Monday Roundtable: Our Favorite LGBTQ Novels

It’s truly magical when you can find a novel with lesbian or bisexual or queer characters that speaks to you and tells a damn good story. Here are some LGBTQ novels that tend to hold a special place in the hearts of Autostraddle staff!

Which novel about lesbian/queer/bisexual characters is your all time favorite? Let us know in the comments!

Heather Hogan, Senior Editor: Ash, by Malinda Lo

I had never actually read an LGBTQ novel until Malinda Lo published Ash in 2009. I don’t know why; I’ve been an avid reader all my adult life. I’d devoured Terry Moore’s comic book series Strangers in Paradise by then, so I knew there was good gay storytelling on paper. I guess I was still trying to get caught up with all the lesbian movies and TV shows at that point in my life and also honestly every gay novel I heard of sounded depressing as all hell. Malinda had been my boss in the very earliest days of my freelancing career and so of course I bought her book when it came out. I read it in a single sitting, and then I went to sleep and woke up and read it again! Fantasy books are my number one favorite thing, fictional worlds where it’s chill to be queer is my other number one favorite thing, love stories between two women is my other number one favorite thing, happy endings is my other number one favorite thing! Ash is all of my favorite things! So it holds a special place in my heart because of who Malinda is to me as a mentor and now as a friend, and because of when I read it in my gay fiction journey, and because it just pushes all my buttons. I read it at least once a year. It’s a happy place for me.

Molly Priddy, Staff Writer: Ash, by Malinda Lo

Not to copy Heather too much but Ash was also the first novel I’d read that gave me queer characters and they didn’t perish into something awful. I’d just given up booze when my friend sent me this book; I figured I had extra time what with not being drunk all the time, so I started reading. I didn’t put it down until I was finished, and my brain stayed in the fog of the joy I’d found between its covers. I’ve always been a fan of Malinda’s, so I trusted her to take me on a journey. And it sparked something beautiful in me, a feeling I kept chasing as I found more and more lesbian and bi characters in self-published books and niche publications. Jane Fletcher’s Rangers series are incredible with worldbuilding and gay characters who get to kick a lot of ass, and those helped me through some tough medical stuff with my family. But no matter how good or fun a book is, nothing compares to that first hit from Malinda. I’ll always be grateful.

Riese, Editor-in-Chief: Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

This was tough because I really loved Cameron Post so much too, but Tipping the Velvet is one I fell in love with at a really crucial time in my coming out journey, and I related to it in odd and unexpected ways, particularly its exploration of sex work, shifting gender presentations, and the complexity of a relationship that involves both private intimacy and public, paid performance. I can’t remember much of it now, and there weren’t any passages that stood out to me. I wasn’t underlining it madly, is what I’m saying basically. But I was so engaged in a historical novel in a way I hadn’t been in years, and it made me realize that I could fall back in love with history again if I could find a way to see myself in it, and that maybe I’d fallen out of love with history because I’d overdosed on cis white men’s stories.

Stef Schwartz, Vapid Fluff Editor: Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, by Mila Jaroniec

Hey, am I a real dirtbag for putting my ex-girlfriend’s novel? I just took a long, hard look in the mirror and realized I don’t often read queer novels for the sake of reading queer novels, which is maybe something I ought to work on in the year of our lord 2018 (so I will be reading everyone else’s answers with great interest). However, this book is vivid and visceral and extremely bisexual and includes a great passage about getting punched in the face at Cubbyhole.

Laura Mandanas, Staff Writer: Fist of the Spider Woman, edited by Amber Dawn

If we’re talking fiction only, my favorite is this anthology of lesbian horror stories. I read it about seven years ago, and I still find myself idly returning to the imagery — whenever, for example, I hear something about slugs. Or femme sharks.

Collecting 16 tales of fear and queer desire, Fist of the Spider Woman covers everything from vampires to pubic lice to cold-blooded murder. It’s weird and great and very (VERY) sexy. It’s the kind of writing I admire and aspire to, and I respect the hell out of these authors and Arsenal Pulp Press for putting out such brilliant work.

Carolyn Yates, NSFW Editor and Literary Editor: The Necessity of Certain Behaviors by Shannon Cain

I don’t believe in favorites, not among sexual partners and not among books. And even though my young adulthood included rereading Hitchhiker’s Guide at least twice a year, I haven’t been in the habit of returning to fiction once I’ve finished them since I figured out that it’s much easier to read books where people are queer in the first place than it is to read then that way when they aren’t. So anyway I’m going to be that asshole and pick three: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters because it’s sexy and because, like Riese, I read it at a moment in my coming out; Kissing The Witch by Emma Donoghue, which is only borderline cohesive as a whole in that it’s a series of interwoven short-story retellings of fairy tales but make ‘em queer; and The Necessity of Certain Behaviors by Shannon Cain, which isn’t a novel at all but a collection of short stories full of dark moments and moments of understanding about the nature of human relationships that has stuck with me as the first place I can remember reading fiction about queer poly relationships.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Staff Writer: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

Well, as much as I try to move on from both the book and the movie versions of The Hours, I keep finding my way back! I didn’t read a lot of queer literature growing up. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for The Color Purple, which is probably the first book with any queerness in it that I ever read. But tbh, The Hours was formative for me not only as a young lesbian but as an aspiring writer. And the book, if you can believe it, is actually gayer than the movie! And also sadder! Mrs. Dalloway is an all-time favorite of mine, and the fact that someone took that story and turned it into a super gay, decades-spanning, three-part character study is just brilliant imo.

Natalie, Staff Writer: Another Country, by James Baldwin

Upon seeing this prompt, the question morphs from “which novel is your favorite” to “which James Baldwin novel do you want to talk about”…that’s how indelible Baldwin’s work is. Ultimately, I settle on Another Country because it’s Baldwin’s attempt to grapple with the intersections of race, class and sexuality, in a way that Giovanni’s Room had not. It’s dense and cruel — this is a book of anti-heroes — as it tangles with the ways oppression destroys people and how it corrodes our ability to love, both ourselves and others. I see part of myself in multiple characters — in Rufus, in Ida, in Eric — and I see so much of today’s world in Richard, Cass and Vivaldo.

Alexis, Staff Writer: The Moment by t.c. anderson

This is a novel that started out as fanfiction. I used to open up and turn to this story at least once every couple of months. Bought it as soon as anderson made it an original story and I was worried that I’d get the characters from the TV show stuck in my head, but they’re more outlines that blur every time I go back to read. It is not a perfect story, but it’s the one that means the most to me. I reread it once, twice a month and I’ve used the characters, Jessie and Mia, to help me figure out trauma and sexuality and all kinds of other things about my identity because they’ve served as a guiding light. Like, I feel less alone because of how Jessie deals with trauma and how Mia deals with feeling inadequate and they both feel unlovable and I’m in awe that such soft, strong steps can be taken towards healing. I’ve read it during the worst of my intensive outpatient, falling out with friends, feeling unloved by family, hating myself and more. I actually don’t even know how to properly convey how much this book means to me. It feels like it was already embedded in my heartbeat and I just keep remembering how to move to the rhythm of it. I don’t know how I can ever thank anderson for being who they are (just having a black writer who makes me think I can write something as wonderful as this is beyond healing) writing and sharing such an important piece of work, but this books always makes me believe in art, in the things we create, even when I want to give up on them.

Valerie Anne, Staff Writer: Of Fire and Stars, by Audrey Coulthurst

I don’t remember reading any queer books when I was younger, honestly. But when I read Of Fire and Stars I felt like it went back in time and soothed an aching longing I didn’t even know I had. It was the perfect fairytale, the exact kind I’ve devoured my whole life, except this time, I could see myself in it. I always loved Disney movies, but never understood why Ariel left her father and sisters in the end. For a boy! It never clicked for me; despite being one of my favorite movies, I always considered it to have a sad ending. But this book! This book has all the fixings of a fun, rompy YA fairytale, but with two girls at the center. And them being queer wasn’t a Huge Thing, it wasn’t the thing making their love forbidden, it wasn’t the main problem of the story. It makes me so happy and I’m so glad it exists so that queer kids can find themselves in stories like these much younger than I ever did.

Reneice Charles, Staff Writer: Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

I don’t relate to books the way I used to when I was younger and depended on them for escape. They aren’t tied to my survival any longer so it’s very rare that I find a book that touches me enough to become a favorite in adulthood. Freshwater did it effortlessly. This book rattled my spirit. As I read I repeatedly found myself raising a hand to my mouth in shock thinking “this is just like me” or “this is just like my girlfriend”. It deepened our understanding of each other in a way that was wholly unexpected. It resonated so fiercely that it felt like Akwaeke had reached into the most hidden corners of our minds and experiences, taken what she knew she would find because it belonged to her too, and wrote it in a book that was destined to find its way into my hands. I’ve never read a book that spoke to the beautiful and terrifying parts of my blackness, queerness, mental health, and consistent struggle with belonging the way Freshwater does. If nothing else the writing will take your breath away.

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  1. Ash!!! <3

    I think that was the first lgbt book I read also and it's one of few books I have ever immediately re-read. The world is so rich and the love story so sweet.

    (SIDENOTE: There are some people on the Amazon reviews who thought the clearly creepy AF male character was an interesting relationship that should have been explored further and not an example of a blatantly unhealthy and inappropriate relationship and EWWW. I am legit worried for those people.)

    The other one that really floored me was the Miseducation of Cameroon Post. I really didn't want to read it despite so many rave reviews because it sounded so depressing and I was over watching lgbt characters go through hell. But eventually it was on sale and I am my father's daughter so I had to get a deal and BOY DID I. I was not ready for how beautiful and real and uplifting despite the suffering it all was. I think it was a remark I read in Riese's review of it that said this first, but I was truly heartbroken that I can never read it again for the first time. It was such an experience.

  2. I haven’t heard of a few of these and am adding them to the reading list.

    Ash would also be mine – totally adore it and also put it on the syllabus of a feminism/queer fairy tale freshman writing seminar that I taught while still in an English PhD program. This was a few years back now, and my students lost their minds with joy over that book.

  3. I studied The Hours and Mrs Dalloway at school and even though I was a very closeted (even to myself) 18 year old, I still ended up writing an essay about the books that concluded that men were, essentially, not necessary.

  4. Alexis <3

    "It feels like it was already embedded in my heartbeat and I just keep remembering how to move to the rhythm of it."

    …and the rhythm of your own words is so moving. Keep being, and loving and fighting and writing and damn, you make the world a better place by being here!

  5. Also Carolyn I have read out the opening to “Kissing the witch” so many times to friends. I love the structure to this book and the language she uses!

    From the first – a redressing of Cinderella:

    “Till she came it was all cold.
    Ever since my mother died the feather bed felt hard as a stone floor. Every word that came out of my mouth limped away like a toad. Whatever I put on my back now turned to sackcloth and chafed my skin. I heard a knocking in my skull, and kept running to the for, but there was never anyone there. The days passed like dust brushed from my fingers.”

  6. Honestly? Kind of crushed no one picked Fried Green Tomatoes! I remember seeing the film with my family and my mom mentioning she thought she had the book at home (and I knew the book had ACTUAL LESBIANISM) , but alas, we only had Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. I managed to finagle a copy from the used book store, all casual like, and then read it in secret until I came out a few years later. <3 u, Fannie Flagg

    • True, the book is even funnier than the film with the bonus of the gayness not being limited to a food fight (if you’ve ever watched with the horrible director’s commentary).

    • SAME! I watched the movie with my grandma and cousin and I was sooo intrigued and in love with it, but kind of shoved it away for a few years till understood why I had such strong feelings for it. When I finally decided I just had to read the book, my mom had a copy, but I definitely read it in secret even though I was already out

  7. Thanks for all the great recommendations! I have to second “Tipping the Velvet” for the simple reason that I related so much to Nance’s coming to terms with her gender presentation. That passage where she describes that feeling of putting on pants for the first time made me remember the first time I cut my hair short–the freedom, the knowledge that this was me when I looked in the mirror–priceless.

    Sorry Not Sorry, I get really excited about being able to talk about this book.
    I also didn’t ready any queer lit growing up. The first queer book I ever read was Annie On My Mind, which was nice and had a happy ending and sent me out on a mission to find all the queer books.

    But Cam Post was the book that opened my world. It was the first book where I saw myself truly reflected back from the page. And while I agree that we also need LOTS of books that don’t torture the gays, I viscerally needed to see someone else go through a similar horrific gaslighting mindfuck to what I had and climb out the other side of it to tell me it was going to be okay. I was going to be okay. I cannot describe how much that book meant to me, continues to mean to me. I still reread it at least once a year.

  9. I second the recommendation of “The Moment” by t.c. anderson.

    When I started reading it, it was supposed to be a relaxing and distracting reading session because I had a big exam coming up the next morning and I wanted to stop obsessing over it. Well, it did stop me from obsessing over the exam, but unfortunately, I couldn’t put it down and so I’ve read it through in one session. Just shy before my exam.

    And let me tell you – I was emotionally crushed. And very much sleep-deprived. But the book, man, it never leaves you. It made me think about stuff. I was so crushed by it, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse! And while the main story was gut-wretching, it was so much about love at its core, it even left a warm feeling in my stone-cold heart.

    Somehow, I didn’t fail the exam. But when I got home, I immediately googled for other books of the author. So that’s when I found out that the story was originally a fanfiction, of which universe I’m still not entirely sure. But it didn’t take anything away from the book. It’s still good. And it made me yearn for more from the author.

  10. This is a tough question – I read a lot, books mean a lot to me, but I’m not sure I have a favorite LGBTQ novel. I kind of gave up on LGBTQ fiction, especially lesbian novels, when I was coming out in the 90s because they were so grim or weird (yes i’m looking at you Ruby Fruit Jungle and The Women of Brewster Place). I discovered queer romance a few years ago and it was like coming home (even the cringey ones), but I’m having trouble committing to any of them as a favorite.

    Today, I’m going to go with The Queers of LaVista series by Kris Ripper as my fave – (it’s currently out of print due to publisher drama but the author’s planning to self-pub them). It’s the urban queer version of a cozy mystery / small town romance series that I didn’t know I needed. It’s a series of 5 romance novels with an over-arching murder mystery about a loose group of friends and acquaintances who hang out at a scruffy queer bar in a fictional version of Oakland – there are f/f, m/f, m/m and m/m/m pairings.

    Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller is my other favorite – historical fiction loosely based on a true story about two women in 19th C Connecticut and NY state. It’s one of the few LGBTQ books that I read in my 20s that stayed with me and that wasn’t a complete miserable downer.

  11. Nice to see Ash so many times! I have to say that it’s mine as well, and I keep coming back to it every couple of years. I also own the audio book version, which is great for when I’m having a hard time falling asleep.

    Runner ups are Cameron Post and Fingersmith. I read them all in different times in my life, but it’s always love going back!

    • Fingersmith! I saw the stage adaptation at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years ago, and my wife and I had a great time listening to the heteros (mostly gray hairs like me) talking at intermission trying to figure out what was going on.

  12. I had to go through my queer tag on goodreads and see what I actually liked.. I’ve read a decent amount of fiction with queer themes and characters and the vast majority of it was …. okay. Anyway, here a few I like:

    The Albino Album by Chavisa Woods – it’s just so freaking weird and awesome? I read this recently and just wanted it to go on and on.

    The First Bad Man by Miranda July – also completely strange, obscene, and ridiculous. I was screaming while reading this and I loved every minute of it.

    The Incarnations by Susan Barker – dark, mysterious, and beautiful.

    I.. don’t have anything happy or uplifting or straight-forward, because books like that just don’t grab me. Oh well!

    • The Albino Album is definitely a work of genius. I also really loved Miranda July’s first book, a collection of short stories. It’s even better than her novel, I think, and just as weird.

  13. Rubyfruit Jungle left an indelible mark on me, as did Bastard Out of Carolina, though the latter crushed my heart (still very much worth the read for the way it tackles trauma and parental betrayal). I absolutely loved Tipping the Velvet, too! Just reread it last summer marveling over its candid description of toxic lesbian relationships (and its sophisticated understanding of class). The BBC miniseries was delightful to watch, as well.

  14. Ash is a great book.

    As a gen X ace, coming of age before asexual was even a word, it was Tabitha Lee’s When The Lights Go Out. First time I’d ever read a book where the heroine’s indifference to sexual attraction was kind of the point (and also kind of a superpower)

    It’s a bit dated now, and some of the trans character’s treatment is weird, but to 21yo me it kinda took up residence inside my brain in a way that’ll never be dislodged.

    • Autocorrect! That is of course Tanith Lee, the British gothic fantasy/ sci fi author

  15. In addition to Ash, which is also one of my favorites, I’d like to highly recommend:

    Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley: a YA novel about an interracial lesbian relationship in 1959 along the backdrop of school integration

    Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta: a coming-of-age novel about a girl/woman in Nigeria during & after the civil war

  16. I honestly don’t remember reading any queer fiction as a youth, and that makes me really sad. But toward the end of 2017 I made a vow to read as many fiction novels by queer folk, or about queer folk, as I can. So far this year every book I’ve read has fit that criteria! Including my friend’s recently published novel, Remembrance (Bess Hamilton). I read Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and decided it technically counts because some of the Norse gods were queer ;)
    The Miseducation of Cameron Post was the first book I read that felt real to me, the characters were real, their story was real, so I suppose that is one of my favourites. When the Moon Was Ours and the Wayward children series are also super good! I love fantasy that feels real, like if you just turned the corner quick enough you’d see magic.
    I am always looking for recommendations, so if you want to find me on Goodreads to suggest things (or see what I’ve read!) I’m username rubydoom19 :)

  17. I also read no queer literature as a kid and it makes me feel so sad for my younger self so I am delighted to see all these recommendations. Thanks everybody! Here are a couple to add:

    The League of Peoples series by James Alan Gardner are really well written and have a variety of relationship structures. Vigilant includes a group marriage with multiple men and multiple women; Commitment Hour has characters who change gender yearly while growing up; one recurring female main character is sometimes portrayed as queer (I think it was in Vigilant) though sadly it’s not more than a brief attraction. The novels aren’t about queerness as such, it’s more just an accepted no-big-deal part of the world. And his All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, beginning a new series, has a narrator who grows up female-identified but eventually comes to identify as non-binary. This is entirely accepted and respected by her friends, and she’s a superhero, and the writing is really good. I’ve read all these multiple times and they keep being fun.

  18. The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, even though the queer characters are only side characters, it was really validating and cool seeing them pop up in the story.

  19. Annie On My Mind and Keeping You A Secret.

    I’ve been meaning to read Ash since it came out.

  20. Annie on my Mind was the first I read, but Empress of the World has stuck with me. Whether it’s because Nic wants to be an archaeologist, the open-ended nature of the ending (before the sequel came out), the summer setting…it stuck with me.

  21. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. Reminded me of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but queerer therefore better.

    • Yes! I was surprised that nobody mentioned the literary force that Jeanette Winterson and her incredibly mind-blowing novels are, and I’m glad you did. I discovered her browsing “Gay is the Word” in London, and I don’t ever want to go back to a time where I did not know her work.

  22. “It made me realize that I could fall back in love with history again if I could find a way to see myself in it, and that maybe I’d fallen out of love with history because I’d overdosed on cis white men’s stories.”

    Wooooow, Riese, it just occurred to me that an overdose of cis white men is probably responsible for me falling out of love with a lot of things.

    “the ways oppression destroys people and how it corrodes our ability to love, both ourselves and others”

    Natalie, the way you phrased this is so devastatingly succinct. Brava.

    ALEXIS!!! I remember reading this fic when it was unfinished and had no idea it became a book omggggg.

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