Pride month is over, but there’s still more LGBTQ+ love to go around. And there’s no better way to continue the festivities and unity than by reading books written by and about members of the LGBTQ+ community. For so long, LGBTQ+ authors wrote about the men and women forced into the shadows of society, and many of these works are heralded as LGBTQ+ classics. But now, as the gay and trans civil rights movements progress worldwide, new authors are penning modern masterpieces in a time of growing love for the LGBTQ community.
When we set out to create a reading list of essential LGBTQ+ books, we found works about self-discovery, acceptance, coming out of the closet and more themes that will speak to people across all orientations, races and genders. Thanks to influential writers like Christopher Isherwood and E.M. Forster, and contemporary writers like Stephen Rowley and Jasmine Mans, many of the books on our list speak to the healing power of love and acceptance. That said, we’ve also included classic books that explore the traumatic history of gay communities with unflinching honesty.
There are so many great books written by LGBTQ+ authors that feature LGBTQ+ characters that we simply couldn’t name them all in this reading list. Still, we tried our best to put together a list of 21 incredible LGBTQ+ books to enjoy before, during or after Pride month.
The Best LGBTQ+ Books: How We Selected These Titles
When selecting the books to include, we talked to Dr. Chris Freeman, a professor of English at the University of Southern California. He has a Ph.D. in English and Queer Studies from Vanderbilt University and won a Lambda Literary Award in Gay Studies for his first book The Isherwood Century in 1999. He identifies as a gay man and takes the LGBTQ+ literature space very seriously.
“I’m not going to pretend that I’m 25-years-old in this conversation,” Freeman said. “I’m kind of the middle person generation. We have a lot of queer elders who are in their 70s and 80s and those were the ones most devastated by HIV and AIDS in terms of men and women who participated in caregiving and activism. So, I’m 20 years younger than those folks, but I’m 20 to 30 years older than the new generation. So, I think it’s important to revisit some things from the post-World War Two queer timeline, and I come into that timeline kind of in the middle. For me, that history is really important and some of the formative books, ideas and movements are a part of the entire matrix of LGBTQ+ history.”
Freeman also told us that queer literature is deeply personal for him.
“I’m going to talk about queer theory in a way that is personal,” he said. “You write these works and read these works because you’re living the way you are, as a queer person. Things are easier for some people and harder for others, but they’re not easy for any of us.”
For this article, we included books that are all over the matrix of LGBTQ+ history and encompass many different narratives, but we didn’t forget to include contemporary titles that have a funny or witty twist. As a means of exposure, we tried to pick titles that are well-known, as well as others that deserve a bigger and brighter spotlight. There are works here written by legendary authors such as James Baldwin and Paul Monette, but also modern works by emerging writers such as Jacob Tobia and Robert Jones Jr., and we hope our selections provide an interesting yet insightful contrast.
Freeman is a fan of both nonfiction and fiction books that tell stories that have too often gone unnoticed — stories like Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York by Sarah Schulman, or stories about how two under-represented letters in the community, specifically the L and the T, find love and experience self-discovery. He also enjoys works that ask hard questions about queer identity. Gripping works like Maurice, Becoming a Man and the poetry of Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, were specific works recommended by Freeman due to their honest, bracing language and powerful messages.
Because the term “best” is extremely subjective, this list includes titles that we believe will continue to help advocate for acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Below, we’ve gathered 21 essential LGBTQ+ books that we feel represent the great writing of LGBTQ+ authors, and every single one of these books would be a worthy addition to your reading list. Of course, there are so many great titles that we didn’t include here. Feel free to share your recommendations in the comments or on social media, and we’ll consider updating this post in the future with more titles.
Keep reading to see our selection of some of the best LGBTQ+ books ever written.
1. Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette
Becoming a Man is a biography of the gay rights activist Paul Monette, and how he wrestled with his sexuality while growing up as a gay kid in the 1950s and learned to survive as a gay man in America. Winner of the National Book Award, it’s a gripping tale of his adulthood journey and accepting himself, and it was one of Freeman’s top recommendations.
2. The Tradition by Jericho Brown
This riveting book of poetry won the Pulitzer Prize. According to the book jacket, “The Tradition details the normalization of evil and its history at the intersection of the past and the personal. Brown’s poetic concerns are both broad and intimate, and at their very core a distillation of the incredibly human: What is safety? Who is this nation? Where does freedom truly lie?” Brown explores those questions through beautifully written poetry. In a way, it’s a celebration of contradiction. The book includes poems about fatherhood, legacy, blackness, queerness, worship and trauma.
3. Another Country by James Baldwin
James Baldwin is an icon in the LGBTQ+ publishing industry, and his work continues to move readers generation after generation. Another Country is set in Greenwich Village, Harlem and France and focuses on passions — sexual, racial, political and artistic. Before the gay liberation movement, Baldwin was writing powerful stories about gay and bisexual men in America, and he is a towering figure in both gay and black American literature.
4. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
Robert Jones Jr. figures out a way to bring romanticism to an era that’s not typically portrayed as romantic, at least not for Black people. This story is about the forbidden love between two young men on a Deep South Plantation, the refuge they seek in each other and a betrayal that threatens their very existence. According to Penguin Random House, Jones Jr. “is the creator and curator of the social justice, social media community Son of Baldwin, which has over 275,000 members across platforms. Even with so many talented LGBTQ authors writing today, his debut novel stands out.
5. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred C. Kinsey
This book represents a major milestone in the scientific understanding of human sexual behaviors. Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey and his cohort of researchers strived to create an objective body of work that analyzed human sexuality. Kinsey drew from the sexual histories of approximately 5,300 men collected over 15 years, and it was a groundbreaking scientific work.
6. Tendencies by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Tendencies is a collection of essays from author Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who Rolling Stone once called “the soft-spoken queen of gay studies”. This trailblazing queen combines poetry, wit, polemic, scholarship and autobiography to create a piece of work that transcends time. Some of her essays explore the works of other writers such as Oscar Wilde and Henry James, while others tackle topics like breast cancer and “the poetics of spanking.’
7. Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman
ACT UP was a diverse coalition of activists who fought, and are still fighting, the AIDS epidemic. This disruptive body of change seekers changed the course of the epidemic and made history during a time when many Americans thought that HIV was a punishment sent by God. This book is a collective retelling of the coalition’s history during the peak of the AIDS crisis and how the group changed the world.
8. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo
This observant piece of writing seeks to understand the nuanced history of gay cinema. It’s definitive and serves an overreaching look at gays in film. According to book reviewer Michael Bronski, as cited on Amazon, “When Vito Russo published the first edition of The Celluloid Closet in 1981, there was little question that it was a groundbreaking book. Today it is still one of the most informative and provocative books written about gay people and popular culture.”
9. A Single Man: A Novel by Christopher Isherwood
In this book, Isherwood wants you to get a glimpse of what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. This stirring story is frank portrayal of an older gay man, set in 1960s Southern California. It takes place over the course of 24 hours, and it’s a peek into the life of the single, older, gay man.
10. What Belongs to You: A Novel by Garth Greenwell
Greenwell tells the story of how our scars, past and shames can shape who we are as people and who we love with his debut, What Belongs to You. It’s the story of an American teacher in a foreign country who pays a man for sex. The relationship continues as a mutual exchange that transforms into a violent situation. It forces the teacher to face his past and how growing up in the south in America has shaped him as a queer man.
11. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Another contribution to this list from James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room is one of the most respected works in LGBTQ+ literature. A young man marries a woman and while she is away on a trip he meets a bartender named Giovanni. The two spend time in his curtain-less room. But after his wife’s return, the affair becomes a crisis.
12. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple is a historic book that’s about faith and forgiveness. The book follows a young Black girl growing up in rural Georgia and the abuse that she suffers. Through her trials and tribulations, she finds solace in God and empowering herself. Walker’s story won’t be forgotten for generations to come, and the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction. It’s the only Pulitzer Prize-winning book with a lesbian protagonist, although the book’s lesbian themes were largely erased from the famous movie adaptation.
Read More: Essential Books By Black Authors
13. City of Night by John Rechy
In this coming-of-age story, an anonymous young man tries to find himself within the bright neon lights of cruising hotspots around the country, betwixt the influences of male hustlers, drag queens, closeted cops, and fetishists. Through this book, Rechy humanizes the men deemed undesirable by mainstream society and uses them as a way to exhilarate and move his audience. Extremely controversial at the time of its release, City of Night is now considered a classic of LGBTQ literature.
14. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
A random encounter between two lonely women strikes up a passionate romance. That’s the straightforward premise of The Price of Salt. The women come from two different worlds: Therese is a struggling sales clerk and Carol is a homemaker in the middle of a bitter divorce. They both leave their daily routines and hit the road, but their liberating affair can’t last forever. The inspiration for the movie Carol, The Price of Salt is an important early work of lesbian literature.
15. Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia
It took Jacob, the book’s author, years to figure out that being a sissy wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s would become a source of pride. It tells of his personal trauma and bullying, while also helping you, or anyone else for that matter, find a way to tread through a society that tells you it’s wrong to wear tacky clip-on earrings. It’s heart-wrenching, honest and exactly the kind of modern coming-of-age story the world needs right now.
16. Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer
This eye-catching yet comical title is just the light-hearted boost you need right now. JP, the book’s author, seeks to tell his own story with humor yet also finds a way to answer serious questions that he posed to himself as a child such as, “How do I become the person I want to be and let go of the past?” It’s a piercingly funny read that will help you navigate the outside world.
17. Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride
Too often, transpeople are forgotten when it comes to discussion about equality and equity. This book is an informative, heartbreaking and insightful piece of literature that seeks to shed light on the trans rights movement and the people who power it. Touching on topics like bathroom access and healthcare, McBride finds a way to weave in political and cultural nuances with their own personal experiences.
18. The Guncle by Steven Rowley
The Guncle is a funny novel about a niece and nephew going to live with their Guncle, or gay uncle, after tragedy strikes and the kids lose their mother. Gay Uncle Patrick, or GUP for short, must now take the reins and figure out how to raise two little humans. It’s a funny story that everyone can learn from. While many early works of LGBTQ literature are tragic stories of abuse, shame and trauma, The Guncle represents a welcome new chapter in queer literature.
19. Maurice: A Novel by E. M. Forster
This riveting tale is about a man who wishes to be his true self. From his time in Cambridge to working at his father’s firm, he wishes that he could forget society and be who he truly is. It’s a story that affirms that love between two men can be joyful.
20. Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans
If you’re a Black woman who wants to see herself in literature, then this poetry book is for you. It speaks to the Black woman’s soul and seeks to be a vital companion to any woman who is searching for truth, belonging and healing. It’s a poetry collection about race, feminism and queer identity.
21. NIghtwood by Djuna Barnes
Nightwood is a sinister tale of sexual obsession and a foundational work of both lesbian and modernist literature. Djuna Barnes novel has a cult following, and it also features one of the earliest depictions of gender dysphoria, and possibly the first trans woman character to ever appear in a work of fiction. Protagonist Robin Vote is a woman whose passions tend to destroy, and all of her lovers are consumed by her hunger for human contact. Ominous enough for you?