Whether we read to find ourselves, to see beyond our own experiences, or to escape the moment, literature, at its best, is both soothing and disruptive. James Baldwin said it best: "Art has to be a kind of confession. … If you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too. … This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that they are alone."
So today we're rounding up LGBTQ+ books that tell stories with innovation, love, wisdom, dazzling language, and compelling characters. It's safe to say that they should be required reading for everyone. We broke the list down into a few categories, consisting of kid- and teen-friendly reads, poetry collections, screenplays, and graphic novels, fiction, and lastly, groundbreaking queer theory books. Scroll the 22 life-changing books below to pick the ones you want to add to your bookshelf.
The tone of this novel has a momentum that'll grip you right from the start and fling you to the edge of desire and sanity along with our snappy protagonist as she runs from the monotony of mainstream culture. Though on the surface, it's a book about a woman's spiral into drug abuse and mental illness while coping with unrequited love, it's so much more than that. The narrator offers us some biting insight and remains laugh-out-loud hilarious even during painful moments. Like us, you'll probably panic (or just cherish your copy even more) when you find out this is Laurie Weeks's only book.
The Opener: "I decided I was in love with this girl and I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. I wanted her to drop by in the afternoon for a nap. It didn't seem likely, but that was part of the pleasure, like the agony of fixating on a dead movie star the way I'd become obsessed at age fifteen with the long-decomposed actress Vivien Leigh, aka Scarlett O'Hara, and her later, more bummed out incarnation, Blanche DuBois."
This coming-of-age family history explores gender identity, immigration, sexuality, political unrest, corruption, and the quest for belonging, both internal and external. With sharp political and social commentary, as well as a resonant and moving personal narrative, Middlesex is as triumphant as it is ambitious.
The Opener: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."
Though it's technically a novel, it's written in dialogue (sort of like a screenplay) and filled with footnotes, so if you love experimental forms, give this metafictional book a read. The entire novel happens within an Argentine prison cell as Valentín's lover and cellmate, Molina, tells him stories of films he's seen. Our hero, Valentín, remains unbreakable despite much adversity. Beyond the interesting narrative devices, it's an incredible story of love and the salvation that art and storytelling can provide in the face of terrible oppression and fascism.
The Opener: "Something a little strange, that's what you notice, that she's not like a woman like all the others. She looks fairly young, twenty-five, maybe a little more, petite face, a little catlike."
Before LGBTQ+ books were even a genre, Virginia Woolf stretches our imaginations in this metafictional novel that presents itself as a biography. The narrator tracks the experiences of Orlando's interiority over the course of their 300-year life (the protagonist is both timeless and gender fluid). Woolf uses this book as a space to urge her readers to move away from traditional notions of truth as objective, and rather to assert the importance of imagination and ambiguity in all forms of storytelling, legend, fiction, and biography alike.
The Opener: "He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters."
In André Aciman's novel Call Me by Your Name, you'll get transported to a fantastically romantic seaside town on the Italian coast to witness a coming-of-age tale about self-discovery, sexuality, and love. Sweet and steamy, uplifting and heart-wrenching, this book will make you feel it all and year for young love and an Italian vacation (or both).
The Opener: "'Later!' The word, the voice, the attitude."
Giovanni's Room explores the many facets of one identity while also being thoroughly entertaining. There's romance, desire, social commentary, endless quotable and poetic passages, and murder. The protagonist, David, is an American expat living in Paris as he navigates his new life abroad. His musings on the meaning and value of "home" will change the way you see the world. And they might also make you want to travel, even though one of the central themes is that relocating can't help us find what we're looking for.
The Opener: "I stand at the window of this great house in the South of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, rather perhaps like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past."
Originally published in 1973, Rubyfruit Jungle is still a relatable must-read today. It's a coming of age story about a young woman who explores her sexuality unapologetically while discovering what she wants to do with her life and how to make it happen.
The Opener: "No one remembers her beginnings. Mothers and aunts tell us about infancy and early childhood, hoping we forget the past when they had total control over our lives and secretly praying that because of it, we'll include them in our future."
Every single sentence in this critically acclaimed genre-bending memoir is worth underlining, so make sure you have a highlighter on hand. Maggie Nelson fills the pages with her sharp thoughts about desire, identity, and the limitations (and possibilities) of love and language. As with all of her work, this is one of the books you will revisit again and again throughout the years.
Standout Line: "The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you."
Audre Lorde is a visionary writer and a self-proclaimed "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." Through an innovative yet accessible arrangement of language and form, Lorde's essays are full of confrontational and keen wisdom, as well as inspiring, dazzling, and poetic prose.
Standout Line: "Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us?"
This page-turning tale tells the fictional story of Geryon, a young, queer man in pursuit of constructing a self-representational narrative. It's a brilliant and heart-wrenching hybrid of prose and poetry, borrowing from Greek myths to tell a modern coming-of-age epic that asserts the power of art and writing to resist, and thus, transform reality.
Standout Line: "He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet."
No matter what mood you're in when you pick up Howl to read out loud, you will inevitably feel ready to take on the world. Seriously, there's not enough punctuation to let you catch your breath, so you will run ahead of yourself and get carried away in the mood of the piece as you inherit the mindset the speaker confronts you with.
Standout Line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…/Who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm/ clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade."
This collection of poetry is as beautiful and evocative as the title implies, full of lyrical yet relatable narratives that introduce you to the feelings you couldn't previously place. There is also a ton of clever wordplay, so if you're a language nerd, you'll love it. It also delves into the history of the Vietnam War and the refugee experience.
Standout Line: "Which is to say: this is how/ we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say: This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning into a tongue."
LGBTQ+ Theory Readers
If you're interested in learning more about identity formation, intersectional feminism, and immigration, get your hands on the Gloria Anzaldúa reader. Since she's a cultural theorist, the concepts shes wrestling with are as groundbreaking as they are complex. We recommend starting with the essay "Borderlands / La Frontera," in which she discusses the construction of borders, both empirical and abstract, that separate, control, hierarchize, and mark people.
The Thesis: "Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition."
Philosopher and revisionist historian Michel Foucault's three-part volume entitled The History of Sexuality covers a lot of ground. He talks about the ways in which identity is constructed by particular institutions, how discourse is powerful because of the way in which it can regulate and control, and he also brings theories of power and control into the discussion of gender, opening up new possibilities for change and resistance. Though challenging, it's definitely worth a read.
The Thesis: "Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power."
As one of the leading gender and queer scholars of our time, Judith Halberstam has introduced a ton of revolutionary theories. Pretty much everything he says mindblowingly insightful, so make sure you take notes as you read. Before you pick up his new book, Gaga Feminism, pick up In a Queer Time & Place.
The Thesis: "Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death."
Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz was an incredible thinker. His first book introduces the concept of disidentification to describe the ways in which familiar concepts can be repurposed and reimagined. He defines this term as the process through which an accepted, hegemonic concept is taken out of its original context to reveal a more socially productive interpretation of that original meaning. This process of displacing a socially accepted ideology that has been normalized is constructive because this new context creates hypervisibility, and thus, calls upon the public to consider the ways in which it may have been problematic.
Disidentification also allows people to insert themselves into familiar discourses through self-representation.
The Thesis: "Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness's domain."
This is one of those books that will truly change the way you see the world. If you aren't familiar with Judith Butler's work, she's the woman who said, "gender is performative." This is a great starter book for anyone who wants to learn more about gender as a social construction and how these identities have been inhabited, transformed, enforced, and defined throughout time.
The Thesis: "The misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a 'one' who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today."
LGBTQ+ Books for Kids
This is a great book to read to young kids if you'd like to introduce them to gender-fluidity and nonbinary representations of femininity and masculinity. And even if that isn't your goal, this book is still a great read about family, love, imagination, and personal expression.
Quotable Moment: "'Boys don't wear dresses,' Becky snipped. Morris smiled as he swished, crinkled, and clicked back to his spaceship. 'This boy does.'"
Edited by photographer and writer Susan Kuklin, this collection features the voices and stories from six gender-fluid and transgender teens.
Quotable Moment: "I think the question should be flipped around: What's the cause for assuming that one’s gender identity has to be the one that you are born with?"
Moving and beautifully written, Ami Polonsky's book tells the story of a transgender sixth-grader. Though it's a character-driven book about self-discovery, identity, and belonging, it's also about friendship, passion, and perseverance. This is one of those books that's written for teens but makes an impact on adults too.
Quotable Moment: "It's hard to breathe and my heart is thumping, and all of a sudden, I'm worried that it might explode from all these years of wishing."
For those of you who love visual art as much as you love language, pick up this graphic memoir by Tille Walden. "Skating was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it," and what it means to outgrow a passion. Though it's appropriate for teens, it's also a great read for adults.
Quotable Moment: "One girl in particular seemed to take my existence as a threat. She was vicious to everyone, and in a tiny school there was no escape."
The title spells out exactly what happens in the book, but just because we know the plot and the point of tension doesn't mean we can't be emotionally affected by the story and all the other things that stories do aside from the plot. Adam Silvera sets up an interesting universe in which people get a phone call on their death day as a warning, and there's an app to link you up with others who want to make connections on their last day too. The reader will witness these strangers live an entire lifetime in a single day.
It's appropriate for mature middle schoolers and up.
Quotable Moment: "There has to be more to life than just imagining a future for yourself." ■
And now, 17 phenomenal children's books that promote kindness, integrity, and more.