In celebration of National Coming Out Day, we chart our favourite coming-of-age queer novels – from Virginia Woolf to Fun Home
A book can speak powerfully to you without reflecting you, and, saying that, a character doesn’t have to be like you in order for you to like them. But sometimes you just need to see yourself in the picture — in art — especially when you’re young. For a lot of kids questioning their sexuality, reading about other gay, bisexual or haven't-yet-figured-it-out kids is an important part of growing into themselves. Like it or not, most of us grow up surrounded by straight people, and with few, if any, IRL LGBT role models. Kids from small towns and conservative families would appear to have it the hardest. But books can open up secret worlds of possibility, whole futures waiting in between the pages stashed in your backpack. Sometimes a protagonist just demonstrates that there are a lot of different ways to live – maybe more than you’ve ever dreamed of. So, whether your coming out, on the way out or simply in support of those who are, in celebration of National Coming Out Day, we chart a selection of our favourite queer coming-of-age novels.
MAURICE BY E. M. FORSTER
Forster didn’t publish Maurice when he wrote it in 1914, or even after he revised it in the 60s. Maurice is about a young gay man, and that was enough to keep it out of publication until after its author died in 1971. Forster is rightly considered one of the twentieth century’s finest English novelists, and Maurice is every bit as good as A Room with a View, or Howards End. A half-lost treasure.
STONE BUTCH BLUES BY LESLIE FEINBERG
Feinberg’s bestselling fictional memoir presents the memoir of one Jess Goldberg, a teen butch who runs away from home, works in factories, buys a motorcycle, and is regularly beaten and sexually assaulted by the cops who bust her and her friends. A lot of Jess’s memories take place in the early 60s: the sweet story of one butch coming into her own is interwoven with episodes of bloodcurdling, pre-Stonewall violence.
WEETZIE BAT BY FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK
Weetzie and her best friend Dirk spend this novel spinning through the strange haze of Shangri-LA, negotiating the strange consequences of the three wishes granted to our heroine. Weetzie Bat is a heady and surreal cocktail of gayness, true love, magic, and adventure, and a bookshelf-necessity for any teen with even the slightest note of queerness in them.
DAHLIA SEASON BY MYRIAM GURBA
Gurba’s debut book contains a few short stories and a novella, set in Californian teen weirdo-land. Desiree Garcia, protagonist of the novella the book is named for, is a Chicana baby-dyke teen goth navigating her way through 1992 and obsessive compulsive disorder. Dahlia Season is a compendium of angst, but a funny one.
THE LINE OF BEAUTY BY ALAN HOLLINGHURST
Set in Thatcher’s 80s, The Line of Beauty is the coming out and coming-of-age story of a well-to-do boy (Nick Guest) who falls in love with his ragingly wealthy best friend from Oxford. For all the stuffiness of the novel’s social milieu, Hollinghurst draws Nick’s inner life with stunning complexity. In its treatment of the mad and the queer in the British aristocracy, the book is strongly reminiscent of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – yet no less original or striking for it.
ROSE OF NO MAN’S LAND BY MICHELLE TEA
Tea’s novel describes a single day in the life of Trisha, a teen whose world is crushingly blank. Everything changes when she meets Rose: together they rampage, whirl, kiss, and discover. The stricture of the 24-hour format belies the wild scope of Tea’s portrait of Trisha, who – as teens so often do – stumbles across the whole world all at once.
FUN HOME BY ALISON BECHDEL
Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic memoir is centred around the homosexuality she and her father both shared, though their relationship was riven apart by so much else. Books, death, and houses also thread through the book, but gayness is at the heart of its foundation.
ORLANDO BY VIRGINIA WOOLF
The classic bildungsroman of gender transition, Orlando famously tells the story of an Elizabethan young man who goes on to become something else quite entirely. Flitting between gender identifications and historical epochs, Woolf’s most readable novel rushes up to the present day with a historical force that seems generated by its protagonist’s very transgressions.
THE ILLUSIONIST BY FRANÇOISE MALLET-JORIS
Originally published as Le rempart des Béguines (1951), Mallet-Joris’s novel tells the story of Hélène, whose journey of sexual self-discovery proceeds through the unlikely vehicle of her own father’s mistress. The Illusionist is as much about the forbidden delights of bohemian life as it is about queerness.
A BOY’S OWN STORY BY EDMUND WHITE
White’s semi-autobiographical novel is simply about a teen boy discovering the what’s, how’s, and why’s of being gay in the 50s. The richness of the narrator’s inner life is a perfect rendering of what that feels like – to be that age, having those feelings – and is only the first in a perfect trilogy.