The Naked Civil Servant
The title of Quentin Crisp’s frequently outrageous book comes from his job: he was once a life model posing naked for students in British public schools, and thus a “civil servant” paid by the government. That kind of witty take on a seemingly innocuous situation is classic Crisp, who became famous for his flamboyant exhibitionism and Wilde-like barbs (some of which could be downright lethal). The book is dated, perhaps, but that’s also why it’s worth picking up. Crisp dared to be himself in London at a time (pre-1967) when doing so put him at tremendous physical risk. Reading about his exploits and scrapes is to marvel at how far things have progressed—or not progressed, in some cases.
The Scarlet Professor
The story of Newton Arvin is, unfortunately, the story of many closeted gay men in mid-20th-century America. A brilliant literary critic who produced groundbreaking studies on the likes of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, Arvin had a stunning career laid out ahead of him. Until, that is, the day police raided his apartment and seized some erotica. The fallout from this invasion of privacy—Arvin ended up in a mental institution—is a galling tragedy, and the whole book is a sobering but important read on the effects of McCarthyism and internalized homophobia.
House of Nutter
History, as the popular maxim goes, is written by the winners, and for many decades the winners were heterosexual. This meant history was straight, just as history was also privileged, white, and usually male. With a few notable exceptions, it’s only in the past few decades that other voices—poor, black, female, queer, or some combination thereof—have been afforded enough of the spotlight to recall events from another perspective.
My new book, House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row, tells the story of two gay brothers who led flagrantly subversive lives that braided pop culture (the Beatles, Michael Jackson) with underground clubs, sexual liberation, and the ravages of the AIDS crisis. When I set out to write the dual biography, I was acutely aware that in doing so, I would be adding to a growing canon of alternate histories. Indeed, my book was an attempt to broaden the record even further: I wanted to turn the popular narrative upside down.
Here are eight other books I took inspiration from—books which reveal, in bold and scintillating detail, what it’s meant to see the world at different times as one of the queer underdogs.
Featured Image: Matt McCarty, Author Photo: © THEGINGERB3ARDMEN