Before I came out as a lesbian, I read a lot of books. And I found that I could relate to anything because I didn’t relate to anything in particular.
Up to that point in my life, nothing had spoken to me – at least not in the way I wanted it to.
It seemed like I lived in a world of full people who knew exactly who they were – yet there I was, all alone, whittling away, wondering what label to apply to my skin.
Then one day, I woke up and realized I might be gay. That in spite of everything I thought I knew, my entire life might need to turn upside-down.
I started feeling like I was going to explode. Like there was a weight in my chest where my heart used to be. Like someone inside of me was throwing rocks at my ribcage.
I’d never contemplated my own sexuality or considered that I wasn’t pin-straight before – which is laughable now, but was very serious then. It’s easy to be 20 and think you know everything, especially about who you are, and I did.
I knew in one fell swoop I was wrong. And I knew I could never go back.
I came out to myself by letting myself whisper in my own ear that maybe I should buy some boy shorts or a leather jacket. I came out to myself by searching for someone who reminded me of myself, or even who I could become.
And suddenly, there were words everywhere.
I couldn’t stop reading the words of women like me: women who decided to live their truths, women who grappled with the world in the most personal ways, women who had to force society to accept their self-definition.
Women who fought for a language where they existed.
They made all of the long-dormant things inside of me wake up. They made me feel less alone. They made me feel more legitimate.
They reminded me I still existed. They reminded me that I, too, had a story. Books by queer and trans women helped me find and liberate my voice.
Here are five recent ones that set me free from feelings of disconnection and loneliness. I hope they can do something magical for you as well.
1. A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez
A Cup of Water is a memoir that mixes Hernandez’s life stories with commentary about class, race, gender, and sexuality.
I didn’t realize until I was reading it how badly I had wanted for someone to tell a story that sounded so much like my own.
She writes about the experience of growing up working-class in a religious, tight-knit family, leaving that world to pursue a higher education, and struggling to find her balance amidst all the change.
Her memoir is partly observations from her past and partly reflections on her present – and throughout, she tries to make sense out of feeling disconnected from both.
I deeply resonated with the vulnerable way she discusses being marginalized by her family and friends due to their prejudice against her queerness, alongside other social oppressions she discusses.
Similarly, my entire young adult life has been a jigsaw puzzle, and I’m currently working to reconcile my mother’s dreams for me with my own desires. I’m trying to make my working-class roots sit neatly next to my new disposable income. My experiences sometimes feel like they’re cutting away at what connects me to the women who raised me.
A Cup of Water Under My Bed is about learning to love who we are and who we’ve been, forgiving our families and ourselves and the world we’ve lived through, and what happens when being queer is one of the many ways we’ve been pushed to the outside of our culture and fought back to claim our own lives.
“I wanted, too, to testify. To say: This happened. I wrote it all down. To believe that my story, our story, any story stood by itself was dangerous. Feminists taught me this. Journalism confirmed it.” —Daisy Hernandez
2. Skies by Eileen Myles
Skies is a collection of poetry that unabashedly dives deep into the emotions of longing – kind of like how you stare up at the sky and look for something that would never be there, over and over again.
These poems are about love and heartache, the moments where you feel yourself being changed, but you’re not quite sure just how yet, and really trying to know yourself.
Skies changed everything for me.
I read it all at once, then in small pieces, and sometimes even aloud to my friends. I wrote down passages in my notebooks so I could see them when I was lost in the world. I lived inside of it.
It was uncanny how connected my own story was to Eileen’s poetry, how much I had in common in 2010 with her feelings from 2001. It was like she knew – about my trip to New York where I realized I couldn’t pretend anymore, about how many of my thoughts were consumed by one person’s place in my life, about how weird it felt to finally be really alive.
Skies reminded me that everything I was feeling had been felt before and that someone else had gotten through it.
Ultimately, it made it possible for me to finally say those feelings out loud.
3. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Redefining Realness is the perfect name for Janet Mock’s memoir. It reminds us that our entire reality is our own creation.
Against all odds, Janet Mock stood tall and demanded to be seen, recognized, appreciated, and valued exactly as she was and would be. Coming out as trans was a journey that took her entire early life, but none of that makes the steps along the way less important.
Her story drives home the point that every little piece of our lives, even the ones that happened to us or that we made happen before we screamed out loud to the world that we were who we are, are still a part of us.
Coming out as queer was hard for me because it felt like a goodbye instead of a hello, and that made me feel like I’d lost myself. For two decades, I’d been someone else entirely, and coming out made it feel like I was leaving her behind instead of inviting someone else in.
Often, I needed to remind myself that just because I’d realized something huge about myself didn’t mean I wasn’t me anymore. I was just even more of myself than I’d ever predicted I’d be ready to be.
Redefining Realness helped me recognize that even if I wasn’t the exact same person I am right now years ago, that even if I made the decisions I made because I was living in someone else’s life, those experiences still made me who I was – and that the sometimes-unseen queer inside me was always lighting my path.
“When I think of identity, I think of our bodies and souls and the influences of family, culture, and community – the ingredients that make us… I’m still journeying toward that place where I’m comfortable in this nakedness, standing firmly in my interlocking identities.” —Janet Mock
4. The Beautifully Worthless by Ali Liebgott
I wanted to read The Beautifully Worthless because it had been described as a woman-led version of On the Road.
I’d been hungry for a version of Kerouac’s masterpiece that rang more true to my own life since I had originally read it, thirsting for a tale of adventure that let me see myself in the driver’s seat.
The Beautifully Worthless smashes prose and poetry together to tell the story of a runaway lesbian waitress who crosses the country away from her lover to find a town she dreamt about. She tells her own story through a series of letters to the girl she left behind, covering everything from her regrets about the past to her journey forward.
Throughout a lot of my life, I was a runaway. Sure, I never packed up my car and put my dog in the passenger seat and set out for Camus, Idaho. I never walked through caves or stayed in cheap motels in search of my answers. But I’d spent a long time before I came out running away from who I was.
When it came to fight-or-flight, I was always opening up my wings.
I always hated confrontation and negativity, so much so that I’d based my entire life around avoiding it and navigating my way away from it.
I ran from trouble, from obstacles, from things that scared me, from people I didn’t want to see in the cafeteria, from hard situations that seemed insurmountable.
And when the relationship that made me certain that I knew myself fell apart, all I wanted to do was run away again. From everything.
Instead, of course, I stayed. And I survived. I rebuilt myself, and my understanding of the world, and my ability to envision a future without her in it.
Along the way, I still got to make a handful of senseless and stupid and courageous decisions. I still got to stand in the wind and feel it move my hair. I still got to get in cars and get away. I still bought bus tickets and planned escape routes and dreamed of packing everything up and going by the wayside.
Breaking up, like coming out, is sometimes an important part of getting free. It can be scary to look at yourself and know exactly who you are. It can be terrifying to lose the person who helped you recognize your reflection.
This book reminded me that the only way out is through, and that that way is an adventure in and of itself.
“I know what it feels like to have nothing to lose.
Looking over my shoulder on the dark street
Kill me if you’re going to kill me motherfucker
I waited to be touched by the hand of God.
Who hasn’t waited to be touched by the hand of God?
Still we have to buy our groceries
and be interesting lovers while we wait.”
5. Cheers! by Denice Bourbon
Cheers! is the story of Denice Bourbon’s rise to infamy – one in which she struggles with her sexuality, finds balance between riot grrl and drama queen, and spits out social commentary while she learns who she is.
I’ve always been very into memoirs and biographies, so you can imagine my excitement at having finally found one that read like my own journal.
Denice is fabulous, funny, flawed, and brilliant. Her book reminded me that it was okay to be utterly human – that even people with big dreams were allowed to be ridiculous and silly and emotional and complex. Also, her dog looks a lot like mine, so probably we are soul twins.
What drew me to Cheers in particular, though, was the light inside Denice and how brightly it shined out.
It’s clear throughout the text that no matter what predicament she finds herself in, what social construct she’s smashing, or what she’s struggling with, she still recognizes her own greatness and wants, mostly, to honor herself.
It’s uncommon to hear women’s stories with that underlying consciousness within them – and finally finding a story about a woman who was willing to say “I am exactly who I am, and I am still worthy” was deeply moving.
So often, when I read queer narratives, I see a piece of me or a glimmer of the person I wish I was becoming. But Cheers is about the whole thick of the journey – the messy part. And that’s smack-dab where I’ve been at for a little while.
“No, I’m not lending this soundtrack to anyone else. Instead, maybe I will sing this out loud to myself. As an introduction. To poke fun at my own inadequacy. Because a person able to make fun of herself in a snappy, clever way is truly someone impressive. Right?” —Denise Bourbon
Since I’ve come out, I’ve learned a lot about myself – and often, I learned it from someone else.
These are the books that set me free, but there have been many more that lightened my heart or raised up the tiniest voice in my head.
Learning the stories behind other queer people and their lives is a source of strength, a way of lifting myself up, my own version of a fount of wisdom. I want to absorb things about other people’s lives into my own, and reading is the easiest way.
I’m gay and I have a story to tell. Without these books, I don’t know how I ever would have found the words.
Carmen Rios is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She splits her time disparately between feminist rabble-rousing, writing, public speaking, and flower-picking. A professional feminist by day and overemotional writer by night, Carmen is currently Communications Coordinator at the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Feminism and Community Editor at Autostraddle. You can follow her on Twitter @carmenriosss and Tumblr to learn more about her feelings.