10 Books About Being Queer in a Country Where It’s Illegal
Literature about trying to live as yourself in a country that polices sexuality
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LGBTQ rights have suffered some recent setbacks in the U.S., but from a legal perspective, at least, it’s still one of the best times in recent history to be queer in this country. Gay marriage is legal at the federal level. Sodomy laws have been ruled unconstitutional since 2003, following the landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas. Non-binary gender markers are now accepted in 11 U.S. states. It could be harder—and in 70 other countries, it is.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are currently 70 United Nations member states that criminalize homosexuality, with punishments ranging from whipping in Malaysia to the death penalty in Iran. These governmental restrictions are obvious violations of human rights, seeking to police not only sexual activity but identity and self-expression. But, as the characters in these nine books prove, an unjust law isn’t enough to change who you are. Each of these books, both fiction and nonfiction, is about living in a country where being queer is either technically illegal or actively prosecuted—and the heartbreak, danger, and triumph that can follow when you do it anyway.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
In Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, Nigeria ruptures in civil war, causing 11-year-old Ijeoma’s life to fall to turmoil when her father dies. Sent off to work, Ijeoma meets Amina and falls in love, despite the threat of persecution from her mother. With all the political unrest and deception around her, it’s a constant struggle between safety and truth while remaining herself.
In the Spider’s Room by Muhammad Abdelnabi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Set in Cairo, Egypt, In the Spider’s Room follows Hani during the Queen Boat trials, where 52 gay men were arrested on the Queen Boat, a floating disco club on the Nile. After seven months of legal onslaught, Hani is declared innocent but left speechless due to the emotional trauma. He documents his life thereafter, from his familial relationships to the love of his life and what it meant to be targeted and in danger of imprisonment as part of Egypt’s gay community.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
A story of motherhood, Patsy evokes the truth of our deepest selves. When Patsy chooses to leave Jamaica and immigrate to the United States, she realizes things are not what she had hoped. Rekindling her past love and starting anew seems more and more difficult, especially as across the ocean, her young daughter Tru is confronted with her mother’s choice to leave her behind to love freely. But when Tru questions her own sexuality and identity, she begins to understand her mother more than she anticipated.
Salvation Army by Abdellah Taïa, translated by Frank Stock
Recognized as Morocco’s first openly gay man, Abdullah Taïa portrays a coming-of-age that moves through his ordered childhood to his sexual exploration in Tangier to his adult life studying in Geneva. Throughout this autobiography, Taïa grapples with the memories of living openly in a body that is a crime.
SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng
Although it’s rarely enforced, a colonial-era penal code criminalizes sex between men in Singapore. Together with photographer Alphonsus Lee, Ng Yi-Sheng highlights the everyday lives of 15 LGBTQ+ Singaporeans. From a polyamorous student to a mother of queer sons, this collection of real stories is an inspirational account of people celebrating their bodies and selves in a country that refuses to recognize them.
Lives of Great Men by Chike Frankie Edozien
Lives of Great Men is not solely a memoir about Nigerian journalist Chike Frankie Edozien; the book is a tribute to the queer Africans living their love in political hardship. Moving through Lagos to the United States to Ghana and France, Edozien portrays the lives of men and women who are trying to maintain hope under a political discord that threatens their lives with imprisonment up to 14 years, police extortion, and even death by stoning.
The Greatest Films: A Poem by Faizal Deen
Author of Guyana’s first LGBTQ+ poetry collection, Faizal Deen has now published two books working with gay culture and identity. His most recent book, The Greatest Films, is one long poem inspired by 20th century film and hybridity and delves into queer Caribbean Islamic identity. Deen moves through his history of living as an Indo-Guyanese Canadian man with a disjointed past to create a complete work of spliced images—a cinematic collision.
The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
In The Hungry Ghosts, after learning of his dying grandmother, Shivan Rassiah travels back to war-torn Sri Lanka from Canada, where he had fled during his teenage years to find safety and acceptance. While preparing to bring his grandmother back to Toronto for her final days, Shivan is confronted with memories of their tumultuous relationship, while growing up gay, and the trapped ghosts that are as ravenous and haunting as ever.
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib
We Have Always Been Here is a heartrending, honest chronicle of writer and photographer Samra Habib’s life as an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan. Growing up, Habib faced countless familial and cultural pressures that policed her body along with threats of violence from religious extremists who were against her sect of Islam. After moving with her family to Canada as refugees, Habib has to reckon with racism and homophobia—causing her to fight for truth and power along the way to self-discovery.
98 Wounds by Justin Chin
Poet and artist Justin Chin was born in Malaysia and grew up in Singapore before moving to the United States. His short stories explore the complex and emotionally unsettling lives of queer people. His first and only book of prose, 98 Wounds invites readers into a dizzying world constantly searching for identity and love. Said best in his work: “Come inside. You don’t have to prove anything here.” This was the last book Chin published before he passed away in 2015.