I chose these 20 must read coming out stories for their uniqueness, the charm of the characters, and the varied experiences that they represent. Coming out is an ephemeral act, because as soon as you’ve told one person, there’s another who doesn’t know yet. And even when you are out to everyone in your life, what about the new people you meet at work? What about when you switch jobs after that and meet a whole bunch of new people? It can feel empowering, but also exhausting. After all, it is a process — rarely do we come out once, but over and over again throughout our lives. Reading books about this shared experience can therefore bring LGBTQ+ readers a lot of comfort.
Generally, these coming out stories share common features but also tell of wildly different experiences — the characters range in ages, gender, religion, culture, race, and class. Each story has complications, beauty, and nuance. Coming out is rarely simple, and most of these characters do the best they can to lead honest and open lives. I’d also like to recommend that if you enjoy these books, you might also want to take a look at this list of must read LGBTQ fiction and this list of YA coming out stories.
Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue
This charming novel is an excellent example of the ol’ coming-of-age and coming out double whammy, and it’s one of the first books I ever read with a lesbian plot. Maria has just moved from rural Ireland to Dublin for university. After answering a coded roommate ad, she unknowingly moves in with a lesbian couple, Ruth and Jael. And thus begins a complicated, maddening relationship with them that leads her to try to understand her relationship with desire.
I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif
This love story is a real pageturner, with endearing characters and a heartfelt story about coming out in a tradition-devoted family. Tala is Palestinian, and while preparing for her wedding, she meets friend-of-a-friend Leyla, a young British Indian woman, and a sexy romance develops. Can Tala find it in herself to extricate herself from an engagement she no longer wants and follow her heart?
Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
Barry and Morris have secretly been lovers since they were teens; now, they are in their mid-70s. Using their families as cover, the elderly, Caribbean-born Londoners have evaded uncomfortable questions for decades. But Barry starts thinking that something needs to finally shift, only he isn’t sure that he has the courage to go through with leaving his wife and moving in with his real, true love. This book is a delight — brimming with vivid setting, charmingly well-developed characters, and a plot that had me on the edge of my feet throughout.
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
Niru is 18, a Nigerian high school senior, bound for Harvard and a bright and shiny future. He has a secret, though — he’s gay and has only ever told his best friend Meredith. Unfortunately, when his father finds out, the story takes a shocking twist in this beautifully written but heartbreaking novel.
Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong
Handong is all about his career as a successful businessman until he meets Lan Yu, a working-class architectural student. Their explosive attraction begins a stormy and volatile affair set against China’s political demonstrations in the late ’80s. Written in 1996, Bei Tong is the pen name of a still-anonymous author, and the book has become a cult classic for being the first gay novel from mainland China.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Danforth packs these pages with some very sexy writing and thoughtful commentary on homophobia. After her parents die in a car crash, Cameron moves in with her conservative relatives. When her affair with Coley, a new girl in town, is discovered, Cam is shipped off to conversion therapy camp. Cam and her fellow camper’s stories will resonate for readers long after they shut the book for the last time.
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
I’ve written about this before, but honestly, you can’t compile a must-read coming out list without it. And so: Juliet is a queer Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, and after coming out to her mom at her going away dinner, she flies off for a summer internship in Portland with white feminist author Harlowe. Juliet’s story involves getting her heart broken for the first time, learning about other queer people in her family, meeting a community of brilliant, queer Black writers, and dating a sexy library intern named Kira.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
This weird tale is about Jeanette, a fictionalized version of Winterson herself. Adopted and raised by a very religious mother, Jeanette is passionately invested in the church and on track to become a missionary. Until one fateful day, when her life’s trajectory shifts as she falls for another girl, one of her converts. Thus begins Jeanette’s attempts to find her own way through the world.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
Ijeoma is 11 years old when her father dies, and on top of that emotional loss, she and her mother go from living in an upper-class home to a working-class one. Civil war has broken out in Nigeria, so Ijeoma is sent away by her mother to live somewhere safer. When Ijeoma eventually meets and falls in love with another girl, she has to reckon with that discovery amidst a conservative society. The story continues into Ijeoma’s adulthood, and Okparanta’s dreamy style of writing suits this thoughtful story perfectly.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
This is a true story, written and illustrated by Bechdel, the well-known lesbian writer and cartoonist of Dykes to Watch Out For. An out lesbian, she discovered during college that her father was also queer and that he was closeted her whole life. The subtitle “A Family Tragicomic” really sets you up for the rollercoaster of emotions that follow.
Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
Gilda is a 27-year-old atheist and lesbian, totally consumed with death. At a loss with how to spend her time (she can’t keep a job), she seeks mental health support at a church group. Hired unexpectedly by the church, Gilda needs to maintain a ruse that hides her religious (non)beliefs and sexual orientation. Perpetual lying isn’t so easy for the chronically anxious (I speak from experience here), so her awkward behaviour causes further hijinks and shenanigans.
The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt
It’s the 1980s, and things are changing: Manhattan is gentrified; the AIDS epidemic has begun; and 25-year-old Phillip has realized that he needs to come out to his parents, Rose and Owen. He and his mother both don’t know that Owen is also gay and has been visiting gay porn theatres weekly for years. Beautifully drawn characters make this a memorable novel that has been a classic since its publication.
The Magician by Colm Tóibín
Have you ever read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice? Well, I have, and it definitely seems like it was written by someone pretty darn closeted. Which, as it turns out, is the case. Once Mann’s diaries were found after his death, he was finally found out. Overall, Tóibín weaves an epic story based on Mann’s life, blending fact and fiction to astounding effect.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s classic is so good, set amidst the glamour and squalor of the bohemian bars and nightclubs of 1950s Paris. David is an American living in Paris who has proposed to his girl Friday, Hella. But when she goes away on a trip, David meets Giovanni, a sexy Italian bartender. David and Giovanni’s affair leads to tortured feelings, as David swings between his two lovers until his internalized homophobia results in life-altering violence. And maybe that sounds like a bummer, but holy cannoli, can Baldwin write everything in a way that makes the reader feel like they are there and in it.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Not only does Arjie prefer spending time with girls, but he likes dressing up like them. Because of this, he is considered ‘funny’ by others — not funny haha, obviously, but funny strange. Personal and heartfelt, Arjie’s story is told through interconnected vignettes about his life as he grows up in Sri Lanka during a civil war, learns to accept himself as gay, and eventually immigrates to Canada.
Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon
Known as the “Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction,” Bannon introduces Beebo, a butch teen from a Wisconsin town. Poor Beebo was chased away for wearing drag to the State Fair, but she moves to New York and finds support from gay father figure Jack Mann. As with all pulp, the drama is a-plenty and the characters names are ridiculous (Venus Bogardus is a great one).
The Price of Salt, or Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Noteworthy for being an early example of a book featuring gay characters that got a happy ending, it was published initially by the successful Highsmith under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. It’s an engrossing read, part romance and part thriller, about a young salesgirl who falls passionately in love with a wealthy housewife. This is no mere melodrama; rather, a beautiful and affecting romance of the sort rarely told at the time.
Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks
What a difficult book to describe — Babysitter’s Club meets Veronica Mars meets Ghost meets Girl, Interrupted meets Judith Butler? Milks uses a ghost story to examine gender roles, transitioning, and anorexia. Whew. Set in the ’90s, Margaret is an angsty teen detective, still upset by the long-ago dissolution of her Girls Can Solve Anything club. The style jumps all over — preteen Margaret solving crimes with her friends; 17-year-old Margaret struggling with her weight, romantic attractions, and friendships; adult Margaret musing on gender. Overall, this eerie but earnest story brings readers along on a surprising but familiar journey.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
This was one of my fave reads of this past summer. It’s the very cute and entirely sad story of two young women in 1950s America, falling in love against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lily and Kathleen are wonderful and endearing characters, and Lo weaves a beautifully built world around them. The secret lesbian bar scenes made for an original, thrilling setting for this historical fiction romance — it really conjures what it’s like to be in a gay bar for the first time, excited and nervous and hopeful that you are behaving the right way.
At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
An epic love story set in Ireland during the time period leading up to the Easter Rising. Two teen boys, Jim and Doyler, meet and fall in love despite having little in common. While the plot can be cliché in some ways, the book is beautiful and O’Neill is masterful at spinning a yarn while capturing the experiences of falling in love and coming out.
So there you go, 20 must-read coming out stories. Regardless of whether you personally have ever lived the experience of coming out, these are well-written and delightful books that I know you’ll enjoy reading. These characters and their love stories are not easy to forget.