Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Baldwin’s classic was one of the first American novels to address complex issues of queer identity, in a gorgeous, tightly woven, tragic love story between two bisexual men, set in 1950s Paris. Read it for the history, read it for Baldwin’s expert ability to universalize even the most specific of urges, read it because it’s delicious reading.
Rose of No Man’s Land , Michelle Tea
In Tea’s fiery coming-of-age novel, misanthropic 14-year-old Trisha Driscoll meets Rose, the girl who will change her life, after being fired from the hysterically named mall shop “Ohmigod!” Rose leads Trisha down a merry spiral into her first kiss, her first tattoo, her first drugs. If you’re not a teenager, reading it will make you feel like one.
Our Lady of the Flowers , Jean Genet
Here’s another well-worn classic. Genet’s first novel, about a drag queen named Divine, was written in prison, on the brown paper that inmates were issued to make into bags. Highly sexual and described by Jean-Paul Sartre as “the epic of masturbation,” this book would certainly have a hard time making it onto official high school reading lists. That said, no one is more interested in masturbation than teenagers, and at least this way they’ll get some poetry and transgressive, self-reflexive literature with their proclivities.
Hero , Perry Moore
As the story goes, Moore decided to write this novel after being incensed by X-Men: Age of Apocalypse #2, in which Wolverine kills Northstar, Marvel’s most prominent gay character. He responded with a list of homosexual comic book characters and their fates and this Lambda-winning novel, which follows the exploits of a gay teenage superhero. Spoiler: he survives.
The Color Purple , Alice Walker
Already a classic for so many reasons, and attended by the highest qualifications (it won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for Fiction), this book lays bare the life of black women in the 1930s. It is also an incredible coming-of-age story that blurs traditional gender roles and explores the way love can free us from bondage.
Fun Home , Alison Bechdel
Kids love graphic novels, right? Wait — everybody loves graphic novels, and everybody loves (or should love) Alison Bechdel, whose wonderful graphic memoir about her father’s death and her own sexuality is a must read for any student, gay or straight, struggling with family and identity.
Boy Meets Boy , David Levithan
Another Lambda Literary Award winner, Levithan’s beloved YA novel is set in a magical little town where every sexual preference and gender interpretation is accepted and even celebrated (New York, is that you?). As you might be able to glean from the title, Levithan starts with the traditional formula of “boy meets girl” and takes out that whole girl part. The result is a sweet romantic comedy that will charm anyone with a soul.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit , Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson’s luminous bildungsroman is a coming-out story set in an English Pentecostal community. It’s the funny, wry tale of a good little girl who must reconcile her love of God with her love of women. Except she can do that just fine — it’s everyone else who can’t. Gore Vidal called Winterson “[t]he most interesting writer I have read in 20 years.” So, there’s that.
Orlando: A Biography , Virginia Woolf
Everyone should read this book. A semi-biographical, gender-bending revelation, it’s one of Woolf’s best, and is highly likely to get the kids a-talkin’.
Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides
Compulsively readable, Eugenides’s novel tells many stories, but the most memorable of these is that of Cal, who tells us that he was born twice: “first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974.” Whether or not you’ve had any remotely similar experience, Cal’s struggles with sexuality, identity, and loyalty to family are likely to hit home.