Queer Guys for the Straight Eye: Introducing People to Queer Lit

By Richie Bowman

Recently, I had a friend (we’ll call her Jane) tell me a story. Over the holidays last year, Jane gifted a family member (a die-hard romance reader) a copy of One Last Stop, a fabulous lesbian time travel romance by Casey McQuiston. Upon receiving the book, the family member promptly asked if Jane had given her the book because Jane thought she was gay. Jane (who is also straight) was baffled. 


“No,” she finally responded, “it’s just a good book.”


It’s confusing, maybe. But I get it! As a queer person myself, I struggle sometimes with showing queer content to my family. They’re fine with me being gay. They’ve met my girlfriends and gave me money for Pride, and they even asked me how I liked Love, Simon. I know there’s plenty of straight people out there who do read LGBTQ+ content and don’t bat an eye, but even for the most accepting heterosexual, it can be a little queer (pun fully intended) to step into our world of books.

This list is to help with that. It’s a list of classic and contemporary gay books with which I’ve had moderate success introducing straight people. Now, you may think this might diminish some of the queerness of the works. If they’re written to be comfortable for straight people, are they even gay? Do they just say the word and never mention it again? Are these gay characters just going to go through hell and back so straight people can cry for us? But, no, dear reader, I would never do that to y’all. I may not be recommending Larry Kramer’s Faggots (which, actually, is excellent, even at a dense 384 pages) but these books are some top-notch gay content that works for everyone. If you’ve read these, pass the list on! If you’re looking for new queer lit, take a look! And if Jane happens to read this, I hope she gets some ideas for next Christmas. 


If you like horror…

Try We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets!

This book stuck with me for a long time. While there’s no overt gore or serial killers running amok, We Had to Remove This Post is a quiet sort of horrifying all its own. It follows Kayleigh, a queer woman who works as a content moderator for a popular social media website. Along with her girlfriend Sigrid, it shows the effects of constantly being forced to witness the media they’d ordinarily wipe from the internet.

Try It Came From the Closet edited by Joe Vallese!

This nonfiction book of essays is one of my favorite things I’ve ever read. There are 25 essays included in the book that discuss queer people and their connection to the horror genre, covering everything from miscarriages to disability rights to the Hays Code. I laughed, I cried, and it’s the perfect book for any horror lover to see why folks love the movies you’ve seen since childhood. (In particular I want everyone on this earth to read Joe Vallese’s essay “Imprint.”)


If you like drama…

Try The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller!

Miller’s modern classic is a beautiful pick for anyone who’s interested in mythology or Grecian history! It tells the story of Achilles from Patroclus’ perspective, and follows their tragic love story till the bitter end. The basis in mythology allows for a fun new interpretation that’s stayed strong on the bestseller list for years.

Try Passing by Nella Larsen!

A book I stay recommending. Dealing with being biracial and bisexual in the 1920s, Passing is a short but powerful novel about navigating identities that don’t always match up.


If you like SFF…

Try The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal by Carey Pietsch and the McElroys!

The Adventure Zone graphic novels are based on a Dungeons and Dragons podcast of the same name. While I highly encourage anybody to give it a listen, for those of us who struggle with audio formats, the graphic novel series is an excellent alternative! Over the course of the series, there’s a metric ton of representation, including one of my favorite trans women ever put to the page, a gay man who falls in love with the Grim Reaper, and a lesbian couple who are champions of drag racing (with cars, not Rupaul.) The queer content really kicks it up a notch in the third book, Petals to the Metal, but the entire series is a fun, heartfelt romp about relationships, magic, and found family that I cannot recommend enough.

Try Yesterday is History by Kosoko Jackson!

Yesterday is History is a fun, heartwarming YA romcom following Andre, a young Black boy from the modern day, who, after receiving a liver transplant, discovers he can time travel to the 1960s. The love triangle in this book deals with race, sexuality, and shows how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go. All of this is wrapped up in a fun and new time-travel plot I couldn’t put down!


If you like romance…

Try Love in Color by Bolu Babalola!

Bolu Babalola wrote a lovely collection of mythological love stories that focus on African mythology instead of the Greek or Norse we’re used to seeing. It’s beautifully written and has so many different perspectives on love and what it means, whether you’re gay, straight, or an immortal goddess.

Try Merry Little Meet Cute by Sierra Simone and Julie Murphy!

This book, while it focuses on a M/F romance, is an interesting one for me because both parties are bisexual. It’s not too heavily focused on, but it’s absolutely spoken about. They take a lot of love and care to dispel some of the rumors that plague the bisexual community, while also providing the spiciest Christmas romance I’ve ever read. With a fun, Hallmark-esque plot, classic Sierra Simone smut, and a plus sized main character that’s treated with respect, this book is a perfect intro to the bi community AND to understand the lives of sex workers.


If you like memoir/nonfiction…

Try All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks!

Back in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Ruth Coker Burks was living as a single mother in Alabama. When she visited a friend in the hospital one day, she noticed a room that was barred off with caution tape that even the nurses seemed to avoid. After walking in, her entire life changed. Burks is commonly known amongst the queer community as “The Cemetery Angel,” because she dealt with the cremations and burials of gay men who weren’t claimed by their families after dying from AIDS. She also became an activist and raised funds for queer folks living with HIV, even scavenging medications throughout the epidemic to try and save a community she had never been a part of. It’s a beautiful look across the aisle at how straight Christian women and drag queens don’t have to be enemies, and that community is the only thing that can save us in the end.

Try How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee!

An important part of progress is realizing our commonalities. So, while this book is written by a gay man, it is mostly about the process of becoming a writer and how your identity influences what you write. I couldn’t put it down and have annotated my own copy to hell and back! It’s a constantly interesting take on the writing industry and on growing up, but it still retains humor, fun, and an unabashed attitude of nonconformity. (Also, a fun fact: Emily Ratajkowski has named this as one of her favorite books of all time!)



If you like literary fiction…

Try Miss Iceland by Audur Ava Olafsdottir!

Miss Iceland follows a woman living in Iceland and trying to become the first female poet of her country. While the main story is focused on the sexism Hekla faces, her best friend Jon John is a queer man working as a sailor who deals with the homophobia and toxic masculinity that permeates his field as well. It’s deeply sympathetic without being too moralistic, and is a great first look into the real problems our community faces. 

Try Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So!

Anthony Veasna So passed away in 2020, but graced us with one of the best short story collections of the decade. The stories follow what it means to be Khmer and what it means to be queer in a hilarious, poignant book that has enough options for everyone to find something to love!


I’ll admit, this article was pretty light-hearted, mostly to be taken in jest, after a friend told me a funny story. But the issue does speak to something deeper. Representation is so tricky to define, and trickier to do well. I struggled over this article more than I have over any other article I’ve written, because I wanted so badly to make everyone feel accepted and fine with the pace they’re reading at. But after a lifetime of identifying with straight people in books, after a lifetime of authors who were straight white men with wives, it’s hard now to try and hold up the representation we do get against heterosexual standards. It’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never had to hunt to see themselves that empathy exists. And while I hope the article was fun and helpful, I also sincerely hope that any queer reader knows a few things:


  1. Some of the gay characters in these books are not amazing people. In the media industry, marginalized groups tend to fall into two types of prejudice: we’re portrayed as villains or heroes with nothing in between. I don’t like it; the lionization is just as alienating as the hatred (with admittedly less violent effect.) So, yes, some of these gay people are bad people, who make bad choices. Some of them pay the price. And while I wasn’t sure if I wanted to portray queer people in even a slightly negative light for the community’s own protection, there is no way for me to paint us all as virgins and madonnas when not all of our people are. It’s easy for straight people to read about “palatable” queer folks. The gays who never show an inkling of sexual attraction, who perform chaste kisses and have childlike crushes and are Just Like The Heteros! I know gay people like this. I know many, many more gay people who aren’t. And I’m a little nervous about how this comes off, but it’s worth it to me to show us in a truthful light, even if it comes with trouble. Better to live on your feet than die on your knees, right?
  2. If you’re queer and love these books, I am NOT in any way trying to imply that you’re somehow less gay than dorks like myself who only seek out ‘50s lesbian pulp fiction and dense queer history textbooks. We’re all at different points in our life, we all have different tastes, and your interest in interacting with queer fiction in any capacity is yours to cherish. 


At the end of the day, it’s important for queer people to be seen as we are, especially by the people closest to us. I hope y’all have safe journeys and that this article helped expand your worldview (or at the very least gave you a couple of fun books to try.) Happy Pride!