When I was five, I deeply connected with the movie “Matilda,” based off the Roald Dahl book that shares the same name.
A girl who loves to read, Matilda frequently walks the 10 blocks to her public library when her parents are not home. Once there, she fills a little red wagon with books, whose pages offer refuge from a world that she feels does not understand her. The stories quickly become a source of power that aids in her psychological survival.
A voracious reader myself, I immediately identified with Mara Wilson’s character.
I was in heaven when my elementary school classmates and I had “reading zone”—meaning we could come to school in our pj’s, find a comfy spot somewhere in the classroom, and spend the entire day lost in stories. At home, I’d often make forts under my parents’ dining room table and use them as cozy reading nooks. And every night before bed, my dad would cut my sister and me bowls of fruit that we’d eat while he read us a bedtime story.
Matilda’s experience of feeling alone and different from those around her is familiar to many queer kids. Many of us older (millennial, Gen X, baby boomer) LGBTQs came of age when few portrayals (both in the media and the world at large) existed that reflected our way of loving.
I myself recognized this dearth at 18, when, after finishing Jane Eyre for AP English summer homework, it occurred to me I’d never read a tale wherein two girls had captured each other’s hearts. Little was available at the time. This was a shame because, as Julie Beck put it in an article for The Atlantic, “Once certain stories get embedded into the culture, they become master narratives—blueprints for people to follow when structuring their own stories.” This is arguably difficult to do, however, when we don’t see ourselves reflected in them.
Since then, the climate has improved and stories have diversified. A volcano went off somewhere between then (2008) and now, sending down with its magma a treasure trove of queer books with richly drawn characters and plotlines.
The following books capture LGBTQ+ concerns—ones both unique to our current times, as well as the more timeless. They span the animal kingdom, domestic abuse, queer joy, chosen family, gay women communes in Latin American countries, elderly lesbian experiences, the intersections of sexuality with blindness and disability, among others.
Pride is a month of celebration. It’s also time for reflection.
So pull up a book, get comfortable, and tell Jane and Mr. Rochester to scoot on over as you immerse yourself in these multilayered, nuanced stories of queerness.
1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Though it wasn’t explicitly marketed as LGBTQ literature, I consider Middlesex my first foray into a queer narrative. It played a pivotal role for my then 15-year-old self in the early 2000s. I would return to it many times over the years.
Calliope is intersex, but they spend their first 20 years living with a female gender expression, and identifying as a girl. It’s not until early adulthood that they discover their intersex identity and from thereon transition into living with a male gender expression.
As a closeted teenager who was also grappling with same-sex crushes, the passages about Calliope’s infatuations (when they were living as female) struck a powerful chord. I particularly appreciated the mystical imagery used to capture them:
“Standing in the doorway was a redheaded girl. Two clouds bumped up above, skidding past each other, and let down a beam of light. It was also possible that the sun wasn’t doing this at all, but a certain intensity, a soul ray, from my eyes.”
At times, it felt like Eugenides was a mind voyeur, perched inside my head phrasing thoughts and feelings with poetic precision better than I could have ever phrased them myself. There was this uncanny feeling that this man who had never met me knew certain hidden corridors of my heart more intimately than even I did at the time.
Eugenides brought to light Calliope’s submerged desires so elegantly. He also captured the impossibility of their ever becoming satisfied or fully realized at that time in Calliope’s life. Un-acted upon longing is a theme familiar to many members of the LGBTQ community, particularly in adolescence.
When Calliope and “The Object” do finally act on their mutual attraction, it takes place in the quiet dark of the night, never to be mentioned the morning after (“Wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing,” Eugenides writes). The Object “made it clear that what happened at night, what [they] did at night, had nothing to do with daylight hours.”
There existed less understanding and tolerance of intersex identities when Middlesex first came out. I remember that some people grew visibly uncomfortable after hearing about the subject matter. Others simply decided they wouldn’t read it, thinking it was too far removed from what they knew.
With transgender awareness and acceptance slowly increasing, stories of sexual and gender minorities taking control over their lives and choosing paths that allow them to flourish feel all the more important and meaningful. They serve as a powerful counter-force to the many stories that exist wherein characters like these succumb to victimhood, or fight against the grain with minimal support. Intersex and transgender are not the same thing, but both experiences can lead to important discussions about the nuances of gender.
Middlesex can open doors to such conversations.
2. Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl
Browsing the gay section at Barnes and Noble was a thrilling and salacious pastime for my guy gay friend and me back in high school. Since we were both closeted, it always felt like we were doing something slightly risky. One day, from in between a lesbian erotica and gay coming-of-age tale, the cover of this book (featuring a vibrant colorful bird headshot) jumped out at us and commanded our attention.
Packed with fascinating explorations of homosexuality in the animal kingdom, Biological Exuberance shows that the behavior is prevalent across species, providing compelling counter-fodder to conservatives’ argument that gayness “isn’t natural.”
Readers learn that bluegill sunfish, mounting bison, goats, koalas, and ostriches, are among the many animals that exhibit gay behavior. We learn that 90 percent of observed sexual activity amongst giraffes is homosexual (the males, in particular, rub their necks along each other’s bodies, sometimes for hours). We learn that Amazon river dolphins were once spotted having gay group sex. And we learn that elephants might be considered “homo-romantic” in that they groom, kiss, and lock trunks with all genders of their species.
Readers will also encounter an exploration of subverted gender roles. It’s not always the women, for instance, who flaunt their beauty to attract a mate. In the animal kingdom, male peacocks are the ones to court with their grand, colorful tails. Blue-footed boobies woo the ladies of their species by way of a dance that draws attention to their vibrant blue feet. And beyond appearance, female birds also often judge their mate by the quality of his singing.
3. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Written in a poetic and avant-garde way, this book is a haunting, evocative portrayal of domestic abuse within a queer relationship.
Anyone who’s been through a relationship that has felt more like a dance on a precarious ledge than a restorative soak in a jacuzzi will be able to relate. Maybe the relationship made you feel so alive that you overlooked the bad. Maybe the “on-call” mode it necessitated provided energy, excitement, and passion. Maybe you confused all those heightened states with love.
Or maybe you found yourself juxtaposing these two sentences for the first time: Spending time with her made me feel euphoric. Spending time with her could also make me feel less than human.
Machado weaves relevant history into her narrative, including how sexism has contributed to the invalidation of the lesbian identity for about as long as homosexuality has existed. Like other minorities (particularly women of color), we queer women have often been viewed as fetishes and porn objects, more than as complex humans with our own agency. This is only now beginning to change.
One line that particularly stands out that touches upon early instances of this invalidation: “In 1811, when faced with two Scottish school mistresses who were accused of being lovers, a judge named Lord Meadowbank insisted their genitals ‘were not so formed as to penetrate each other, and without penetration, the venereal orgasm could not possibly follow.’”
There is a vast amount of literature on domestic abuse in hetero relationships but fewer on how the dynamics play out in queer ones. In The Dream House is a compelling contribution to this dearth.
4. Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
The idea for Cantoras came about when de Robertis (who uses they / them gender pronouns) traveled to South America in their early 20s.
One of the messages they’d received from their immigrant parents was that they couldn’t be both gay and Uruguayan. Having absorbed that lesson into their bones, they deeply wanted to resist it—so they went to Uruguay in desperate search for signs of queer life.
Once there, de Robertis encountered women who, as young people in the late 70s and early 80s, came out to each other and built a queer community. They did so much under the radar, in a small beach village called Cabo Polonio. This was during a dictatorship where it was incredibly dangerous to be seen as subversive in any way, including being gay.
Cantoras is based off these experiences. It’s rife with musings on chosen family, powerful and diverse narratives, and sensory details of Uruguay—including of buñuelos, a favorite dish that de Robertis’ mom used to make as a way of reconnecting to their homeland.
“They’re basically spinach and dough, rolled together and fried. It’s a little like a hush puppy from the south. They’re a very comforting food,” de Robertis said in an interview with me.
Many queer people are familiar with the concept of chosen family, or forging bonds that go deeper than blood, after their family of origin has turned their back on them.
De Robertis cites chosen family (including those which appear in their novel) as a key example of one of queer culture’s great innovations. “We’ve really pushed the envelope when it comes thinking about what it means to shape family connections through the heart, and through what we choose to forge,” they said.
They have remarked that finding the women whom Cantoras was based off was so important to them in shaping their sense of belonging in the world. Their greatest hope is that the book can be a catalyst for others on their journey to full belonging as well.
5. Are you Two Sisters? by Susan Krieger
As Clayman Institute for Gender Research put it in their review of the book: “Krieger’s title comes from a question asked by a stranger outside a remote desert bar as she and her partner traveled in the Southwest. Her apprehension about answering that question suggests how, even after the legalization of gay marriage, lesbianism often remains hidden—an observation that makes Krieger’s poignant narrative all the more moving.”
I appreciated this, as a millennial lesbian who herself has been subject to countless invisibilizing comments. Though I know that most of the time, they aren’t meant with any negative intent, the cumulative result of them has been that many days we (especially queer femmes) feel involuntarily cloaked in a robe of invisibility. We constantly have to assess the cost-benefit of pulling it off—depending on where we are, who we are with, or what the consequences might be (whether it’s minor discomfort or full-on harassment).
The “are you two sisters?” question is one that men often yell to women and me when we hold hands in public as well. Come-ons and cat-calls are unfortunate aspects of the lesbian date experience. If one young woman on her own invites harassment, two together ups it exponentially.
That Krieger writes with such candor is refreshing. Homosexuality was more or less taboo when she was coming of age, so the number of elderly lesbian couples who have stayed together and can live to tell about the trials, tribulations, and enduring love of a queer relationship are far fewer. Their rareness makes them all the more important. The fact that, in choosing to endure hardship and pushback from both their families and culture at large (so as to live as their authentic selves), they helped make a similar life possible for many of us present-day queers adds powerful context to the work.
I also appreciate Krieger’s depiction of navigating the world with significant visual impairment, as my own mom has grappled with vision loss within these past 10 years. Our ableist culture doesn’t present us with nearly enough representation of disabled experiences—or at least ones directly from the mouths and pens of the people living them.
6. Women by Chloe Caldwell
Swift and structurally creative, Women by Chloe Caldwell chronicles a passionate but toxic off-and-on relationship between two insecurely attached women.
“Finn and I could easily break over 75 emails daily. Back and forth, back and forth. Banter and proclamations of love and compliments and general worries of the future. We write how lucky we are that we have found each other, have each other. I don’t know what it is, she says, but our minds click. We’re mind clickers,” Caldwell writes.
Anyone who’s been in a relationship of this sort will be able to relate to the drug-like quality of it chronicled here.
Caldwell captures that maddeningly destructive catch-22 experience wherein the positive feelings—overpowering as they are—convince you to stick around despite the pain (which is at the heart of most addictions and codependent relationships).
A turbulent read but also energizing. You can forgo the coffee on this one; the brisk pace and quick-punch emotionality provides a caffeine-like buzz on its own.