Over the last year, countless powerful and important LGBT+ books have been published – and they’ve helped queer people feel seen in new and exciting ways.
Queer literature has always been vital to our community – it provides a window for us to see ourselves represented and for big questions to be explored and answered.
LGBT+ books have taken on a new significance since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. As queer spaces shuttered, LGBT+ people have been forced to look elsewhere to explore their identities, see themselves reflected, and to ponder over some of the big issues of our time.
Fortunately, some of the best books of 2021 have helped keep us engaged in what, for many, has been a deeply unnerving, unstable time.
As the year draws to a close, we look back on some of our favourite LGBT+ books of 2021 – including fiction, memoir, non-fiction and other genres.
1. The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye
While cisgender columnists and authors continue to bang on about the made-up threat of trans women in toilets, in The Transgender Issue Shon Faye expertly lays out and analyses the issues that trans people currently face: a healthcare crisis, unemployment, poverty, discrimination and inequality. Written from a socialist position, evident in the book’s arguments that the poor material conditions of many trans lives are a symptom of capitalism, Shon suggests viable routes towards trans liberation that will bring many readers a much-needed glimmer of hope.
To LGBT+ readers, many of the topics in the book will be familiar. Where Shon excels is in situating trans people’s struggles within the wider anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and anti-racist movements – and in persuading readers of the importance of forming coalitions against oppressive forces.
Since The Transgender Issue was published in September, it’s gone on to top multiple bestseller lists and end-of-year best-books lists (like this one), and disrupted the public discourse around trans rights in a way that most first-time non-fiction authors can only dream of. A must-read. – Vic Parsons
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2. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson.The queer coming-of-age memoir has exploded as a genre in recent years, gifting us vital, often difficult stories of the struggles LGBT+ people face. But often, it’s cisgender white men who are given the opportunity to share their stories of gay shame and overcoming, which is partly what makes All Boys Aren’t Blue so refreshing.
Published in the UK this year (it was released in the US in 2020, but continues to make waves), George M Johnson’s story is one of growing up queer and Black in America. At times, the subject matter is heavy – bullying, sexual abuse, loss – but Johnson counteracts this with joy: of supportive family, of finding a second, chosen family and of coming into their sexuality. This balancing act makes for a thrilling read that doesn’t weigh heavily on the soul: you come away enlightened, moved and comforted by the familiarity of it all. As Johnson told PinkNews: “It is told through a Black lens for for Black people. Because we just don’t have enough of that.” – Reiss Smith
3. Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt
In Tell Me I’m Worthless, Alison Rumfitt turns British transphobia into a profoundly unsettling, disturbing horror novel that cuts straight to the bone.
Rumfitt’s debut tells the story of Alice, a trans woman who can’t escape the memory of a night she spent in a haunted house with her friends Ila and Hannah three years earlier. That night is ingrained into both Alice’s and Ila’s memories – the problem is that they both have very different recollections of what happened that night, and it has set them both on very different paths.
Tell Me I’m Worthless succeeds in more ways than one. On the surface, it’s about a haunted house – but anyone with a penchant for horror will know that a haunted house is never just a haunted house. In Rumfitt’s hands, the house – aptly called Albion – comes to represent the scourge of transphobia, fascism and the rise of the far-right. – Patrick Kelleher
4. Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney
It often feels like the entire world is obsessed with Sally Rooney – which is why it’s so surprising that the queer themes in her work are so often overlooked.
In her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You?, two characters are upfront about their queerness, openly discussing that gender isn’t really a concern when it comes to dating. It feels significant that one of her characters is a bisexual man who’s generally open and honest about his queerness.
Beautiful World, Where Are You feels more expansive than Normal People and Conversations With Friends. It tackles some of the big issues facing young people today, from climate change to the housing crisis. At its core, Rooney’s third novel is also a searing critique of capitalism and the culture of work we know today.
With each novel, Rooney seems to get better and better. We can’t wait to see what she brings to the table next. – Patrick Kelleher
5. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
In this novel, Torrey Peters reclaims the concept of detransition: What happens when a trans person reverts from one gender to another, and then accidentally gets their boss pregnant? This is the story of Detransition, Baby, in which Ames, who thought he was infertile after being on hormone replacement therapy for six years, is told by his girlfriend, Katrin, that she’s pregnant.
After coming out to Katrin – “I was a transsexual woman” – Ames, naturally, goes to his ex-girlfriend, a trans woman called Reese who yearns to be a mother, for help. The ensuing drama, set in New York, is as enjoyable to read as the characters are unlikeable.
Torrey had written extensively for trans audiences before this book, her first with a major publishing house, and dedicated it to divorced cis women in their 30s “who, like me, had to face starting their life over without either reinvesting in the illusions from the past, or growing bitter about the future” – because she wanted to start a conversation between cis and trans women about their shared experiences. As this novel lays bare, there are many – dealing with hapless men is certainly one of them. – Vic Parsons
6. 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell
Few writers can write about sex and relationships quite as well as Brontez Purnell. 100 Boyfriends is best described as a collection of short stories, but that doesn’t feel totally accurate either. It’s more like a spiderweb of ideas, recollections, and characters.
Over the course of this sometimes moving, sometimes hilarious collection, Purnell explores intimacy, love, boredom and capitalism in ways that feel fresh. By writing various characters into being, and by delving into their sex lives, he interrogates the role sex has in our society – and within queer communities – today.
In 100 Boyfriends, sex is always surprising and often not particularly enjoyable. It pushes boundaries at every turn, and gives us a glimpse into what queer literature can look like when we let it thrive in all its messy glory. – Patrick Kelleher
7. Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS by Derek Frost
Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS was released just months after It’s a Sin aired on Channel 4, bringing the history of the AIDS epidemic to a new generation.
In this deeply moving memoir, Frost looks back on his experience of the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. He recounts the pain that came with losing friends – and most devastatingly, he recounts the anguish he felt when his partner Jeremy contracted HIV.
Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS is ultimately a redemptive book. Jeremy is still alive and healthy today, and in the years since, both men have dedicated their lives to improving the outlook for people affected by HIV across the world. The book shines a light on the impact global inequalities continue to have on the trajectory of HIV. It’s a heartbreaking and necessary read. – Patrick Kelleher
8. Queer London by Alim Kheraj
Philosopher George Santayana said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – not Winston Churchill, sorry GB News – and with a surge of anti-LGBT+ hate crimes in the wake of COVID-19 and vicious attacks on the trans community practically state-sanctioned at this point, we’d be wise more than ever to remember our history. That’s why a book like Queer London by Alim Kheraj, a guide to the city’s LGBT+ past and present, is as vital now as ever before.
Focusing on London’s vibrant LGBT+ scene, Queer London is a quintessential guide to queer culture and history, taking you on a whistle-stop tour from the history of Soho and the legendary drag balls of Porchester Hall through to the birth of Pride in the UK, all the white highlighting voices of titans in our community, including UK Black Pride’s Lady Phyll and Peter Tatchell. Beautifully illustrated with imagery from photographer Tim Boddy, Queer London is a one-stop-shop for the vibrant LGBT+ history of the UK’s capital and beyond. – Ryan Butcher
9. We Can Do Better Than This by Amelia Abraham
We Can Do Better Than This is the essay collection we desperately needed in 2021. Edited by Amelia Abraham, this book brings together voices from the global LGBT+ community to reflect on what the future of queer people’s rights must look like.
With contributions from Beth Ditto, Owen Jones, Peppermint, Olly Alexander, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah and many others, We Can Do Better Than This is a timely exploration of how far LGBT+ rights have come. It’s also shines a much-needed light on the dire legal situations that persist in so many countries, where queer people are still criminalised for daring to live as their authentic selves. – Patrick Kelleher
10. What It Feels Like for a Girl by Paris Lees
In this memoir, Paris Lees recounts her working-class childhood in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire – from being bullied for being effeminate through to child sexual exploitation, drug use and the after-effects of being painfully rejected by a dysfunctional family.
It’s not light reading, but the Midlands dialect and chatty voice that Paris writes in, coupled with the genuinely funny anecdotes and characters in the book, make it hard to put down.
What It Feels Like for a Girl is an unflinching look at being a poor kid in the UK, as well as a trans memoir that side-steps the traditional “before and after” transition arc in favour of an honest description of a non-linear journey. At the end of the book, Paris lands in Brighton, about to go to university. This is the point at which Paris’s glossy life as a successful journalist and presenter begins – and the book is richer and more satisfying for ending there. – Vic Parsons