Queer literature has been around as long as there’s been literature. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Going all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, there have been stories shared about queer love, life, and loss. Sometimes, those stories had to be masked inside other narratives or told allegorically, but I think we’ve reached the point now where it’s no longer controversial to have openly LGBTQ books on the shelves (whether you identify as being part of the community or not). I’ve featured some great LGBTQ books on Keeping Up With The Penguins in the past, but never rounded up a list of recommendations all in one place, so here you have it: 10 great LGBTQ books you should read (if you haven’t already).
Psst: I’m assuming that you’re all au fait with the acronym now because it’s fairly common, but just in case you’re not familiar, I’ll spell it out here. LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer or Questioning. A lot of people and organisations use a longer form, LGBTIQA+, which includes Intersex, Asexual, and a “+” to acknowledge those who don’t identify with any of these particular labels. I’ve chosen to use the shorter form here, purely because it’s what the majority of people use when they search for queer literature on this site and I wanted them to be able to find what they’re looking for.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Sorry to start on a bummer note, but I think Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is often overlooked in lists of LGBTQ books, and I wanted to redress the balance straight away (he’s better known for his other works, like Goodbye To Berlin). This is a short but heart-wrenching book, a day in the life of a man grieving the loss of his partner. Today, we’d call him a widower, but back then, in the ’60s, their relationship was only socially “understood” and not legally recognised. As such, he must present to the world as “a single man”, and try to hide his bereavement. It’s incredibly sad, of course, but the dark humour had me cackling with laughter all the way through, too. Read my full review of A Single Man here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House is a recent release; it came out earlier this year, and the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail were kind enough to send me a copy for review. This book is not only destined to become a permanent fixture of the queer literature canon, but it completely revolutionised my idea of what a “memoir” could be. Machado explores, in exquisite detail, a formative – and abusive – love affair she had with someone she refers to only as “the woman in the Dream House”. There has been comparatively very little attention – literary or otherwise – paid to domestic violence in queer relationships, but that doesn’t stop Machado from tackling this vital issue from every possible angle.
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
I’ll be honest: Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl probably isn’t one for beginners. It’s deeply weird, it’s really offbeat, and if you’re new to reading LGBTQ books, it might completely confuse you. That said, if you think you’re ready to take it on, I really recommend that you do. It’s smutty, it’s raw, it’s intense: Lawlor isn’t here to play, people! The titular Paul is a shapeshifter, with the ability to change their appearance at will (to male/masculine, or female/feminine, or anywhere in between). It’s a rollicking romp, an adventure through clusterfuck that is our contemporary understanding of the gender binary and sexuality, but also a fascinating historical piece in the way that it captures the queer “scene” of the ’90s.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
People who read a lot of LGBTQ books are probably rolling their eyes at me right now, and I don’t (entirely) blame them. Naming The Argonauts in a list of must-read LGBTQ books is about as cliche as naming The Great Gatsby in a list of must-read American literature. BUT, in my defense, cliches are cliches for a reason, folks: more often than not, they’re alarmingly apt. This book is a love story, of sorts, a memoir of Nelson’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge, but it’s also an exploration of gender identity, queer theory, and the modern family unit. It is fresh, it is fierce, it is dripping with desire and determination to break down barriers.
Bodies Of Men by Nigel Featherstone
I’ve talked before about how I find historical fiction set in and around WWII to be pretty tired, but Bodies Of Men is a fresh take that I can really get behind. Two Australian soldiers find themselves drawn together by fate and circumstance, again and again, and ultimately what unfolds is a story about intimacy, loyalty, and how we define masculinity. For a historical fiction book, it sure as shit has a LOT to say about the contemporary era, and how we “remember” stories (or don’t).
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Oh, this book! This self-deprecating, charming, delight of a book! Less is the story of Arthur Less, a has-been writer who bemoans the fact that he never sits next to anyone on a plane that has ever heard of his books and that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old”. In an attempt to avoid the awkwardness of his ex-lover’s wedding to a much younger beau, he decides to accept every invitation he receives for every half-baked literary event around the world. Yes, he’s a love-lorn sad-sack and that should be annoying, but it’s actually delightful and endearing and hilarious and – above all – relatable. I defy anyone (gay or straight) to read this book and not fall head-over-heels in love with its protagonist. Read my full review of Less here.
The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter
It wouldn’t be a list of LGBTQ books without some poetry, right? Even if you’re not normally “into” poetry, I can guarantee you that The Monkey’s Mask will still knock your socks off. It’s a verse novel – a story told in a book-length series of poems – about a private investigator who becomes embroiled in a case of murder, mystery, and betrayal. As if that weren’t enough, there’s lots of hot sex and passionate conflict to keep you interested the whole way through. Some poems were so clever that they literally took my breath away. Still need convincing? The Monkey’s Mask was the best-selling book of poetry in Australia since WWII upon its release – that social proof should count for something!
Acute Misfortune by Erik Jensen
Erik Jensen might not be a mainstream “household name”, but he’s kind of a God in the Australian literary scene. Not only is he an award-winning writer, but he founded The Saturday Paper and he’s editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. I was drawn to Acute Misfortune when I heard Jensen interviewed on the now-sadly-defunct Saturday Night Safran program; I was absolutely riveted by his story, and knew I had to get my hands on his book. He was invited to write the biography of contemporary Australian artist Adam Cullen. What followed was a four-year relationship of unbelievable intensity (Cullen literally shot Jensen at one point – sorry to spoil that particular point, but I just had to prove my point). Sure, you might come out of a voyeuristic interest in the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but you’ll stay for the tenderness and brutality of this claustrophobic partnership.
Reckoning by Magda Szubanski
Long before she came out during the Australian marriage equality campaign, Magda Szubanski was a queer icon. Her character Sharon Strzlecki – the sports-obsessed, accident-prone, unlucky-in-love second-best-friend – spoke to the heart of many an awkward, anxious, and questioning fan. In her autobiography, Reckoning, Szubanski doesn’t just reckon with her sexuality: she also comes to grips with her father’s former career as a spy, the intergenerational effects of trauma, and doing so in the public eye. Plus, if you don’t follow her on Twitter already, you really should.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple is a story of hardship, yes, but also incredible resilience – which may be why it’s been so universally adopted by a community that has both in spades. Alice Walker was, herself, a bisexual woman of colour, making this a watershed #ownvoices novel and an icon of the LGBTQ books canon immediately upon release. The story unfolds through a series of letters to God, written by Celie, a young black woman in the American South of the early 1900s. Already, that’s a tough situation, but she faces horrific abuse at the hands of her father, and later her husband (whom she was not at all inclined to marry). The turning point comes when they take in Shug, a blues singer to whom Celie feels an intense, ineffable attraction…
What LGBTQ books would YOU recommend? Add to the list in the comments below!