25 Essential Works of LGBT Non-Fiction


Yesterday saw the release of Choire Sicha’s excellent book Very Recent History, which follows a group of young gay men as they make their way through New York City in the midst of the financial crisis of the late aughts. While it never even incorporates the word “gay,” Very Recent History follows a long tradition of providing a window into a very specific and often underrepresented community. With that in mind, here’s a collection of other important non-fiction titles about the diverse LGBT community. While neither an exhaustive nor a definitive list, these 25 books are recommended reading to get a broader idea of the queer experience. Feel free to suggest other titles in the comments!

The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser

Kaiser’s historical look at how gay men informed the culture of America’s urban areas — particularly New York City — spans 56 years from the periods of silent acceptance, the tumultuous pre-Stonewall years, the empowering ’70s, and the AIDS crisis of the ’80s.

The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs

Psychologist Alan Downs takes a look at the resounding issues within the gay male community — substance abuse, depression, sex addiction, and shame — that still persist despite increasing social acceptance of homosexuality. The Velvet Rage is an important self-help text that puts into context the anger that stems out of one’s marginalized identity.

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

The internationally renowned poet shares his life story, from his adolescence spent fighting for the Castro regime to his imprisonment for his sexuality to his flight from Cuba to his deathbed in New York City. It’s a powerful memoir that speaks to the personal and the political as well as the space where the two intersect.

Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality by Patrick Moore

Moore’s provocative take on the extreme sexual practices that came out of the ’70s attempts to remove the enduring shame that is the AIDS crisis’ legacy for that seemingly destructive sexual behavior. Moore argues a generation lost to the disease resulted in a lack of sexual awareness and pride among young gay men.

A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

Bronski’s exhaustive text chronicles the history of non-heterosexual activity from the very beginnings of the country’s roots — beginning with Columbus’ arrival in 1492 and ending in the present day.

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio

Bayard Rush was responsible for teaching the principles of non-violent protest to Martin Luther King, Jr., yet his status as an openly gay man in the midst of the civil rights movement kept him from being recognized for the efforts and activism he accomplished.

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation by Sarah Schulman

Schulman’s memoir of the AIDS years is a somber look at the vibrant community of artists and activists who populated downtown Manhattan and a must-read for those nostalgic for the pre-gentrified era of the late ’80s and early ’90s in the East Village and Lower East Side.

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz

The provocative artist, best known for the film Fire in My Belly , provides an important and introspective look at a generation’s experiences with sex, hope, stigmatization, and crisis in this collection of personal essays.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Shilts’ indelible and controversial reporting on the AIDS epidemic not only reveals the origins of the virus’ spread but also examines the ramifications of the medical community and the government’s ignorance of the crisis.

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro by André Soares

This biography tells the story of the first Latin American movie star, whose death was one of the most shocking scandals of the early days of Hollywood. Playing a quintessential Latin Lover character, Roman Novarro’s image was permanently tarnished when he was murdered by two male hustlers.

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

Post-war American literature was shaped by important contributions from the likes of Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg, and Bram’s book details how they shaped further generations of writers, including Tony Kushner, Edmund White, and Armistead Maupin, as well as the cultural identities of everyday Americans.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino

Using his identity as a gay Asian-American man, Yoshino argues in Covering — part manifesto, part memoir — that our society still values the dominant cultural norms despite its supposed appreciation for diversity. It is an appreciation of the many facets of identity politics and an attack on the notion of assimilation.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

This collection of speeches and essays from the influential and outspoken Audre Lorde touches on racism, sexism, and homophobia without losing a sense of hope for positive results in the face of class struggles.

Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns by David Margolick

John Horne Burns is the underrated novelist at the center of Margolick’s biography, and one who was the first to depict gay life within the military in his first novel, The Gallery.

Tango: My Childhood, Backward and in High Heels by Justin Vivian Bond

Performance and recording artist Justin Vivian Bond crafts a touching and pensive memoir about growing up in rural Maryland and confronting gender norms, as well as detailing an emotionally abusive sexual relationship with a childhood bully.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s gorgeous and heartbreaking graphic memoir follows the artist as she grapples with both her own sexuality and the revelation that her cold, distant father led a secret life as a gay man.

Ceremonies by Essex Hemphill

Hemphill’s collection of poetry and commentary tackles the experience of being an African American and a gay man in a society that refuses to accept both.

Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone by David B. Feinberg

This collection of essays details, with mixed tones, the experience of living with AIDS. It’s a powerful, painful, sometimes unapologetically humorous take on a taboo topic that doesn’t lend itself to bold and brash conversation.

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein

Legendary transgender activist and writer Kate Bornstein details her transition from a heterosexual man to a lesbian woman in this modern classic about challenging gender and cultural norms.

The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

The infamously flamboyant Quentin Crisp shares the experiences of living in a time and place where acceptance was difficult to obtain in this humorous and adventurous memoir about his unapologetic homosexuality in 1920s and ’30s London.

Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring

A contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, Samuel Steward lived an extraordinary secret sexual life which he chronicled in great detail in a collection of journals. Biographer Justin Spring unveils the writings and private life of Steward, who went on to become Phil Sparrow, an infamous tattoo artist on Chicago’s South Side.

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncy

Chauncy’s history of gay life in New York decades before the impact of the Stonewall riots is a surprising account that defies the notion that homosexuality was hidden out of view until the 1960s.

Real Man Adventures by T Cooper

Transgender novelist T Cooper’s collection of essays, interviews, and musings on the nature of transition, masculinity, and identity politics in America is a valuable read and a go-to resource for understanding an incredibly underrepresented and often silenced community.

The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life by Michael Warner

Michael Warner’s controversial thesis claims that the quest for marriage equality is actually damaging to the cause of LGBT rights. By presenting the queer community as a diverse group, Warner’s provocative take on queer politics is a valid and important reminder of the many voices within a community typically set apart as having one single commonality.

Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua

Gloria Anzaldua, a Chicana lesbian activist, writes from the perspective of a multifaceted identity. Her experimental, unclassifiable Borderlands explores the concept of a border, focusing not just on physical lines but the emotional spaces and identities that shape our being.