Reading books full of queer suffering can get exhausting, especially for queer readers. I’m not saying there’s no place for books that explore all the specific ways that queer people experience harm. Of course there is. But publishing has a history of highlighting queer stories full of homophobic and transphobic violence, trauma, and self-hatred, and ignoring books without queer suffering.
Slowly, stories centering queer people without queer suffering—stories in which queer characters do not spend most of their lives tangled in self-hatred, or die gruesome deaths—are becoming more common. They still aren’t nearly common enough. But they do exist. There are a lot of wonderful queer romances out there, some of which are 100% feel good with no queer-related angst. There’s also a fair few books that fall into what I (affectionately) call queer fluff. When I’m craving books without queer suffering, I often turn to these stories.
But sometimes what I want most as a queer reader is a serious novel about queer characters in which the plot is not driven by queer suffering. I’m not talking about books without any suffering. I’m talking about books that allow queer characters to deal with grief and heartbreak without making it about being queer. Because queer people also deal with problems that have nothing to do with our sexuality, and we should be able to read about that, too.
The following books are novels that tackle big issues. These are books about grief and war, about identity, about generational trauma. They’re about isolation and connection, about struggling to figure out who you are and where you belong. They are not light books, though some of them are lighter than others. These are books that will make you weep, books that are sometimes painful to read because of the truths they tell. They are not at all alike each other.
What they have in common is queer characters who do not die. Queer characters who are fully human dealing with fully human things. Queer characters who are not dealing with endless queer suffering. I will not say that these are all books without queer suffering of any kind. While none of them place queer suffering at their center, it does occasionally show up for a moment. But there are no gruesome, early deaths in these pages. There is no deep and lasting self-hatred. There is no homophobic violence, or threats of homophobic violence, to drive these stories forward. In these novels, there are only queer people dealing with the hardest and most universal challenge of all: being a human.
America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo
This novel follows Hero, a young Filipina woman, through her childhood and young adult years in the Philippines to her time living with her aunt and uncle in a small, tight-knit immigrant community in California. It’s a big, searing, complicated novel, one that jumps through time and across continents. It is certainly full of suffering. It’s a beautiful book about family and identity in its own right, but it is the nuanced, complicated, specific depictions of queer women in relationships that make this book so breathtaking. Castillo’s depiction of a complicated relationship between two women is rich and raw and alive. She writes brilliantly about desire and sex and the various histories and insecurities that influence relationships. It’s an incredible example of a book that centers a queer relationship that is not always easy or simple, but is not in any way defined by queer suffering.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
This imaginative and deeply riveting novella, based on the song “The Deep” by clipping, imagines an underwater world populated by the descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard by their captors on their way to America. Yetu is one of these water-dwelling people, and she bears the unimaginable weight of holding the memory of her people’s history all by herself. Overwhelmed by this responsibility, she escapes to the surface, and discovers pieces of her world she never knew existed.
This book is a painful exploration of memory and generational trauma. Yetu’s culture bears the trauma of white supremacy and racial violence. But they also celebrate queerness. In a story that’s mostly about overcoming trauma, this is a refreshing change. There’s a lovely and authentic queer love story at the heart of this novel that offsets and counteracts the violence done to the characters, rather than causes it. It’s beautifully done.
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
This hilarious YA novel that plays with the portal fantasy trope is probably the lightest book on this list. At 13, its bisexual protagonist, Elliot, finds himself at a school in the Borderlands, where he’s given the chance to train with the Border Guard. Having only known boring old Earth all his life, he’s naturally excited to suddenly be friends with with an elf and head off on adventures to see harpies.
I love everything about this novel, which is full of snarky humor and teenage angst (of the best sort). But it’s also a heartfelt story about a boy discovering who he is and what he wants. It is absolutely and unapologetically bisexual. The novel centers Elliot’s love life, not his queerness. His queerness is incidental, but not invisible. Elliot makes a lot of mistakes and deals with a lot of nonsense and there are some truly moving moments mixed in with the adventures and the humor. But his bisexuality is never a problem—it’s being a teenager that’s a problem.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
This is another novel about a queer teenager whose problems have to do with being a human, not being a queer one. After her grandfather dies, Marin abruptly leaves her home in California for college in New York, cutting ties with everyone from her old life, including her best friend Mabel. But she can’t cut herself off from her messy emotions as easily, especially not when Mabel comes to find her. This is a beautiful novel about grief, and the ways grief can lead us both toward and away from each other. Marin is queer, and she’s also lonely, introspective, a writer, an artist, curious, stubborn. She’s a whole person, and LaCour beautifully captures all of her complexity on the page.
Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden
There is a lot of body horror in this imaginative and sometimes gruesome science fiction novel. Having left Earth, humans are now living on starships made out of living space beasts. For generations they have used these giant creatures as both ship and sustenance, engineering their bodies to suit their own needs. Privileged Seske is the daughter of queens and the future matriarch of the ship. Her childhood best friend Adalla is a lowly beast-worker, one of the thousands of people who do the dangerous work of keeping the ship-beast running. The two women have to overcome ship politics, class warfare, and their own insecurities in order to survive—and keep their people from destroying themselves.
This novel amplifies some of humanity’s worst traits—capitalism, corporate greed, environmental destruction—and erases others—homophobia. Seske and Adalla are queer women in a society where being queer is the norm. It frees up a lot of space for them to deal with a whole slew of other problems.
Once and Future by Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta
This is the queer, sci-fi King Arthur retelling you didn’t know you were craving. Ari, the latest reincarnation of King Arthur, is a badass queer space adventurer, and the novel follows her and her equally badass queer family as they take on the evil corporate government that’s currently plaguing the galaxy.
The most extraordinary thing about this novel is how the universe in which it takes place is both a terrifying dystopia and a wonderful vision of an inclusive future. There’s no homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, etc. The idea that once upon a time people made assumptions about gender based on physical markers seems absurd to the characters. Even the villains are totally cool with queer people. But the universe is ruled by an evil corporation that commits unthinkable atrocities. It’s consumerism taken to its most terrifying, ruthless, and violent extreme. People are not free. And yet, they are free to be queer. This premise makes for a rich reading experience, both deeply comforting and deeply unsettling.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
I almost didn’t include this one, because the main character isn’t queer. But I couldn’t leave it out, because the queer representation is just so good. High school senior Jay was born in the Philippines but raised in the U.S. After the sudden death of his cousin, he travels back to the country of his birth for the first time in a decade, where he finds a lot more than he was looking for. It’s a book about the complexities of family and place, and it deals with a lot of heavy issues—racism, addiction, politics, immigration. Queerness, however, is not one of them. Jay has a close relationship with his gay aunts—he stays with them in the Philippines after a big argument with his uncle. They are only side characters, but they are important ones. They’re not cut off from their family because of their queerness. They are not living in the shadows. Any queer suffering they’ve had to deal with in their lives is not relevant. This kind of casual queer representation is so rare and important. It’s a reminder that straight people’s lives are enriched by the queer people they love.
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Set in a small Indian American community in the suburbs of Cleveland, this novel centers two Indian immigrants—Harit, a lonely middle-aged man living with his mother, and Ranjana, a middle-aged woman who begins writing paranormal romance novels in secret after her only son leaves for college. This is a quiet book about ordinary middle aged people seeking out surprise in their lives, and about the ways that friendships surprise and change us. The stakes are high because the characters are so well drawn, and because their lives, and all the minutia of those lives, are, of course, everything to the people living them. There’s a little bit of queer suffering here, but it’s not overwhelming. This novel is so warm and so compassionate toward its characters that even the hard parts have a tenderness about them.