My first proper boyfriend was an Italian guy named Icilio.
We met at college -- well, in the changing rooms of the swimming pool at college, to be precise – and he followed me home. At the time, I really wasn’t that happy or confident as a gay man; we were about the same age but he was a lot more comfortable in his own skin than I was.
He was very patient with me but I was a terrible boyfriend.
Eventually, I decided to call it off. I can’t remember why -- whatever it was, it was an awful decision and one that I’ve often regretted. As a break-up gift (if there is such a thing), he gave me a copy of the novel Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.
It may be overstating it a little to say that this book changed my life, but I read it at a time when I was struggling to work out who I was and who I wanted to be, and somehow this book became very much part of that process.
Giovanni’s Room isn’t a new book: it was first published in 1956. It is the story of David -- a young American guy left alone in Paris while his girlfriend is away traveling.
While abroad, meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender. They enter a passionate but uneasy relationship as David constantly tries to prove his heterosexuality and push the high-strung Giovanni away. I won’t give away all of the details of the plot, but in so many ways it is an incredibly sad story and nothing really ends well for anyone.
In many respects, Giovanni’s Room is an astonishing work: From its vivid portrayal of gay life in Paris at that time, to the exploration of the complexities of gay identity, sexuality, and relationships, to the sense of alienation -- but also freedom -- that traveling to different countries can present.
What is fascinating, too, is that the author of the novel, James Baldwin, was a black American man who emigrated to Paris. He did it to deliberately move away from the racial prejudice he was experiencing in the United States at that time, but also to find a new identity for himself as a gay man.
While it is easy to identify elements of this story that may feel a little dated compared to our lives today, there is a lot about this book that makes it essential reading for any young gay guys trying to figure out how to be authentic and have honest relationships with other people.
Location-based dating apps may have changed the game for how guys meet other guys these days, but that doesn’t change the harsh reality that relationships aren’t easy, building a life with another person isn’t easy, and sometimes people get hurt if you’re not ready to give them what they are looking for.
Read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. It is a beautiful book, it is an incredibly sad book that will make you cry, and it makes a really good break-up gift.