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Science journalist Sabrina Imbler dives deep into the waters of human and marine life in their luminous essay collection, How Far the Light Reaches.

In the book’s 10 essays, Imbler cannily observes the lives of sea creatures, drawing out lessons about resilience, survival and wildness and tying those insights to their own experiences as a biracial, queer writer. For example, goldfish that survive being thrown from a tiny fishbowl into a larger pond revert to a feral state. When Imbler encountered these wild fish, they saw “something that no one expected to live not just alive but impossibly flourishing, and no longer alone.” Imbler compares a female octopus who starves herself in order to nourish and protect her eggs to their own efforts at dieting to please their mother. Imbler eventually started to feel good in their body, learning to “revel in queer bodies and the endless and inventive ways we crease into ourselves.” In the deep rivers of China, sturgeon forage for food to survive in the murky waters, just as Imbler’s grandmother foraged for food to survive after fleeing Japanese-occupied Shanghai during wartime. In perhaps the most brilliant chapter of the book, Imbler alternates the necropsy of a whale with the necropsy of a relationship. Like the carcass of a whale, the threads of a dead relationship—“once so staggeringly alive”—float through space and time with no sense of what is to come.

How Far the Light Reaches meditates radiantly on the ragged ways we adapt to the world around us, probing the lives of marine animals for strategies for our own survival. Imbler’s first-rate science writing glistens with the same sheen as the best of Oliver Sacks’ essays.

How Far the Light Reaches dives deep into the waters of human and marine life, glistening with the same sheen as the best of Oliver Sacks’ essays.

“A few months after my pastor asked God to kill me, my mom ran to the bathroom, and I ran after her.” You can’t look away from the riveting opening sentence of Casey Parks’ spellbinding Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir. It draws you quickly in to her atmospheric tale of self-discovery after coming out as a lesbian to her mother in her small Louisiana town.

After Parks came out, her grandmother revealed that she “grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man” named Roy Hudgins in the town of Delhi, Louisiana. Astonished, Parks asked if Roy was happy, and her grandmother replied that she didn’t know but that she’d always wondered what happened to him. Parks announced to her grandmother, “I’ll find out about Roy.”

Seven years later, Parks, then working as a reporter for The Oregonian, made a series of visits to Delhi in search of clues about Roy, interviewing anybody who would talk to her. Although she was on a quest to find out about Roy for her grandmother, Parks also started to unravel clues about herself, her sexuality and her fraught relationships with family and church. The more she learned about Roy, the more she learned about her own yearning for the love and acceptance that Roy seemed to have felt in a town where the church had rejected him but where his neighbors looked out for and took care of him. Then, as she flipped through Roy’s journals, she discovered a poem titled “The Town Misfit” in which he had written, “When my life on earth is over, and it’s time for me to die, / No one here will miss me. There will be no one to cry.” Parks had hoped “reading Roy’s diaries would settle something inside me. . . . But I understand now that most of what haunted me before might haunt me forever.”

Like Harper Lee, Parks evokes the simmering suspicions of a small Southern town. Like Eudora Welty, she tells a poignant story of people trying to fit into a way of life that once suited them but no longer wears well. And like Truman Capote, she packs her memoir with eccentric characters—especially her mother, whom Parks describes as “bright and joyous when she was off the nose spray, vacant and mean when she was on.” Parks’ dazzling narrative gift imbues Diary of a Misfit with all the makings of a great Southern story that readers won’t be able to get out of their minds.

Casey Parks’ dazzling narrative gift imbues Diary of a Misfit with all the makings of a great Southern story that readers won't be able to get out of their minds.
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A talented new crop of memoirists explore the friction between their queer identities and their cultural and geographical surroundings.


Jacket of Asylum by Edafe Okporo

Edafe Okporo’s aptly titled memoir, Asylum: A Memoir and a Manifesto, recounts his experience growing up gay in Nigeria, a place known for having harsh laws against “known homosexuals.” Okporo writes with sensitivity about the scenery that shaped his childhood, his powerful familial relationships and the friendships that formed his identity. One night in 2016, however, all of these things were threatened by a mob that gathered outside his home. Okporo tried to escape out a window, but before he could, they broke down his door and beat him until he was unconscious. It was his 26th birthday.

This event marked the beginning of Okporo’s one-way journey to America as a refugee. Once he arrived in New York City, there was a potent juxtaposition between his experiences as a Black gay man from a place of repression and the freedom he encountered as an asylum-seeker. Still, the cruelty of America’s immigration system and the overwhelming whiteness of New York’s gay community presented stark new forms of injustice. With clarity and grace, Okporo casts light on the racism and oppression he discovered lurking within communities that are themselves oppressed.

Okporo was able to explore new relationships in New York, sexual and otherwise, and ultimately found both professional and personal purpose in America as a global gay rights activist. Along the way, Asylum chronicles a range of hardships, from the severe laws of the author’s home country to the bitter realities of immigrating to the U.S. Throughout these difficulties, Okporo weaves a thread of hope that he will find freedom while remaining true to himself. If you are seeking a read that couches complex issues in a heartfelt personal narrative, Okporo’s memoir will surely delight.

★ Boys and Oil

Jacket of Boys and Oil by Taylor Brorby

In Boys and Oil, environmental activist Taylor Brorby masterfully recounts his upbringing in coal-fractured North Dakota. Growing up, Brorby was teased by his peers because he played with girls and didn’t gravitate toward sports. Like many queer boys, his sexuality was in conflict with traditional models of what men were meant to do and how they were supposed to act.

Brorby’s memoir opens with superbly detailed insight into North Dakota’s geography, which becomes a powerful symbol throughout Boys and Oil. This jagged imagery grounds the narrative and the author’s journey, and Brorby’s attention to it throughout the book feels nearly ekphrastic, with sweeping, alluring descriptions of a land that is at once beautiful and damaged.

It’s within the context of this landscape that Brorby’s life unfolds, from a taunted child whose grandmother lovingly painted his fingernails, to a young man being physically assaulted outside of a small-town bar, to an out poet and environmentalist. In many parts of the country (and world), defying your culture’s expectations comes with a price. Whether as a boy in love with books or as an adult fighting to protect the broken land of his youth, Brorby writes about the personal price he has paid with striking honesty.

Queer politics calls perceived norms to task, subverting the status quo and making it possible for new structures to emerge. In his unique and breathtaking memoir, Brorby does just this, creating wonderful new categories for rural communities and American masculinity, and for gay kids’ places within both.

★ Ma and Me

Jacket of Ma and Me by Putsata Reang

Putsata Reang was born in Cambodia amid civic turmoil and unrest. Her family fled in 1975, when she was only 11 months old, and her journey would become legend. Aboard the ship her family escaped on, the infant Reang was believed to be dead. A Navy captain suggested that she be thrown overboard, but her mother resisted. Upon arriving at a U.S. naval base in the Philippines, her mother handed Reang to the doctors, and under their treatment, she survived—accruing a lifelong debt to her mother in the process.

Reang’s relationship with her mother is a strong feature in Ma and Me as the author examines her past with a surgeon’s precision and artist’s view. Reang takes a kaleidoscope of influences into consideration—including cultural expectations for girls and women, the institution of marriage and trauma caused by war and flight—as she inspects her upbringing as an immigrant in Oregon, learning to balance her Cambodian identity with the pressure to assimilate. Up close, she handles these influences on her mother with grace and compassion, even when her mother severs their relationship because she can’t handle Reang’s engagement to a woman. Reang does an excellent job of portraying the permeability of accepting loved ones for who they are and finding the limits of that acceptance.

In the world of Ma and Me, stories grow larger than life and queer identity creates conflict as it becomes a part of the long-woven tapestry of family lore. With great care, Reang addresses the legacy of trauma—both as a child of war who is displaced geographically and as a gay woman who is estranged from her family. The layers stacked together in this memoir, and Reang’s treatment of their complexity, are simply brilliant.

Edafe Okporo, Taylor Brorby and Putsata Reang beautifully capture the places that shaped their queer identities.

For LGBTQ+ people coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, there were often no words for the experience of discovering one’s sexuality or gender, and usually no family support—much less legal protections—to nurture an adolescent’s emerging identities. A person muddled through and, with any luck, found community in adulthood, while the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic often compounded the traumas they incurred.

In her exquisite memoir, This Body I Wore, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe truths that went unspoken for too long. Goetsch’s skill as a poet informs the beauty of her prose as she recounts the decades she spent evolving alongside the trans community, until her own late-in-life transition in her 50s. As the language used by and about trans people changed over time, so too did Goetsch’s understanding of her own identity.

This Body I Wore spans Goetsch’s abusive childhood on Long Island, her entrallment with the beauty of women as she grew up, confusing sexual encounters she had in college, and her professional work as a teacher, both for privileged students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and for incarcerated youth. Goetsch’s talent for teaching rests in her deep compassion for her students and her sense that finding the right words, for the students as well as for herself, is the key to unlocking one’s identity.

I was utterly riveted by the narrative Goetsch crafts and was reminded of many now-lost friends and acquaintances from my own college years in New York in the 1980s. Goetsch’s memoir, like Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, offers a significant contribution to the documentation of LGBTQ+ history and culture in New York during that era. But perhaps more importantly, the hard-won wisdom contained in This Body I Wore offers a new generation of trans and nonbinary youth a guiding hand from a previous generation.

In her exquisite memoir, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe the evolution of her identity and her late-in-life transition.

Queer communities can find healing through the sharing of stories, creating a web of common experiences that remind us that we are not alone.

These four books contain narratives of triumph, loss, trauma and healing, with optimism toward liberation and new understandings of gender, desire, sexuality, love and family. These stories are accessible and relatable even as they reveal how identity is far more complicated than what social rules or cultural expectations determine it to be. Encompassing a range of emotions and experiences, they declare that queer stories don’t have to end in tragedy, but can reign triumphant despite struggle. Pain and trauma are not glossed over, but also within these tales are the joys and love that are so often threaded into queer experiences.

Acclaimed essayist and editor-in-chief of the literary journal No Tokens T Kira Madden shares a story of incredible resilience in Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. In her debut memoir, Madden beautifully chronicles her journey to find herself while reckoning with the trauma, abuse and addiction that have surrounded her and emering with a deeper understanding of her experiences. Madden captures the complexities of loving those who wound you deeply, as well as the healing that is possible within those relationships. Through Madden’s achingly raw and honest prose, the extreme privilege she experienced in Boca Raton, Florida, the deep and complex bonds she finds in her adolescent friendships, the transformation of her relationships with her parents in addiction recovery and her queer awakening all become relatable, regardless of how far removed they are from the reader’s own experience. Within this necessary book, Madden weaves together an utterly human paean to belonging, to healing, and to loving and being loved.

Trans activist, writer and performer Jacob Tobia’s debut memoir, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, refreshingly defies the typical trans narrative (“I was born in the wrong body, did these things to transition and now live as a boy/girl/etc.”). In their fabulous, fierce voice, Tobia tells their story of coming out as genderqueer. In adolescence, they found themselves falling into society’s familiar and static categories of what is assigned at birth or assumed (“gay” or “male”), but as Tobia came of age, they looked past the binary and began a fluid, exciting exploration of gender. Tobia’s story unfolds in the South, and they contend with their relationships with both family and religion. In particular, Tobia’s relationship with their father and with their childhood church evolve throughout the book, and these growing pains are detailed honestly but hopefully. Tobia is strong and confident (even calling themselves out as arrogant), and as a result of their strength, drive and overachieving nature, they have established themselves as a highly visible trans activist. What many may realize after reading Sissy is that expectations of gender affect not only those who identify outside the binary but also everyone who ascribes to it. There are creative and imaginative possibilities available to everyone through liberation from strict, patriarchal expectations.

By the end of the prologue of The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation, I was already in tears, overwhelmed by entrepreneur, social activist and former magazine ad executive Jodie Patterson’s empathy, acceptance and willingness to listen to her child, Penelope, when he reveals to her at 3 years old, “Mama, I’m not a girl. I’m a boy.” Patterson travels to Georgia to take a break, to heal, to figure out where to go from there, but even in her exhaustion, she wholly accepts Penelope as her son. Patterson begins the story in her own youth, as a quiet young black girl growing up in a wealthy family on New York’s Upper West Side, coming into her own strength and power as a black woman—in her words, becoming a “badass.” Patterson’s memoir is highly recommended for any parent raising a transgender or gender-nonconforming child. Her struggle is not with her transgender child but rather with a world that may not accept him as readily as she does. 

Robyn Ryle’s She/He/They/Me: For the Sisters, Misters, and Binary Resisters is a choose-your-own-adventure-style book that explores the intersections of identities and how gender impacts every aspect of our lives. There are over 100 ways you can read this book, with paths that lead readers into different societies throughout history. The journey, and the myriad options in how to move through it, reveal how gender affects every aspect of our culture and our experiences in love, sex, careers and more. Ryle empathetically explores the complications and intersections of gender, hopefully illuminating otherwise invisible structures in pursuit of new conceptions of power and being. She/He/They/Me is a recommended read for anyone living in a body in this world.

Queer communities can find healing through the sharing of stories, creating a web of common experiences that remind us that we are not alone. These four books contain narratives of triumph, loss, trauma and healing, with optimism toward liberation and new understandings of gender, desire, sexuality, love and family. These stories are accessible and relatable […]
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Queer culture has a rich history of elders mentoring younger folks and guiding them through a way of being that’s still far too stigmatized. The millennial authors of these books are hardly elders, but neither had the LGBTQ+ resources they needed until college. Now their books leave a path of breadcrumbs toward authenticity for their less experienced peers, or any individuals seeking insight, solidarity and guidance.

If you started reading John Paul Brammer’s advice column in the Grindr digital magazine INTO, consider yourself lucky. The column, “¡Hola Papi!,” now exists on the platform Substack, as well as between the pages of his first book, ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, where new readers can fall in love with Brammer’s writing for the first time.

Although ostensibly an assemblage of advice columns, ¡Hola Papi! reads more like an essay collection. Each submitted question becomes an entry point for Brammer to share a story from his life as a young queer writer and artist. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Brammer learned to live a small life so he wouldn’t attract attention. Middle school classmates tortured him with homophobic bullying, so much so that he harbored a desire for suicide in the eighth grade. Branded by this trauma, Brammer remained closeted until college.

But coming out doesn’t provide all the answers. If anything, looking for love and connection on apps like OkCupid and Grindr can make life more confusing. In each essay, Brammer explores his negotiations with himself and others to exist as a queer, biracial man and the universal struggle of wanting to be accepted. Anyone who has grappled with their own identities will relate to Brammer as he wrestles with insecurities and forges ahead through the haze of depression.

Brammer’s talent as a storyteller lies in extracting profound meaning from seemingly minor events and feelings. One particularly tender essay, for example, revisits the time a former middle school bully hit him up on a gay dating app when they were adults. ¡Hola Papi! is a testament to turning past struggles and humiliations into fuel for a brighter future, and to owning your experiences by reframing the narrative and finding agency in the retelling.

The Ex-Girlfriend of My Ex-Girlfriend Is My Girlfriend: Advice on Queer Dating, Love, and Friendship is based on a zine that author Maddy Court created in grad school. Now in book form, her advice is accompanied by lively Day-Glo art and comics by illustrator Kelsey Wroten. Court primarily explores the experiences of women who are lesbian and bisexual, as well as those of people whose genders have been historically marginalized. But her advice—gentle nudges toward therapy or research about attachment theory—could help anyone who needs a compassionate ear.

Of course, there are the usual advice column staples—heartbreak, rejection and jealousy—but Court also addresses problems as varied as painful sex, being new to polyamory and coming out at a Christian college. She’s sensitive and loving as she addresses questions from people who are still in the closet, like how to find closure with people you never actually dated. And when she’s not the best person to provide counsel about a particular issue, she calls in advice from others, such as Le Tigre musician JD Samson and Wow, No Thank You. author Samantha Irby.

Court makes clear that finding queer community and consuming queer media are vitally important, because of how crucial it is to see yourself represented. By its very existence, The Ex-Girlfriend of My Ex-Girlfriend Is My Girlfriend accomplishes this, too, as it assures us that our problems are not so uncommon and we’re all less alone than we think.

Two collections of advice leave a path of breadcrumbs toward authenticity for LGBTQ+ folks, or any individuals seeking insight, solidarity and guidance.
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When Krys Malcolm Belc sees pregnant women, he turns the other way. He doesn’t want to hear pregnancy stories and finds it difficult to share his own. But in The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, the transmasculine author doesn’t turn away from his story. Instead, he lays it out page by page, with pictures and legal documents juxtaposing his poetic prose.

Belc’s process of becoming himself—the growing realization that he identified as male, the move toward a nonbinary and eventually masculine presentation, the decision to start taking hormones—happened alongside the rest of his life, as he married his partner, as she bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well, only a few months after his wife gave birth. 

The result is a family that looks one way now—a father, a mother and three boys—but looked another way several years ago. This is the story of how that family came to be, and of the erasures (often painful) that happened along the way, including the legal erasure of the friend who donated sperm for all three pregnancies. There’s also the erasure of the body Belc had, which he generously laid out to birth his son Samson. “He has permanently altered my composition,” Belc writes.

But in the midst of these erasures, something new emerged: an identity and presentation that was always there but in shadow, just beyond view. Bearing Samson clarified the man Belc wanted to be.

The Natural Mother of the Child refuses easy stories or pat answers. Instead, Belc tells a counterstory that resists hegemonic narratives and pushes toward something messier and truer. Belc’s devotion to his son—and especially his bodily devotion—comes through powerfully, a clear signal. By comparison, some of the other signs that supposedly tell us who we are—birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates—seem desperately incomplete.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s growing realization that he identified as male happened as his wife bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well.
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A serial killer in New York City sounds like an atrocity that would dominate the headlines. Men were disappearing; days later, their body parts would be found in trash bags outside the city. These were grisly deaths. Yet because Richard Rogers, known as the Last Call Killer, murdered gay men in the 1980s and ’90s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, you may not have heard of him or his victims.

In Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York, author Elon Green recounts this particularly frightening chapter in New York, contextualizing it within the city’s history of anti-queer violence. Weaving together multiple histories and jumping back and forth in time can be hit-or-miss as a narrative structure, but Last Call does it well, thanks to Green’s original reporting conducted with law enforcement, politicians, victims’ families and patrons at gay bars where Rogers lurked.

True crime too often focuses on the “bad guys,” as if repeatedly mulling over their motives may eventually explain evil. In Last Call, Green instead foregrounds Rogers’ known victims. He shows us the people they were and the lives they left behind. Their lives mattered, and Last Call is a testament to how homophobia shaped these men’s lives and, eventually, their deaths.

Readers should be aware that there’s a lot of gore in Last Call; after all, Rogers dismembered his victims. Regular readers of true crime may not find the violence unexpected, but the cultural context of the AIDS panic adds additional weight to this brutality. To his credit, Green never lets us forget the amplified threats that existed for gay men during this era. However, because Last Call shows how the passage of time often changes culture for the better, it’s ultimately uplifting—if a book about a serial killer could, in any way, be called “uplifting.”

In Last Call, Elon Green foregrounds the Last Call Killer's known victims, showing us the people they were and the lives they left behind.
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The history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is often told from the perspectives of white, openly gay men who lived in major cities. But that’s not even close to the whole story. Ruth Coker Burks’ All the Young Men tells of the HIV-positive men who lived and died in the deeply conservative state of Arkansas, where the stigma of homosexuality was nearly as deadly as the virus.

In 1986, Burks was 26 and visiting a friend in the hospital when she became aware of a young man dying of AIDS in another room. The medical staff, disgusted by the disease, neglected him in his final hours. As a devout Christian, Burks couldn’t bear to let the man die hungry, scared and alone.

She soon developed a reputation in Hot Springs, Arkansas, as someone who would help care for gay men dying of the virus. Many of the men who came to her were from religious families who believed that, through illness and death, these men got what was coming to them. Refusing to treat people with HIV as outcasts made Burks a pariah in her community and particularly in her church, where appearances mattered more than anything. As a single mom, Burks was well versed in the conservative social politics of the South and adept at “killing them with kindness.” She showed great ingenuity as she shamed politicians, businessmen and medical workers into taking action on behalf of AIDS patients.

Throughout the memoir, it’s hard not to fall in love with Burks for her big-heartedness and enduring sense of humor in the face of suffering. However, All the Young Men isn’t an uplifting book. Ignorance, denial and cruelty have always been, and always will be, killers. But as Burks forges a path alongside these vulnerable men, her embrace of education and rejection of bigotry light the way forward for us all.

The history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is often told from the perspectives of white, openly gay men who lived in major cities. But that’s not even close to the whole story. Ruth Coker Burks’ All the Young Men tells of the HIV-positive men who lived and died in the deeply conservative state of Arkansas, […]

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