Do you know your LGBTQ+ history? The fairly recent rise in LGBTQ+ media stories may lead some people to believe queerness is a new phenomenon. But although our conceptions of gender and sexuality have morphed over time, queer stories can be found from ancient times all the way through today. Understanding the history of LGBTQ+ people, activism, and theory can teach us a lot about the current moment and help us map a path for where to go next. These nine LGBTQ+ history books will give you a taste of our long, rich queer history.
Even better, these LGBTQ+ history books will help you fulfill a task for Book Riot’s 2021 Read Harder challenge! Check out the full list of tasks and recommended reading lists here.
My interest in LGBTQ+ history books started before I came out. I also read a lot of the classics of queer theory while studying LGBTQ+ public policy during grad school. But taking a master’s level Lesbian History course really marked a turning point for me. Studying queer women and sapphic relationships throughout history was eye-opening. Seeing queer women like me represented in history books changed my perspective on not only queer culture, but on history as a whole. Whether you identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or not, I hope these books show you the immense impact queer people have always had on mainstream culture and give you hope for the road ahead.
LGBTQ+ History Books
Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime by Alex Espinoza
This intriguing hybrid of history, queer theory, and memoir looks at the timeless art of cruising. From Greek antiquity to 19th century England to modern day Russia and Uganda, Espinoza’s research on anonymous gay sex is enlightening. Cruising is accessible to a broad audience, but also unafraid of openly discussing sexuality and intimacy. Additionally, Espinoza expertly weaves in his personal experience as Mexican American gay man, and how race and class intersect with historical and current cruising practices.
Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker
This book by prominent queer theorist Dr. Susan Stryker is a chronological examination of transgender history from the mid 20th century through the early 2000s. Stryker’s research includes major trans political movements, key writings, events, and biographies of notable trans figures. Additionally, Stryker contextualizes trans history within the broader human history narrative while still placing trans people and trans stories at the center of the dialogue.
Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction Edited by Devon W. Carbado, Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise
This sweeping collection explores the work of queer Black writers throughout the 20th century. From the turn of the century to the Harlem Renaissance to the LGBTQ+ rights movements of the 1960s and beyond, Black Like Us covers a huge swath of queer Black history. The writing includes a vast array of literary genres, with writing from Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Angelina Welde Grimke, Jewelle Gomez, Jacqueline Woodson, and more.
A Wild and Precious Life by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon
Edie Windsor rose to national fame as an LGBTQ+ activist in 2013 as the lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. But before becoming the queer icon many remember her as today, she led what is truly a wild and precious life. In this memoir, she looks back on exploring her identity, queer life in 1960s New York, and her decades long relationship with her wife, Thea Spyer. By following Windsor through her life, readers experience several important moments in LGBTQ+ history, from 1960s lesbian culture through the long fight for marriage equality.
Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility Edited by Tourmaline (published under Reina Gossett)
An increase in trans visibility through media in recent years has led to an assumption that things are getting better for trans people. However, that rise in visibility has coincided with a rise in violence against trans people and a rise in policies that suppress trans people. Further, trans people have played a role in media and pop culture far longer than the general public may be aware. Trap Door is an anthology that explores trans culture’s history and present, as well as finding a strong future for trans voices.
Bisexuality in the Ancient World by Eva Cantarella, Translated by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin
Many LGBTQ+ history books focus on the LGBTQ+ rights movement of the 1960s. Others dig deeper to look at the early 20th century, and even fewer examine the 19th century and earlier. But this book takes it way back to ancient Athens and Rome, where gender roles and sexuality were approached quite differently, but a culture that would today be considered quite queer. This research stays true to the source material while also being very readable. Cantarella’s take on ancient examples of bisexuality can teach us a lot about history, but it can also show us a path to how we arrived at the modern western world’s perspective on sexuality.
The Stonewall Reader Edited by the New York Public Library
The 1969 Stonewall uprising is recognized as an enormous turning point in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, and is even the reason the U.S. celebrates Pride month in June each year. For the 50th anniversary of the uprising, the New York Public Library collected articles, essays, firsthand accounts, and more to explore what led up to the event and what happened afterwards. Additionally, The Stonewall Reader explores the activists and leaders who led the movement, both those more familiar to LGBTQ+ history buffs and those not so well known.
David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music by Darryl W. Bullock
Whether or not they’ve been recognized by the mainstream, queer musicians have long influenced music across genres. David Bowie Made Me Gay looks at a century of music made by and for LGBTQ+ people, as well as how LGBTQ+ musicians have impacted the mainstream music world. Bullock’s research includes well known queer artists like Freddie Mercury and Boy George, as well as lesser known musicians and some you may not have even known were LGBTQ+, all of whom made a big impact on the tunes we listen to today.
Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele
Looking for something a little different? Check out this graphic history of queer thought! This is less a history of actual LGBTQ+ people so much as a history of queer theory and LGBTQ+ action. Queer takes us on an illustrated journey of changing perspectives on gender roles, sexuality, identity, and more. It’s an engaging and unique way to present concepts that can be confusing for many readers, making it a great place to start learning about queer theory.
Looking for more LGBTQ+ history books? Check out:
50 Must-Read Books About LGBTQ History for Pride Month
7 Transgender History Books for LGBTQIA+ History Month and Beyond
12 Informative Queer Women’s History Reads
28 Fabulous Works of Queer Historical Fiction for Pride Month
9 Informative Books About Stonewall