Five Queer Cultural Touchstones I Totally Missed

I joined the queer army fairly recently, so I spent most of my life missing out on all sorts of critical cultural touch stones. I’ve been catching up recently — I just read Tipping the Velvet and cheered and watched Brokeback Mountain and wept — while there are other things I feel pretty ok about missing, even if it means I’m out of the loop for all eternity. There is so little media with pronounced and meaningful queer themes, but I still feel like there are endless films, books and TV shows I am totally clueless about. Here are a few:

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In high school, half the AP English classes read Dorian Gray. I was in the other half, so I heard my friends talk constantly about how rad it was while I sat in a corner and whined about Crime and Punishment. But it’s one of the most important queer books, apparently, so I thought maybe I should check it out. It’s sitting on my Kindle waiting for me, but the Wikipedia page does not inspire me to read it. Basically, they took all the gay stuff out before publishing it in book form (it was originally published in a magazine) and the remaining shell is just white kinda-gay men having confused feelings. I’m bored.

2. The L Word Seasons 4-6

When I got Netflix, I immediately started watching The L Word. I devoured seasons 1-3, side-eyeing Jenny, memorizing the chart, and crying over Dana like so many gay women before me. I was geared up to start on season four until I got to the last minute of the last episode of season 3.

Laura and Alice. LAURA AND ALICE?! I started frantically looking up recaps in hopes I would learn The L Word did not actually completely jump the shark, but everything I read made me more concerned. Like, *spoilerz* Shane leaves Carmen at the altar and Bette kidnaps her child and Jenny gets mysteriously maybe murdered? It all seems like too much! I may go back and watch the rest some day so I understand what everyone is talking about, but right now I don’t think I can handle the stress.

3. RuPaul’s Drag Race

A bunch of my friends at my college paper The Daily Texan were super obsessed with RuPaul, but this show never managed to suck me in. Now I feel kind of *side-eye* about the way it purportedly advances stereotypes of drag queens and trans people, not to mention RuPaul’s repeated and unapologetic use of the word tr*nny. Plus, I can only have one extremely gay reality show in my life at a time and Project Runway earned that spot many moons ago.


4. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

According to Wikipedia, the 1985 Jeanette Winterson novel “is a bildungsroman about a lesbian girl who grows up in an English Pentecostal community.” That sounds like my dream book, why have I not read this? The relationship between my queerness and my faith remains complicated, so stories that deal with both mean a lot to me. I keep waiting for this to go on sale on Kindle, but maybe today is the day to quit being quite so cheap.


5. But I’m A Cheerleader

But I’m A Cheerleader appears to combine everything I love in movies: Cheerleading, hot girls, literal and figurative camp, and pointed social commentary. It sounds like Bring It On but gay; could anything ever be better than that? No. Plus, Autostraddle said it’s the second best lesbian movie ever! I just wrote a line about how we should all write to our congresspeople about getting it put on Netflix, but y’all they put it up since the last time I checked! How thrilling.

How I feel people are looking at me when I tell them I have not consumed the media on this list.

How I feel people are looking at me when I tell them I have not consumed the media on this list.

What other queer cultural landmarks did I miss when I got distracted by the Cracker Barrel billboard? Share your favorites in the comments!

Header Image by Rory Midhani

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. Ditto to both the L Word past season 3, and Drag Race. The L Word lost me when they managed to lose Dana, and I’ve tried watching Drag Race recently, and I just really don’t get it. Plus the rampant transphobia really doesn’t make me want to get it

  2. Samesies on The L Word, I watched a few covert episodes as it aired when I was a closeted teenager and then the first couple of seasons as an adult, but it sounds like a whole lot of crazy went down after that. I tried reading Dorian Grey, too, but meh. White menz.

    But I’m A Cheerleader is one of my favourite movies ever, though <3

  3. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was one of the books my amazing teacher for A-level English Lit picked for a module where we had to compare two works (the other book was The Color Purple). This was not long after the repeal of Section 28 and I remember being so excited to see queer people represented in my school curriculum in a non-negative way, but also I wasn’t out at the time so discussing the book in class made me nervous in case I gave myself away or something. It’s not my favourite book by Winterson, but definitely worth a read.

    I think The Picture of Dorian Grey is okay, a little overrated maybe, but I’d probably choose it over Crime and Punishment.

    But I’m A Cheerleader holds a special place in my heart as the first ‘lesbian’ film I watched.

    • Ah, your teacher sounds amazing! My mum bought me Oranges for christmas years ago before I’d even started thinking I might be gay. She knew me so well! I really loved it, and the autobiography she released a couple of years ago. I wasn’t so keen on Sexing the cherry though, I just never managed to get into it. I’m really keen to know what your favourite Winterson book is now!

      • So far, my favourite book by her is Lighthousekeeping because I just thought it was beautifully written. I didn’t really manage to get into Sexing The Cherry either. I’ve not read her autobiography yet, but really want to – same goes for Written On the Body. Ah, so many books I want to read.

  4. The BBC made an adaptation of Oranges are not the only fruit back in 1990. You can find it on youtube and its well worth the watch.

  5. Every gay lady should read every single book by Jeanette Winterson… Written on the Body is one of my all time favorite books. Drop what you are doing and read that book now!

    • I was about to post this but you got there first. Art and Lies is so effed up and so amazing and painful and she uses words like no one I have ever read. Winterson feelings.

      • i had a month with a folksinger once and she would quote Art and Lies at random intervals.

        …i keep saying these really gay things on here and that might be one of the gayest

    • For some reason, Written on the Body is one of my least favourite Jeanette Winterson books (that and The Daylight Gate, which was just a really huge and disappointing departure in style). Everything else though, brilliant.

  6. Having grown up in the middle of nowhere – I missed out on practically everything. I hadn’t even listed to Sleater Kinney until yesterday!

    Oh and don’t finish the L word. You stopped at the appropriate moment.

  7. Today IS the day to stop being quite so cheap. Jeanette Winterson forever. Get your hands on _Art Objects_ if you can.

  8. I like dorian grey. like everything wilde wrote, it’s really witty and I felt connected to it at 18 for reasons I couldn’t explain (the movie too). oranges I have never been able to get into, but I really like the passion.

  9. Read all the Winterson you can. She paints with words. I can’t even explain how beautiful her construction of sentences is. Oranges is seminal and a right of passage but the others are stunning. Also listen to all the Riot girl you can and read Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch out for. (just realised these are things I did when I was 15 and a baby just out gay and have never stopped doing in the 15 years since)

  10. On a major derail, can anyone explain and apply “bildungsroman” to a pleb who doesn’t know what a bildungsroman is?
    I take it it is not an building in rome.
    To get back to the point, I am SURE Oranges are not the only fruit is leading the pack of bildungsroman, my new word for the day!

    • It’s more or less just a fancy/German way of saying “coming-of-age story”. The focus is on the protagonist’s character growth.

      • Whell.
        I can honestly vouch that buildingsroman whoops bildungsroman is a favourite genre. I love coming of age stuff. And I’ve learned something. I will try to use it and hopefully there will concurring murmurs and not as I fear, increasing silence.

    • @annalou, Bildungsroman = coming-of-age story. Harry Potter is one example of a bildungsroman — kid has experiences, grows physically, psychologically, etc, becomes an adult.

    • Bildungsroman = Bildung (German for education) + roman (German for novel) => it’s a novel about a young person growing up and learning about themselves and others / figuring out the world

  11. Seconding everyone’s Jeanette Winterson love so much. And tossing some love in there for Sarah Waters, too–I love Victorian novels, and adding some lesbians is like peanut butter with chocolate for me.

    Here’s some books that were important to me as a young queer:
    The Charioteer by Mary Renault (and most of her other books, too)
    Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry (still have my copy, held together by tape)
    Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin
    Orlando by Virginia Woolf (there was a movie, too, with Tilda Swinton)
    Dorothy Allison, her existence in general, and her writing

    And I watched Victor/Victoria a bunch of times because I’d taped it off television and watching something with Julie Andrews in it didn’t seem too incriminating. I still love a woman in a suit.

    Some great books I’ve read in more recent years are:
    Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
    Zami A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (amazing)
    Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon

    One I’ve never understood the appeal of is ‘Rubyfruit Jungle.’ Any fans out there who want to explain what’s awesome about it? I remember being puzzled and disappointed by it as a teenager.

  12. I have to add that you can find the original version “Dorian Gay” on Project Gutenberg, where it’s free to download and read! :^)

  13. “When Night Is Falling” anybody? Great movie, great ending.
    Shouldn’t “Rubyfruit Jungle” be on this list? Got mixed feelings about that book though.

    And the movie.
    Did anyone see Mary Louise Parker on My Drunk Kitchen?? About died.

    • Fortunately I saw Fried Green Tomatoes many times as the daughter of a southern woman. Haven’t watched it as a queer viewer, though, which I should absolutely do! Wonderful, wonderful movie. I’ll look into the book, too :D

      • Oh, the movie isn’t all that gay. It received a shitload of flack for that. But if you’re a lady-lover, you totally get all the innuendo and pretty much everything that Idgie says/does.
        The book, however, is very explicit in its lesbianness. Fannie Flagg, the author, is gay, and was in a relationship with Rita Mae Brown (of Rubyfruit Jungle!)

        • I loved Fried Green Tomatoes and I wish that the movie had been more Lesbian.
          Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt is being made into a movie with Cate Blanchette – hopefully this will deliver.
          my favourite movie level with Fried Green Tomatoes is The Colour Purple. I loved Shug.

        • Annalou, cannot begin to tell you how serious I am about needing The Price of Salt to be made into a movie!

          Also feel that I should mention Annie On My Mind. Really adored that book, although it’s more young adult fiction, but as a young queer it got me through the rough patches in my life.

  15. seconding fried green tomatoes because it’s fantastic. XD

    i also highly recommend fun home and are you my mother?, both by alison bechdel.

  16. OK, I really have to reread Oranges are not the only fruit.

    I read it when I was 11. I had read everything in the school library and had taken to picking things at random off my parents’ shelves.

    Quite a lot went straight over my head, but with some books, like Oranges, I identified that there was something here that could be important and useful to me even if I didn’t totally understand it yet, and I filed it away in my brain.

    I picked it off my parents’ shelf the last time I visited them and brought it home with me. It looks like an old friend.

  17. The classical Lesbian book is “The Well of Loneliness”!! And if you want some very gay Oscar Wilde then read “Teleny” which is suspiciously absent from any and all Oscar Wilde compilations, and which Mr:Wilde went to jail for, I believe. But don’t read it on a train or a plane, or basically anywhere people might read over your shoulder.
    Queer as Folk is a lot more enjoyable than the L Word,imho. But Milestones ought to be the Star Trek:Deep Space Nine Episode:Rejoined, the Ling/Ally thing on Ally McBeal.The pool scene in “Wild Things” and Ellen deGeneres* The Ellen show season 4 and especially five. If you’re low on time, then just go with the Puppy episodes. If you’re not, a very campy watching of Xena and Buffy will bowl you into the major Lesbian league, also there’s Pepa and Silvia compiled with subtitles on YT. You’ll thank me later.
    “Written on the Body” might be the single most loaned book I possess, and Oranges is really good, but do read “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters, do it on a weekend.It will steal your sleep.”The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith is a classic as well, however, I have circled back onto books so you will not miss out on “The Color Purple” which is a must read. I’d also like to give kudos to whoever mentioned “Giovanni’s Room”. Love that book.
    P.S.Classical Movies. There’s “The Children’s Hour” with Shirley McLaine and Audrey Hepburn (like really) and then there’s “Mädchen in Uniform” from 1933 which is available with subtitles on YT, and of that there is a remake from 1958 with two great divas of German cinema of the time, you should totally watch both because they’re a picker upper and quite amazing and it’s totally up to taste which one you’ll prefer. The original was a world wide hit in the thirties but burned in the Nazi book burnings.The restored copies that exist today were found in Brasil not that many years ago.
    If you need something light and bright with beautiful people, watch “I Can’t Think Straight” and “Imagine Me and You”.
    Have a lot of fun and remember,that you’re not a truly educated Lesbionic Lifeform if you haven’t suffered through some terrible Lesbian movies and novels. Enjoy!

      • Riese I think the only good thing about The well of loneliness was the theme park ride that you went on and managed to survive death. You did a write up on it just the other day ;)

    • oh man only read the well of loneliness if you wanna feel like there is no happiness in the world

  18. I watched But I’m a Cheerleader for the first time over this past winter break and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.

  19. -awkwardly raises hand- I am with you on every item on this list, with the exception of Dorian Gray. I bought it & started reading it, but i haven’t touched it now in over a year. I’m not very impressed with it, & reading it for an extended period of time made me feel uncomfortable for some odd reason.

  20. I tried so hard to get into the l word and hated it so much. But the sex scenes were fantastic. So there’s that.

  21. So, weird story, I read The Picture of Dorian Grey in Honduras the day after a pretty significant earthquake. That tidbit there is honestly more interesting than the actual book. Wilde was great (definitely read The Importance of Being Earnest), but the censoring of the book made it a very frustrating experience for the closeted queer teen I was when I read it.

  22. I think the Dorian Gray that’s been published in more recent times is more like the magazine version, because the Dorian Gray I read was still hella gay. (Also really sad, since it’s so obviously about Oscar Wilde’s real life lover and we all know how that ended.)

  23. Yeah the only things I’ve read/watched on this list are But I’m A Cheerleader (and that was very recently) and Picture of Dorian Grey. I actually loved Picture of Dorian Grey when I read it, but it was a really long time ago and I probably was too young to get all the nuances and I definitely didn’t get any of the possible gayness. I also had no idea it was written by Oscar Wilde until years later because I’m an idiot.

  24. I got a TV version of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit from the local library and sat down to watch it, when along comes my mother. Who I’m not out to. I feigned ignorance when the girl-kissing started, and we quietly watched the entire three hour spectacle in one day.

  25. Oscar Wilde is one of my favourites and Dorian Gray is a fantastic book, even after they’d reduced the gay themes to undertones.

    Maurice by EM Forster is another LGBT book you might have missed.

    • I didn’t read the book, but I watched the movie Maurice made in the late 80’s with a young Hugh Grant playing E M Forster. I really loved this movie. I used to really get into male gay storylines. I even read subtext into Stand by me and hoped that Gordie and River Phoenix’ character were best buds. Strange, isn’t it.

  26. Does Buffy count? Judging from the mentions on this entire site, probably.

    On a whim, I went to a ladies night at a local comic book store last month (nerdy comic book ladies under one roof – yay!). We played the icebreaker game where everyone got a post-it note with a female character written on it smacked on their foreheads, and you had to guess who you are by only asking yes or no questions. I completely missed out on Buffy in high school, and of course I got Willow. All the other girls were bored to tears when it became obvious I had no clue who I was supposed to be. One girl gave me a look like she legitimately felt sorry for me. Uh, was that really called for? (She also kept correcting another girl when she mixed up characters from the Marvel and DC universes, so yea, I was out of my element.)

    It’s in my Netflix queue, and I did watch the first 2 episodes before losing interest. I may go back and try it watch it someday. (Ok this is a lie)

    • A friend gave me the advice to start with Buffy season 2 or 3. Season 1 is a bit of an endurance contest, season 2 is a mixed bag (although I really like some of it), and season 3 is where (IMO) it gets good. You should still be able to follow pretty well if you start in season 3.

  27. I never finished Season 6 of TLW. I watched the first episode, thought it felt like the longest hour of television ever, and everything I had heard by then didn’t exactly entice me to keep going, so I just skipped to the finale and called it a day.

    Same goes for most of these, and I don’t really have much desire to read The Picture of Dorian Grey or watch Drag Race. But, I’m a Cheerleader is an absolute must, though. I swear that movie gets better every time I see it…

  28. Wow, I totally blocked out that moment of The L Word, and I have been yelling “FEELINGS FEELINGS FEELINGS” for the past minute or so.

    I guess I have some reading to do, thanks!

  29. BatshitCrazyJenny is the best thing about season 5 of The L Word. THE BEST THING. It’s like Mia Kirschner said “Fuck Y’all, Imma do me!” and just started trolling the fandom.

    • Yeah, I found Season 5 to be very much worth it. Some good sex scenes but it also seemed to deal with the fact that it had gotten so bad by delivering some excellent self-aware humor (especially regarding Jenny).

      That was all wiped out by Season 6, of course.

  30. Read anything you can get your hands on by Jeanette Winterson (but don’t start with The Daylight Gate) , Sarah Waters (esp Fingersmith, and The Night Watch), Alison Bechdel, Emma Donoghue, Michelle Tea and Stacey D’erasmo. And I would definitely recommend reading Fried Green Tomatoes. But be prepared to cry and/or feel a wee bit melancholy afterwards.

  31. Cultural Touchstones Central to My Own Coming Out Process:

    1.) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (the book, not the movie. I still want to be Bonanza Jellybean when I grow up)
    2.) Dykes to Watch Out For (and anything Alison Bechdel ever)
    3.) Foxfire (Jenny Shimizu & Angelina Jolie with lots of 90’s baby-dyke subtext)
    4.) Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (the movie and the book — really anything by Fanny Flagg)
    5.) But I’m a Cheerleader (I have so much love for this movie for so many reasons)
    6.) Melissa Ethridge’s “Yes I Am” (Cliche? Of course. Vital to my process? Absolutely.)

    Cultural Touchstones I Have Conflicting Feelings About:

    1.) Rubyfruit Jungle (This was the first “lesbian” novel I read, and it left me cold and confused. Also, Rita Mae Brown “co-authors” cozy mysteries with her cat and I have not yet decided if she is the most brilliant lesbian ever or just trolling us all)
    2.) Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I have so much love for Buffy in so many ways, but Whedon’s handling of Willow, Tara, and Kennedy is by turns tender, harrowing, and clumsy. The Autostraddle piece “Our Willow Ourselves” from a few weeks back is forcing me to rethink my feelings on this)
    3.) The L-Word (thank the Goddess you stopped when you did, OP. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
    4.) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Boring. White. Man. Feelings.)

    Cultural Touchstones I Missed But Will Now Remedy:

    Jeanette Winterson’s novels (Thank you, Autostraddle!)


      how did i miss that they are the same person

  32. If you want to read “A picture of Dorian Gray” go to the bother of finding the uncensored version edited by Nicholas Frankel. I know the general rule is to read the latest version published in the author’s life time and that the uncensored version isn’t in the public domain; but Frankel has a passion for Wilde that is contagious.

    I work in a bookstore and would read it while I was supposed to be dusting the shelves for ages, until I accidentally praised it too much and sold the last copy.

    Agree with the white man feelings though. Wilde probably served his sentence by the end; but still …*

    Also, you should watch But I’m a Cheerleader with friends. It’s hilarious and campy and not to be missed.

  33. I read Dorian Gray (though not the magazine version) and was pretty meh about it. Loved The Color Purple. As for the rest, it looks like it’s time for me to catch up on all the queer lit that I missed in my sheltered youth. It’s cool, though. Not like I had anything else to do with my time ;-)

  34. Music that I didn’t listen to and probably should have but didn’t

    The Indigo Girls – I just didn’t like it when I was 20. It sounded unfunky and nagging. I still haven’t listened to it, instead at age 20 I bought Leonard Cohen who I still love, Sad Joni Mitchell’s Blue which is Sad Guitar Woman Penultimate (I like the funky stuff on that which is kind of minimal so this album now is not on much give me Hejira or Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter or Hissing of Summer Lawns anyday)

    I still can’t bring myself to listen to Indigo Girls. I am afraid I won’t like it.

    So I missed out on all the Indigo Girls in jokes as I was building my own “bildungsroman”

  35. Long-time lurker here. Finally registered. This post inspired it. My lurrrrrrve for teh straddle is ridic.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray is ABSOLUTELY AMAZEBALLS FANTASTIC! Yes, it is slow and boring in the beginning, and you might say to yourself ‘Self, why are we still fucking read this? Oscar, wtf mate?!’ But you must stick with it. It takes off, and it will be 3am and you’ll wonder why you’re still awake. Why? Because it’s an awesome story, durrrr!

    Second, I was hugely disappointed by Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. The story infuriated me, and I didn’t like the writing style. Don’t take my gay card away, please.

    But I’m A Cheerleader is still, to this day, awesomesauce.

    Wifey and I stopped watching The L Word at some point and then watched the final episode. What. The. Actual. Fuck. Also: THE L WORD DESPERATELY NEEDED LUCY LAWLESS IS MORE THAN ONE EPISODE.

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