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Pride Month Book Club: 5 LGBTQ+ books to read in June

Local LGBTQ+ people share their favorite pieces of queer literature.
Image by Ava Weinreis
These books reflect a variety of queer identities and experiences and are good reads for everyone, queer or not.

Whether or not you identify as LGBTQ+, engaging with queer history and culture is always a worthy endeavor, especially during Pride Month.

Maintaining queer visibility is a continuous struggle, especially today and throughout literature. According to Axios, the books in 2023 most targeted for bans in America centered on LGBTQ+ experiences and people of color.

There’s power in finding a book that’s incredibly relatable or reveals a new experience. In sum, choosing to read queer literature is an act of solidarity.

Here are five books recommended by local queer people:

“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin (1956)

Gabe McHenry, 23, a worker at the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in LGBT Studies, said the 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” is “the most tender gay book Baldwin has to offer.”

The book is a glimpse into the life of an American man living in Paris who starts an affair with an Italian bartender he meets at a gay bar named Giovanni. At 159 pages, McHenry called it an easy, short read with an interesting plot that is easy to get sucked into.

McHenry said he put off reading the last 50-or-so pages of “Giovanni’s Room” because he “wasn’t prepared” for the hurt he was going to feel.

“It was pretty intense,” he said. “I think it would provoke strong emotion in anyone, gay or not.”

Overall, the tenderness and depth of “Giovanni’s Room,” according to McHenry, would provide a rich reading experience for anyone.

“We Both Laughed in Pleasure” by Lou Sullivan, ed. Ellis Martin & Zach Ozma (2019)

Another recommendation from McHenry, “We Both Laughed in Pleasure” is a collection of diary entries by transgender rights activist Lou Sullivan from 1961 to 1991, the year of Sullivan’s death.

McHenry said “We Both Laughed in Pleasure” is his favorite piece of queer literature and Sullivan is a huge reason why he can exist as himself today.

Sullivan lobbied for gay transgender males to receive gender-affirming surgery. Before the late 1980s, it was expected for transgender people to fill stereotypical heterosexual gender roles and be denied gender-affirming care if they were openly gay.

“He forced the medical establishment to acknowledge gay trans people,” McHenry said.

“We Both Laughed in Pleasure” includes entries from when Sullivan was a child and had his first thoughts of wanting to be a boy.

“There’s no more intimate look into someone’s life than writing from when they were a really small child,” McHenry said.

McHenry said reading the book solidified a feeling of community, even though he had been out as gay and trans for many years before he first read it.

A 2019 “New Yorker” review of the book called it “a radical testament to trans happiness.”

“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe (2019)

Like “We Both Laughed in Pleasure,” Kobabe’s 2019 graphic memoir “Gender Queer” starts in the author’s childhood and travels through many significant experiences in their discovery of their gender.

The recommendation comes from Jaden Lowden, 35, a Minneapolis resident and first-time visitor to the Quatrefoil Library, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ library and community center in the Phillips neighborhood.

Lowden came to Quatrefoil to find “Gender Queer,” which they said they had read half of and wanted to continue reading.

“I’ve never read something so incredibly me before,” they said.

Lowden highly recommended it for people “so outside the gender binary” like they are.

“Gender Queer” is an important read because of how challenged its presence is in school libraries. The American Library Association ranked it the most challenged book in 2023 for its queer themes and sexual content.

Still, “Publisher’s Weekly” said in its 2019 review that the memoir “relates, with sometimes painful honesty, the experience of growing up non-gender-conforming.”

“A Safe Girl to Love” by Casey Plett (2014)

Brynn Lee, 43, Lowden’s roommate and fellow Quatrefoil visitor, recommended Casey Plett’s collection of short stories featuring young trans women in various settings and experiences.

She guided me to the return-to-shelf cart where she had been eyeing the book.

Author Casey Plett grew up in a Mennonite family in rural Manitoba, Canada. One of the settings featured in “A Safe Girl to Love” is a small town in the same province.

Plett’s experience as a trans woman is not dissimilar from many others’ – denial of identity due to internalized transphobia, a victim of bullying in school and a lack of family support among other obstacles.

Still, the book aims to show how “growing up as a trans girl can be charming, funny, frustrating, or sad, but never will it be predictable,” according to its publisher’s website.

“Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg (1993)

This recommendation comes partially from me since this novel came up multiple times in my conversations with Lowden and Lee at Quatrefoil. 

“Stone Butch Blues” is another queer classic. Similar to “Giovanni’s Room,” “Stone Butch Blues” is an intense read that packs punch after punch of emotion.

Lowden said they had to “be in the right mindset” to start reading it, but eventually, they just had to take the plunge.

“Stone Butch Blues” is a semi-autobiographical novel that follows Jess Goldberg, a butch lesbian, through her exploration and struggles with gender identity, intimate relationships, labor organizing and poverty in New York during the second half of the 20th century.

Life is never easy for Goldberg — she faces violence for being gay, insecurity and isolation from being a transmasculine butch lesbian along with physical and emotional pain from living in poverty.

Like “Gender Queer,” this book depicts queer suffering with painful honesty. At the same time, as the 2014 Slate obituary for Feinberg states, “It also shows the healing power of love and political activism.”

Both Lee and I assured Lowden that “Stone Butch Blues” has a quite happy — if not, satisfying — ending. Suffering is an unavoidable dimension of the queer experience, but that doesn’t mean we will never know joy.

The queer experience is rich, multifaceted and ultimately human. I hope these recommendations reflect that and so much more.

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  • KG
    Jun 15, 2024 at 8:56 am

    Worthy of mention is the new book, A Speaker in the Wilderness: Poems on the Sacred Path from Broken to Whole, in which the queer poet Anna Goodman Herrick, 43, weaves mysticism and memoir. “I realized my Judaism could be all that I need it to be,” said the poet. “It was really important for me to dig deeper into my ancestral tradition, my ancestral wisdom.” The poems in the book, her first, deal with various chapters of her life: growing up, leaving home at 14, joining a nightclub scene, studying with Hasidic rabbis in Israel and U.S. and living at a convent. She also writes about her journey toward healing after experiencing several traumatic events, including sexual assault by a classmate when she was 13.
    Many poems refer to the Talmud, Jewish mysticism and Hebrew as a sacred language, and these references and connections come naturally to the writer as a form of meditation or text study. Herrick says: “I did a lot of text study with Zohar scholars, Hebrew academics and Talmud scholars, and I just dug into it and loved every moment of it. It felt really rich for me, really juicy. And I think it became almost imperative when I was writing about ancestral healing that I do it through my ancestral tradition and through my ancestral wisdom. So it was almost meta, like, OK, I know in my bones and in my soul that we are the universe. Where does it say that in Judaism?”
    Anna Goodman Herrick, A Speaker in the Wilderness: Poems on the Sacred Path from Broken to Whole (Monkfish Book Publishing, 94 pages). Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley