I don’t believe in the idea of guilty pleasures. I even used to run a pop culture blog centered around the fact that they shouldn’t be a thing—we should never have to feel guilty about something that brings us pleasure. Growing up queer, it can be really easy to be made to feel guilty about what you might secretly love, because it might not fit the rigid yet contradictory gender norms you never really adhered to. Therefore, it can also take a long time for you to feel comfortable enjoying what you enjoy without shame or ridicule—from other people or from yourself. Internalized homophobia at its finest!
As a teenager, I rarely felt comfortable reading YA books, let alone gay YA books, because I felt so disconnected and rejected by my age group—having never really shared the same interests or ideals of people my own age, and often being bullied for it—that I did anything I could to subtly and quietly set myself apart from kids my age. Adults called me an old soul, which I was, but I also didn’t feel free to live my own life, and I faced the consequences of acting more grown up than I actually was when I reached early adulthood.
There’s a notion in gay culture that we actually end up experiencing our teenage years in our 20s, because our teens were not really ours to live. And while this professional introvert isn’t usually one to head out to clubs or hook up with strangers, I have found myself gravitating towards books with gay characters I relate to—and 99% of the time, they are YA books. Since I usually consider myself having grown out of the genre, I find myself thinking of the gay YA books I read as “guilty pleasures.”
But they’re not! The good ones give me a sense of myself and allow me to envision myself in the characters’ shoes—something that can’t be said for the vast majority of our media and culture. If you’re like me and struggle to find gay narratives you can relate to outside of Will & Grace or Schitt’s Creek, here are 12 gay YA books to make you feel yourself, or make you cry. Or both! It’s our party and we’ll cry if we want to.
You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan
Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a wild night? No one, really? Despite the fact that Mark and Kate have sat next to each other in class for an entire school year, their paths have never really crossed—until one night, after Kate has just blown her chances with the girl she loves and Mark is torn, in love with his best friend Ryan and not sure if he feels the same way. In just a short time, Mark and Kate find everything they’ve been looking for in each other, in a way neither of them have ever quite felt before. Written in alternating points of view by LaCour and Levithan, You Know Me Well is a heart-aching story of first (gay) loves, and all the messy, glorious feelings that come along with them.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Agoraphobic Solomon hasn’t left the house in three years. Lisa desperately wants to get into a prestigious college psychology program, but is her relentless ambition enough to seal the deal? Having heard about Solomon’s condition at school, she and her charming boyfriend Clark enter his world, determined to become his friends—with perhaps some ulterior motives on Lisa’s part. But as Sol and Clark begin to grow closer, these three unlikely friends are forced to question everything they’ve ever known about life, love, and living authentically.
We Are Lost and Found by Helen Dunbar
My So-Called Life meets When We Rise in this heartbreaking coming-of-age tale. In early 1980s New York, 16-year-old Michael enjoys living in the shadows of his best friends: James, a queer performance artist whom everyone wants but no one can have; and Becky, a straight shooter who just wants to protect her friends. Michael knows he likes boys but makes the choice to keep a low profile, since his brother Connor was kicked out of the house for being gay, not to mention the misunderstood AIDS that’s beginning to plague gay people. To pass the time, Michael and his friends hang out at The Echo, a dance club where labels don’t seem to matter as long as you’re dancing. But then Gabriel enters his life, and Michael must decide what he’s willing to risk for the chance of a first love.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
In New York City in 1989, the world is a complicated place for three teenagers. Iranian immigrant Reza knows he’s gay, but is deeply conflicted by his cultural values and images in the media of gay men dying from AIDS. Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who doesn’t fit in anywhere except with her Uncle Stephen, who is sick. And Judy’s best friend Art is their school’s only out and proud teen, who rebels against his conservative parents and attempts to capture the AIDS crisis through his photographs. Like a Love Story brings these three lost souls together in a story that celebrates activism, loving who you are, and dancing to Madonna.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
In this strikingly bold and ambitious novel, a mixed-race gay teen finds the courage to be himself by masquerading in makeup and feathers. At university, he finds his footing as a drag artist, The Black Flamingo, and the ability to take the lead in his own life. An important tale about learning to embrace our own unique individuality, The Black Flamingo teaches us that sometimes standing up in pink feathers is the courage we all need to live in color.
History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Ever since Griffin’s first love Theo died in a drowning accident, his life has been slowly falling apart. Even after Theo moved to California and started dating Jackson, he always figured they would reunite. But now, as his downward spiral continues and he begins losing himself to his obsessive compulsive rituals, Griffin has to face his own destructive choices and the secrets that have been tearing him apart. In order to become whole again, he has to find and solve every last painful piece of the puzzle. While I could have done with a little less “bro”-centric language and bit more RuPaul’s Drag Race instead of superhero movies, History is All You Left Me is one of the only gay novels I’ve read that’s discussed sex in such an open and honest way. Imagine running into your dad while buying condoms? To use with your boyfriend?
Ziggy, Stardust & Me by James Brandon
In 1973, when the Watergate hearings are in full swing, the Vietnam War is still raging, and homosexuality is still officially considered a mental illness, 16-year-old Jonathan Collins—a bullied and anxious teenager—feels completely alone in the world. To cope, he escapes into the safe haven of his imagination where his late mother and his hero, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, guide him through life. In his alternate reality, he can be anything: a brave superhero, Ziggy Stardust, or just a “normal” boy who doesn’t like other boys. When he completes his treatments, Jonathan will be normal—at least he hopes. But before that can happen, Web waltzes into his life. This was the book I would have needed when I was younger, and I’m so glad it exists now.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju
Bored and awkward teen Nima Kumara-Clark has found herself adrift, in love with her straight girlfriend and still reeling from her mother’s sudden departure. Then, after a chance encounter at a local festival, she finds herself immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town. Before long, Nima finds the bold courage of her new friends rubbing off on her—pushing her to become the self she’s always wanted to be. A heartfelt story about love, loss, and learning to express and accept love, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is daring just as much as it is necessary.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki & Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Freddy Riley just wants Laura Dean to stop breaking up with her. Laura Dean is cute, funny, and popular, but she can also be mean, thoughtless, and downright cruel. Their torturous on-again, off-again relationship keeps making Freddy’s head spin, and her friends keep wondering why she keeps going back for more. After she consults the help of a local mystic, Freddy begins to learn how to properly accept love and prioritize self-respect. And, fortunately for her, there are new friends on the horizon and an advice columnist prepared to help Freddy through the pains of growing and teenage love. A high-spirited tale of learning to ditch toxic relationships and habits, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a must-read for queer readers of all ages.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Felix Love has never been in love, and he fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after. When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages that include publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned, he dreams up a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on was suddenly being in the middle of a quasi–love triangle that will force Felix to answer the one question he’s most scared of: how he truly feels about himself. Felix Ever After is a heartbreaking albeit empowering narrative about unlearning internalized transphobia and embracing the inner strength buried deep within us all.
The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle
“Straight boys. Every last one of them a mystery.” The only thing that ever brought joy to 16-year-old Quinn Roberts was writing dialogue for the movies he would make with his sister Annabeth, but that was before he stopped going to school. That was before his mom started sleeping on the sofa. That was before Annabeth died in a car accident. Then Quinn’s best friend Geoff decides he needs to get out and start living, or at least start trying. After being dragged to his first college party, Quinn meets and falls for a guy—a really hot guy—and suddenly can’t remember his left from his right. That’s when he realizes that the screenplay of his adolescence might have a shot at a happy ending, if he can figure out how to stop playing the supporting role in his own life.
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
In this memoir-in-essays, queer activist George M. Johnson tells the story of his childhood, adolescence, and coming-of-age as a Black queer boy. Chronicling memories of both bullying and love, All Boys Aren’t Blue covers themes such as toxic masculinity, gender identity, family, brotherhood, cultural marginalization, and so much more. Johnson’s writing will surely resonate with readers of all ages let alone young adults, as it gives perspective to the sometimes happy and sometimes tortured memories of growing up queer.
What are some of your favorite gay YA books?