C.E. McGill was born in Scotland and raised in North Carolina. Their debut novel, Our Hideous Progeny, is forthcoming in May.
For centuries, LGBTQ people have existed in literature just as we have in real life, and for just as long, LGBTQ novels have been subject to criticism and censorship. With the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ book bans sweeping across the United States, it often feels as though things are moving backward in that regard; nevertheless, we live in an unprecedented era of queer visibility in fiction, with more brilliant novels joining the canon every day.
Personally, I tend towards queer characters who are allowed to be messy and complicated, whose stories reveal both the joy of finding oneself and one’s community and the difficulties of living in a heterocisnormative world. As a writer of historical fiction, I also frequently find myself writing characters who don’t have access to the language to describe their own identities, or whose understanding of sexuality and gender is very different from the modern, Western model. This is why, I think, I also love characters who exist in gray areas and whose identities don’t fit neatly into a particular box.
Here, then, are 10 essential LGBTQ novels for your reading list, some old and some new, some happy and some sad, but all exploring the beautiful complexities of queer identity and what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community.
1. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
This classic novel follows Jess Goldberg, a working-class lesbian living in New York City in the 1970s. Unflinching and at times hard to read, the novel details the various challenges Jess faces over the course of her life, including sexual assault, homelessness, police violence, and countless instances of abuse. However, Jess eventually finds power and solace in her community, activism, and butch identity. Feinberg also provides a fascinating analysis of gender roles and the fluid overlap between butch lesbian and transgender identity; Jess obtains back-alley top surgery, seeks out hormones, and spends a large portion of the book passing as a man, which keeps her safer from harassment in public but leaves her missing her connection to the lesbian community. Feinberg hirself identified both as a butch lesbian and a transgender lesbian, a label that may confuse some cis readers but which makes perfect sense to many others in the gender-nonconforming lesbian community.
2. Dead Collections by Isaac Fellman
Set in a version of our world in which vampirism is a chronic and highly stigmatized virus, this fascinating and lyrical story follows Sol, a trans archivist struggling to adapt to life (or rather undeadness?) as a vampire. Unable to go out in sunlight, Sol spends every day in his basement office in the Historical Society of Northern California and secretly sleeps there at night. To make matters worse, as vampirism essentially “freezes” the body in time, he must make peace with being stuck mid-transition. When the charming widow of one of Sol’s favorite TV writers contacts the archive wanting to donate her wife's affects, the two fall in love—and Sol relearns what it means to enjoy life. Fellman’s witty and magical novel weaves the challenges of being trans and disabled, the fluidity of gender and sexuality, the joy of self-discovery through media, and the process of archiving as a cathartic way of honoring the dead into one remarkable whole.
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Another indisputable classic, Walker’s beautifully crafted novel takes the form of letters written to God by a young Black girl named Celie living in Georgia in the early 20th century. Celie’s life is an unrelenting stream of abuse; assaulted and impregnated by her father at 14, she’s forced to carry and then give away two children. She’s then made to marry an abusive husband. Celie toils in misery for many years, until she meets the glamorous and outspoken singer Shug Avery. Gradually, the two fall in love, and with Shug’s encouragement and support, Celie begins to take back control of her life. At times heartachingly sad and at others powerfully uplifting, The Color Purple shows how rigid adherence to heteronormative ideas only serves to uphold existing systems of power, while unconventional relationships and disrupted gender roles bring empowerment and joy.
4. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Peters’s astonishing debut follows three women, two trans and one cisgender, as they navigate the complexities of relationships, womanhood, and impending parenthood. Reese has always yearned to be a mother, but as a trans woman, her options are limited; Amy hoped that life would get easier when she detransitioned and became “Ames” again, but in many ways that’s not the case; Katrina has just found out she's pregnant, and that her lover, Ames—who has very complicated feelings about being a “father”—wants to co-parent the baby with Reese. Peters’s writing and characterization is razor-sharp throughout, boldly tackling the messier and less-talked-about elements of being trans. The result is characters who are complicated, compelling, and feel utterly real.
5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Crafted in exquisitely beautiful prose that is clearly influenced by Vuong’s work as a poet, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is framed as a letter written by a young Vietnamese American man to his illiterate mother. Little Dog, as the narrator is nicknamed, has a fraught relationship with his physically abusive mother, who herself was traumatized by her experiences during the Vietnam War. Flitting between the past and present, Little Dog reflects on the cyclical nature of trauma, the difficulties of coming out to his mother, and his sexual awakening with Trevor, a reckless and repressed young man doomed to die by drug overdose. Vulnerable and visceral, this tackles the messier parts of queer awakening and family trauma with unflinching honesty.
6. Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
Whitehead’s raw and intimate novel follows a week in the life of Jonny, a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer individual scraping by as an online sex worker in Winnipeg. Alternating between flashbacks and the present, tragedy and hilarity, the story chronicles Jonny’s quest to earn enough money to make it back to the reservation for his stepfather’s funeral as well as his relationships with his beloved Kokum (his grandmother) and his best friend and first love, Tias, who remains in denial of his own attraction to men despite the pair’s occasional trysts. To make a living, Jonny plays out Two-Spirit and Native American fantasies for his clients, but off-camera, this unabashed “NDN glitter princess” is anything but an archaic stereotype. Brimming with vitality, it’s an artful exploration of the intersection of gender, sexuality, family, and loss within modern Oji-Cree identity.
7. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
David is a young American living in 1950s Paris and seemingly biding time until his girlfriend, Hella, returns from Spain and accepts his marriage proposal. One night, he accompanies his friend to a gay bar and falls into a tempestuous relationship with the charming Giovanni. Both David and Giovanni are decidedly flawed characters, with Giovanni often employing manipulative and guilt-tripping tactics to keep David close, and David frequently expressing disgust at the behaviour and mannerisms of other queer men, particularly those who act in a feminine manner or seem to him “pathetic.” After many years of repressing his same-sex attraction, David is a powder-keg of internalized homophobia who feels as though he must marry Hella in order finally to “become a man.” Whether David is a bisexual or a gay man in denial has been much debated over the years, but in either case, Baldwin’s pioneering work of LGBTQ literature draws a poignant portrait of a man who is terrified of what it would mean to fall in love with another man.
8. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Genly Ai is a human ethnologist sent to study the planet of Gethen, whose inhabitants are all of the same sex and only experience sexual attraction and develop reproductive characteristics for a portion of each month. Imagining that such individuals would form a largely nonmonogamous society free from sex- or gender-based prejudice, LeGuin offers a fascinating examination of our own world's gender roles through the lens of science fiction. Although “he” pronouns are used for all the planets’ inhabitants as a “default genderless pronoun,” LeGuin later expressed regret over this choice, and experimented with e/en/es pronouns in an alternate version of the book’s first chapter appended to the 1994 edition.
9. You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
The protagonist of Arafat’s sharp and introspective novel, a bisexual Palestinian American woman, struggles to make sense of her long history of self-sabotaging tendencies and obsessive relationships—frequently with older, married women. At an eccentric rehabilitation center named The Ledge, she is diagnosed with “love addiction.” Through a series of vignettes, readers begin to understand the factors that led her here: her volatile and emotionally abusive mother, her hunger for love and approval in the absence of parental affection, and the ostracization she experiences both in the U.S. and amongst her extended family in the Middle East. Arafat’s narrator is a flawed, complex, and at times unlikeable character whose determination to improve herself and to extricate herself from her mother’s desire for a perfect heterosexual daughter makes this story thoroughly compelling.
10. Loveless by Alice Oseman
Despite Georgia’s best efforts, she can’t seem to feel a “spark” with anybody. Eventually, she comes to realize that she is aromantic and asexual, but not before her efforts at romance hurt both of her dearest friends, potentially tearing apart the most important relationship in her life. As an ace-spectrum person myself, I found this book heartbreakingly relatable; in a society in which romantic happiness and sexual fulfilment are prized above all else, and in which adulthood inevitably means settling down and getting married, realizing that you are physically incapable of experiencing such emotions can feel like the world is falling apart. I greatly appreciated Oseman’s exploration of the messy cocktail of grief, anger, and despair that can come with such self-realization, as well as the ignorance and misguided pity that many people even within the LGBTQ community still bear towards aromantic and asexual individuals. Ultimately, this warm-hearted YA novel delivers a worthy lesson for people of all ages and orientations: love is not just about who we take to bed, but also the friends and communities we build for ourselves.