19 LGBTQ+ History Books That Totally Deserve a Spot on Your Bookshelf

Pride month this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the 1969 rebellion against police brutality and state violence led by queer and trans New Yorkers. Knowing that history — as subject to myth-making as any historical account whose preservation depends upon oral tradition and cultural memory — is important. And of course, the crucial need to keep learning that history, or any other part of LGBTQ+ history, doesn’t end on June 30.

In case you’d like to bone up on LGBTQ+ history but don’t know where to start, here are 19 excellent critical and historical texts that totally deserve a place on your bookshelf.

  1. “Histories of the Transgender Child uncovers a previously unknown twentieth-century history when transgender children not only existed but preexisted the term transgender and its predecessors, playing a central role in the medicalization of trans people, and all sex and gender. Using a wealth of archival research from hospitals and clinics, Julian Gill-Peterson reconstructs the medicalization and racialization of children’s bodies.”

2. “Captive Genders was the first book of its kind. It remains the touchstone for studies of trans and genderqueer people in prison. It has been revamped to appeal to recent broadened interest. With a new Foreword by CeCe MacDonald and essay by Chelsea Manning.”

3. “Toxic Silence: Race, Black Gender Identity, and Addressing the Violence against Black Transgender Women in Houston contributes to a growing body of transgender scholarship. This book examines the patriarchal and heteronormative frames within the black community and larger American society that advances the toxic masculinity which violently castigates and threatens the collective embodiment of black transgender women in the USA. Such scholarship is needed to shed more light on the transphobic violence and murders against this understudied group.”

4. “In this groundbreaking book, she reclaims the history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America, tracing the evolution of lesbian identity and subcultures from early networks to more recent diverse lifestyles.”

5. “Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Based on years of research and access to a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, this book is a fascinating portrait of a gay world that is not supposed to have existed.”

6. “Though she married a man, she identified as lesbian and, risking censure and the prospect of being outed, joined one of the nation’s first lesbian organizations. Hansberry associated with many activists, writers, and musicians, including Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Looking for Lorraine is a powerful insight into Hansberry’s extraordinary life — a life that was tragically cut far too short.”

7. “Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events.”

8. “Myrl Beam argues that the conservative turn in queer movement politics is due mostly to the movement’s embrace of the nonprofit structure. Drawing on oral histories, archival research, and the author’s own extensive activist work, Gay, Inc. looks at how LGBT nonprofits in Minneapolis and Chicago grapple with the contradictions between radical queer social movements and their institutionalized iterations.”

9. “In exploring history’s Lost Prophet, acclaimed historian John D’Emilio explains why Rustin’s influence was minimized by his peers and why his brilliant strategies were not followed, or were followed by those he never meant to help.”

10. “In this gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981–1996), Sarah Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism.”

11. “Illuminating the fault lines both within and beyond the movements of the past and today, this critical book is also hopeful: Duberman urges us to learn from this history to fight for a truly inclusive and expansive society.”

12. “In 1931, gay liberation was not a movement — it was simply unthinkable. But in that year, Quentin Crisp made the courageous decision to ‘come out’ as a homosexual. This exhibitionist with the henna-dyed hair was harassed, ridiculed and beaten. Nevertheless, he claimed his right to be himself—whatever the consequences. The Naked Civil Servant is both a comic masterpiece and a unique testament to the resilience of the human spirit.”

13. “The increasing representation of trans identity throughout art and popular culture in recent years has been nothing if not paradoxical. Trans visibility is touted as a sign of a liberal society, but it has coincided with a political moment marked both by heightened violence against trans people (especially trans women of color) and by the suppression of trans rights under civil law. Trap Door grapples with these contradictions.”

14. “Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists.”

15. “Grounded in a wealth of archival material, Arresting Dress traces the career of anti-cross-dressing laws from municipal courtrooms and codebooks to newspaper scandals, vaudevillian theater, freak show performances, and commercial “slumming tours.” It shows that the law did not simply police normative gender but actively produced it by creating new definitions of gender normality and abnormality. It also tells the story of the tenacity of those who defied the law, spoke out when sentenced, and articulated different gender possibilities.”

16. “Drawn from the life narratives of more than seventy African American queer women who were born, raised, and continue to reside in the American South, this book powerfully reveals the way these women experience and express racial, sexual, gender, and class identities–all linked by a place where such identities have generally placed them on the margins of society. Using methods of oral history and performance ethnography, E. Patrick Johnson’s work vividly enriches the historical record of racialized sexual minorities in the South and brings to light the realities of the region’s thriving Black lesbian communities.”

17. “In Mobile Subjects, Aren Z. Aizura examines transgender narratives within global health and tourism economies from 1952 to the present. Drawing on an archive of trans memoirs and documentaries as well as ethnographic fieldwork with trans people obtaining gender reassignment surgery in Thailand, Aizura maps the uneven use of medical protocols to show how national and regional health care systems and labor economies contribute to and limit transnational mobility.”

18. “Resistance: The LGBT Fight Against Fascism in WWII is a collection of biographies and coloring images of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender resistance members who fought for freedom during the era preceding WWII and during the war itself.”

19. “Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBTQ+ history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the queer women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, and beyond. No other book, movie, or exhibition has ever told this sweeping story. Not only has Brooklyn always lived in the shadow of queer Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but there has also been a systematic erasure of its queer history—a great forgetting.”

 

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