As Pride Month unfortunately draws to a close, I wanted to talk about LGBTQ+ classics.
I love that we have more queer books releasing in YA of late, exploring the lesser-known and often erased identities like asexuality and non-binary/genderqueer. That being said, I think it’s important, as a queer OR allocishet reader, to take a look at how far we’ve come. One of the best ways to do that is reading queer books from the past.
I was fortunate enough to encounter several of these books in college, whether it was a lit class or my amazing—and never forgotten—Queer Theory class.
For this list, I’m defining “classic” as an extremely influential book published within the last 15 years. I realize that 15 years isn’t really long enough to declare something a classic. However, I feel that queer lit is such a “young” category that finding these books can often be pretty difficult to begin with.
A disclaimer: many, if not most of these books, may be traumatic reading, especially for queer kids. Things were not so welcoming for us back then and these books often deal with difficult subjects: the rejection of family and friends, the loss of loved ones to AIDS, and violence against queer people—that, at least, hasn’t changed as much as we’d have liked. If you’re sensitive to these topics, that’s 100% okay, and I’d recommend that you steer clear.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (1973)
why it’s a classic: This is one of those rare books that tackles the harsh realities of being queer in a straight world, including violence and poverty, while still ultimately being an uplifting and hopeful story. It follows Molly from her first (failed) crush, to leaving her hometown for the bright lights of the rest of the world.
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein (1994)
category: transgender (non-fiction)
why it’s a classic: Bornstein effortlessly combines coming-of-age memoir style narrative with some serious gender theory. It’s both academic and accessible at the same time. I read this in Queer Theory and it really opened my mind a lot, but it’s also a really quick read.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
category: technically unspecified; can be read as lesbian or bisexual
why it’s a classic: This book is absolutely heart-breaking, and while it doesn’t necessarily involve queer labels, it shows a relationship between two women of color, without erasing the difficulties they face in life. TW: sexual abuse.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
category: gay (could be read as bisexual)
why it’s a classic: It’s an absolutely tragic account of two men struggling with their love for each other and the morality of the times. On top of that, Baldwin was a queer black writer at a time when it was dangerous to be both—or either.
Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1928)
category: potentially read as bisexual & genderqueer/non-binary
why it’s a classic: I’ll be honest and say that I struggle with Woolf’s style. She’s very out there, very ahead of her time in a lot of ways, and this book is no exception. The story follows Orlando, born as a boy who becomes a girl throughout the course of the story. The novel is often viewed as a love-letter to Virginia Woolf’s (assumed) lady lover, Vita Sackville-West. (Side note: this is one of those books I’d really like to re-read with a buddy, so if you’re down, let me know).
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1998)
category: historical fiction; lesbian (non-binary)
why it’s a classic: This book blew my mind with the sheer scope of its topic. The story follows Nan, a lesbian in Victorian England, as she performs in drag in vaudeville with her female lover. It’s heartbreaking and raw. At one point, Nan ends up as a cross-dressing prostitute, and at another point she’s a live in sex servant to a rich woman. It’s intense, but it draws attention to just how far we’ve come in queer history.
Pages For You by Sylvia Brownrigg (2002)
why it’s a classic: I really enjoyed the lyrical style of this one. Beyond that, it’s a story of a 17-year-old first-year college student discovering her sexuality and falling in love for the first time. (This is one I should probably re-read; also, the long-awaited sequel is finally coming out this year!)
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)
why it’s a classic: This is about a “late-in-life” gay, a college professor who’s long been involved in a same-sex affair outside his lackluster marriage. As he comes to terms with his lover’s death, the main character has to decide how to be himself. Ultimately, the book isn’t about him being gay; it’s about him being a human being. Definitely ahead of its time.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
category: ?? (honestly, I think Virginia Woolf was 100% bi, and I also read Laura Brown as decidedly not-straight)
why it’s a classic: Explores the lives of three different women: Virginia Woolf, who’s dealing with depression; Laura Brown, who’s in a miserable marriage; and Clarissa Vaughn, a middle-aged woman caring for her best friend who’s dying of AIDS. It’s a tear-jerker, folks.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
category: lesbian / genderqueer?
why it’s a classic: This was the first lesbian book I read in Queer Theory and it goes a long way in showing modern readers what it was like to be queer before the gay rights movement. Please note: at this point in history, same-sex attraction was conflated with “gender inversion,” in that a lesbian was seen as an inverted man, rather than a woman-loving-woman. While this could be read as the main character being genderqueer, that wasn’t really a term at that time. I think this is an important book, but it shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt. Also, this is another really sad one, so fair warning.
There are definitely more queer classics out there—I have a fair few still on my TBR. If you’re looking for more queer books, check out my LGBTQIAP shelf on Goodreads.
Have you read any of these books? Wanna buddy-read with me? Have any other queer classics you think should be on this list? Let’s talk in the comments! Happy Pride!