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20 best LGBTQ books of 2020

These are the queer reads that changed (and provided an escape from) our world this year.

2020-12-31

Words: Uli Lenart / supplementary words by Will Stroude

Amid the uncertainty and tedium of 2020, books have offered a rare form of escape from the state of the world -  and in a difficult year, LGBTQ literature has continued to thrive.

From gripping memoirs to moving fiction and even poetry, there's been plenty to bury your head in this year, and Attitude book reviewer Uli Lenart of London's iconic Gay's the Word bookshop has selected 20 of the most important must-reads of the last 12 months.

Gay's the Word has stood on London's Marchmont Street for more than 40 years, offering LGBTQ book-lovers a sanctuary of spiritual and sexuality-related exploration. 

In a year that has seen the prolonged closure of independent retailers during various lockdowns, Gay's the Word have been offering an online order service, so you can stock up from the socially-distanced safety of home at gaystheword.co.uk - and help support a queer institution in the process.

For now though, here - in no particular order - are our 20 best LGBTQ reads of 2020... 

One of Them - Michael Cashman

(Bloomsbury)

The articulate and beautifully written autobiography by Michael Cashman, who played Colin in EastEnders, one half of the famous first gay snog in a British soap, and who would go on to become a pioneering gay right s activist, MEP and member of the House of Lords.

Cashman captivates with the extraordinary characters and events of his East End childhood, his sweep into the world of theatre and British film, becoming a playwright and protege of Alan Ayckbourn, through to the vitriolic media response to that kiss, the bricks through the window, the anti-Section-28 marches and his role as a founding member of Stonewall alongside Ian McKellen.

Adorned with praise from legends likes Simon Callow and Armistead Maupin, this is the story of a tenacious and compassionate gay rights hero. But more than anything, One of Them is a heart-breaking love story told by an incredible, kind man who fought for a world where that love would be respected. Brilliant and beautiful.

A Dutiful Boy - Mohsin Zaidi

(Vintage) 

A captivating, eloquent and genuinely inspiring memoir about growing up gay in a strict Muslim household. Today, Mohsin Zaidi is a top criminal barrister and trustee of Stonewall, but he was raised in a deprived part of east London. His family
was close-knit but very religiously conservative.

In a home where being gay was inconceivable, he felt alienated and alone. He attended a failing inner-city school where bullying and violence were an everyday reality. Despite all the obstacles, Mohsin used his drive to become the first person from his school to go to Oxford University, finding the freedom there to come out to his friends. However, when he returned home to visit his parents, he was confronted by his father in the company of a witch doctor he’d invited there to ‘cure’ Mohsin. 

Beautifully written, dignified and ultimately redemptive, this challenging story abounds with light and love.

Swimming in the Dark - Tomasz Jedrowski

(Bloomsbury)

One of the most astonishing contemporary gay novels we have ever read, Swimming in the Dark is extraordinarily beautiful, enrapturing and poignant.

In communist Poland in 1980, anxious, disillusioned Ludwik Glowacki, soon to graduate university, has been sent with the rest of his class to an enforced agricultural camp. Here, he is magnetically drawn to the strong and confident Janusz, and slowly, carefully, they begin to reach out to each other. After the camp ends, they steal away, deep into the Polish countryside, swimming in secluded lakes, reading forbidden books — and falling in love.

But with summer over, the pair return to Warsaw and the harsh realities of life under the Party. They must decide how they will survive; and in their different choices, find themselves torn apart.

Erotic, mesmeric, heartrending and brutal, this book is a masterpiece.

Shuggie Bain - Douglas Stuart

(Picador)

Written in transportive Glaswegian dialect, Shuggie Bain is an unflinching, brutal and deeply compassionate novel set in Thatcher-era, working-class Scotland. It tells the poignant story of a sensitive and lonely young boy and his challenging childhood growing up in impoverished 1980s public housing.

At the heart of the book is Shuggie’s charismatic but troubled mother Agnes, who is alienating those around her as she slowly drowns in alcoholism. Married to a serial cheater husband, Agnes tries to maintain her pride by looking good; the beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth paint a glamorous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor.

In reality, Agnes spends most of the family benefits on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. As Shuggie is left to support his mother as best he can, those around him sense that he is “no’ right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Dark, brutal, brilliant,

Winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, Shuggie Bain remains an astonishing read.

Real Life - Brandon Taylor

(Daunt Books)

Black, gay and grappling with campus life, biochemistry student Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding nematode worms. Although his father died a few weeks ago, he has kept this from friends, and didn’t go back to Alabama
for the funeral. Then, one weekend, Wallace sleeps with somebody he shouldn’t have, ushering fresh vulnerability into his controlled existence.

Long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize, Real Life beautifully dissects themes of loss, rejection, sexual violence and racism with forensic, but compassionate insight. 

Shelter in Place - David Leavitt

(Bloomsbury)

 Set during the aftermath of Trump’s election victory in 2016 amongst a small group of left-wing New Yorker’s this book delivers immersive and stylish storytelling, wit, intelligence and a good dose of mischief. 

A sumptuous, accomplished and hilarious novel about money, insecurity, generosity, loss and what makes a home a home. 

Heartbreak Boys - Simon James Green

(Scholastic)

Award-winning teen author Simon James Green mined more literary gold with his latest tender, truthful, but also laugh-out-loud novel. At the start of the summer, in a moment of impossibly awkward public spectacle, Jack and Nate find themselves dumped. The cherry on the cake is having to witness their respective exes, Dylan and Tariq, hook up and start posting all over Instagram about their perfect new life together.

Still reeling, but not to be outdone, Jake convinces Nate to embark on a road trip, creating their own Insta account to show Dylan and Tariq that they’re having an even better time. But as they fake it to make it along the drizzling motorways of Britain, could something genuine be blossoming beneath the facade?

Green’s books are like the best friend you wished you had as a shy, gay teen. Fantastic.

Rainbow Milk - Paul Mendez

(Dialogue Books)

This fresh and fearless literary debut charted the extraordinary story of 19-year-old Jesse, a Black, gay man rejected by his family and Jehovah’s Witnesses community, who runs away to London, where he finds work as a rent boy.

Deftly exploring everything from sex, drugs and music to the virulent racism experienced by the Windrush generation and their descendants, this is a novel that unveils a hidden narrative in British culture.

Daring, dexterous, exciting and accomplished, Mendez is a writer with plenty to say.

The Pink Line: The World's Queer Frontiers - Mark Gevisser

(Profile Books)

Based on six years of detailed research, The Pink Line is a landmark new study into global political homophobia and the shifting battlegrounds in the culture wars over sexual orientation and gender identity.

Humanising the political through people’s real lived experiences, author Mark Gevisser profi les LGBTQ+ individuals from nine countries around the world to tell the story of how queer rights have become one of the world’s new human rights frontiers: the pink line.

From transgender mothers in Russia to queer Palestinians in Tel Aviv, from transitioning teenagers in the American Mid-West to the daily life of queer people in Mexico, Malawi and Uganda, this powerful and often moving book maps out the often fraught new queer global landscape. The Pink Line is about geopolitics, the internet and the media, nationalism and modernity, about religion and sovereignty, ideological neocolonialism, culture wars, power and persecution.

Written with a lightness of touch, it’s a book every LGBTQ+ person should read.

The Glamour Boys - Chris Bryant

(Bloomsbury)

Extensively researched, richly detailed and absolutely fascinating, The Glamour Boys reveals the untold tale of the gay British politicians who were among the first to warn Britain of the danger of Hitler’s rise to power, and the most vocal in demanding an end to the government’s policy of appeasement.

Many of the men – forced to negotiate the constant threat of exposure due to their sexuality and the ruin it would bring – had spent time in Berlin during the 1920s and 30s, enjoying the relative freedoms that the Weimar period had offered. Witnessing the terrifying ascendancy of the Nazi party, a few became spies, while others saw the brutality in Hitler’s camps first-hand.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain detested this rebel group, and had them followed, harassed and threatened with being ‘outed’ – yet they continually spoke up.

Using previously unseen archive material, Chris Bryant MP tells a story that has been deliberately suppressed, until now. An incredible achievement and a hugely significant contribution to queer history.

To the End of the World - Rupert Everett

(Little, Brown)

Part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-filmmaking diary, this is the exceptionally well-written third autobiography from actor Rupert Everett. It tells the story of how he set out to make The Happy Prince – about Oscar Wilde's last days – and how that 10-year quest drove him to the edge, demanding every last atom of resilience and determination he had. I

It is impossible to overstate just how ingenious and brilliant this book is; fearless, soulful and so articulate that every single page simply mesmerizes. Traveling across Europe for the film, Rupert weaves together beautifully rendered tales from his past, remembering wild times, freak encounters and lost friends. Yes, there are the celebrities, but more than that, there are deliciously real, eccentric characters from his past, offering glimpses into a vanished world.

We encounter his glamorous but down-at-heel Aunt Peta, who introduces Rupert to the joys of make-up, aged three. In '90s Paris, his great friend Lychee burns bright, and is gone. While in '70s London, Rupert recalls the gut-wrenching scene when his ‘beyond size zero' teenage-self gets expelled from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Wilde famously wrote: ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train’ – if Oscar was around today, this is the book he’d be reading.

How Much of These Hills is Gold - C Pam Zhang

(Little, Brown)

A beautifully written Booker longlisted novel set in the 1950s, California Gold Rush. Two young Chinese Americans siblings cross a landscape with a gun in their hands and the body of their father on their backs, searching for a place to give him a proper burial.

A remarkable story about gender, family and belonging. 

LOTE - Shola von Reinhold

(Jacaranda Books)

Inventive and genre-bending this decadent, undulating queer literary debut is concerned with the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while examining the obscurement of Black figures from history.

When solitary Mathilda’s finds a photograph of queer Black Modernist poet Hermia Druitt, her Transfixtions take her on an extraordinary journey. 

No Modernism Without Lesbians - Diana Souhami

(Head of Zeus)

Evocative and insightful biographical history from superb memoirist, Diana Souhami. A portal into the lives of trailblazing publisher Sylvia Beach; patron of artists Bryher; society hostess Natalie Barney, and groundbreaking writer Gertrude Stein. Be transported into the worlds of a singular group of women in Paris, between the wars. 

You Exist Too Much - Zaina Arafat

(Little, Brown)

Told in vignettes that flash between the US and the Middle East, Zaina Arafat’s powerful debut novel traces her bisexual Palestinian-American lead character’s progress from blushing teen to creative and confused adulthood. Real and deliciously messy. 

Tongues of Fire - Seán Hewitt

(Jonathan Cape)

In a world suddenly turned fraught, this tender first poetry collection appears like a secret remedy to heal and enchant the heart. In Tongues of Fire, Hewitt crafts poems of intense beauty and endless range, which glisten with queer desire, from the rustle and rhythms of nature to men hooking up in the woods. There is sex, grief and loss, and also light, hope and renewal. There are hymns to a father and meditations on the consolations of the natural world.

Considered and poised, every line in this stunning compilation surprises and nurtures.

The Air Year - Caroline Bird

(Carcanet)

A riotous and revealing poetry collection about desire, falling short of expectation and addiction. The Air Year is a time of flight, transition and suspension: signatures scribbled on the sky.

Bird's speakers exist in a state of unrest, trapped in a liminal place between take-off and landing, undeniably lost. Shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best Collection. 

No Shame - Tom Allen

(Hodder & Stoughton)

Comedian, TV presenter and Bake Off: An Extra Slice regular Tom Allen served up an autobiography that was sharp, tender – and, of course, funny. The working-class son of a coach driver, Tom grew up in ’90s suburban Bromley, and with a distinctive voice, eccentric style and an obsession with Noel Coward, he felt like he was born in the wrong century.

Sharing his often laugh-out-loud stories, Tom reflects on growing up, his secret longing for boys at school, his supportive family, and his attempts to come out and find love. We adored this hilarious and nurturing book.

In Their Shoes: Navigating Non-Binary Life - Jamie Windust

(Jessica Kingsley Press)

Navigate non-binary life with this articulate, funny memoir/guide from model, writer and editor-in-chief of Fruitcake magazine, Jamie Windust.

The perfect antidote to trans misrepresentation in certain sections of the media, In Their Shoes shines a light on non-binary life. Jamie writes about fashion, relationships, family, mental health, their career and key debates. From trying on clothes in secret to first dates, polyamorous liaisons and pronouns, they use their struggles to create this care package for their community, full of insight, politics and humour.

Love After Love - Ingrid Persaud

(Faber)

A heartwarming novel with a major gay character set in Trinidad shortlisted for the 2020 Costa First Novel Award.

Meet the Ramdin-Chetan family: forged through loneliness, broken by secrets, saved by love. Irrepressible Betty Ramdin, her shy son Solo and their marvellous lodger, Mr Chetan, form an unconventional household. Beautiful and heart-breaking. 

To order these and other LGBTQ books online visit gaystheword.co.uk.