9 Books About Being Southern and Queer as Hell

There’s a lot more to Southern lit than the gothic

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Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

In the months leading up to Alabama’s special election — a race between KKK-defeating prosecutor Doug Jones and a horse-riding pedophile — all eyes were watching the South. Then again, eyes have been unusually tuned on the south since the 2016 election. And yet, phrases like “Trump Country” also reduce an entire region to a single, homogenous, ignorant concept.

In the literary world, many people seem to think that the South’s greatest export is our gothic canon. Authors like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner elevated the region’s literature in the 20th century, but as a writer, when I think about what it means to be Southern, I think of the many LGBT writers who use themes of solitude, violence, and social isolation as a way to cope with their own identities and traumas. Fighting and survival are trauma’s close cousins, and they reunite frequently in the majority of the texts I’ve chosen for this list. But queer Southern literature isn’t just about the struggles LGBT people have to deal with while living in the South. While many of these books explore the hardships LGBT southerners face, I’ve made it a point to include texts that highlight the joys of being Southern and gay as hell, y’all.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

There have been many attempts made to place Carson McCullers within the realm of LGBT Southern fiction, and with good reason: McCullers interweaves themes of loneliness and sexual confusion in nearly all of her work, and she cherished a lifelong close friendship with Swiss writer Anne-Marie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her most well-known work, follows a deaf man named John Singer as he navigates his small Georgia town. The story focuses on Singer’s acquaintances, including Mick Kelly, a “tomboy” who’s clearly a coded lesbian, if you ask me.

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

This YA fantasy series is set in Virginia, and at times feels distinctly Southern. The best thing about these books is that they feel familiarly Southern. They’re not billed as a Southern series, like Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, but the Southern setting and culture pervades throughout. Class and gender tension mingle with magical realism; family roots and forged friendships push back against a persistent underlying feeling of abject isolation — a Southern specialty. What earned this young adult series a place on this list, however, is its centering of a young LGBT couple, Ronan and Adam. Steifvater weaves their romance — between a boy as hard as nails (or at least wishes he could be) and boy who’s fought his whole life to fit in with his rich friends — into the larger plot.

Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison

Bastard Out of Carolina was an obvious pick for the list, but Allison’s memoir, released in 1996, doesn’t get enough love. She dives into the history of her own family line headfirst, and dissects what she finds. It’s dark and enduring, full of lyrical prose. Dorothy Allison is known for being provocative and confrontational, and her memoir is no exception.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Alice Walker has said that she doesn’t identify as a lesbian or bisexual, but she’s not straight. Her most famous work, The Color Purple, centers a relationship between two women, Celie and Shug, within a winding tale of abuse, violence, and resilience. Shug Avery, a blues singer, spends most of this epistolary novel nurturing and loving Celie, eventually helping her escape her abusive husband.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

This novel by Fannie Flagg was adapted for film in 1991. The film is beautiful, but the novel, which follows the lives of Southern women in the fictional town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, is much more vibrant and diverse. While the lesbian themes in the film are only hinted at, Flagg’s novel paints Idgie and Ruth’s relationship as overtly romantic. If you love Southern food, crying, and lesbians, read this book.

Cooking in Heels: A Memoir Cookbook by Ceyenne Doroshow

I really wanted to include food writing on this list, because if there’s one thing Southerners love, it’s food. I love the idea of a “memoir cookbook,” and it’s everything I wanted and more. Ceyenne Doroshow is a transgender writer and activist raised in Brooklyn, but this cookbook is decidedly Southern. She shares stories from her life alongside classic Southern recipes like “Grandbaby’s Spare Ribs” and deviled eggs.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

I couldn’t write a list of great Southern literature without including at least one Southern gothic choice, and I couldn’t write a list of gay Southern literature without including Truman Capote, so here I’ve managed both. Other Voices, Other Rooms was Capote’s first novel, written in the Southern gothic tradition. It’s deeply autobiographical, recounting the time Capote spent growing up in Alabama with his childhood friend and fellow Southern writer Harper Lee.

Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South, edited by Connie Griffin

This 2015 anthology, edited by Connie Griffin, features LGBT writers across the gender spectrum, all navigating the intersection between two sometimes disparate identities. Dorothy Allison provides the forward for this collection, and what follows are sixteen stories of survival, audacity and hope. In “Ben’s Eyes”, Ernest Clay tells the posthumous story of his longtime partner, Louie, growing up as a black gay man in the South and discovering his identity. Elizabeth Craven’s “Almost Heaven” explores the intersections of identity, family and Christianity.

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones

I love to think of Saeed Jones as a Southern poet. I’m not sure if he thinks of himself that way, but it gives me a great amount of joy when I read his work. His debut collection, published in 2014, is brutal and unsparing, but at times tender in a way that feels harsh. The poems explore ideas of isolation, connectivity and beauty, and question what it’s like to leave a mark on another person’s body, another person’s history. It’s a stunning collection, worthy of every praise.

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