Virginia Woolf based gender-bending Orlando on her lover Vita. James Baldwin questioned love in Giovanni’s Room. Gertrude Stein detailed her partner’s adventurous life in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Audre Lorde claimed ownership of her identity in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.
While these books are literary classics, the relationships they described were not considered main stream in the least. But that’s changing, at least in certain parts of the world. Visibility, representation, and acceptance are finally beginning to take root, and these diverse voices from different corners of the LGBTQIA+ community are instrumental in driving it forward.
Jennifer Finney Boylan
Boylan’s groundbreaking memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, details her emotional and physical transition from male to female and was the first bestseller written by a transgender American. In addition to novels and novellas, Boylan is on book three of her Falcon Quinn YA series that focuses on diversity and bullying, and she has a regular op-ed at The New York Times where she explores LGBTQIA+ issues and more. Her next memoir, Good Boy (April 2020), explores her early life as a young man and the lessons she learned from her dogs throughout those years.
Winterson’s first success is Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a novel about an evangelical woman who stuns her God-fearing British working-class family with the announcement that she’s a lesbian. It’s fiction, but based on Winterson’s life. At age 16, Winterson came out to her evangelical parents and was immediately kicked out of the house. Before leaving, her mother pleaded, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” a question that provided the title to her autobiography decades later.
To fully understand what it was like to be a gay man in New York City in the 1970s, start with Edmund White. With a handful of other men, he formed The Violet Quill, a literary salon for their experiences. Over the next three decades, in fiction and non-fiction, White chronicled the fight for equality and how AIDS devastates his community. A Boy’s Own Story (1982) is the first of many autobiographies, and The Married Man is a heart-wrenching novel about love during the AIDS crisis.
As Kenan struggled to understand and accept his identity as a gay black man in the South, so have his characters. Raised in a rural North Carolina town, his hometown is said to be the basis for Tims Creek, a setting he introduces in A Visitation of Spirits and returns to in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Nonfiction includes a James Baldwin biography for young readers and The Fire This Time, a stern look at African American culture in 2007.
You probably know Bechdel as the author of Fun Home, an autobiographical graphic novel about her and her father’s coming out story that was adapted to a Broadway play (and won five Tony Awards). Before Fun Home, though, Bechdel was best known for her long-running comic, Dykes to Watch Out For about a group of gender non-conforming women (and their allies) in the Midwest. In one Dykes strip, she famously introduced The Bechdel Test. To ensure that female characters are being portrayed realistically in the arts: “1. It has to have at least two named women in it, 2. Who talk to each other, 3. About something besides a man.”
Jewish, academic, British families are what Mendelson knows best and is able to capture in painful detail in her novels. Add the intersection of sexual orientation, and you get the abundance of drama, passion, and comedy found in novels like Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad.
Much of Takei’s childhood was spent in two Japanese internment camps during WWII, profiled on Broadway in Allegiance and in Takei’s new graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. Of course, the storied life he’s famous for is his iconic role as Mr. Sulu on the TV show Star Trek. Takei publically revealed his 18-year relationship with a man in 2005, but for those who knew him or his commitment to advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights, this was not a big reveal. With the rise of social media, Takei has quickly mastered the far-reaching technology to fight for his causes. His understanding of how media affects society in the There Goes the Internet series are important reads from a man who has been engaging audiences for the last 60 years.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, the Habib family arrived in Toronto, Canada as refugees. Growing up as a queer Muslim woman, Habib didn’t have many opportunities to meet others who shared her experiences. Her Queer Muslim Photo Project has brought her in touch with this community, and given her the courage to share her own story in her debut, a memoir titled We Have Always Been Here.
Namir’s debut novel, God in Pink, insists that being faithful and being queer do not have to be incompatible. Set during the war in Iraq in 2003, a young gay man and a sheik study the Quran to answer questions about the nature of love and hate. Namir’s debut won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction, and it put him on the map as an important young Islamic author.
Born in California and raised in Mexico, González self-identifies as a gay Chicano. His coming-of-age memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, explores his difficult childhood in Michoacán, his life as an immigrant upon the family’s return to California, and the ways he tried to push back against his culture’s toxic machismo. The Book of Ruin is his most recent release, a poetry collection about the history of the Americas, and the lessons we may not be learning from the past.
Abandoned as a child and raised by an uncaring family psychiatrist, Burroughs has documented his life with a string of memoirs that begins with Running with Scissors. His life as a gay man is seen through many lenses and informs his struggles with alcoholism (Dry), his absent father (A Wolf at the Table), and even his life as a witch (Toil & Trouble, his latest.)
Kai Cheng Thom
At only 28 years old, Thom is already positioned as a young voice to watch in the LGBTIA+ community of writers and thinkers. Her most recent title, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World questions today’s social movements, as well as the concepts of justice and faith. Her novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, is a pulp-noir romp through a city called Gloom, featuring an Asian trans girl runaway and the femme friends who become her chosen family.