Pride and prejudice: the best books to help with coming out

Everyone needs books, particularly the newly gay. Books make us feel less alone, and there is nothing more strengthening than reflections of our own complicated selves.

Yet most of the best books that might help with coming out are simply about the private yearnings we try to hide. Bookshops’ rainbow-jacketed YA fiction displays will change young lives; thank God for that. But all over the world there are women and men to whom exposure would mean imprisonment, disaster. For them, and all those who aren’t riotously born that way, great coming out books are often those whose protagonists come out to no one at all, not even themselves, yet which have a thrilling whiff of queerness.

Simply buying our first book by an author who might be gay can feel like a tremulous act of outness. But the process can begin earlier, when a character’s moment of same-sex love discreetly blows our minds. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway isn’t chiefly remembered for gayness, although her memory of “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” 30 years before, when she is kissed on the lips by Sally Seton, once shook me as it must shake so many sensitive proto‑gays.

Iris Murdoch’s fiction had the same effect. Her novels, unfortunately, lack the hot Sapphic-philosopher action that characterised her life. Nevertheless, her cheering kaleidoscope of straight and gay (male) love, her honesty about the pain of longing and her characters’ sexual adaptability mark all her books, but particularly my favourite, The Nice and the Good.

Vanessa Redgrave in Mrs Dalloway (1997) … ‘it once shook me as it must shake so many sensitive proto-gays’

Poetry is another secret weapon. Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke with You” is an intimate homage to seeing one’s beloved in public; the earlier, filthier collections of Carol Ann Duffy, particularly Standing Female Nudeand Selling Manhattan, are awash with hot skin and private sounds. Memorise them; lines such as “far from the loud laughter of men / our secret life stirred” can accompany you anywhere, like tiny superpowers.

Even better, poetry inspires. Mary Oliver, one of the American greats, is less known than she should be, beyond the bleak universe of motivational social media posts. Yet, perhaps partly because of her gayness, so many of her poems can bring strength and hope to those trapped in a bad relationship, the wrong relationship, the wrong life: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” has sustained me, as I hope it might you.

Alison Bechdel, acclaimed for her stunning books about her parents and the idea of the Bechdel test, first sidled to niche fame with the horribly titled cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For, now available in book form. DTWOFhas all the insight and humanity of great fiction; it just happens to be a funny soap about a group of American gay people, raising families, falling in love, having sex and going on too many marches.

And, if you want to feel that there is hope, despite everything, read Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a moving, riveting account of how families with children who are different do sometimes find a way through the complexity and increase the world’s sum of love, and pride.