Must-Reads for LGBTQ Youth: 'GIOVANNI'S ROOM'

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.


Photo credit: Flickr.


I was embarrassingly late to the party with RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I finally arrived on a visit to Toronto to see my best Canadian friend Shih-Ming Yao. We were lying in his bed, recovering from a big night out.

“Let’s watch some Drag Race?” he suggested. I knew of RuPaul’s Drag Race -- the reality TV show hosted by drag icon RuPaul -- but I’d never invested any time in watching it. Ming, though, had several seasons ready to go on the hard-drive of his MacBook.

I was hooked from the first episode.


Drag queens are entertainers, so it’s fun watching them do anything. Ming jumped around the various seasons, showing me some of the best episodes, the most sickening lip-syncs, and the fiercest death-drops.

When I got home I was on the case, catching up on all the seasons (except Season 1, which I’ve only seen glimpses of); I even watched the spin-off series Drag U. By the time the most recent season of RPDR came around (Season 6, won by Bianca Del Rio) I was a total aficionado. I'd watched nearly every episode, the Untucked behind-the-scenes companion piece, the YouTube updates, and even the AfterBuzz panel discussion following each episode. RuPaul’s Drag Race is simply great TV.

But RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lot more than just a zany reality show. It takes you behind the scenes, behind the make-up, the wigs, the costumes, and the huge personalities that go into being a drag queen -- which is one of the toughest jobs in the entertainment industry.

There is a lot of drama, a lot of tears, and personal stories shared, but ultimately the show’s message is one of empowerment, self-belief, and self-worth. One of RuPaul’s many mantras is: “If you can’t love yourself - how in the hell are you going to love somebody else!”

It sounds straightforward enough, but if you’ve ever tried to analyze what went wrong in a failed relationship then you’ll know that looking in the mirror is the first place to start.


The winner of RPDR Season 3 was the uber-stylish Raja. Towards one of the final episodes of the season, each of the contestants was asked what winning the competition would mean to them. For me, Raja’s answer perfectly encapsulated everything that I had been feeling for years but never found a way to express:

“In winning this competition, I would like to be a role model for all those little boys who are teased, who are bullied, who don’t know how to express themselves creatively yet. I wanna tell them, ‘It’s okay to say f*** you, and do whatever you want to do.’”

“The power of ‘f*** you’” said RuPaul, nodding and smiling.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has become so successful that the contestants from the show are now some of the biggest names in entertainment - world tours, sold out shows, guest appearances at Pride events all over the place.

Entertainers. Role Models. People. The queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race are the living embodiment of the power of “f*** you.”


Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Must-See Movies for LGBTQ Youth: THE SKELETON TWINS

“Did that feel a bit weird to you? That you and I went to watch that movie?” I asked my sister as we emerged from The Skeleton Twins.

See, she and I don’t go to the movies together very often, since we live in different cities. We only saw The Skeleton Twins by accident; the movie that we had been planning to see had been sold out.

Why would it be weird, though? Well. The Skeleton Twins is about a gay guy and his sister.

“Yeah, I did feel a bit weird” I agreed with her nod. “Let’s go get a drink.”


Bill Hader & Kristen Wiig in "The Skeleton Twins," directed by Craig Johnson

Although The Skeleton Twins stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (of Saturday Night Live fame), and despite the promotional posters branding it as “Hilarious!”, this movie is not a comedy.

It is not a comedy -- but it is a great movie. Writer/director Craig Johnson has created a detailed and nuanced movie about a very damaged family and the struggles they face trying to come to terms with themselves and each other, and somehow move forward with their lives.

Wiig and Hader play the sister and brother and they handle these extraordinarily difficult roles perfectly.

In supporting roles, Luke Wilson nails it as the "labrador" husband, Joanna Gleason wrings the most out of her brief appearance as the mother, but Ty Burrell isn't quite given enough to work with to distance himself from his Modern Family fathercharacter.

It’s difficult to talk in any detail about the plot without spoiling the clever construction of the storytelling, small details revealed as the movie unfolds, building to a deeper understanding and empathy of how these characters became people that are struggling to hold on to any sense of purpose or certainty in their lives.


Over dinner, my sister and I were inspired to share stories of pain and sadness, talking about some of the low points in our lives. It sounds a bit morbid but it was actually a good, authentic conversation that helped us both understand each other a bit better. It was also a good reminder about how things that felt so bad and bleak at one stage in our lives can fade into insignificance with the passage of time.

Sometimes life doesn’t quite work out as you had hoped, as you had planned, as you had dreamed. Somehow you have to find a way through that. Sometimes your family can be an unlikely source of strength.

Go see this movie. Not many laughs, do it for the great storytelling -- and maybe some important conversation afterwards.