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Uncovering The Past: A Guide To The 10 Best Gay History Books You Need To Read!

Uncovering The Past: A Guide To The 10 Best Gay History Books You Need To Read!

Wars. Politicians. Roman conquests and the Dark Ages. We’ve all sat through the history lectures, and we’ve all done the exams, but it might surprise you to learn that one of the greatest, most polarizing struggles known to modern society is hardly mentioned at all in today’s schools and colleges. 

What is it, this long-lived debate, this ongoing string of to-and-fro in pursuit of peace and acceptance? 

Well, gay history, of course. And thankfully, today, we finally have many amazing gay history books to learn from.

The exploration of gay history in media has come a long way from the propagandized demonization that it experienced in the early days of Hollywood, and we even have a federally endorsed ‘LGBT History Month’ that is celebrated in a wide variety of places across the world such as the US, UK, most of Western Europe, and Australia, but that’s not to say that it is perfect.

historical gay non-fiction - best gay history books - history of gay literature - best books on gay history

Exploring gay history is about two things. The first is a celebration – of realizing how far we have come as a society in the last few decades in terms of acceptance and the dissolution of bias and prejudice. The second thing, however, is to remember how much work is yet to be done and how much negativity still exists out there for queer people to face on a day-to-day basis.

Thankfully, however, we have the brave voices of both the past and the present to guide us. The writers and the journalists have lived through their unique version of what it is like living as a queer person and have decided to use their talents to share what they have learned and what they see about the world around them – good and bad.

While this article focuses more or less exclusively upon queer history featuring people of the same sex, if you’re interested in reading into LGBTQIA+ history in general as well as transgender issues and related media, please refer to our earlier article ‘Stories of the Queer Community – A Written History’ available here. We highly recommend expanding your queer history knowledge – as LGBT representation (not just the L, B or G) is essential for our community to thrive.

Queer Literature

Don't have time to read them all? Why not try listening to them? Audible is a great platform for listening to audiobooks because it offers a wide selection of books, including bestsellers and exclusive content. With Audible, you can listen to your favorite books on-the-go, whether you're commuting, working out, or doing household chores.

The Audible app also has features like adjustable narration speed, a sleep timer, and the ability to create bookmarks, making it easy to customize your listening experience. Additionally, Audible offers a membership program that gives members access to a certain number of audiobooks per month, making it a cost-effective option for avid listeners. 

A great resource for people who want to maximize their time and make the most out of their daily activities. Try a free 30-day trial from Audible today, and you'll get access to a selection of Audible Originals and audiobooks, along with a credit to purchase any title in their premium selection, regardless of price (including many of the books on this list!) 

For ebook lovers, we also recommend Scribd, basically the Netflix for Books and the best and most convenient subscription for online reading. While they have a catalog comprising over half a million books including from many bestselling authors, for some of the books on this list, you'll still have to purchase individually - either as a paperback or eBook to load on your Kindle - due to publishing house restrictions. 

But enough of that. Now let’s get to the business side of things. Ready to learn new things about our world that you’ll wonder how you never heard? Then let’s go! Time to explore ten of the most famous, most read-worthy gay history books known to mankind!

I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear

to my heart, that proud cur at the garbage can

in the rain. It’s wonderful to admire oneself

with complete candor, tallying up the merits of each

of the latrines. 14th Street is drunken and credulous,

53 rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good

love a park and the inept a railway station,

and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up

and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head

in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air

crying to confuse the brave “It’s a summer day,

and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”

From Frank O’Hara’s ‘Homosexuality’
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Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders (2019)

Stonewall. The beginning of the (modern) fight for gay rights and equality is a perfect place to start this list – just as this illustration-rich reframing of the famous Stonewall Riots is a perfect fit for the almost-start of the educational process – early primary. 

While remaining unbiased is crucial in broaching new subjects in children’s literature – as it is in any form of education and when it comes to absolutely any subject – this book captures the essence of why being an accepting, open person is important exceptionally well without erasing or compromising the moral of the actual event.

Accessible for younger minds without being watered-down or taking credit away from where it is due, Sanders captures the inspirational nature of the event and the progress it allowed perfectly – ensuring that every group and brave face that enabled such an amazing moment in history to take place sees a showcase and representation.

Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution doesn’t just address gay rights issues but also the political tensions and passionate buildup of the motivation behind the riot and protests in general, allowing for a kid-friendly yet highly intuitive introduction to real-life issues no matter where and how they might present themselves.

Children’s books set up to leave a lasting positive impact without coming across as overpowering, being somewhat censored or rewritten for children, or bearing bias are rare, and that is exactly what makes this book a wonderful choice for both young and old.

Stonewall- A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders (2019) - best gay history books

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Hidden From History by Martin B Duberman (1990)

We spoke of uncovering gay history earlier, and here’s where the exploration truly starts. Hidden From History – Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past is detailed, attentive, caring, and revolutionary – but even then remains an admitted drop in the sea that is the dynamic, persistent presence of gay culture and queerness throughout all of human history.

As much as those of persecuted races seek to reclaim their culture and rebuild the past from the aftermath of colonization or oppression, the same is true within the pages of Hidden From History for those identifying as queer. For, as the book describes, ‘gayness’ is no modern phenomenon, nor can it in any way be perceived as fundamentally ‘un-normal’ – it comes from everywhere and exists within everyone. 

Taking an active, energetic approach, Duberman and the other editors responsible for the book (Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey) use the pages of Hidden From History to venture from Victorian London to ancient Japan and China, taking off the veil created by such long erasure, and showcasing the striking presence and validity of queer influences in our past. 

Described as ‘A landmark of a book and a landmark of ideas that will shatter ignorance and delusion’ by Professor Catharine Stimpson of the Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University, Hidden From History is sure to be a thrilling and revealing read regardless whether you’re queer, an ally, or simply curious of the unknown and hidden, untold corners of history.

Hidden From History by Martin B Duberman (1990) - best gay history books


The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts (1982)

The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk covers the life and times of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk – from his early career, status as the first ever openly gay American elected politician, and then assassination at the hands of disgruntled adversary Dan White on the 27th November 1978.

Positively full to the brim with tragedy, passion, riots, and intrigue – this is no coffee-table warmer.

Since, and thanks in part to the author – legendary San Francisco Chronicle journalist Shilts, who was a hero in his own right – Milk’s legacy has become a source of great inspiration for the gay community, and that strong spirit is captured perfectly within the pages of The Mayor of Castro Street.

Held as ‘A symbol of what gays can accomplish and the dangers they face in doing so’ upon his induction into Time’s ‘100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century’, this book about Milk and the story behind it has inspired a movie (Milk, 2008), a documentary (The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984) and an opera (Harvey Milk), which is not to mention the phenomenal footprint of his name and legacy upon gay rights organizations and programs all across the world. 

A thrilling, captivating story featuring true, incredibly influential events, The Mayor of Castro Street is almost a novel in non-fiction, bibliographical form. Meet the Mayor himself, take a step inside his shoes, and explore the life of the brave, unintentional martyr that would be.

The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts (1982) - best gay history books

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And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987)

As the second work from San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts on this list following ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’, one can begin to imagine the size of the impact he had upon the publication of queer history. Shilts was the first openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and remained so for some time – actively writing and performing journalism on queer subject matters for his entire career.

In contrast to the politically-orientated focus of ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’, And the Band Played On takes an entirely different angle – one that approaches, chronicles, and explores the discovery of the immune disease AIDS and its societal and medical impact. Emotions that little could understand. The chaos that none could calm. Dark confusion and fuel on a fire of bias and discrimination already smoldering for centuries.

Performing mainly as a journalistic investigation, the book provides a well-fleshed timeline of events and summaries, allowing the reader to fully immerse themselves in the moment and the meaning until the book’s span concludes in 1985 with actor Rock Hudson announcing that he had contracted the virus.

While the book naturally met with some criticism due to its pioneering, unexpected nature and led by some inaccuracies because the pandemic was still developing at the time, And the Band Played On is nonetheless a positively crucial piece of writing – not just dissecting gay history, but solidly lodged as a part of it in its own right.

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987) - best gay history books

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The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini (2020)

Full title running as ‘The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America’, Cervini’s debut work was a massive hit worldwide and has set him in stone as not only a Cambridge and Harvard graduate but also a respected queer historian.

The work pulls skillfully from a plethora of firsthand accounts, personal documents, and declassified federal resources to reveal the system behind the discrimination against gay federal employees in a light never shone before. In its pages, one explores a crossroads in the relationship between queer people and America, picking apart the why, the how, and the who of each stage in the path toward equality.

Cervini showcases the conflict as what it is: a battle for rights, a struggle for acceptance fought between the regiment of a country – of the world – and those trying to live their lives in peace within its shores. Bravely taking the banner, he reveals the discrimination, betrayal, pain, and shunning experienced by queer government employees.

The Deviant’s War has a staggering array of awards to its name – Winner of the 2021 Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and is also one of The Washington Post’s Top 50 Nonfiction Books of 2020. But if you’re not one to believe in awards, listen to the readers – the book has a solid five stars on most platforms and rows upon rows of glowing reviews. 

The Deviant’s War by Eric Cervini (2020) - best gay history books

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Good As You by Paul Flynn (2017)

But enough about the States – time for our journey through the literary world to focus on another continent altogether. While the Old World is famously accepting when it comes to cultural matters – at least now that we’re through the Dark Ages – some fractions of Europe have had a much less easy ride of changing with the times.

The story of gay rights in the UK has always been a complex matter, entwined deeply with the country’s Christian background and cultural patterns. As was the case in most countries, committing ‘an act of homosexuality’ was a crime until 1967, and even then, legalization came with a wide variety of conditions and exceptions that continue to prove problematic now, even in the modern day.

As conveyed by the full title, Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride – 30 Years of Gay Britain, Good As You covers many of the important modern events of gay history in the UK with great expertise and a different lens than other pieces – taking a street-wise, ground-view approach to the issue to walk the reader down the road of troubled waters and pushing for equality against all possible opposition.

Superbly written, emotional, heartfelt, deeply in touch, and lined with a personal connection, Flynn’s account of modern gay history in Britain takes one through the tough and the tender, extending on to the legalization of gay marriage in the UK,  making – at least in one way – gay people ‘as good’ as everyone else. 

Good As You by Paul Flynn (2017) - best gay history books

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Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé (2010)

We’ve delved into gay history on the streets, but now it’s time to venture into the even more, confronting world of gay history on the battlefield – specifically around the world wars.

In a time when male recruitment was mostly mandatory and there was little room for social subtlety, being queer was more difficult than ever. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II – this being the book’s full title – provides an in-depth and immersive glance into the world of gay soldiers and the uniquely difficult position held by the queer man in an increasingly military-orientated society.

Coming Out Under Fire doesn’t just cover issues directly relating to war and wartime, however, but also extends a magnifying glass over the social relationship between the US military and gay people as a whole – examining the controversial ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in its many facets and capacities, the personal lives of gay GIs, and how all of this reflects onto today’s military. 

Bérubé unearths the accusations, dives into the inward suspicion, and describes a war not just fought out on the battlefield but also within the spirits of gay soldiers as they tried to preserve their identity and integrity in a time and place close to living hell.

Not just for war history buffs or gay history buffs exclusively, Coming Out Under Fire provides an incredibly interesting insight into both queer military practices and the inner workings of the US war machine. Definite recommend.

Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé (2010) - best gay history books

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David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock (2017)

While music may seem like a bit of an odd topic to associate with gay history at first, when you start to think a little deeper into the topic, one begins to realize how much of a strong tie the queer and musical community share. 

Also, artistic expression is famously one of the strongest backbones behind the gay community, and nothing says pride and creativity more than the creation of world-famous music. 

Providing a progressive soundtrack from the seventies to the scene of the modern day, queer and gay musicians such as Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Elton John and Adam Lambert are known to all and beloved by many. And in turn, David Bowie’s Made Me Gay provides a lively, fascinating journey through the world of queer presence and influence in the music industry.

While David Bowie’s own story about homosexuality is a lot more complicated than it is often portrayed on paper, with the artist himself making conflicting statements on his sexuality up until his death, it remains undeniable that his one-time status as a queer icon left a lasting and positive impression on the world around him.

A definite must-read for all music buffs and those sharing the same childhood musical icons as most of the rest of those on earth, David Bowie’s Made Me Gay unabashedly splits open that one niche of gay history that we all know is there, yet somehow overlook so easily. 

David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock (2017) - best gay history books

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Strangers by Graham Robb (2005)

While we talked about dismissing the concept that being gay was always associated with stigma with ‘Hidden From History’, the importance of this piece does not mean that our era is the only one in which gay people have been under threat and faced discrimination.

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century is a perfect example of this and an intriguing way to explore the challenges we experience today through the lens of a long-time time. How did gay people make contact with one another and know how to identify with one another without modern technology and globalization? What was the day-to-day life of a 19th-century homosexual like?

Setting out to demonstrate that there was gay culture before Stonewall and the establishment of a rights movement, the book takes to the poets, politicians and regular people of yore to explore a queer world unlike the one we live in today. The riddles and balance between religion, the outside world, and social expectations were harder to balance than ever, and even the most devoted of relationships saw either erasure or judgment.

That’s not to say everything with Strangers is doom and gloom; however – the book carries an energy much to the opposite. Hailed as “A brilliant work of social archaeology – a major historical contribution.” by Adam Goodman of the New York Times, there’s somewhat of an entrancing romantic-novel-esque aspect to this book, and perhaps that is what makes it such an appealing, gripping read. Worth a try!

Strangers by Graham Robb (2005) - best gay history books


The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser (2019)

“The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America” by Charles Kaiser is a comprehensive and fascinating history of the gay rights movement in America. The book covers the period from 1940 to 1996, and it offers an in-depth look at the social, political, and cultural changes that have shaped the LGBTQ+ community in America over the decades.

One of the strengths of this book is its scope, which covers a wide range of topics. Kaiser delves into the history of gay life in America, from the early days of the gay rights movement to the present day. He examines the social, political, and cultural changes that have shaped the LGBTQ+ community over the years, and he offers a nuanced and balanced perspective on the progress that has been made and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Another strength of this book is Kaiser’s writing style. He presents a wealth of information in an accessible and engaging way. The book is easy to read, and it is well-researched and well-sourced. Kaiser also presents a wide range of voices and perspectives, which gives the book a rich and nuanced view of gay life in America.

The book also covers a vast array of events and personalities that have marked the LGBTQ+ history in America, from the Stonewall riots to the AIDS crisis, from Harvey Milk to the ACT-UP movement. This provides a comprehensive view of LGBTQ+ history and makes it a valuable resource for anyone interested in the subject.

Overall, “The Gay Metropolis” is an important and valuable contribution to the literature on the gay rights movement in America. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of the gay rights movement and provides a valuable perspective on the ongoing struggle for equality.

The Gay Metropolis The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser - best Gay Fiction Books

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The LGBTQ+ History Book (distributed) by DK (2023)

And how better to wrap things up than with a colorful, rich work that mirrors the title of this article? 

This book is not publicly available at the time of writing, with a scheduled release in approximately May 2023, but expectations are already high, and the book’s origin from internationally known British publishing signals a massive milestone between gay representation and modern media.

Described as a ‘diverse, global account exploring the most important moments, movements, and phenomena’ of queer and gay history, The LGBTQ+ History Book includes not only biographical entries from familiar faces such as Oscar Wilde, poet Sappho and Harvey Milk but also interviews with current popular figures and historians on the subject, leading to a rounded, well informed, and polished reading experience. 

While history books trying to take on a more generalized approach tend to brush over smaller yet equally important moments for the better-known, larger ones, the roadmap for The LGBTQ+ History Book strides confidently ahead to set it apart from this trend and provide something new to the metaphorical table. Only time will tell just how comprehensive it manages to be and how many legends, pivotal dates, and crucial facts it manages to cover.

So, if you’re interested in checking this book out when it does release, investigate preordering options soon. We don’t know much yet, but critics and readers alike can agree that this is a heavily anticipated addition to the chronicles of queer history.

The LGBTQ+ History Book (distributed) by DK (2023) - best gay history books

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