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8 Fascinating Books About LGBTQ Life

Recent nonfiction exploring activism, self-discovery and more

from top to bottom left to right alice dunbar nelson then fairest then leaving isnt the hardest thing then last call then the pink line then the deviants war then queer love in color then let the record show

From left: Bloomsbury Academic / Penguin Books / Vintage / Celadon Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Picador / Ten Speed Press / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Getty

Interested in real-life stories of LGBTQ people and history? Don't miss these eight recent books covering a range of topics, from AIDS activism to gender identity.

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman

Part oral history and part memoir, this comprehensive account of ACT UP, the AIDS activist coalition founded in New York City in 1987, chronicles the group’s inner workings and achievements. Among the coalition’s triumphs: forcing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow sick people to access experimental drugs, ending insurance inclusion for those living with AIDS and fighting to change the legal definition of the disease to include women. Schulman, herself a member of ACT UP during the group’s heyday, draws upon years of interviews with more than 200 of the group’s members in this engrossing, definitive chronicle of one of the most successful activist groups in U.S. history. (May 2021)

Queer Love in Color by Jamal Jordan

“How do you learn to love yourself and other people like you, when every cue in the world tells you it’s impossible?” That’s the question that inspired former New York Times multimedia journalist Jordan to travel thousands of miles documenting the lives of LGBTQ people of color for Queer Love in Color, which pairs portraits of LGBTQ couples and families from around the world with stories of resilience, love and connection. One such pairing: Mike and Phil, a Detroit-based couple in their 70s who have been together since 1967. Their five-plus decades of love and commitment are among the stories now memorialized in this heartwarming, inspiring collection. (May 2021)

Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays by Lauren Hough

Any one of Hough’s many jobs — airman in the U.S. Air Force, barista, bartender, cable guy — could make for good writing fodder, and she indeed authored a viral 2018 essay about her stint as a cable technician. In this New York Times best-selling essay collection, Hough dives deeper into her personal history, recalling her fraught international upbringing in The Children of God cult and her experience as a lesbian in the Air Force during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. Despite the heavy subject matter, Hough’s mordant sense of humor and keen social insights buoy this compulsively readable memoir. (April 2021)

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World's Queer Frontiers by Mark Gevisser

A masterful look at the global frontiers of LGBTQ rights and identity in the 21st century, South African journalist Gevisser reports on the stories of LGBTQ people around the world in this timely and far-reaching analysis. His subjects including a transgender woman in Moscow fighting for custody of her child, a Ugandan refugee seeking a new home in Canada and a lesbian couple fighting for marriage equality in Mexico. These and other stories are used to advance the idea of the “pink line,” the divide that exists between parts of the world in which LGBTQ rights are recognized and those in which they remain restricted. (July 2020)


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The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America by Eric Cervini

Before the 1969 Stonewall Uprising led to the birth of the modern gay rights movement, a young astronomer and government employee named Frank Kameny founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Mattachine Society, an advocacy group that would lead the charge against persecution of gay federal employees — many of whom, like Kameny, were fired on the basis of their sexual orientation in the pre-Stonewall era. Based on firsthand accounts, declassified FBI records and thousands of personal documents, this riveting 2021 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history traces early LGBTQ activism and its ties to civil rights activism and other social movements of the mid-20th century. (June 2020)

Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green

Fan of true crime? Don’t miss this unflinching look at the Last Call Killer, so named because he targeted gay men in New York bars in the 1980s and 1990s. Green, who has a background in true-crime journalism, meticulously relays the details surrounding the murders and their aftermath in this chilling debut. Never exploitative or sensationalizing in his approach, Green instead paints a compassionate portrait of men who were killed at a time when sexual shame and stigma, particularly related to the AIDS epidemic, relegated their lives — and deaths — to the shadows. (March 2021)

Fairest: A Memoir by Meredith Talusan

A finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for transgender nonfiction, this engrossing memoir is not your average coming-of-age tale. Award-winning journalist Talusan reflects on her journey from her native Philippines to the United States, where she studied at Harvard University before undertaking a gender transition in her 20s. Talusan also has albinism, and she deftly explores how her condition has been both a source of spectacle (she is singled out as a “sun child” in her home country) and obfuscation (she is often perceived as a white woman in the U.S.) in this fascinating examination of gender, race and identity. (June 2021)

Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson by Tara T. Green

This scholarly, engaging portrait is the first book-length biography of a pioneering figure in Black women’s history: the suffragist, poet and journalist Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who was born to mixed-raced parents in New Orleans in 1875. Often remembered in relation to her ex-husband, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Green, a professor of African American and African diaspora studies, brings the many other facets of Dunbar-Nelson’s extraordinary life and career to light — including her activism, writing career and love affairs with women — as she recounts the decades between the post-reconstruction era through the Harlem Renaissance. (Coming Jan. 13, 2022)

Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.

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