There’s something very comforting about queer historical fiction. That might seem counterintuitive, considering how homophobia, sexism, racism, and a lot of other -isms often increase the farther back in time we go, but on the other hand, the reminder that LGBTQ people have always existed and found ways to live within their circumstances is an uplifting one. Reading about other people like us who have struggled and even thrived throughout time can help us feel less alone. There’s comfort in that. Find out for yourself with some of the best queer historical fiction there is out there, from highwaymen and Pinkertons to Hollywood starlets.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Lo is an important voice in queer YA fiction, delivering poignant tales and relatable characters, and her newest novel about a Chinese American girl living in San Francisco during the 1950s is no exception. Lily Hu has always felt like an outsider. In Chinatown, that feeling only increases as the wave of McCarthyism and anti-Chinese sentiment threatens her family. In the Telegraph Bar, she finds a different kind of family, one that doesn’t question her burgeoning crush on another girl. But she can’t help but notice there’s no one else that looks like here, either. It’s dangerous to be different in 1950s America, but what other choice is there? At least there’s Kath. Maybe for now that’s enough.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Everyone knows Evelyn Hugo. Knows of her, at least. But when a young journalist with no connection to the starlet of Golden Age Hollywood is called upon to secretly write her official biography and learn the whole truth about her life — and her loves — for the first time, it’s difficult not to suspect ulterior motives. Evelyn Hugo has also been spectacularly good at getting her way, after all.
Told in a split perspective between the present-day interviews and Evelyn’s storied past, this book weaves an incredible tale of fame, love, and heartbreak. I was completely swept away by Hugo’s story.
Pulp by Robin Talley
It’s not easy being gay in the 1950s with McCarthyism in full swing. But books can help. And when 18-year-old Janet discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, she finds solace and an unexpected ambition to write stories like these and help other people like her feel seen. More than have a century later, Abby Zimet is working on her senior project about 1950s lesbian pulp fiction when she stumbles across her new favorite author, someone writing under the pen name Marian Love. Told in dual timelines, Pulp explores the everyday bravery it takes to be true to yourself and shows just how far we’ve come — and how far we still have to go.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
A real-life witch hunt comes to haunt an Artic village 1600s Norway, leaving the lives of the women living there changed forever. After most of the men were lost to sea during a terrible storm, Maren and the other women must go against societal norms to survive. But when a man arrives from Scotland with the goal of rooting out supposed witchcraft, the strides made by the women suddenly become suspect. Maren’s only comfort is the man’s beautiful young wife, Ursa, who has been ripped away from the life she knew for a husband she never wanted. Inexplicably drawn together, Maren and Ursa brave the dangers brought to Vardø together, praying they survive.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
A male impersonator and a former oyster girl come together in a double-act as music-hall stars under the bright lights of Leicester Square in Victorian England. On stage, they dazzle audiences with their singing and dancing. But when the curtain closes, behind closed doors, Nan and Kitty can finally be their true selves. It’s here that they can admit their feelings and begin a tumultuous affair.
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
Ex-boxer Norman Alonso is a Jamaican immigrant hoping to secure a brighter future for his family in the 1950s. But it will take more than hope to survive the rampant racism and unexpected illnesses that beset them. At the start of a new millennium, Jesse searches for a new beginning in London. But what he finds there isn’t exactly what he thought. He begins crafting his own definition of masculinity, sexuality, and spirituality, even as his past continues to haunt him. Different men in different generations, separated by the decades, face many of the same problems as Black men in a nation unwilling to accept them as is. A profoundly moving story of an often overlooked — and unacknowledged — part of history.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
All of London is abuzz with the trial of Frannie Langton, accused of murdering her employers, scientist George Benham and his eccentric wife Marguerite. But Frannie claims not to remember anything about that night. The tale she tells instead, of a childhood in Jamaica, an apprenticeship to a heartless scientist experimenting on the enslaved peoples at a plantation, and the events that brought her to the Benham’s household, are even more damning to all of English society. The passionate, secret relationship that developed between her and her mistress is not the least of these. How do these details add up to Frannie found covered in her employers’ blood? Only time will tell.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This modern classic about the lives of Black women in early 20th century Georgia is a seminal piece of American and African American literature. Two sisters, through letters to God and each other, reconnect after years apart. A beautiful work about womanhood, hope, and resiliency.
(Also check out this really important and wonderfully written piece about condemning Walker’s antisemitism while still commending the work she’s done outside of that.)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
Though this book has some passing speculative elements, its main focus is on the life of queer women in 1940s San Francisco. Passing Strange finds its roots in pulp and noir fiction. In this town, tourists can flock to the nightclubs described in pulp fiction, experiencing “authentic” scenes of forbidden love and taboo identity. But for the six women at the heart of this story, it’s more than just a one-night experience; it’s their lives. And as dangers close in, it is their abiding friendship and an intersection of art, science, and magic that will provide a hope for the future.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
Ijeoma comes of age along with her nation. Sent away as a child just as civil war breaks out in Nigeria in the 1960s, she meets another displaced girl. They’re from different ethnic communities but facing so many of the same things. Is it any surprise they fall in love? But this kind of love is unacceptable. As soon as they’re found out, Ijeoma realizes she’ll have to hide this part of herself. But how can you be yourself when you’re pretending to be someone you’re not?
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
A chance encounter with a long ago friend sets memories of her childhood in the 1970s in motion for August. For August and her friends, the streets of Brooklyn were theirs and their friendship was everything — until it wasn’t. Between their hopes for the future and the darkness hiding just beneath the surface, the friends live a sort of double-life between their profound confidence and optimist and the sometimes bleak reality around them. A story as lyrical and moving as ever from literary master Jacqueline Woodson.
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
Three generations of women struggle to find a balance between the promise of the American dream and the strong grip of their family’s history. Hero De Vera arrives in America haunted by the upheaval in the Philippines and her family’s recent rejection of her. Everyone in the family except the daughter of her uncle — the first American-born child — knows better than to ask about her damaged hands. America is not the Heart is a family saga and an origin story exploring the strength of the past and the many layers of identity a person can carry.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Bonnie Huie
A cult classic in China, this novel about queer teenagers in Taiwan is a coming-of-age story about social defiance and queer love. Notes of a Crocodile explores life at a prestigious university through the eyes of a young lesbian in love with an older woman and the troubled group of friends she turns to for support. Told through diary entries, vignettes, and a collection of other forms, it’s a postmodern masterpiece, translated into English for the first time.
White Houses by Amy Bloom
Based on the real-life relationship between famous first lady and feminist icon, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lorena Hickok, White Houses is the story of their lives, their friendship, and the enduring love. From Lorena’s perspective, we see firsthand how their relationship blooms and deteriorates and blooms again over the course of a lifetime.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
The past never really fades away. Not at Brookhants. With historical and contemporary sapphic stories intertwined, Plain Bad Heroines explores the story of queer women in the past and present. At the center of it all is Brookhants School for Girls where, over a hundred years ago, two young girls met a horrific and untimely end. In present day, a writer and two young actresses are involved in a movie about that very incident. But as spine-chilling coincidences begin to take place, its hard to tell where the movie magic ends and the true horror begins.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In a letter to his mother who cannot read, Little Dog recounts a family history beginning back before his birth in Vietnam, culminating in truths his mother has never known and one shocking revelation. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity amidst the love between a son and single mother.
The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian
A retired highwayman and an aristocrat fall in love in the newest historical romance from Cat Sebastian. Once upon a time, Kit Webb was a highwayman known as Gladhand Jack. But his thieving days are behind him. Now he’s the proprietor of a coffee shop. Percy is an aristocrat in desperate need of a book his father never lets out of sight, one that will require a thief of the highest caliber. But Kit is out of the robbery game. Instead, he agrees to teach Percy how to pull off the job himself. All that time working together, well, it’s inevitable that feelings get involved, isn’t it?
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
A collage of Black women throughout history, exemplifying their strength and power spanning centuries and civilizations. Stories of incredible women — some based on real historical figures — are loosely entwined in this dazzling and shocking Nebula nominated book from the author of Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
An unlikely alliance between two freedman and a farmer couple in Georgia grieving the loss of their only son runs parallel to the story of two Confederate soldiers embroiled in a forbidden romance. Amidst an already tenuous peace, when their tryst is discovered, the resulting chaos and violence rock the community to its core. Harris weaves a tale of the violence of the Reconstruction era while emphasizing the bonds we can build, finding love and humanity even in the most harrowing of circumstances.
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
In 1970s Uruguay, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression against the military government. But five women somehow find a way to build a secluded community for themselves and the ones they love. Cantoras is the story of the next 35 years, of the lives and loves and trials of these women as they travel back and forth to their little sanctuary, sometimes with lovers in tow. It’s a portrait of queer love and community told through the eyes of five vibrant women.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
A heartfelt YA novel about three teens whose lives intertwine during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. A closeted Iranian teen who just moved to the city and whose only exposure to the gay community has been men dying of AIDS in the media; a girl whose gay uncle is an AIDS activist; and her best friend, the only out guy in their school, fighting back against his conservative’s parents expectations, come together in unexpected and life-changing ways.
That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole
Hi, what’s this? F/F historical fiction by one of my favorite authors? Why, yes indeed. Don’t mind if I do. This book falls more under the romance category than most of the books on this list, but that isn’t about to stop me from including a novella that weaves a story of heartbreak and healing in the life of a servant — and aspiring writer — to one Eliza Hamilton. As Mercy Alston helps Mrs. Hamilton take down the stories about her late husband, she meets the granddaughter of a man who fought alongside him: Andromeda Stiel. No matter how she tries to suppress her attraction to the headstrong seamstress, she just can’t seem to keep her feelings in check. But maybe sealing off her heart is what’s kept her from writing so long.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Set mostly in a single Dublin quarantine room for expectant mothers who’ve contracted influenza in 1918, The Pull of the Stars is a medical thriller and tale of human hope all in one. A newly promoted nurse, a doctor rumored to be a rebel, and a volunteer assistant come together in the darkest of places, finding hope and new life along the way.
The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco
This queer historical thriller follows a cross dressing former Pinkerton spy now at work for an opium ring. When she’s sent undercover to discovering the thief behind some recent mission opium, she puts on the disguise of her alter ego: Jack Camp. Now all that’s left is to muscle her way into the local organization and unmask the traitor, all the while sending false dispatches to the Pinkertons circling her case. Should be easy, as long as she can keep from being unmasked as the woman — and spy — she is.
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
A scholar discovers the long-lost manuscript detailing the lives, crimes, and love of Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess, 18th century London’s most notorious criminals and lovers. But is Confessions of the Fox authentic or just some clever hoax? Either way, it recounts a romp through a more gender-fluid London that brings together a modern-day scholar with the lives of 18th century crooks in what becomes a thrilling and genre-defying tale.
If you’re a fan of this list of the best queer historical fiction, you might also find some great new reads among these 28 excellent queer historical reads for Pride month, books about LGBTQ history, and bi and lesbian literary fiction. Get to reading!