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Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden by Carl Van Vechten; map of Berlin

A Gay Memoir of Pre-WWII Berlin

Berlin in the 1920s was the “gay capital of Europe.” Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was busy lobbying the Reichstag to decriminalize homosexuality; activist Adolf Brand ran a gay magazine titled Der Eigene; and bars and nightclubs abounded in Schöneberg, the city’s gay village.

So it is no surprise that a footloose young gay writer, stifled by propriety in his native England, should want to visit. Christopher Isherwood had been born into the landed gentry in Cheshire in 1904 and educated at Repton and then Cambridge (from which he did not graduate). He had heard about Berlin from his friend, the gay poet W.H...  >> Read more >>

Walter Shirlaw (1838-1909), Studies of Bathers

A Bookish Gay Boy Finds Himself

Saeed Jones’s first book, Prelude to Bruise, won several awards for poetry when it was published six years ago. Now he has published a memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, which tells the story of growing from a young, gay boy scared of what he was feeling into a man who accepts it. How We Fight won the Lambda Literary award for best gay memoir/biography in 2020.

The book covers 1998 through 2011, age 12 to 25, from when Saeed has his first real inkling that he is gay until his mother dies of a heart condition. As a child, Jones reads his mother’s books, including James Baldwin’s Another Country, with “men kissing men, then kissing women, then kissing men again.”..  >> Read more >>

Collage of drag queens

Dragged Through the Centuries

In Drag: The Complete Story, Simon Doonan offers a summary of drag from the ancients to RuPaul. Doonan’s book is not a history in the traditional sense. Rather, it comprises nine chapters covering topics such as Glamour, Butch, Comedy, and Radical drag. The chapters variously contain historical essays, examples of cross-dressing both ancient and contemporary, profiles and anecdotes of individual drag artists, and plenty of photographs. Like its namesake, the book is nothing if not lavishly visual.

Drag was once defined, in Doonan’s words, as “women’s clothing worn by a man—or vice versa—for the purposes of entertainment.” All manner of male and female impersonators can fit this definition, even if they wouldn’t necessarily have used the term...  >> Read more >>

William Hogarth, The Industrious 'Prentice a Favourite, and entrusted by his Master, 1747

A Gay Tale of 18th-Century London

molly n. A Miss Molly; an effeminate fellow, a sodomite. —Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd ed., 1788)

In Joseph Chapman: My Molly Life, James Lovejoy has given us an entertaining and often sobering tale of gay life in eighteenth-century London—a queer Dickens, though set in the reign of George III (1760–1820) rather than that of Victoria (1837–1901).

Born to a waterman and his prize-fighting wife, Joe is orphaned at the age of 16 after his father and then mother die. He is sent to a miserable school for “unfortunate boys,” where he falls in love with another student, nicknamed Chowder...  >> Read more >>

Houston, Texas

On Growing Up Poor & Gay in Houston

Bryan Washington’s first book, Lot, is a collection of short stories about growing up a poor, gay person of color in Houston. It has been widely acclaimed since it came out last year; most recently, it won best gay fiction in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards.

Half of the stories chronicle episodes in the life of narrator Nicolás, one of three children “too dark for the blancos, too Latin for the blacks” who works from an early age at his family’s financially precarious restaurant. The other half are third-person narratives about freeloading cousins, youths looking for a break, baseball, drug dealers, and hustlers...  >> Read more >>

Sargent Proust Wilde Pozzi and Montesquiou

A True Story of Gay Paris

Julian Barnes’s latest book, The Man in the Red Coat, is reviewed by noted gay author Colm Tóibín in “Shadow Selves” in the August 20, 2020, issue of The New York Review of Books.

Tóibín’s review is long and rambling, and he gets so caught up in the fascinating details that I had to turn elsewhere to answer the basic question of “What is this book?” The answer: It tells the true story of a famous Parisian gynecologist of the Belle Époque (1870-1914) named Dr. Samuel Pozzi (second from right) and of the circle of æsthetes in which he traveled...  >> Read more >>