The Best LGBTQ Books That Aren’t YA

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

Looking for LGBTQ books that aren’t YA? Welcome to a magnificent world, because there are lists and lists full of fantastic books that aren’t YA but that are undeniably queer. Which is so wonderful, because it means that once you start digging in, you just find more adult LGBTQ books — with every queer book in translation (here are 20), queer fantasy novel, queer short story collection, you just continue to find more recommendations, more lists, more fantastic books to sink your teeth into.

A list of recent SFF books by trans and gender-nonconforming authors? We have you covered. A list of books about gender identity? We have you covered there, too. We’ve written a list of LGBTQ books that will make you cry, and a list of LGBTQ books with happy endings. We have a list of books featuring ‘queernorm’ worlds — worlds in which homophobia and transphobia do not exist. We even have a list of TikTok’s favorite LGBTQ books. But yes, most of our lists have YA on them somewhere or another, and we promised. This list will only feature adult LGBTQ books.

Still, it’s hard to distill so much queer excellence into such a small list. But I did my best here, bringing my absolute favorites to the front of the pack, and trying to highlight a couple big bestsellers alongside books that people may not have heard of.

I included content warnings wherever I was able, but things can slip through the cracks. Please make sure to do additional research on your own if you have specific concerns.

Literary/Contemporary Fiction

We All Loved Cowboys cover

We All Loved Cowboys by Carol Bensimon, Translated by Beth Fowler

Quiet, reserved Julia and bisexual fashion student Cora once hooked up together, before their quiet romance fizzling out. But now, years later, the two twentysomethings decide to finally take the road trip they always envisioned, a rambling and aimless drive around Brazil. It’s a sapphic story, a road trip story, and a coming-of-age story all wrapped into one compact package. Bensimon writes about youthful rebellion and the slow decision-making about what it is you actually want in life.

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis

In the repressive military rule of 1970s Uruguay, five women forge a safe space, a beach-side shack in Polonio where they can be their queer, independent selves. It’s a powerful novel of women who love women, of shelters, of finding a community that allows you to be yourself, and it shows the friend group shifting over the decades, discussing sex toys and children and pain, coming apart and falling back together. This is one of my favorite novels about female friendship, with a historical fiction background shedding light on the queer experience.

Content warnings for sexual assault, torture, conversion therapy, homophobia, violence, suicide.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

In this poetic, autobiographical novel, the narrator, a young Vietnamese man, writes a letter to his mother, who cannot read. He writes about their family history, a multi-generational story; he writes all about his queer identity and growth, about his first love Trevor; and he digs deep into the painful, pervasive way that opioids took over the town he grew up in. It is a twisting, beautiful book, Vuong’s debut novel, about healing, story-telling, and survival.

Content warnings for bullying and violence, abuse, drug addiction, homophobia, mental illness, animal violence.

Cover of Under The Udala Trees

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Ijeoma grows up in 1960s Nigeria, torn by civil war. When her father dies, her mother falls into a trance-like state of mourning, and Ijeoma is sent away to live with a school teacher in Nwewi. Finding herself in a new community, she befriends Amina, another displaced girl, and the two young girls grow close — and then closer, falling into a romantic and sexual relationship. When it’s discovered, Ijeoma is pulled back home, and is forced to reckon with the homophobia and pervasive heteronormativity that surrounds her. The novel won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction, and is particularly evocative given Nigeria’s contemporary anti-homosexuality laws.

Content warnings for parental death, depression, grief, hanging (depicted in a dream), homophobia, miscarriage, misogyny, PTSD, rape.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are both gay, locked into a marriage of convenience so that their conservative Sri Lankan American families will leave them alone. Everything is working out pretty well until Lucky has to visit her hometown, and runs into her first love, Nisha. Nisha is about to marry a man through an arranged marriage, and Lucky wants to stop her from going through with it. But to do that, she would have to destroy everything she’s worked to build, and take a risk she isn’t even sure Nisha would want her to take.

Content warnings for homophobia, domestic abuse, misogyny.

cover image of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The stunning winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize is a huge, connected map of characters, from a nonbinary trans influencer to a mathematics student turned cleaning company owner to rebellious young mother LaTisha. Evaristo combines the many stories of real-feeling, complex women to craft a vivid portrait of the queer and Black UK community in a way that is deeply authentic and intensely moving. Evaristo’s unusual, all-lowercase, flowing style gives us this masterpiece that is queer, vast, lyrical, witty, emotive, and strong.

Content warnings for sexual assault, domestic abuse, child abuse, miscarriage, racism, transphobia, and homophobia.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, Translated by Tina A. Kover

Queer punk-rock-loving Kimiâ sits in a waiting room of a fertility clinic waiting for her results. And as she does, her mind roves over the history and stories of the Sadr family, an epic that begins in Iran and ends in Paris. Kimiâ recounts the legends that are told and retold in her family, reflecting on the way stories are shared and the way the truth is warped. Her parents are intellectuals and oppose the regimes of the Shah and then Khomeini, and her, her mother, and her sisters eventually must flee Iran. The storytelling in this novel is unparalleled — it’s one of my favorite reads in recent years: bold, fun, and heart-breaking.

Content warnings for violence, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

We Are Satellites book cover

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Queer parents Val and Julie are trying to do a good job raising their children. But as the Pilot, a brain implant that makes it easier to focus, becomes all the rage, they’re no longer sure if they’re making the right choices. Sure, brain surgery seems like a big deal. But is it worth allowing their son David to be left behind in class? And what about the fact that their daughter, Sophie, can’t get the implant due to her own health complications? As an anti-Pilot movement rises, the family copes with the implications of biotech, and the dangerous capitalist tendencies deep within its roots.

Content warnings for drug addiction, mental illness, medical dismissal, ableism, suicidal ideation, gaslighting, PTSD.

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

When Andrew’s best friend Eddie dies by suicide while studying at Vanderbilt, Andrew knows for a fact it was murder. Why? Because they were connected by a dark curse as children…and Eddie’s skeletal haunt won’t leave him alone until he solves the mystery of what happened to him. This dark academia and southern gothic novel is a vivid story by gender-nonconforming author Mandelo about rage, grief, masculinity — about drunken car racing, adrenaline-fueled fist fights, and reckless drug use. It’s powerful and dark, and the mystery (as well as its story of queer self-discovery) will keep you racing to its final pages.

Content warnings for suicide, self-harm, hard drug use, f slur, homophobia, violence, abuse.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Young, bold, queer Vern grates against the confines of the Black “utopia” — cult — that she is raised in, Cainland. And so, she flees into the forest, seven months pregnant and determined to escape, giving birth in the woods and trying to raise her twins on her own. But she is visited on and on by Hauntings, and by something twisting, growing within her body…and she begins to wonder if Cainland has any plans to actually let her go. It is a powerful story about autonomy, systemic horrors, marginalization, and most of all, survival. Solomon, who uses fae/faer and they/their pronouns, is also the author of The Deep and another incredible recommendation that could have made this list, the superb, award-winning sci-fi novel An Unkindness of Ghosts.

Content warnings for vivid violence, body horror, racism, and sexual, domestic, and psychological abuse.

American Hippo cover

American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey is an evil genius. Did you know that years ago, the U.S. considered introducing hippos into Southern marshlands to eat invasive species and be an alternative meat source? In novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, gathered here into one volume, Gailey says, what if they did? And what if, as a result…there was a gang of hippo-riding cowboys, a group of cons, outlaws, and assassins, all fighting to capture a bayou from feral hippos? And a bunch of them were queer? And it was action-packed, and funny as heck? Just go read it.

Content warnings for violence, misgendering, mentions of racism and fatphobia.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is the fantasy author of our times. This epic fantasy features the Stillness, an unstable world where earthquakes and catastrophic events are common, and where orogenes, people who can manipulate earth and rock, are persecuted and feared. But it’s a personal story within an epic one: a mother, Essun, sets out to find her daughter within the midst of a crisis, setting off a chain of events she never could have anticipated. The award-winning series, which begins with The Fifth Season, is extremely queer, featuring prominent queer, gender-nonconforming, and trans characters, as well as an extremely romantic polyamorous relationship.

Content warnings for child abuse, death, genocide, gore, murder, racism, rape, slavery, violence, infanticide, mention of cannibalism.

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck book cover

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Vanja lives in a grim, mysterious dystopia where every item must be consistency “marked” to keep it what it is — without that ritual, things can turn to a meaningless sludge, and it’s a contagious condition. Vanja comes to the colony of Amatka to do market research, but as she falls for housemate Nina and makes tentative friends with the locals, she starts to discover that something is very wrong. Something, perhaps, even darker than the usual. Tidbeck is also the author of The Memory Theater, and they promise to be one of the most prominent speculative fiction authors of our time. Check out their work yesterday!

Content warnings for reproductive restrictions, suppression, depression, suicide.

Historical Fiction

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave book cover

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In 1617, a freak storm system wiped out nearly all the men of the isolated town of Vardø, and the women had to step up into unconventional gender roles, fishing, rowing, and more in order to survive. But when a man determined to root out sorcery and heresy (including the customs of local Indigenous people, the Sámi) arrives in town, the women’s independence begins to take on a very dangerous tinge. The novel is immersive, evoking that cold seaside landscape, and main characters Maren and Ursa and their sapphic chemistry is compelling. The building tension in town really rockets this book forward — it’s hard to put down!

Content warnings for anti-Indigenous sentiment and persecution, sexism, torture, violence, miscarriage.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Groff writes of a woman named Marie, banished by Eleanor of Aquitaine to become prioress of a dark, struggling abbey. It’s a rich story of a queer woman determined to succeed in 12th century England, a woman who uses her power to create an enclave for women who are queer, independent, smart, and different. The abbey grows in power, and she learns to use her muscular body and quick wit to make a new vision of freedom, of a matriarchal vision, in the midst of webbed patriarchal netting.

Content warnings for rape, rape culture, body and gender dysmorphia, violence, illness.

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This might seem like it should be in the science fiction and fantasy section, and perhaps it belongs there, but the truth is that Hopkinson’s epic novel is a genre-defying blend that refuses easy categorization. In 1804 on Saint Domingue, a group of women gather to bury a stillborn infant. Their calls accidentally draw Ezili, the Afro-Caribbean goddess of sexual desire and love, into the physical world. She travels across time and space, inhabiting different bodies — lesbian midwife and healer Mer; Jeanne, a dancer in 1880s Paris; and Meritet, a Greek-Nubian enslaved prostitute in ancient Alexandria. All three women are bound together by the goddess. It’s a rich blend of historical legend, surreal twists, and women linked over the centuries by their pain and desire.

Content warnings for slavery, graphic violence and torture, racism, racist violence and slurs, rape, miscarriage.

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez book cover

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

The book begins with the story of Norman Alonso, a man who leaves Jamaica for England in the 1950s in the hope that his family will have a better life, only for them to struggle with racism and bias. Decades later, at the turn of the millennium, we jump to the story of Jesse McCarthy, a young Black man thrown out by his family and rejected by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who makes his way to London and turns to sex work and drug use to get by. It’s a vivid story about the struggle to find your queer and artistic identity while just trying to survive day-to-day and deal with the trauma of your past. It is an experimental and artistic novel.

Content warnings for sexual assault, racism, homophobia, drug abuse, child abuse, and racist and homophobic slurs.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Translated by Fiona Macintosh and Iona Macintyre

Cámara loosely bases her story on the classic Argentine gaucho poem Martin Fierro, but it isn’t about the gaucho himself. It’s about his teenage wife, who finally gains her freedom and uses it to go on a liberatory adventure with a Scottish woman named Liz. She renames herself Josephine China Iron, and as they traverse the Pampas, she has a queer blossoming, all while confronting the truths of imperialism, patriarchy, the violence behind nation-building, and the Indigenous people of her country. It’s a vivid, funny story that draws on subverting Martin Fierro, but if you hadn’t read the classic poem, reading a tiny summary online will suffice, and it stands happily on its own.

Content warnings for depictions of graphic violence and torture, rape, imperialism, racism.

The Air You Breathe book cover

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

Bold, cruel Graça and practical Dores both want to become famous samba singers. But it’s Graça who is destined to have that star power and stage presence, and so Dores manages and protects her, writing songs with guitarist Vinicius — both songwriters helplessly in love with their star. It’s a powerful novel about the birth of samba in Lapa and the racism of Golden Age Hollywood. Amidst it all, Dores discovers her queer, gender-nonconforming self, and she and Graça swirl around each other, hurting, loving, and pulling each other close before breaking apart yet again in their stormy world of lyrics and love.

Content warnings for classism, homophobia, racism, emotional abuse.

Have recommendations for queer novels that should have made the list? Let me know on Twitter! I assume your library hold lists and bookstore shopping carts are overflowing by now, but you can check out our queer books tag for more recommendations.