of 24.

In the novel, David, a young American, begins an affair with an Italian man, Giovanni. The entire story is narrated by David as he waits for “the most terrible morning of my life” when Giovanni will be executed for committing murder.

During the course of the novel, David recounts his earlier homosexual experiences. In one incident, he and another boy, Joey, have their first sexual encounter at a sleepover. However, David later bullies Joey at school in order to “feel like a man”. Other family members, including his father, only want David to become a “real” man.

David later drops out of college and travels throughout Europe. He later meets Giovanni, a bartender, and begins their affair. Baldwin also takes the opportunity to explore gender roles; Giovanni is an outright misogynist, while David’s sort-of girlfriend expresses a desire to live under the power of a husband. Though it has one hell of a downer ending, Giovanni’s Room is a masterful exploration of gender and sexuality in a suppressed, fearful culture.