Fact: LGBTQ+ people have very little representation in almost everything. In most forms of mainstream media—movies, television shows, music, books—homosexuality is barely discussed and almost always shown as worn out tropes like the protagonist’s sassy gay friend or the psychotic lesbian.
To be fair, though, it looks likes things are changing for the better with both creators and consumers becoming more conscious of gender politics and taking active measures to promote equality. In books, there is a rise in the number of YA novels that deal with the experience of growing up as a homosexual. This kind of representation is incredibly helpful and necessary for young LGBTQ+ people, because having characters they can identify with help them realize that their feelings and experiences are as valid and universal as those of straight people.
We put together this list of our favorite LGBTQ+-themed books (both classic and contemporary) that you ought to add to your reading list:
1. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Plot: “Therese, a struggling young sales clerk, and Carol, a homemaker in the midst of a bitter divorce, abandon their oppressive daily routines for the freedom of the open road, where their love can blossom. But their newly discovered bliss is shattered when Carol is forced to choose between her child and her lover.”
Published in 1952, The Price of Salt recently found a second life when it was adapted into the award-winning 2015 film Carol that starred Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The author originally released the book under a pseudonym because she didn’t want to be tagged as a “lesbian-book writer” and because she used her own romantic relationships with women as reference for the story. Another noteworthy detail about this novel is that it had (spoiler alert!) a relatively happy ending — something that was (and still is) rare in lesbian literature.
2. The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
Plot: “Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change? The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.”
Similar to The Price of Salt, The Danish Girl also became more popular after it was adapted into a film starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in 2015. It is a fictionalized account of the life of Lili Elbe, a Danish painter born in the 1880s who was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
3. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Plot: “In her most exuberant, most fanciful novel, Woolf has created a character liberated from the restraints of time and sex. Born in the Elizabethan Age to wealth and position, Orlando is a young nobleman at the beginning of the story and a modern woman three centuries later.”
Orlando is one of Virginia Woolf’s most popular and entertaining works. It was inspired by (and in some ways reads like a love letter to) Vita Sackville-West, a close friend and lover of Woolf. The novel tells the adventures of Orlando, a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history.
4. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Plot: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”
This novel about two Mexican-American boys is one of the new YA novels that explores what it means to grow up outside of the boy/girl binary. Since its publication in 2012, it has received wide acclaim and has won awards like the Lambda Literary Award, the Stonewall Book Award for LGBT fiction, and more.
5. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Plot: “When David meets the sensual Giovanni in a bohemian bar, he is swept into a passionate love affair. But his girlfriend’s return to Paris destroys everything. Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened – while Giovanni’s life descends into tragedy. ”
When James Baldwin first presented his manuscript for this novel to his publisher, he was told that he should burn it because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his black readers. Baldwin pursued its publication and it has gone on to become a classic of LGBT fiction since it was released in 1956.
6. Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Plot: “The narrator, Jeanette, cuts her teeth on the knowledge that she is one of God’s elect, but as this budding evangelical comes of age, and comes to terms with her preference for her own sex, the peculiar balance of her God-fearing household crumbles.”
Winner of the Whitbread Award for a First Novel in 1985, this novel tells the story of a young lesbian who grows up in an English Pentecostal community. The girl believes that she is destined to become a missionary, but becomes attracted to females when she reached adolescence. The author once revealed that the story is semi-autobiographical and is relatively based on her life in Lancashire.
7. The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts
Plot: “Known as “The Mayor of Castro Street” even before he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk’s personal and political life is a story full of personal tragedies and political intrigues, assassinations at City Hall, massive riots in the streets, the miscarriage of justice, and the consolidation of gay power and gay hope.”
The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk is a biography about Harvey Milk, one of the most popular figures in the fight for LGBT rights in the United States. He was the first openly gay American politician to be elected into public office in California. Castro Street refers to the Castro District in San Francisco, which was one of the first gay neighborhoods in America. Milk’s life was tragically cut short when he was assassinated by a fellow politician, prompting a city-wide mourning and spontaneous candlelight march attended by close to 40,000 people. A movie based on Harvey Milk’s life was released in 2008, starring Sean Penn in the title role.
8. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
Plot: “A college student, identified only as “K,” falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments–until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, “K” is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.”
Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer who has a significantly large international following. Among his works, Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood are some of the most popular. He has won awards like the World Fantasy Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Jerusalem Prize.
9. Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli
Plot: “Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.”
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a humorous and poignant YA novel that won the William C. Morris Award Winner: Best Young Adult Debut of the Year. A film version of the novel entitled “Love, Simon” came out earlier this year, starring Nick Robinson as Simon and Katherine Langford as Simon’s best friend, Leah. The author is also planning to come out with a sequel with Leah’s point of view.
10. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Plot: “Welcome to sunny suburban 1960s Southern California. George is a gay middle-aged English professor, adjusting to solitude after the tragic death of his young partner. He is determined to persist in the routines of his former life. A Single Man follows him over the course of an ordinary twenty-four hours. Behind his British reserve, tides of grief, rage, and loneliness surge―but what is revealed is a man who loves being alive despite all the everyday injustices.”
A Single Man is a deeply-moving, humane portrait of a man in mourning trying to get through every day despite the tragedy that marked his life. The author has stated that it is his favorite among all his works, and rightly so. A film adaptation of the novel was released in 2009, with Colin Firth portraying the title role.
11. I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright
Plot: “From the Obie Award-winning author of Quills comes this acclaimed one-man show, which explores the astonishing true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. A transvestite and celebrated antiques dealer who successfully navigated the two most oppressive regimes of the past century-the Nazis and the Communists–while openly gay and defiantly in drag, von Mahlsdorf was both hailed as a cultural hero and accused of colluding with the Stasi.”
I Am My Own Wife is a one-man play based on the conversations of the author with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a celebrated antiques dealer in Germany who founded the Gründerzeit Museum (a museum of everyday items). It tells the story von Mahlsdorf’s life — how she ended up killing her Nazi father when he attempted to shoot her, how she began collecting household items from bombed-out homes — as a transvestite woman in the midst of the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin. Doug Wright won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play.
12. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
Plot: “Andre Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera. Each is unprepared for the consequences of their attraction, when, during the restless summer weeks, unrelenting currents of obsession, fascination, and desire intensify their passion and test the charged ground between them. Recklessly, the two verge toward the one thing both fear they may never truly find again: total intimacy. It is an instant classic and one of the great love stories of our time.”
Call Me By Your Name has garnered a lot of attention recently, with its 2017 film version becoming a well-received piece that was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. It is a tender story of love set in an idyllic Italian summer, full of moving scenes and often heart-wrenching speech. One particular scene in the book and movie between the lead character Elio and his father is so powerful that it had people in tears.
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