The best books that reveal LGBT life in the early 20th century

Who am I?

I’ve known all my life that I am gay. At age 50 I decided to try my hand at writing. After an image of two men kissing in a 1920s vehicle landed in my head, I began writing my Medicine for the Blues trilogy (Acquaintance is book one). But knowing nothing about LGBT history, I began a deep dive into gay and lesbian history, into the history of Portland and Oregon, into the era of the 1920s, the KKK, Prohibition, Freud, eugenics, and more. During 20 years of writing the trilogy, I’ve read dozens of books that roiled through my imagination and the information spilled out in the story.


I wrote...

Acquaintance

By Jeff Stookey,

Book cover of Acquaintance

What is my book about?

Acquaintance is a work of LGBT historical fiction, a gay love story set in 1923 when the Ku Klux Klan was growing in influence, the eugenics movement was passing human sterilization laws, illegal liquor was fueling corruption, and Freud was all the rage.

Based on extensive period research, the story follows young Dr. Carl Holman who returns from the horrors of WWI and meets an ambitious young jazz piano player named Jimmy Harper. They face many obstacles as their relationship unfolds over the course of the novel.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Invention of Heterosexuality

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

I love the subversive title of this book. If there is no “heterosexuality” then there is no “homosexuality.” A challenging read, because of the subtle and complex reasoning Katz uses to untangle early erotic/procreative/love relationship concepts that were very differently structured from our own homo/hetero dichotomy. He uses history to show the slow development of the concept of heterosexuality, and that it is not “an essential, eternal, normal.” Katz draws on Michel Foucault regarding ancient Greece, on the Puritans, the Victorians, on Krafft-Ebing, Freud, and Alfred Kinsey, showing how language reveals the changing ways of conceptualizing and valuing differing modes of sexual expression. The critiques of Freud are a revelation.

By Jonathan Ned Katz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invention of Heterosexuality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Heterosexuality," assumed to denote a universal sexual and cultural norm, has been largely exempt from critical scrutiny. In this boldly original work, Jonathan Ned Katz challenges the common notion that the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality has been a timeless one. Building on the history of medical terminology, he reveals that as late as 1923 the term "heterosexuality" referred to a "morbid sexual passion" and that its current usage emerged to legitimate men and women having sex for pleasure. Drawing on the works of Sigmund Freud, James Baldwin, Betty Friedan, and Michel Foucault, "The Invention of Heterosexuality" considers the effects…


Book cover of Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

This book was essential background for my trilogy. What I like most is its descriptions of the different sex practices of the different homosexual “types”—lower/working class men (“trade” or “wolves”) preferred anal intercourse with boys or young men (“punks” or “lambs”); upper class men preferred oral sex with “queens” or “fairies.” Focusing on the Pacific Northwest of the USA, Boag does great research into criminal and court records, which were some of the only records of these “aberrant” activities. A bonus is Boag’s tracing of the influence of the Oscar Wilde trial (1895) on attitudes in the Western USA.

By Peter Boag,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Same-Sex Affairs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the turn of the twentieth century, two distinct, yet at times overlapping, male same-sex sexual subcultures had emerged in the Pacific Northwest: one among the men and boys who toiled in the region's logging, fishing, mining, farming, and railroad-building industries; the other among the young urban white-collar workers of the emerging corporate order. Boag draws on police logs, court records, and newspaper accounts to create a vivid picture of the lives of these men and youths - their sexual practices, cultural networks, cross-class relations, variations in rural and urban experiences, and ethnic and racial influences.


Book cover of Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

A valuable first-person account in real time describing what it was like to be gay in early 20th century USA. Jeb is well-read in the homosexuality literature of his era, from Havelock Ellis to Walt Whitman. One sympathizes with Jeb’s shame and misery in a time when being homosexual was socially unacceptable and illegal. Yet his self-pity and social ineptitude can be exasperating. In time he makes some gay friends, but he is often ambivalent toward them. Eventually he does develop some confidence and self-assertiveness. Most admirable is his love of culture (books, art, movies, stage plays, concerts) and his affection for nature (weather, plants, scenery, etc.) which he describes so exquisitely. By sloth and lack of dedication, Jeb never achieved his ambitions as a writer, but he did leave us these diaries that so well describe his singular life.

By Ina Russell (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jeb and Dash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It occurred to me today with something of a shock how horrible it would be for this diary of mine to be pawed over and read unsympathetically after I am dead, by those incapable of understanding... And then the thought of the one thing even more dreadful and terrible than that - for my diary never to be read by the one person who would or could understand. For I do want it to be read - there is no use concealing the fact - by somebody who is like me, who would understand.
Jeb Alexander was a gay man…


Book cover of The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935)

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

This book taught me that the gay rights movement started long before Stonewall. Published in 1974, this little book opens by reporting on a Hungarian Dr. Benkert, who “devised” the term “homosexuality” in 1869 and argued for acceptance, making the 1969 Stonewall riots a 100th anniversary. In under 90 pages, the book gives a concise history of the movement against the 1871 German law that included Paragraph 175, which criminalized male homosexual acts. The authors go on to outline less robust movements in other European countries and the USA. Later chapters cover scientific inquiries, political connections with Nazism and Bolshevism, and short bios of significant movement figures.

By John Lauritsen, David Thorstad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Revised Edition of the seminal work on the history of the Gay movement; included discussion of science, the role of women, differences in individual countries, Socialism, and Oscar Wilde. Also includes notes on five pioneers, including Walt Whitman, Sir Richard Burton, and Edward Carpenter.


Book cover of Bertram Cope's Year

Jeff Stookey Why did I love this book?

While trying to learn about gay life in the 1920s, I was delighted to find this novel, “privately” published in 1919. One soon learns that Bertram Cope, who comes to teach at an undergraduate college as he works on an advanced degree, has a relationship with another young male with whom he plans to cohabit—interesting that two men could openly set up housekeeping together, even back then. Meanwhile an older matron, an aging homosexual man, and various young women hope to attract Cope’s attention. Though seen by some as a trivial social satire, Fuller’s light touch and subtle wit mask an undertone of eroticism and homosexual associations. His anonymous, authorial, third-person narrative voice is humorous and incisive, revealing his penetrating observations of social niceties and the layers of his characters’ maneuverings. Clever and understated, the book implies much that is never declared.

By Henry Blake Fuller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bertram Cope's Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Entertaining . . . eminently readable, distinguished by beautifully evoked period atmosphere and sly humor.”—The New York Times

America’s first gay novel, published in 1919.


You might also like...

An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

By Clifford A. Wright,

Book cover of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

Clifford A. Wright Author Of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Philosopher Historian Researcher Gastronomer Bibliophile and reviewer

Clifford's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

An Italian Feast celebrates the cuisines of the Italian provinces from Como to Palermo. A culinary guide and book of ready reference meant to be the most comprehensive book on Italian cuisine, and it includes over 800 recipes from the 109 provinces of Italy's 20 regions.

An Italian Feast is a gastronomy about Italian culinary history and consciousness, about how Italians cook, eat, and how their food is an intimate part of their culture. It is the first book in any language to comprehensively explore the gastronomy and cuisine not just of Italy, and not just the regions of Italy, but all 109 provinces of Italy, linking each with each other in terms of history, agriculture, economics, and the material culture of creative food illustrated with recipes.

An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

By Clifford A. Wright,


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in gay men, LGBTQ+ topics and characters, and homosexuality?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about gay men, LGBTQ+ topics and characters, and homosexuality.

Gay Men Explore 104 books about gay men
LGBTQ+ Topics And Characters Explore 956 books about LGBTQ+ topics and characters
Homosexuality Explore 75 books about homosexuality