It’s too easy to forget that openly sharing one’s experience of queerness is a relatively new phenomenon. For many people in the LGBTIQA+ community, remaining closeted for fear of discrimination and violence is a living memory (and, in many parts of the world, it’s still the reality). So, we really should take a moment to appreciate the brave souls who are out and proud on the page – they write their queerness in indelible ink for the world to see. Here are twelve queer memoirs worth celebrating.
Reckoning by Magda Szubanski
For decades, Magda Szubanski’s sexuality was one of the worst kept secrets in Australia’s film and television industry (despite this iconic kiss with Heath Ledger, which she said nearly “turned” her). But that wasn’t the only secret that Szubanski was struggling with. In her memoir, Reckoning, she depicts a childhood haunted by her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland. As an adult, she struggled to reconcile her family, her sexual identity, and the self she presented to the public on-screen as one of Australia’s most-loved comedians. This is one of the most powerful queer memoirs you’ll read, especially if you grew up watching Magda as I did.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay has described Hunger as “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write”, and it’s not hard to see why. Even though her queer identity isn’t the focus of the book, it surely counts as one of the great queer memoirs of our time. It’s a heart-wrenching and terrifyingly honest account of Gay’s experience as a sexual assault victim (terminology she prefers), and subsequently gaining a significant amount of weight that she has carried ever since. This is a memoir about how to move in the world when your boundaries have been irrevocably violated, and the world simply doesn’t make space for you. Read my full review of Hunger here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House isn’t just one of the best queer memoirs – it’s one of the best memoirs, period. Every so often a book comes along that totally changes the game for its genre, and this is one of those. Using a different literary motif, device, or trope in each chapter, Machado depicts a formative and traumatic love affair she had with an abusive woman. Intimate partner violence in queer relationships is rarely discussed or studied, and this memoir did an incredible thing in shedding some light on the issue – as well as being an amazing literary feat in and of itself. Read my full review of In The Dream House here.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of memoir essays split into two parts. The first is about David Sedaris’s childhood, mostly set in his native North Carolina. The second focuses on his life after moving to France, with his partner. It’s hard to believe how much life Sedaris has lived, as a speed addict, a furniture removalist, a writing teacher, a failed performance artist, an ex-pat… It’s all copy for him. He provides seemingly endless and delightfully witty commentary on all of his experiences, sharing the worst of them (addiction, grief, shame) with just as much good humour as the best of them. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite fit in will surely relate to the title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. But it will be especially resonant for LGBTIQA+ kids (though, given the nature of the content, maybe more the grown-up kids). With a religious zealot parent who prepped for Armageddon, a rapidly changing cultural landscape in a North England industrial town, and a terrible secret about her sexuality, Winterson really faced the question posed in the title quite literally. If you’ve only read Winterson’s novels (which, based on my experience, I can’t really recommend), you’re missing out on one of the great queer memoirs.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby is (at the time of writing) 40, and not entirely comfortable with that. She describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of person you immediately warm to, perhaps Wow, No Thank You isn’t for you. This is an incredible, revolting, hilarious, savage, and confrontational collection of essays – definitely one of the queer memoirs to pick up when you want to feel like you have a best friend you can say anything to. Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.
Finding Nevo by Nevo Zisin
Nevo Zisin finds the concept of “coming out” – the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise – really bothersome. They should know: they’ve had to do it a lot. Over the course of their young life, they’ve “come out” as bisexual, lesbian, queer, trans, non-binary, and polyamorous… but they’ve done a lot of other stuff too. Nevo is an activist, writer, and public speaker, focusing on issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. Finding Nevo is their first book, a “memoir of becoming”. This is one of the best queer memoirs to buy for a young person in your life who might have some questions, as the language is frank and accessible to all ages. Read my full review of Finding Nevo here.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Alright, I’ll confess: I didn’t realise I was picking up one of the iconic queer memoirs of our time when I bought Fun Home. I just wanted to take a look at the origins of the Bechdel test. But I ended up getting so much more than an insight into a pop culture phenomenon! This critically acclaimed best-seller is a graphic memoir about Bechdel’s fraught relationship with her late father. Bruce left a startling, confusing legacy for his daughter to unravel, having come out as gay shortly after Bechdel came out herself – and then dying, just a few weeks later. As the subtitle suggests (“a family tragicomic”), this is a hilarious and heartbreaking story that’s all the better for being true.
Growing Up Queer In Australia by Benjamin Law (ed.)
Black Inc’s Growing Up series has brought dozens of stories of lived experience to the Australian literary scene. Growing Up Queer In Australia is the LGBTIQA+ focused edition, compiled by beloved local gay man Benjamin Law (who, incidentally, wrote one of the funniest queer memoirs I’ve ever read, The Family Law). It’s a diverse collection, with writings from queer people across geographies, ethnicities, eras, and socioeconomic statuses. You’ll recognise the big names like David Marr, Holly Throsby, Sally Rugg, and Rebecca Shaw, but there are plenty of other contributors you may not know who will open your eyes, too. These true stories provide incredible insight into – you guessed it – what it’s like to grow up queer in Australia.
Sissy by Jacob Tobia
OUT magazine described Jacob Tobia as “a trans Nora Ephron“, so you just know Sissy must be a shining star among the queer memoirs. From the blurb: “As a young child in North Carolina, Jacob Tobia wasn’t the wrong gender, they just had too much of the stuff. Barbies? Yes. Playing with bugs? Absolutely. Getting muddy? Please. Princess dresses? You betcha. Jacob wanted it all, but because they were ‘a boy,’ they were told they could only have the masculine half. Acting feminine labelled them ‘a sissy’ and brought social isolation. It took Jacob years to discover that being ‘a sissy’ isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s a source of pride.”
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
Surely by now, everyone’s heard the Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,”. George M. Johnson took that message to heart when he wrote All Boys Aren’t Blue, his story of growing up gay and black in America. Styled as ‘part-memoir, part-manifesto’, this memoir explores family bonds, bullying, consent, class, first impressions, and identity. It’s one of the best queer memoirs for young adults in particular, both those who are looking to see their own experiences reflected on the page and those who want to learn to be better allies.
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
Alexander Chee is a lauded (gay) novelist, and he found he was getting asked the same question over and over again: “How much of your fiction is autobiographical?”. This prompted him to write his first collection of non-fiction essays, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Over the course of sixteen essays, he reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He also mines the experiences, large and small, that have shaped him as a person – from 9/11 and the AIDS epidemic to tarot reading and his father’s passing.