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The Queer Books of 2020

10 Great LGBTQ Books from the Worst Year
Khalid El Khatib
&
Guest Writer
December 18, 2020
April 16, 2024
7
min. read
The Queer Books of 2020
Table of Contents

Like some people, I sent the early days of the pandemic the best version of myself. I perfected a number of low-fat Instapot recipes and froze the leftovers like a version of Sandra Lee who was really into CrossFit; I bounced from free trial of fitness app to free trial of fitness app (even taking a couple of cardio dance classes from my living room); I made a list of books that had been sitting on my shelf for far too long, and I dug in.

And then, about four weeks later, lethargy set in and the only routine I preserved was panic-watching Cuomo’s daily briefing. The only reading I got in was tweets.

It was early fall, some six months into quarantine, that I opened a note within my iPhone Notes app called 2020 Books where I had been keeping track of my conquests and saw a measly three titles. If I wasn’t going to come out of this pandemic having written the next great American novel, I vowed to at least read a few more of them.

The first book I picked up after recommitting was The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, which was long on my list and new to paperback. It’s a beautiful, dreamlike book about a dystopian island where a totalitarian government agency called The Memory Police takes away objects so people lose their memories and attachments to them. After I finished, I spiraled. Then I read, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam about two couples navigating what appears to be the apocalypse. And after I finished, I spiraled some more.

I realized that I should probably stop reading books about the end of the world. But I also realized that in a time of isolation that often catalyzes loneliness, reading books with queer characters and themes can be enormously comforting (even when they’re heartbreaking).

When I was young and closeted in Iowa I read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room at least a dozen times. During a recent trip to the Middle East I quelled any discomfort with Red, White and Royal Blue. And in the days after a minor heart break last year, I read Philippe Besson’s gorgeous novel about heartbreak — Lie With Me — to heal.

So if you’re like me, here is a list of great books from a terrible year with queer characters or written by queer people to get you through what we all hope are the final months of isolation.

Fairest by Meredith Talusan

Meredith’s memoir is a brilliant and powerful meditation on identity. It explores gender, sexuality, but also coming of age and the immigrant experience (Meredith is from a small village in Philippines.). If you’ve been journaling through the pandemic and have thought about writing a memoir or publishing some personal essays, let this be a blueprint. It’s one of those books that will have you stopping after sentences thinking, I wish I could write like that.

Buy Fairest here.

Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son by Richie Jackson

If you’re a card-carrying member of Oprah’s Book Club and like your heartstrings tugged, this one might be for you. In this short book, award-winning Broadway, TV, and film producer Richie Jackson reflects on his views of the LGBTQ community over the past 50 years -- all for his son, born to a surrogate, who came out to Jackson when he was 15. But don’t let the synopsis lead you to believe this is Gay Chicken Soup for the Soul, it doesn’t sugarcoat things just as it warns against complacency.

Buy Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son here.

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Here For It by R. Eric Thomas

I read this one before the pandemic, and so I remember it especially fondly. The author and prolific member of Gay Twitter talks about his Blackness and queerness with equal parts heart and humor. I found it so uplifting that I lent it to my sister in the middle of the pandemic, this summer, to lift her spirits. One of those books that you put down and feel like the author is an IRL friend, and what’s better than that in isolation?

Buy Here for It here.

Homie by Danez Smith

I’ll admit I stumbled onto Homie selfishly. When it became clear I might not meet my 2020 book goal, I began to cheat by buying shorter books. Smith’s book of poems meets that criteria by clocking in at under 100 pages. But what it lacks in length, it packs in power. The book covers themes of community and friendship at a time when both can feel so far away, while tackling 2020 topics like violence and xenophobia. Read this in one sitting, then read it again.

Buy Homie here.

I Know You Know Who I Am: Stories by Peter Kispert

Of all the books on my list, this might be the most perfect pandemic read. First of all, Kispert’s debut is a collection of short stories featuring queer characters, and short stories are perfect for whatever level of ADHD the pandemic has awoken within you. What’s more, all of the stories are about liars. While there’s so much poignancy in how Kispert addresses and interweaves the different deceptions, the book is also full of little moments of shock and drama -- for anyone who misses that aspect of real life (me, so much, so often).

Buy I Know You Know Who I Am: Stories here.

Missing from the Village by Justin Ling

OK, so I didn’t read this one but I have a small but vocal contingent of friends who are obsessed with true criminal podcasts and Netflix specials, and they sang this book’s praises. I live alone and scare easily, but if you don’t -- this book covers the murders of eight gay men in Toronto from 2010 through 2017, serial killer Bruce McArthur, and how the Canadian criminal justice system failed the queer community.

Buy Missing from the Village here.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

The story of a Black queer man from Alabama studying biochemsitry in a Midwestern university town, that partially explores an act of violence with a white colleague. It’s a brilliant debut that was widely acclaimed (and shortlisted for the Booker Prize). It’s also a novel that requires quiet. The sentences are so crisply crafted, and each word so perfectly chosen that you’ll want to give the book your full attention; now is a great time for that.

Buy Real Life here.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

“Shuggie Bain? That’s like… the new A Little Life, right?” I quipped when my friend asked if I had read it. In truth, the most the novel has in common with the polarizing A Little Life is that it’s buzzy and critically acclaimed.  The story of a young gay boy and his alcoholic mother in Scotland is the winner the prestigious The 2020 Booker Prize and a finalist for The National Book Award, making it a great pick for a book club or a great recent read to namedrop on a date (when we’re doing that again) to sound smart.

Buy Shuggie Bain here.

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels

Did you make it through 2020 still in need of a good cry? This one’s for you. It tells a story of the AIDS crisis through Brian Johnson, who returns to the small town in Ohio where he’s from to a family that rejected him. By diving into the perspectives of the protagonist’s family members, the author paints a devastating picture of a moment of time that will absolutely transport you.

Buy The Prettiest Star here.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

A book about two gay seventeen year olds in the 1970s whose initial attraction and curiosity turns into obsession and ::gay gasp:: violence. There are elements of Donna Tart’s A Secret History here as well as A Separate Peace (that gay but not gay book many of us read in high school). And like what makes those classics great, what makes this a good pandemic read is how successfully it evokes a mood and how specifically it describes the two main characters’ relationship. You’ll get so lost in their twisted love that’ll you be distracted from… well… everything else.

Buy These Violent Delights here.

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