As a shy, introverted kid I spent a lot of time reading books, and using books to escape unpleasant parts of my childhood. In books I was able to “see” experiences different from the life I was living, and books also helped me to imagine a queer future for myself. Now there are an amazing array of LGBTQ+ books being published every year from small presses, and from large publishers. Most bookstores have an LGBTQ+ section, but this wasn’t always the case. Growing up in the 1990s and coming out in 2001, then growing up in the suburbs, I had never seen a LGBTQ+ book, and honestly I didn’t even know any existed until I stumbled across one at a Barnes & Noble. At this time, I knew I was queer, but no one else did. I bought the book and hid it under my mattress, reading it late at night after my family had gone to bed. A few months later, when I ran away from home and moved to Portland, one of the first places I went were to independent bookstores that had large LGBTQ+ literary sections, and a local feminist bookstore.
In those independent bookstores, I found incredible queer books that would change my life and become my support system. I read stories by and about people that looked like me. Finding those books was also the moment where I knew that I wanted to write queer books myself. I love so many modern LGBTQ+ books but I also recently have been thinking about “vintage” books that I loved when I first came out, and are as good now as they were then! Looking for some flashback fall reads? You might enjoy these books!
Emanuel Xavier, 1997
First published as a chapbook in the 90s and later released as a book when I think of queer youth literature of New York this is the first book that comes to mind. Emanuel is a spoken word artist, and his work so powerfully explores the experience of coming of age, coming into community and self on the streets of the West Side Highway in NYC a historical neighborhood of importance for homeless and marginally housed LGBTQ+ youth of color. Our world has changed a lot, but LGBTQ+ youth homelessness is still prevalent, making this book as relevant now as it was when it was first published.
Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure
Dorothy Allison, 1996
I’m biased. Dorothy Allison is probably my favorite author of all time, so I think that just about everything Dorothy Alison has written should be required reading. Her books were also the first time that I had seen anyone, but especially a queer person, talk candidly about experiencing child abuse. It sounds strange to say but I didn’t know those were things that you could even write about but her essays and nonfiction work showed me the importance of naming and claiming your story. Dorothy’s words aren’t always easy to read, but they are strong, powerful and beautiful.
ZAMI: A New Spelling Of My Name
Audre Lorde, 1982
Audre Lorde was a groundbreaking feminist, and civil rights activist who fought tirelessly in her work against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Zami is a groundbreaking text that Audre Lorde called a “biomythography” combining together: history, biography, and myth. I first read this book as an undergraduate Women’s Studies student and I’m so glad that I did. The book is older than I am but it absolutely has stood the test of time and is worth reading or re-reading today.
Boys Like Her: Transfictions
Taste This Collective (Anna Camilleri, Ivan Coyote, Zoe Eakle and Lyndell Mongomery), 1998
This gorgeous collection brings together storytelling with photography and visual art collaged together on the page. The book creatively reminded me of the cut/paste aesthetic of zines which were a big part of my life in my late teens. Although this book is out of print, you can usually find used copies online. For a while this was my absolute favorite book — and I loved it so much that I “borrowed” it my freshman year of college from my mentor and never returned it. I needed to keep this book close to me. It was the first time I’d seen nonbinary, genderqueer, trans stories told with gritty joy and struggle. I’ve still never read another book like it!
Stone Butch Blues
Leslie Feinberg, 1993
This is one of the first books I read after running away because everyone at the queer youth center where I would hang out in the evenings was reading it. The novel follows Jess — a working-class butch struggling to find connection, sense of self and community in 1950s bar culture in Buffalo, New York. More than that though — for many butch lesbians and people of transmasculine experience, Stone Butch Blues was the first representation they/we had ever seen on the page. It was and is completely groundbreaking. For the 20th anniversary of the book after Leslie’s passing, Stone Butch Blues was made available for a free download for anyone in the community who needs/wants a copy. You can access that book here (https://www.lesliefeinberg.net/).
The Gilda Stories
Jewelle Gomez, 1991
Who doesn’t love a good queer vampire story? The novel centers a Black lesbian who escapes slavery in the 1800s and is indoctrinated/becomes part of a group of vampires. The book travels through time, exploring themes of identity, resilience, power, love, and the desire for community. This is the kind of book that will turn everything you think you know about vampire novels on its head, in the best possible way!
Michelle Tea, 2000
For punk queer dykes, Michelle Tea’s autobiographical coming of age novel is a classic. Set in queer subcultures of San Francisco, Valencia is one of those books that when you start reading you just can’t put it down. Even though the San Francisco of this book is no longer (thanks gentrification), I believe this book is timeless around themes of queer coming of age, friend/community drama, and a whole lot of messy relationships is still relatable and worth reading today.
My Gender Workbook
Kate Bornstein, 1998
There is an updated version of this book (spoiler: I’m quoted in it!) the offers a more contemporary update for ways that queer culture has evolved in the past couple of decades but the classic original version is always still brilliant. For anyone (nonbinary, trans, cis) who is interested in thinking more about their own gender this book is a perfect way to open that dialogue with yourself. Filled with interactive activities, witty explanations of gender and more no question this is a book that will help you understand better and is worth having on your bookshelf!
Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence
Marion Dane Bauer, 1995
So this is actually the very first LGBTQ+ book that I ever read. Naturally, I had to put it on this flashback list of books to check out. The anthology is comprised of short stories all featuring different fictional teens who are in the process of understanding their own sexual orientations and what that means for them personally, their families and communities. In some ways the collection feels a little dated, but I think the stories of self-discovery are also timely.
About the Author:
Sassafras Lowrey’s novels and nonfiction books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation and the Dog Writers Association of America. Sassafras’ work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Sassafras has taught queer writing courses and workshops at LitReactor, the NYC Center For Fiction and at colleges, conferences, and LGBTQ youth centers across the country. www.SassafrasLowrey.com