Here’s our guide to some of our favourite gay travel books. Some are straightforward travel books, while others explore the lived experiences of gay travellers in an indirect way. Some are novels, others are non-fiction accounts. You’ll find stories about gay travellers in Weimar Berlin, contemporary gay travelogues of the Middle East and everything in between. If nothing else, you should find something sickening to read on your next vacation. As we all know, reading is fundamental.
Mr Norris Changes Trains – Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood was an Anglo-American writer, famed for novels like A Single Man and Goodbye To Berlin (later adapted for the big screen and renamed Cabaret). As a gay man living in a deeply homophobic age, he felt like a social exile and made a point of becoming an actual exile. In the 1930s, he moved to Berlin. The German capital was then, as it is now, a hub of decadence; a place where the boundaries between gender and sexuality blurred. He captured the excitement of Weimar Berlin in a series of iconic novels. He wrote from the perspective of a gay traveller and an exile. Someone out of synch with the mainstream, observing and recording everything that was happening around him.
No novel captures his time in Berlin better than Mr Norris Changes Trains. It’s the story of a libertine and swindler called Mr Norris, a strange man in a lopsided toupee the narrator meets on a train. Mr Norris is a typical type of exile: a chancer who has run away from his problems. He owes everyone money and he’s always in trouble, but he has a sort of devilish charm. This novel explores the narrator’s adventures in Weimar Berlin with Mr Norris. It’s a classic account of a gay traveller abroad, living a bohemian life and trying to find a place in the world.
Tom Ford adapted Isherwood’s novel A Single Man for the big screen in 2009, undoubtedly one of the best gay films of recent years. The Liza Minnelli adaptation of Cabaret is, needless to say, a queer masterpiece that launched a thousand drag queens. Isherwood was one of the first writers to extensively chronicle the risks and rewards of being a gay traveller.
The Joe Orton Diaries – Joe Orton
Joe Orton was a playwright who scandalised middle England with his satirical comedies. He did so in the 1960s when the culture was changing but still socially conservative. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during his short life (1933-1967). He wrote explicitly about being gay in his diaries and indirectly in plays and novels like Entertaining Mr Sloane and Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser.
Today, gay travellers are invariably photographed on beaches in Mykonos, Sitges and Provincetown. It’s all about the abs, the swag and the hashtags (#gayhunk #gaymykonos, etc). Back in Orton’s time, it was a case of trying not to get arrested. Gay travellers would flee from Europe and head to Tangiers in Morrocco. North Africa was, in many ways, less homophobic than London at the time. This was within living memory, incidentally.
Other gay travellers in Tangiers included William Burroughs. He chronicled his sexual and drug-fuelled escapades in Naked Lunch, a novel beloved by hipsters and students to this day. Orton chronicled gay life in Tangiers in his extensive diaries. They are quite graphic, so don’t say we didn’t warn you. Orton may have been dead by the age of 34, but he had more sex than you’ve had hot dinners.
Gay Travels In The Muslim World – Michael T. Luongo
Outside of Israel, there are few places in the Middle East where you can be openly gay. Although homosexuality is illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, it still flourishes below the surface. This book complies 18 accounts by gay travellers in the region. Although living openly with a partner of the same sex may be impossible in many of these countries, casual gay encounters are quite common.
Some of the accounts in this book offer touching portraits of gay love affairs in hostile climates. Others show the darker side of being gay in a homophobic country. One thing becomes apparent as you read this book: gay travel in the Middle East isn’t as black and white as you may think. Check out our interview with a gay cabin crew member living in Dubai. As he informed us in the interview: “Stereotypes are often true but you should never judge anyone based on this or on the actions or beliefs of their country’s government. Just because they’re from a country where LGBT people are persecuted, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to become friends and enjoy what their country has to offer.”
Mr Hudson Explores – Mr Hudson
Mr Hudson Explores is a contemporary account of gay travel worldwide. The book focuses on cosmopolitan cities, like Amsterdam, London and New York. It’s the debut book by the popular gay travel writer, Mr Hudson. A good choice if you’re looking for a gift: it’s a charming coffee table book with lots of nice photos. The sort of book your guests can flick through as you make drinks – in an idealised version of your life, at least.
20 well known western cities are covered. The author takes you off the beaten track to discover the hidden charms of your favourite places. You’ll find out about the best parties in San Francisco, the most cutting edge fashions in Japan and the best vogueing events in Party City. You’ll meet some locals, learn about the best restaurants and feel the urge to book lots of vacations. Mr Hudson Explores is an ideal companion for the discerning gay traveller (yes, that’s you).
Venice – Jan Morris
Jan Morris is one of the world’s greatest travel writers. She’s written guides to many cities and countries over the last fifty years, some of which are still considered to be definitive. Her travel guide to Venice is her most popular book. It’s a romantic and deeply personal account of her love affair with the city. Built on stilts in a lagoon, Venice is a triumph of art over nature. The streets are made of water. If it didn’t exist you couldn’t make it up. Venice has been a byword for romance for centuries.
In 1974, Jan Morris published Conundrum, a groundbreaking book exploring her transsexuality. She was the first high profile figure to transition and write an account of her experience.
Jan Morris is a lifelong traveller. Having explored much of the world, she has seen things from the perspective of both a man and a woman. Jan is also a major historian. Between her explorations of gender, history and the hundreds of stamps she’s collected in her passport, she’s developed unique perspectives few other writers can match.
As the Guardian wrote in a profile to mark her 90th birthday, “She imposed her personality on the entire world”. Jan Morris has also written travel guides to Spain, Trieste, Hong Kong and Wales. Every gay traveller should have a Jan Morris book on their shelf. A Writer’s World: Travels 1950-2000 is a good introduction to her work and a masterclass in travel writing.
Sexing The Cherry – Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson emerged as the UK’s leading queer female writer in 1985. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, her debut novel, is widely considered to be a classic. Her fifth book, Sexing The Cherry, is hard to define. It’s a short, post-modern novel set in mid-17th-century London during Cromwell’s protectorate. Don’t fall asleep! This book is tons of fun – and short, as we mentioned. It’s also, in no small part, a book about travel.
The protagonist is known as The Dog Woman. She has an adopted son called Jordan. Fabulous fruits from around the world are beginning to arrive in London, such as bananas and pineapples; fruits that had never been seen in England before. The arrival of these fruits represented the possibilities of travel. The Dog Woman comes to regret naming her son after a river. He gets the travel bug, and like a river, he flows away (see what she did there?). The story also interweaves the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. They get a happy ending in this book, although not with their husbands (wink wink).
Jeanette Winterson has chronicled many lesbian lives in her books. She explores gay travel in The Powerbook (through cyberspace) and The Passion (through Venice).