As our nation’s straight allies are learning, LGBTQ culture is hardly one-size-fits-all. This makes it more difficult than ever to bring each other up to speed on the issues we all face together, those that are unique to our particular tribe, and the various points of overlap that make up the full rainbow of identities and experiences. One person’s pride needn’t come at the expense of anyone else’s, but thanks to our god-given ignorance and limited exposure to other perspectives, it all too often does.
We entered 2017 with eyes wide open to the particular challenges (political and otherwise) that coming years were likely to impose on the LGBTQ population. At this point there’s no excuse for keeping ourselves in the dark and trusting others to wage the toughest battles on our behalf. Nor is there any excuse for watching from the sidelines as those with even less power duke it out against those whom our society’s establishments still tend to favor. Though relations between communities may sometimes fray as we all grapple for the microphone, we’ll still always be stronger together than on our own; more than ever, that strength is reflected in the combined weight of our literature.
This month, as parades fan out across the country broadcasting messages of hope and equality, be sure to equip yourself with tools that will make you a better teammate and neighbor to those whose lives are on the line in ways yours may not be, ways both seen and unseen. Knowing your own roots is no longer enough: If you wish to be of service to someone else, you demonstrate a willingness to learn about theirs too.
So, in the spirit of exercising our hard-won marriage rights, the following list includes a bit of everything from the queer canon: something old, something new, something borrowed, and something decidedly blue.
Twenty-sixteen was a banner year for YA releases with LGBTQ themes, but the basic idea was right in front of us all along. This adaptation of Shakespeare’s time-honored paean to tortured adolescence gets a dagger-sharp twist thanks to Drama Desk winner Joe Calarco, who invites us to watch as four prep-school students read scenes from Romeo and Juliet together, only to find themselves acting out the play’s tragedies in real life as a romance flares between two students of the same sex. Nothing in contemporary culture has given young people the tools to overcome these pressures, as noted by The Trevor Project: “Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are four to six times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.”
It’s been so long since this this groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning novel was first printed, LGBTQ people under forty might not even recognize it as kin – and why should they, since the film adaptation, while notable for many reasons, almost entirely excludes the lesbian attraction that plays so prominently in Celie’s journey? Conservatives haven’t forgotten, though: As is so often the case with books depicting the experiences of African American women (see also: Toni Morrison’s Beloved), the book still continually ends up being challenged or banned in schools and libraries, for reasons including “sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”
Accounts of the decade immediately preceding the AIDS crisis read like dispatches from a parallel world, one in which gay men achieved new heights of sexual liberation, often at the expense of literally everything else. Young men and women poured into New York and San Francisco from small towns all over the world, chasing the emerging lifestyle they’d read about in magazines and pulp paperbacks like Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker – particularly after the 1969 Stonewall riots. Holleran’s novel allows us to vicariously experience the exhilarating freedom of this era, complete with inevitable come-down as certain individuals prove unable to withstand the toll taken by its excesses. Reliving this slice of history in all its squalor and decadence is a necessity for queer up-and-comers. As Holleran writes: “Dreams are all equipped with revolving doors: Someone is always walking into the one you are leaving, and vice-versa.”
On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us
While trans visibility might seem to be at a historic high, the media still tends to fixate on the same small handful of voices and stories, imposing a kind of conformity on our perception of this group of dazzlingly diverse individuals. Kate Bornstein is notable for her inability to constrain herself to these media-ready narratives, daring the reader to keep up as she explores what it means to be male, female, or anything in between, offering us a sort of workbook for analyzing our own unique gender configuration. In an interview with Signature last year, celebrating the revision that brought her controversial ’94 book squarely up to date, Bornstein commented on the particular challenges facing the LGBTQ community in the Trump era:
“This is what we’ve been practicing our activism for. We’re good at this! Is it going to be hard? Yes. Is it going to be painful? I’m so, so, so sorry, but yes: It’s going to be hard and painful. People will die. They’ll even die at their own hands, and that makes me very angry. What we need to remember is to do whatever it takes to forge coalitions with other marginalized groups to resist the bullies, and to avoid hatred ourselves. We cannot hate.”
James Baldwin is already enjoying a renaissance thanks to the success of last year’s Samuel L. Jackson-narrated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which has put him at the top of many people’s already-crowded reading lists. If this is you, consider starting here: this semi-autobiographical debut novel contains all the underpinnings for Baldwin’s more explicitly gay works, focusing on the tradition of religious conflict between African American families and their LGBTQ offspring – an issue that lingers today. From here you’ll be even better equipped to savor the success of Giovanni’s Room, which he wrote just a few years later, and which served as a more formal announcement of the author’s commitment to making room in society (and in the publishing world) for gay love stories.
The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS
Anyone who wants a view of the future as informed by the past, look no further than this detailed, first-person account of the AIDS crisis, when America’s political leaders and medical professionals decidedly turned one big, cold shoulder on the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of gay men dying of a horrifying mystery illness. These unfolding events became the basis for a young David France’s life’s work; while his book is ultimately a historical document of utmost importance, he’s wisely deployed it in the form of a gripping page-turner, inviting us to bear witness to the horrors of the plague itself, while looking on as a gripping legal and medical procedural unfolds.
How might our world today be different if the public outcry had been even slightly greater? “I focus in the book mostly on people I’d gone to college with; we had a gay group on that college campus, and from that group, in my class, I’m the only one that survived,” he told us in an interview last fall. “It robbed them in their youth, and robbed the rest of us from knowing what they might have become.”
The painful events of Jeanette Winterson’s early life as the queer adopted daughter in an evangelical family became the basis for a literary sensation when Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985, and later a TV sensation when the BBC adapted it into a dramatic series. Success, however, does not erase the wounds of the past, nor does it necessarily clear the way for better relationships with our families or our partners. Winterson’s follow-up to her semi-autographical novel is more of a straight (if you’ll pardon the term) memoir, expanding upon the events in the first book, including her mother’s reaction to Oranges. While the author is still capable of marveling at the life she’s made out of these scraps, she refuses any attempt to paint a happy ending on her story, or even a clearly defined one – the book actually concludes with the words “I have no idea what happens next.”
The 2013 documentary “Valentine Road” scratched the surface of a horrible tragedy that rocked a California middle school in 2008: A student named Brandon McInerney shot and killed a classmate named Larry King, who had taken to wearing feminine accessories and asking people to call him Leticia. In death, Larry/Leticia was treated no better than in life. As an observer in the ensuing court case, Ken Corbett witnessed the kind of ignorance and prejudice we like to imagine our society is capable of outgrowing; as a psychoanalyst, he has his own theories as to why these lessons continue to elude us, no matter how many Larrys or Leticias are sacrificed along the way. Highlighting the legal divide in how these cases are handled, Corbett told Signature: “Last year twenty-three trans women of color were murdered, and in all but one case they were murdered by a man, and most of those cases were not documented as hate crime. Most of those women were younger than twenty-three years old.”
A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family
As we speak, LGBTQ minors all over the country are enduring religious “conversion therapy” programs, and many are doing so against their will. So far, only nine states have passed statutes banning these dangerous programs, which have been disavowed by every major medical authority in the U.S.
As a survivor of this treatment, Garrard Conley is intimately aware of the harm it can do. Walking readers through his experience from beginning to end, he also shines a light on the kind of fear and misunderstanding that drives parents to believe these programs’ promises, which they see as their kids’ last hope for a “normal” life. This is an issue that will loom large in the coming years, as Vice President Mike Pence has a murky background related to conversion therapy, and President Trump has done nothing to distance himself from the GOP’s enthusiasm for this plank in their 2016 election campaign platform – which Conley described as “a death sentence” for queer kids around the country.
Gay remains a forward-shining beacon to feminists of every gender, size, and ethnicity – not because she’s perfect, but because she’s offered up her own imperfections as evidence of feminism as a work in progress. Her new book, Hunger, describes her personal history with issues related to eating and body-image, and you may recall that this particular HarperCollins title was originally intended to be a Simon & Schuster release: Gay pulled out of her deal to protest the one offered to Milo Yiannopoulos (S and S later canceled the Yiannopoulos book).
Putting her own career on the line for her beliefs has made her a role model for anyone determined to resist. As a queer women of Haitian descent, Gay’s take on feminism has an entry point for almost everyone. (“And I use ‘queer’ because I am lazy and it is SHORTER TO TYPE than ‘bisexual,'” she has tweeted.) Let her 2014 collection of essays be your sword and shield in the difficult arguments to come – TIME called it “a manual on how to be human.”
If you lose your sense of humor in the trying times to come, you’ll go insane – and not in the good way, as exemplified by filmmaker and folk hero John Waters, who awakened Americans to the siren song of the perverse with films like “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.” Disgusted by the optimism of the counter-culture in the 1960s and ’70s, Waters rallied his fellow Baltimore burnouts to the cause of true, militant queerness, never imagining the results would end up being watched (and obsessively rewatched) by millions of people worldwide.
This collection of essays about Waters’s various pop-culture idols, personal fetishes, and “problematic” pastimes (he harbors a not-so-secret obsession with real-life murder trials) is a must. The AV Club’s reviewer cited it as proof of Waters as a national treasure who “always had more than outrage to offer.”