Out of the closet and into bookshops: where are all the queer books?

by Maisie Lawrence

I came of queer age on a steady diet of lesbian films, purchased covertly at university, and hidden under my bed when back home. Films with brilliant titles such as “The Itty Bitty Titty Committee”, “Watermelon”, “I Can’t Think Straight” and “Better Than Chocolate” (yes, it is what you think) taught me a huge amount about what it meant to be a queer woman.

These films weren’t always easy to come by – this was before Netflix, before Sandi Toksvig was on TV, before “Orange Is the New Black” and “Moonlight”. The lesbian and queer pickings were slim, and predominantly featured white characters. I watched everything I could get my hands on – films about each letter of the LGBTQ spectrum – wanting to understand the breadth and depth of the new community I’d joined. But eventually the internet’s well of queer films ran dry. 

So I went looking for the books. I’d soon read James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Brett Easton Ellis and Thomas Mann. But I wanted something that looked like me, something beyond the white gay men or the lesbian film where everyone dies at the end. Starting with Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness nearly had me abandoning the whole thing together. (If you haven’t read it, be warned: it does what it says on the tin…) Praise the lord for Stella Duffy, Sarah Waters, Nella Larson, Carol Ann Duffy, and Jeanette Winterson. I discovered Val McDermid when she came to speak at university, and she fast became my favourite crime writer. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a gift that came just at the right time – perfect for a queer student simultaneously navigating an English degree and dating. I will keep the exquisite letters that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West wrote to each other close to me for the rest of my life. Woolf’s Orlando was one of the first (and only) novels I’ve read that even nodded at gender identity, or being trans. So, there are great queer writers, but you’ve got to go looking.

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