A reading list of non-fiction books about LGBTQ culture and history

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

In the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, the act of deftly insulting your competitors is called "reading". And reading, as the catchphrase goes, is fundamental.

But reading is vital to the LGBTQ experience – and not just on reality television. Queer people have always told their stories as a way to render themselves visible; in doing so, they give hope to others that they may one day be safe to tell theirs.   

Pride, the annual global display of LGBTQ visibility, is a moment to see the breadth of that queer experience. This Pride month, since real life parades are cancelled, these 10 non-fiction titles are a great way to begin to understand LGBTQ people’s experiences. The library, as RuPaul also says, is open.

The Stonewall Reader, edited by the New York Public Library (2019)

The Stonewall riots were a pivotal moment in the history of queer politics; when a police raid on the New York dive bar on June 28 1969 turned into three nights of defiance from LGBTQ people frustrated by police brutality and societal oppression.

Until relatively recently, historical accounts have erased the crucial roles played by lesbians and trans women of colour in that fight. These first-hand accounts, diaries and media drawn the NY Public Library archives act as an important reset, telling the story of queer liberation’s biggest night, from its forgotten figures.

Good as You by Paul Flynn (2018)

A rollercoaster ride from queer liberation to gay marriage in Britain, told through the prism of pop culture and journalist Paul Flynn’s own story of growing up gay in Manchester in the 1980s.

Revealing meaning in clubbing at the Hacienda, the gay subtext of Coronation Street and the music of Kylie Minogue, Good as You is gay culture as its experienced in the clubs, pubs and living rooms of Britain and how that helped forge radical societal change.

We Are Everywhere

Image: Ten Speed Press

We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer liberation by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown (2019)

An inclusive account of the fight for queer freedom and equality, We Are Everywhere is a beautifully designed photographic journey from queer activism’s roots in late 19th Century Europe, through the Stonewall riots and up to present day politics.

From the curators of popular Instagram account @lgbt_history, which champions unheard voices in queer narratives, We Are Everywhere offers an immersive history lesson direct from the diverse group of people who got us here.

Graywolf Press

Image: Graywolf Press

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)

The Argonauts is a love story, describing writer Maggie Nelson’s marriage to the artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. But this short, captivating memoir is never just one thing, ranging widely and deeply on the meanings of pregnancy, family, sex and love. In doing so, Nelson opens the reader’s mind to possibilities beyond the binary and the magic that happens when you get there.

Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Image: Little, Brown

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister by Helena Whitbread (2010)

LGBTQ people are largely absent from the history books. So personal testimony such as that of 19th Century English landowner Anne Lister is a vital way to see that we have always existed.

Lister, known as "Gentleman Jack" by Halifax locals, kept diaries – written in code – which describe in detail her life as a woman who ‘could love, and only love the "fairer sex"'. Celebrated as "the first modern lesbian", on account of how she conducted her life in an era so radically different from now, Lister was an example of courage in action. 

Queer Intentions – A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture - Amelia Abraham

Image: Picador

Queer Intentions – A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture by Amelia Abraham (2019)

Journalist Amelia Abraham takes the temperature of contemporary queer culture, journeying from drag performances in LA to Turkish underground clubs in this insightful and wide-ranging discovery of LGBTQ life as it is lived.  A vibrant, wide ranging exploration of what it means to be queer now, Queer Intentions also asks who is being left behind and where we go from here as a global community.

How to survive a plague

Image: Picador

How to Survive a Plague – The story of how activists and scientists tamed AIDS by David France (2017)

David France’s insider account of the battle to stop the AIDS epidemic is the story of how – in the face of government and societal indifference – grassroots activists harnessed scientific research to save lives.

France’s devastating and heroic book is both a testament to the millions who lost their lives and to all who have survived because of the activists’ efforts. It is a story about community, and the individuals who put their lives on the line for it.

How We Fight for Our Lives

Image: Simon and Schuster

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones (2020)

Queer coming-of-age memoirs shine light on the diversity of experience in the LGBTQ community. That we are not simply one thing is a cornerstone of Saeed Jones’ timely memoir about growing up gay and black and Southern, in Texas in the late 1990s.

"Being a black gay boy can get you killed," he writes, in this emotionally raw and intimate account of discovery and identity which happens at the intersection of sex, race and power.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim memoir

Image: Hachette

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib (2019)

The conflict between faith and sexuality is explored in journalist Samra Habib’s memoir of growing up queer in a Muslim household. Habib was raised in the Ahmadi Muslim community in Pakistan, which regularly faced with threats from Islamic extremists. When her family moved to Canada as refugees, she encountered new dangers from racism to poverty and familial pressure to conform. Harrowing yet hopeful, We Have Always Been Here is testimony to the power of speaking your truth, and the potential for reconciliation with family and faith.

Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows by Christine Burns (2018)

The fight for equality is not over, especially for trans people in the LGBTQ community who continue to face abuse and discrimination. Understanding gender identity and trans issues can be daunting; a great place to start is to listen to trans people tell their stories. Trans Britain chronicles the journey of a marginalised community into the public eye, with a compassionate guide, Christine Burns MBE, who has been a civil rights activist for over 25 years.

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