Anne Hull is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Her debut memoir, Through the Groves, about coming-of-age and coming-out in Florida in the 1960s, will be released by Holt in June.
Maybe for some, being asked to name their 10 favorite LGBTQ memoirs of all time might be a breezy exercise. I found it next to impossible, for two reasons. One, the sheer number of extraordinary and distinctive memoirs by queer writers. Two, certain characters in queer novels have earned such a permanent place in our collective minds that it’s hard to distinguish who’s real and who’s not. Carol in The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Little Dog in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Isaiah and Samuel in Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar in Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” David in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Molly Bolt in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Jess in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues—all are icons, each so lifelike they transcend the minor technicality of actually being fictitious.
But rules are rules. Each of the 10 memoirs on this list are not just great, they’re interwoven with the specific time in my life when I read them, causing some big splash in my consciousness about what it means to be queer and reaffirming that there are other people out there, living and dying, just like me. In no particular order:
1. How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
It’s the start of a Texas summer and some serious adolescent heat has erupted inside 12-year-old Jones. The object of his desire is a menacing white neighbor boy who’ll soon turn on him, but Jones already has a sense of the perils he’ll face as a young queer Black man in the South. This spare, gorgeous ache of a memoir is about that journey and the masks Jones wears to protect his many divided selves.
Most central to this journey is Jones’s mother, who is responsible to a fault and on a mission to make sure her only child has a life bigger than their claustrophobic apartment. Jones is still in middle school when he spies her dancing to a Prince song on the kitchen radio. Seeing her hips move to the nasty falsetto of “I Want to Be Your Lover,” Jones witnesses a sensual creature who is a complete stranger to the woman he knows, just as his sexuality will make him a stranger to her.
Anyone who’s ever been the child of a single parent will identify with the captive-stranger intimacy that Jones describes. I’ve never been so lonely for a book as when I finished this one.
2. “The Professor: A Sentimental Education” by Terry Castle
[“The Professor” is actually an essay in a collection of Castle’s other works (The Professor and Other Writings, which also includes her priceless gem on her mock-friendship with Susan Sontag) but at 187 pages, it qualifies as a memoir, and one that dazzles me so hard I read it, literally, all the time.]
The lesbian landscape is rife with women who specialize in toying with young hearts. It never ends well for the young heart; think of a cat with a half-dead mouse in its mouth. Castle’s gloriously funny memoir is the story of that mouse, chronicling the romps that lead young Terry to the ultimate romp, in graduate school, with an older professor. The story is wickedly good because Castle semi-realizes that she’s starry-eyed for a pompous narcissist who rations out sex just enough to string her along and then barely acknowledges her on campus. The time period is mid-70s feminism—Bonnie Raitt and Harveys Bristol Cream. If there’s a better bull’s eye portrait of the older seductress working her Sapphic sorcery on a hoodwinked 22-year-old headed for heartbreak, I can’t think of it.
3. Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway
Our heroine may not be able to hear, but she can bed-hop like no one’s business. Galloway’s memoir is a true rollick, a real homage to slutty lesbians at their finest (zero guilt, on to the next) and at their lowest. Galloway’s treats her deafness as no more than an unfortunate event, caused by an Army doctor who injected her pregnant mother with the wrong drug. A heartfelt portrayal of a person who is otherly abled this is not. She’s a bad girl, with lip-reading talents that come in handy. And yet she also describes what it’s like to live in a silent world, making clear the very real difference between being able to hear and not. Galloway does not trample all over tenderness; she uses it as needed and at just the right moments to give this memoir its power.
4. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir by Paul Monette
This is a tender and wrenching early account of the cataclysm that defined a generation of gay men in America. Monette, a Yale-educated writer, and his partner, Roger Horwitz, a lawyer, had been together several years when Roger started feeling lousy. His AIDS diagnosis marked the beginning of his life as a patient, and Paul’s as a caretaker and diarist of his partner’s decline. Borrowed Time is often described as a first-person account of living with AIDs. In those dark days, however, there wasn’t much time between living and dying. Monette’s memoir concerns the 18 months between Roger’s diagnosis and death—the wasting before his eyes of the person he loved, the mysteries of the illness, the social stigma, and his own floating terror of becoming sick himself. Reading the book when it came out in 1988, I remember thinking that memoirs are about the past, but the horror of AIDS had only begun. Many friends of mine could not bear to read it; like the constant stream of obituaries in the newspaper, Monette’s memoir was one more reminder closing in on them. It remains a remarkable document of that time. In 1995, Monette died from AIDS at 49.
5. All the Roads Are Open: The Afghan Journey by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Drugs, women sleeping with women, evening cocktails, motorcycles, and desert nights—before there were Thelma and Louise, there were Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart, two writers who, in 1939, with Hitler on the rise, drove from Geneva to Kabul in a Ford. It helped that Schwarzenbach was a Swiss heiress who could bankroll the trip. (She was also a known lady slayer who got tangled up with daughters of diplomats.) Schwarzenbach’s descriptions of the landscape and people they encountered are startling and fresh, but the trip had another purpose: to help Schwarzenbach kick her morphine addiction. The women stayed in smaller villages to avoid temptation, which worked until Bulgaria, where Schwarzenbach fell sick and Maillart found the empty morphine ampoule. The two women eventually split up in Afghanistan, with Schwarzenbach catching a boat back to Europe, ending a trip defined by both beauty and the tortures of addiction. Schwarzenbach died from a bike accident three years later at 42. Her writing and the works of others writing about her have cemented her mythic tragedy.
6. Bettyville by George Hodgman
Hodgman was a cosmopolitan book publishing editor and former editor at Vanity Fair. With his chunky black glasses and lightning wit, he seemed thoroughgoingly a man of Manhattan, and he was, until his elderly mother fell ill and he moved back to his hometown of Paris, Mo., population 1,246, to care for her. Her name was Betty, hence the title, Bettyville, a geography of its own making in Hodgman’s hands. He sees the camp irony of returning to his teenage bedroom with a view of soy fields, but he also sees how and why he became who he was, thanks to the mannered, demanding, wary, and witty Betty, and the decency of their small Midwestern town.
“When the phone rings,” Hodgman writes, “she listens to every word, not sure if she can trust me with her independence. I don’t blame her. I am an unlikely guardian. A month ago, I thought the Medicare doughnut hole was a breakfast special for seniors. I am a care inflictor.” Among the antiques and shag carpet of their family home is the one thing that Hodgman and his mother sidestep—his gayness. In this wry and rueful memoir, you know it won’t be long until they can’t avoid it anymore.
7. Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome
The urgency of Broome’s writing and the vulnerability he conveys is a marvel to behold. He takes on skin tone, machismo, the strut, sissy speech—all the variations used to categorize and dismiss queer Black men. The opening scene, in which a father refuses to comfort his young son after the boy takes a bad stumble on a sidewalk, fills the reader with dread, knowing of the lifetime of contortions the boy will have to make to avoid contempt—and God help him if he’s gay.
Later, we get to see the grown-up version of Broome—seedy hook-ups, drugs—but he doesn’t frame the relationship between the little boy who fell to the concrete alone and his adult self as causal, just somehow connected. The inventive structure of the memoir—hat tip to Gwendolyn Brooks—adds to its mesmerizing effect.
8. One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Robert Giroux
Admittedly, this is a bit of a cheat: Bishop is not only one of the finest poets of her generation, but she was also a remarkable correspondent who often wrote several letters in a single day. There are a few published collections of Bishop’s letters but this one, assembled by her longtime editor and friend, is a tour de force that captures the poet in her own words and in all her many shades. Bishop was a lesbian, albeit a discreet one, who preferred not to announce things but to live them, like her relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares, her lover and partner for 16 years who was never referred to as a lover or partner but simply “Lota.” Between 1928, when Bishop was 17, and her death in Boston in 1979, she wrote several thousand letters. From this mountain, Giroux selects 500 or so that best let Bishop’s voice come through as she processes her thoughts and reports the events of her days. We see her working through poems, hung up on a word for days. We see her with Lota in their beloved Key West and much later as alcohol begins to take its toll. Even for non-Bishop-philes, the letters offer revelations about creativity and restlessness. For Bishop die-hards, it’s the closest we’ll come to a memoir.
9. The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening by Ari Shapiro
With honest writing and a journalistic sense of restraint, NPR correspondent Shapiro lets us feel the awe and jitters he feels when dropped into a foreign country, and the mournful sadness of trying to wrap his mind around 49 patrons of a gay club in Orlando being slaughtered by a gunman. This memoir could have gone a lot of ways—think “humblebrag swagger”—but Shapiro allows his humanity and humility to surface, without shame. And, as if it’s not enough that Shapiro is a newsman, he’s also a vocalist with the band Pink Martini—and wow can he sing.
10. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson
Women—mothers, grandmothers, aunties, cousins, godmothers—tend to be important cast members in our coming-out stories. They hold our confidence, take us in when the world tosses us out, cover for us when an alibi is needed. Not so for Winterson, who barely survived the Pentecostal sadism and demented cruelty of her mother, a bitter housewife in a working-class coal town outside of Manchester, England, determined to stomp the lesbian out of her adopted daughter. “The devil led us to the wrong crib,” her mother once told her, and that was on a good day. She defies her mother by rebelling, continuing to have sex with girls, and eventually going on to Oxford, but the early damage was done, and Winterson intended to make use of it, which she eventually did, in her classic coming-out novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Here, Winterson exerts the same virtuosity and wit in telling her own story of survival.