As any LGBTQ+ person can attest, coming out is a process that never really ends, for better and for worse. In my case, I spent so long letting other people (read: straight people) define the boundaries for coming out that I believed that my life as a gay and queer person could not begin until I “came out.” But I never really knew what that meant, because I had the privilege of having the traditional practice of coming out not appeal to me at all. If anything, my own coming out process began when I started unlearning my own internalized heteronormativity and embracing whoever I wanted to be when I wanted to be him. But coming out is something that is different for every single person, and it’s up to you to dictate how it goes.
Thus, I have compiled this list of books for gay teens who have just come out. There’s some here that helped me during my own coming out period as well as some diverse recommendations for people of varying ethnicities and backgrounds. Take these books for gay teens as mere suggestions and not required reading for out and proud homosexuals, because like I said, it’s up to you to define who you are and how you want to be them — no matter how much society tries to convince you otherwise.
Books for Gay Teens
When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones
I sought this book out after having seen the author’s life and activism portrayed in the film Milk and miniseries When We Rise, and it did not disappoint. (To quote my Goodreads review from 2017, “Can someone help me find my heart? Because this book just ripped it from my chest.”) Born in 1954, Cleve Jones was born in the last generation of gay men who grew up wondering if other people like him existed. Turns out there were, as thousands of LGBTQ+ people were drawn to San Francisco in the 1970s, fueled by changing social norms and progressive politics. But Jones’s life in the gay rights movement, including working alongside Harvey Milk, was not without its upheavals, given the AIDS crisis into the ‘80s, same-sex marriage in the 2000s, and the continued fight for LGBTQ+ equality that continues today. When We Rise is the story of it all, and it’s sure to enthrall new generations of gay youth who yearn to understand how we got to where we are.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Agoraphobic Solomon is 16 and hasn’t left the house in three years. Lisa desperately wants to get into a prestigious college psychology program, but is her relentless ambition enough to seal the deal? Having heard about Solomon’s condition at school, she and her charming boyfriend Clark enter his world, determined to become his friends — with perhaps some ulterior motives on Lisa’s part. But as Sol and Clark begin to grow closer, these three unlikely friends are forced to question everything they’ve ever known about life, love, and living authentically.
Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis by Kevin J. Mumford
Tracing the history of the Black gay rights movement from the 1950s through the 1990s, Not Straight, Not White is required reading for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of what it means to discriminate and what it means to belong. Touching on everything from gay liberation to AIDS, the author does not hold back in exploring how Black gay activists, writers, and performers fought prejudice and racism at every turn, but never letting it affect how much they could accomplish. Including both the famous and unknown Black activists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Not Straight, Not White seeks to educate and inform on the ways in which Black gay men before us have paved the way for social change — regardless of how much further we have to go. A must in a list of books for gay teens.
We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar
My So-Called Life meets When We Rise in this heartbreaking coming-of-age tale. In early 1980s New York, 16-year-old Michael enjoys living in the shadows of his best friends: James, a queer performance artist whom everyone wants but no one can have, and Becky, a straight shooter who just wants to protect her friends. Michael knows he likes boys but makes the wise choice to keep a low profile, since his brother Connor was kicked out of the house for being gay, not to mention the misunderstood AIDS that’s beginning to plague gay people. To pass the time, Michael and his friends hang out at The Echo, a dance club where labels don’t seem to matter as long as you’re dancing. But then Gabriel enters his life, and Michael must decide what he’s willing to risk for the chance of a first love.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Instead of getting dirty and playing cricket with his brother, Arjie prefers to dress up as a girl. Funny Boy chronicles Arjie’s coming of age, from his childhood to his turbulent adolescence, where he battles racism and homophobia at every turn. War in Sri Lanka also begins to affect his family’s comfortable lifestyle, which forces violence and soon tragedy into their lives. Combining political and personal narratives, Funny Boy wants us to consider what happens when we dare to live as our most authentic selves regardless of the odds stacked against us.
How We Fight For Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones’s memoir recounts the narrative of a young Black gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence — into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Offering a grand examination into the personal politics of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief, How We Fight For Our Lives is the story of how we both hurt and help each other as we fight to become ourselves.
Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette
Born into a small New England town in the 1950s, Paul Monette struggled for most of his life to imitate a straight man. Although he made up for it by being “perfect Paul” with straight A’s and as the star of social and literary pursuits, he never feels truly happy and at home in his own skin. Spanning a youth of Ivy League colleges of privilege, living abroad, loveless intimacy, and unrequited passion, he is haunted and finally saved by the image he’s been yearning for his entire life, something he’d never seen with his own eyes: two men in love and laughing. Tragic but necessary, Becoming a Man is essential reading for young gays seeking to understand an entire generation wiped out by the AIDS crisis.
Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers
Charlene Carruthers’s first book seeks to upend mainstream ideas about race, class, and gender and proposes an inclusive path to liberation for all. Her inclusive story about Black struggle draws on Black intellectual and grassroots organizing traditions including the Haitian Revolution, U.S. Civil Rights, and Black and LGBTQ+ Feminist Movements. Bold in its approach and honest in its storytelling, Unapologetic is an inside look from an activist seeking to make a difference, but more importantly, demanding change.
You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan
Who knows you well? Your best friend? Your boyfriend or girlfriend? A stranger you meet on a crazy night? No one, really? Despite the fact that Mark and Kate have sat next to each other in class for an entire school year, their paths have never really crossed — until one night, after Kate has just blown her chances with the girl she loves and Mark is torn, in love with his best friend Ryan and not sure if he feels the same way. In just a short time, Mark and Kate find everything they’ve been looking for in each other, in a way neither of them have ever quite felt before. Written in alternating points of view by LaCour and Levithan, You Know Me Well is a heart-aching story of first (gay) loves, and all the messy, glorious feelings that come along with them.
Finlater by Shawn Stewart Ruff
Both a coming-of-age tale and a love story, Finlater is set against the racially charged backdrop of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1970s. Cliffy is Black and Noah is Jewish, so they already aren’t allowed to be friends on paper. But as situations continue to thrust them together, the boys find kindred spirits in each other and soon realize their relationship goes beyond just friends. Neither boy has ever had a friend quite like the other, but how do you be with someone you’re not allowed to love?
Heartstopper: Volume One by Alice Oseman
This graphic novel series full of heart and personality is sure to capture your attention from the very first page. Charlie is a highly-strung, openly gay overthinker. Nick is a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player. The boys meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but neither of them can deny that there’s room and desire for something more. They quickly become friends, and soon Charlie is falling hard for Nick, even though he doesn’t think he has a chance. But as both boys are about to learn, love and human attraction work in mysterious ways.
Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
And last in this list of books for gay teens who’ve just come out, Kochan is an adolescent boy tortured by his secret attraction to men. He wants to be “normal,” but given that he’s scrawny and therefore unable to meet the standards of the strong, athletic boys in his class, his chances are slim. Things get even worse when his attraction to the same sex is exacerbated by his sudden crush on his friend Omi, and he even attempts to date a girl named Sonoko to distract from his burgeoning homosexuality. But when word of the War reaches Japan, Kochan must consider his place in the world and what he’s willing to risk to truly be himself.
There you have it: 12 of the best books for gay teens. Which books would you recommend to someone who has just come out?