25 LGBTQ+ books that changed the literary landscape
Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, October 19, 2022
25 LGBTQ+ books that changed the literary landscape
Queer books are having a moment.
In 2022, sales of LGBTQ+ fiction doubled those of two years prior. Increased mainstream interest in queer stories has transformed what book publishing data analyst Kristen McLean called a once-“niche area of publishing” into a genre-spanning category that is no longer confined to one section of bookstore shelves. This has been a truly banner year for queer book releases spanning multiple genres, from “Unwieldy Creatures” and “Before We Were Trans” to “My Government Means to Kill Me” and “Myth of the Wrong Body.”
Growth in LGBTQ+ fiction sales is consistent across generations and genres, from young adult and general adult fiction to more specific genre categories, including fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. This queer literary renaissance flies in the face of coordinated efforts to ban LGBTQ+ books in U.S. schools and libraries. Preliminary 2022 data from the American Library Association revealed that this year is on track to break records for the most recorded book challenges—and LGBTQ+ books and books about people of color are the most frequently targeted.
Despite the historical bias and censorship efforts levied against it, queer literature has always existed: in the remaining fragments written by the Greek poet Sappho, in the under-the-radar use of euphemisms, and in the vibrant underground zine scene.
The evolution of LGBTQ+ literature reflects changes in cultural attitudes toward queerness over time. Gone are the days when even the suggestion of homosexuality in a book could be used as evidence with which to prosecute its author. Milestones in queer history, such as the Stonewall riots, also serve as landmarks in queer literature, shaping and changing what was seen as permissible—even publishable—throughout the last century.
Stacker curated a list of LGBTQ+ books that changed the literary landscape of their time, encompassing more than 100 years of history and varying in terms of their authors, topics, and narrative forms. English-language fiction and creative nonfiction have been included. LGBTQ+ books are defined by the centering of a queer narrative or character, the author identifying as LGBTQ+, or both.
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1890: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s now-classic work went through several iterations—during which it became increasingly censored—before being published as a novel. Publishers dialed down the homoerotic themes contained in Wilde’s original manuscript for its first release in the magazine Lippincott’s, and both homosexual and heterosexual explicitness were mostly done away with when it was published as a book. Five years later, when Wilde was convicted and incarcerated on charges of homosexuality, “Dorian” was used as evidence against him.
1928: ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” played with the gender, sexuality, and linguistic conventions of its time with a gender-fluid, pansexual main character. The book humorously explores the gendered nature of power while undermining the boundaries and structures that hold up gender in the first place. Woolf even experimented with using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in the book. Inspired partly by Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West, “Orlando” is now considered one of the first English trans novels.
1928: ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall
Thought to be the first lesbian novel published in Britain and the U.S., “The Well of Loneliness” author Radclyffe Hall was an out lesbian and successful British poet.
Despite homosexuality itself no longer being criminalized in England, it was looked down upon as immoral, and published works detailing homosexuality were still subject to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which had gotten Oscar Wilde in trouble decades earlier. Hall’s publisher was charged with obscenity, and distribution of the book was halted in Britain.
Several prominent authors were prepared to testify in defense of the book at the trial, including Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, but to no avail. The book was banned shortly after in the U.K. and wasn’t republished in its author’s home country until 1954, 11 years after Hall’s death.
1936: ‘Nightwood’ by Djuna Barnes
Running in the same circles as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, modernist writer Djuna Barnes resisted being labeled a lesbian despite her many affairs with women. Set in the darkly glamorous Paris of the 1920s, Barnes’ novel “Nightwood” tells the story of a romantic relationship between two women. Centering themes of exile and unbelonging, the book portrays queerness in a way that defies categorization.
1948: ‘The City and the Pillar’ by Gore Vidal
One of the first mainstream American novels to explicitly, rather than euphemistically, depict homosexuality, “The City and the Pillar” diverged from tropes and conventional ways of representing gay characters that were popular at the time. Far from treating his gay male characters as effeminate or perverted caricatures, Gore Vidal created characters who fit a more traditional masculine ideal—gay men, in other words, who looked “straight.” Vidal, who claimed to have had more than 1,000 sexual encounters by age 25, theorized that all human beings were born bisexual.
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1952: ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith
Published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan to avoid being associated with lesbian literature, Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” became a queer classic with a cult following—namely because it differed from preceding gay and lesbian fiction in a significant way by giving its characters a happy ending.
Based on Highsmith’s own experience in which she became infatuated with a woman who bought a doll from her at Bloomingdale’s, the author did not claim responsibility for the book until 1990. Director Todd Haynes adapted the book into the 2015 film “Carol.”
1956: ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin
“Giovanni’s Room” was one of the first mainstream novels to explicitly interrogate the violence and destruction that can result from shame and internalized homophobia, as well as how these forms of repression can manifest as externalized hatred and misogyny.
Despite the main character’s unlikeability, both the protagonist’s and the other queer characters’ humanity are evident to the reader. This empathetic treatment was uncommon for its time. The book risked not being published, with James Baldwin’s publishers at Knopf warning him that it would ruin his career since it focused on white characters rather than exploring Black experiences like much of his previous work.
While Knopf subsequently rejected the manuscript, the book was eventually published by another press.
1962: ‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man” chronicles one day in the life of a college professor grieving the death of his longtime partner. Due to the social climate at the time, he cannot publicly share his struggle, so his sadness is expressed in the mundane aspects of his day.
The book legitimized the realness and depth of queer relationships and the humanity of queer people in a society that still regarded those relationships as taboo and queer people as mentally ill. Isherwood had his own long-term relationship with the painter Don Bachardy, a legendary partnership that lasted more than three decades and was documented by fellow artist David Hockney.
1971: ‘Maurice’ by E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster wrote “Maurice” in 1913, nearly 60 years before it was published posthumously. The manuscript, which tells the story of a love affair between two men, sat untouched for most of Forster’s career because of the dangers of publishing such material in early and mid-20th-century Britain. Forster’s early life was marked by Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexual behavior and writings, which forced Forster deeper into hiding. He gifted the manuscript to Christopher Isherwood, and the book was finally published a year after Forster’s death.
1978: ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin
Originally published in weekly sections in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Tales of the City” ultimately became nine novels written over more than 30 years.
Armistead Maupin’s series centered around queer characters in San Francisco heavily inspired by the people in Maupin’s community. The original serialized format of the stories allowed them to reflect real and important changes in the city and among its queer residents, exposing the joyful and tragic elements of queer life—such as the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—to a mainstream audience.
A PBS television adaptation of the book in the early 1990s was shut down in response to conservative backlash over its depictions of queer relationships. But the show was revamped later that decade and again by Netflix in 2019.
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1982: ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker
Those only familiar with the 1985 Steven Spielberg film adaptation of “The Color Purple” might not have understood the importance of queerness in Alice Walker’s original novel.
Spielberg has since admitted to “softening” the lesbian relationship between two central characters in the book, a choice that straightwashed its significant and explicit queer source material. The first book by a Black woman to win a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, “The Color Purple” depicted queer love as healing and human, a refuge from the toxic patriarchal abuse many of Walker’s characters face.
1982: ‘Zami: A New Spelling of My Name’ by Audre Lorde
Poet and activist Audre Lorde created a new genre with “Zami,” the biomythography: a combination of history, myth, and biography. Like many of Lorde’s works, the book explores the intersections of her identity as a Black queer woman, unraveling and exposing how racism, homophobia, and sexism are entwined systems of oppression while detailing her own history and arrival at self-acceptance. The book explicitly claimed queerness and placed it within the political sphere.
1985: ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” tells the semi-autobiographical story of the author’s upbringing in a hyper-religious family in England as she comes to terms with her sexuality.
The book won one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, the Whitbread Prize, and became one of the first and most popular coming-of-age novels to feature the “coming out” narrative. The book was so popular that, in 1990, the BBC adapted it into a three-part miniseries that went on to win three BAFTAs.
1991: ‘The Gilda Stories’ by Jewelle Gomez
“The Gilda Stories” is a novel that follows a young Black queer woman through time as she runs from her enslaver in the 1850s South, is taken in by a mysterious group of women, and becomes a vampire. Breaking the boundaries of the predominantly white and straight vampire genre, as well as those of Gothic literature, Jewelle Gomez paved the way for more queer Black speculative fiction and genre writing.
She named Audre Lorde’s “Zami” as an inspiration for her writing in her essay “To Grandmother’s House I Go,” saying: “…along with my affinity for stories embodying ‘otherness’ in the extreme… [it] enabled me to imagine my fiction within the legacy of U.S. storytelling. The less I tried to fit into the traditional picture (White, American, heterosexual, realism), the easier it was to see myself and write the words that would take their place in our culture.”
1993: ‘Stone Butch Blues’ by Leslie Feinberg
Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues” was one of the first novels to explore genderqueerness and the violence faced by trans and gender-nonconforming people in the pre-Stonewall era. The book, a fictionalized account of Feinberg’s own life, focuses on hir character Jess as she comes of age, navigates her journey of self-discovery, finds community, and resists police and societal violence against herself and those she loves. Feinberg maintained hir radical politics and activism for trans rights and recognition until hir death in 2014.
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2001: ‘Edinburgh’ by Alexander Chee
“Edinburgh” tells the story of Fee, a young queer boy who experiences sexual abuse and attempts to come to terms with it as he grows up. The novel, inspired by events from Alexander Chee’s childhood, parses through the shame, anger, and grief felt by survivors of abuse and shows Fee’s journey of coming to grips with his queer identity and the reclamation of his sexuality.
2002: ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides
“The Virgin Suicides” author Jeffrey Eugenides’ sophomore novel, “Middlesex,” is one of the first and most prominent books to center an intersex narrative, winning the Pulitzer Prize and enjoying widespread popularity.
The book’s main character, Cal, is raised as a girl but discovers upon hitting puberty that he is intersex and decides later in the story to transition. Eugenides—a straight, cisgender, non-intersex man—has received criticism for his lack of consultation with actual intersex people while writing the book and for ultimately affirming a binary framework of sex and gender. Two decades after “Middlesex,” there are still very few books that explore the numerous experiences of intersex people written by intersex authors.
2006: ‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote and illustrated the graphic memoir “Fun Home” about her childhood, coming out, and navigating her relationship with her father, a closeted gay man. The acclaimed book pioneered the graphic memoir genre and was later adapted into an award-winning Broadway show.
Despite the book’s popularity, “Fun Home” has been targeted for its LGBTQ+ content and was one of the most challenged or banned books of 2010-2019, according to the American Library Association.
2007: ‘Call Me by Your Name’ by André Aciman
A decade before the Oscar-winning 2017 film “Call Me by Your Name,” there was André Aciman’s novel of the same name that told the story of Elio and Oliver, two young men who meet one summer in the 1980s on the Italian coast and embark on a sensual romance.
The novel began as a simple writing exercise meant to distract Aciman from his main project but soon overtook his imagination. “Call Me by Your Name” is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, but it also treats queer love with the type of grandiosity usually reserved for heterosexual romances.
2015: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
Lauded as “the great gay novel” by author Garth Greenwell, “A Little Life” chronicles the often-tragic lives and relationships of a group of four men over several decades in New York City. It is not a novel for the faint of heart; Janet Maslin described it as “trauma-packed” in her New York Times review, while the Washington Post’s Nicole Lee wrote that the book “devastates.”
The book’s representations of queerness received mixed reviews, garnering praise from Greenwell for its complex treatment of the characters’ sexual identities—many of which are not clearly queer—while receiving criticism from others, like critic Daniel Mendelsohn, who, writing in the New York Review of Books, said it “revives a pre-Stonewall plot type in which gay characters are desexed, miserable, and eventually punished for finding happiness.”
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2017: ‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer
“Less,” a satirical novel about aging, queerness, and love, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction to the astonishment of many—including its author, Andrew Sean Greer. One of the few comedic books to win the prestigious prize, Greer noted that he used humor to get closer to emotions that felt inaccessible when approached more severely and straightforwardly.
2017: ‘Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl’ by Andrea Lawlor
“Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl” has taken on the status of a modern queer cult classic. The book follows the shape-shifting Paul, who can modify his body at will as he embarks on a cross-country, gender-untethered journey.
Full of explicitly queer sex and ’90s references, the novel is both subversive and very human. Andrea Lawlor’s debut book, “Paul” was originally published by a small press, but after gaining a dedicated following, it was reprinted by Penguin, earning a larger audience. Lawlor won a prestigious Whiting Award in 2020, becoming one of the award’s first nonbinary recipients.
2017: ‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel “Freshwater” blurs genres in multiple ways, blending the spiritual with the psychological, the supernatural with the mundane, and the real with the fictional.
A fictionalized account of Emezi’s own experiences, the book also offers multiple understandings of gender and the self, undoing the conventions of the coming-of-age novel and traditional coming-out narratives. In a review for Vox, Constance Grady wrote that the book is “…about finding a home within liminal spaces—between genders, between life and death, between god and human—and finding a way to play within them.”
2019: ‘We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan’ edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma
“We Both Laughed in Pleasure” is a collection of diaries by trans rights trailblazer and historian Lou Sullivan, who tells the story of his life from his childhood to his death from AIDS complications in 1991. Despite Sullivan’s tragic death at 39, the diaries illuminate a life full of joy: the embodiment found in queer love and sex, finding community, gender affirmation, and advocating for his own and others’ visibility during a time when language and options for transgender people were minimal.
As one of the first gay trans men to medically transition, Sullivan’s documentarian instinct preserved a vital moment in LGBTQ+ history.
2021: ‘Detransition, Baby’ by Torrey Peters
“Detransition, Baby” is one of the first novels published by an out trans woman through a big-five publishing house. It is also among the first stories to center mostly on trans characters to receive widespread acclaim from mainstream audiences and critics, earning Torrey Peters the distinction in 2021 as the first openly trans woman to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The story revolves around three characters: a trans woman who wants to be a mother, her ex (a trans woman who has detransitioned and lives as a man), and his current girlfriend (a cis woman who he inadvertently gets pregnant).
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