I read only LGBTQ+ books for a year & it changed my entire perspective on coming out

Book with bookmark and rainbow ribbon of LGBT pride.
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“But soft, what light through yonder window break?” cries Romeo to Juliet, eyes fixed on the balcony where she gazes back, wanting and waiting.

As she falls for Prince Charming, Cinderella breaks into song… “My heart has wings and I can fly!”

Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Belle and Pocahontas are also among the ranks of women discovering romance – wooed by men who break spells with kisses, scale ladders of golden hair and transform from beasts, all in the name of love. They all lived the fairy tales I’ve always dreamed of.

Coming to terms with the fact I am gay is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it’s also been a grieving process. Cutting men from the equation has meant letting go of the dream that a Prince Charming would sweep me off my feet like all my favorite princesses in the stories that shaped my childhood. The lack of queer media growing up meant I had little idea of what queer love could, or should look like. The few lesbians I saw on TV broke up or died, a trope that’s unfortunately still prevalent today (Killing Eve, Buffy, The Walking Dead). This, combined with growing up in a religious household where my sexuality was considered a sin made it hard to make peace with my identity. 

When I started labeling myself a lesbian in 2020, I battled internalized homophobia (when people are conditioned to think of homosexuality as wrong, unnatural or immoral due to the teachings of a hetronormative and discriminatory society). The media I’d read and watched as a child planted the idea that I would never be fulfilled or happy if I pursued relationships with women. I dealt with self-hatred and discomfort as I struggled to align my desires with what I’d been taught a ‘good life’ should look like.

But I knew that the mind is a flexible thing. I believed in the possibility to change beliefs, even deep set ones, and I believed in my own agency to make that happen. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. 

I decided to read only LGBTQ+ literature for a year in a bid to make up for lost time – developing my understanding of queer love in a way I hoped would help rewrite my internal narrative and help me find confidence in my identity.

Where to begin but with Sappho – the tenth muse and ancient Greek lesbian megastar? Fragments of Sappho fits her poetry into a slim, black Penguin classic – one I read cover to cover on a cold Brighton Beach one December.  

“Dear Lady, don’t crush my heart/ with pains and sorrows,” laments the Archaic poet in snappy, songlike verse, refusing to sanitize lesbian desire which smolders with all the fire of a Tenessee Williams production. “I would much prefer to see the lovely/ way she walks and the radiant glance of her face/ than the war-chariots of the Lydians or/ their footsoldiers in arms.”

The idea of lesbian desire as something that does not need to be apologized for was addictive to me. I read on with contemporary novels like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Insatiable, and Carol, all of which orbit around bold, beautiful women who pursue other bold, beautiful women. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is striking for its tender romance between Celie and Shug Avery in 1900’s rural Georgia. Many LGBTQ+ books pivot on a sexual awakening, and I found it liberating to read of women discovering queer love with passion and excitement rather than hesitance and shame. 

There were also books that helped reimagine that fairytale romance I’d yearned for in childhood. Julia Armfield’s short story collection, Salt Slow, weaves LGBTQ+ narratives with zombies, insects and wolves in an offbeat Hans Christian Anderson-esque world that adds magic to queer relationships.

I spanned genres – from YA fiction (One Last Stop), graphic memoir (Fun Home), memoir (The Argonauts) and horror (Tell Me I’m Worthless) – to create a deeper picture of what a lesbian relationship could look like. 

As queer women we deserve to laugh, to scream, to gasp and to cry as we read love stories. We deserve stories as multi-dimensional and complicated as our relationships in real time. Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea has now earned the title of my favorite book. It makes me feel both trusting in healthy queer love and wracked with existential dread. One of the most unique premises I’ve ever read, the novel follows Leah and Miri’s relationship after a traumatic submarine expedition. The tone is a mix of hypnotic, uncanny and lyrical and the result is a sinking feeling. If a book can make me uncomfortable, that’s a big success. It’s a hard feeling to get right.

But the books that had the biggest impact on me were coming of age novels. It was healing to read stories of girls growing up, falling in love for the first time, and finding security in their sexuality. Malinda Lo’s Last Night At the Telegraph Club sees two girls fall for each other in Red Scare San Francisco, Chinatown. And then there’s Fannie Flagg’s 1991 doorstopper classic Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, where the relationship between childhood sweethearts Idgie and Ruth flourishes with a refreshing simplicity and dizzy charm. The pages carry the warmth of laughter. The cafe where the couple offer a sanctuary to those in need with hot food and fresh coffee delivers the book’s core message: Love is something to be shared and passed around like a delicious recipe. 

These books warmed my heart. But queer literature also connected me with the struggle of generations past who have paved the way for a more accepting society today. Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, tracks a homosexual woman’s plight to gain acceptance in conservative British society. It was the first openly lesbian novel to be published anywhere in the world and was initially banned for obscenity before topping bestseller charts. But the phrases “she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover,”, and suggestive “that night, they were not divided,” are basically PG in comparison to the risque writing of Hall’s contemporaries like DH Lawrence. 

The problem, of course, was not what was being done but who was doing it. I feel indebted to writers like Hall for setting the groundwork for a freer world where queer love isn’t something to be banned or hidden away. The very fact I am able to write this article is testament to this privilege. 

Queer love should be celebrated, but it’s not perfect. “I didn’t know lesbians had problems,” one friend quipped after I broke up with my ex. 

Tales of toxic LGBTQ+ relationships, often missing in the media, are vital in showing that queer dynamics can also be complex and dangerous. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, a memoir of visceral abuse, is so important for this reason. The darkly comic In At the Deep End by Katie Davies also tracks a relationship that sours, and Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts subverts the trope of the calculated male psychopath on its head with a female protagonist who’s violent and cruel. Books like this show queer readers experiencing abuse that their story is far from the only one. They give readers a template of what happens when things go wrong.

There’s also religious trauma to reckon with. Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical novels Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Why be Happy when you could be Normal, as well as Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed and Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, all explore the ways religion can make growing up gay excruciating. Ideas of homosexuality as unnatural, wrong and sinful were difficult to read, but these stories made me feel less alone and gave me hope for a life on the other side of religious guilt. 

And then there are stories showing what this life on the other side might look like. By their nature, LGBTQ+ relationships challenge the norm. I appreciated the tales of queer family dynamics that many authors set out to tell. Examples are Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, where a trio navigate the potential of co-parenting a child, and Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth, where married women struggle to understand their difficult son. There’s also Bernardine Evaristo’s indomitable Girl, Woman, Other, which explores what it means to be part of, and othered from, a group through the rich lives of 11 Black British women and one nonbinary character.

The epilogue to Girl, Woman, Other concludes, “This is not about feeling something or about speaking words/ this is about being/ together”. 

It’s an apt lesson to end on. Reading LGBTQ+ literature for a year showed me that it is, indeed, all about being together. I read across an expansive canon to find my experiences echoed across cultures and genres. The struggle and the joy. The beauty of it all. As a child I dreamt of Prince Charming, but I now dream of a wife. Queer books taught me to treasure that dream.

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