Teenagers struggling to make sense of Arthur Dimmesdale’s conscience while reading The Scarlet Letter rarely consider the political implications of the books they’re assigned. Yet the books we require young Americans to read in school validate and underwrite current cultural values. A high school curriculum declares what stories are worth telling and what varieties of human experience are worth understanding.
Relatively recent members of the high-school canon like Invisible Man and Beloved force students to encounter the roots of present-day racial tensions in America. Some schools use English-language texts like Things Fall Apart and In the Time of the Butterflies to wedge open unfamiliar cultures and histories. Still, these books are anomalies in a core curriculum still mainly composed of American and British “classics.”
The political standing and rights of LGBT citizens depends on our collective valuation of their experiences, and literature’s value lies in its ability to make seemingly alien experiences intelligible. Embedding queer stories — whether tragic, joyful, peculiar, mundane — in our collective literary consciousness strengthens feelings of empathy and shared humanity, which is the prerequisite for any significant advancement in civil rights.
The passions, anxieties, and angst of LGBT youth receive little visibility. Including books with gay and lesbian themes in high school curricula could go a long way towards lifting the shame and stigma of being a gay teenager — a significant task in our day and age, when the bullying and harassment endured by many LGBT teens inevitably leads to higher rates of depression and suicide. Traditionalists may roll their eyes at what they see as pandering, but no one suggests nixing Macbeth. Here are five candidates good enough to ward off accusations of tokenism.
1. 'Orlando' by Virginia Woolf
While not strictly a book with “gay and lesbian themes,” this fantastical tale of a life lived both as man and woman skews assumptions about gender and sexuality. Writing against narrowly circumscribed ideas of love, Woolf reveals love and desire as fields of multiplicity and uncertainty. The fantastical narrative may appeal to teenagers more than the meditative style of Woolf's more widely taught works.
2. 'Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson
The page count will attract tired high-school readers, and Winterson’s tough, witty voice will seduce them. American audiences might be doubly shocked by Winterson’s frank exposure of religious hypocrisy, but this coming-of-age story of a young lesbian is an unsentimental portrait of resilience in the face of intolerance — exemplifying the spirit that America claims to value.
3. 'Billy Budd' by Herman Melville
Moby Dick remains one of the world’s greats. Yet an 800-page tome with chapters devoted to the fins and skulls of whales may intimidate even the most curious of adolescents. Stoic cannibal Queequeg resembles no other love object in the history of literature, and much of the high drama in Moby Dick occurs far beyond the point at which a high school reader may have arrived, gasping, at the ignoble oasis of SparkNotes. Ease into Melville with Billy Budd, the tale of a ship enthralled with a young man’s charisma and beauty — until a jealous shipmate destroys him. Homoerotic desire appears within the intensely masculine domain of the ship, a place as rigidly hierarchical and cliquish as high school.
4. 'Death in Venice' by Thomas Mann
The philosophical nuances of Mann’s extraordinary tale of obsession and the meaning of art may be skimmed, but Gustav von Aschenbach’s dizzying infatuation with a young boy throbs with sensuality and despair. Passion is pitched highest in the teenage years, the beginning of sexuality, and during middle age, the last pangs of it. Students may find the narrator’s angst strangely relatable.
5. 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker
The only book on this list likely to already appear on high-school reading lists, Walker’s book is the perfect introduction to theories of intersectionality, acknowledging the irresolvably tangled threads of race, gender, class, and sexuality rather than trying to handle each as a separate “issue.” The lesbian love affair is tender and depoliticized, a perfect display of the heart of LGBT rights — not the advertisement of some nebulous “gay lifestyle” but a defense of the right to love and companionship.