5 Essential Feminist/LGBTQ+ Reads

These books are for those looking to expand their understanding of feminism and how it fits into social issues.

I found reading LGBTQ+ literature and theory to be a good way to reconcile some of the inconsistencies and problems I had with how people talked about feminism in my friend group and community. I find that LGBTQ+ literature asks the right questions and opens up room for diversity of gender expression and sexuality. 

1. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Image Via: Asymptote Journal

What hooked me about this book was its sensitivity as a love letter, which taught me a lot about love and committed relationships. Written in the second-person, Nelson talks about the progression of her relationship with her significant other (S.O.) who is gender-fluid. From the outset, she introduces a frustration with gendered labels imposed upon their relationship, as well as a desire to simplify down to the essence of you, to appreciate her S.O. as they are. 

Nelson frankly examines issues of sexuality as they emerge within her relationship and family-building experiences. For example, she discusses the difficulties of acknowledging one’s own sexuality and sexual needs enough to express them to a partner. She also talks about her experience with pregnancy via in vitro fertilization at the same time as her S.O. started taking testosterone injections. 

The tile “Argonauts” is based on the Greek myth of Jason’s ship, Argo, which had its parts replaced as to effectively become a whole other ship, yet retained its original name. The name here is used as a metaphor for gender identity, Nelson’s label-defying relationship, and bodily transformation.

2. Against Memoir by Michelle Tea

Image Via: The Guardian

In this personal essay collection, Tea talks about as diverse topics, including sexualization of women, punk rock music, the controversial Womyns Music Festival, and the what an “equal marriage” looks like in terms of role distribution. All of her essays take on a personal lens to Tea’s interests and life story, but resist the typical memoir that is a mere documentation of one’s life progress and work. Tea’s writing is scholarly yet can be intensely personal. Her writing opens up the possibilities of feminism to include queer, trans, masculine expressing, and other LGBTQ+ identities. She furthermore devotionally examines LGBTQ+ issues and celebrates their manifold identities through specific topical discussions and related cultural and media tributes. 

3. Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Image Via: Meme

Serano’s Whipping Girl has been considered a seminal text about understanding transgender experience, as well as gender expression in general. It's intended for all gender-identities to be able to connect with. She distinguishes her discussion on trans issues from sexuality, but also discusses that topic significantly. She provides definitions to clarify, defining political correctness, making it feel academic without being stuffy. Each chapter of this essay collection deals with a specific issue, which can lead to some reiteration of concepts. The repetition can be redundant, but I found helpful for driving home certain initially difficult concepts. The title is based on the term “whipping boy,” meaning one who is blamed and/or punished for the fault or incompetence of others. As a self-identified trans woman, Julia Serano is advocating for the recognition of social systems that persistently punish non-cisgender or non-essentialized gender identities and feminine-expressing individuals.

4. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

Image Via: Meme

The Vagina Monologues has been criticized for rigidly linking vaginas with a female identity. Ensler only interviews cisgender women, which denies the existence trans identities, i.e. masculine bodies with vaginas, women without vaginas, etc. Some other criticism has been that Ensler links gender with sexuality, in talking about the functional range of a vagina. However, I’m listing it here because I think it serves a specific function within our heterosexual society when not considered the sole definition of feminism. Ensler specifically deals with the issue of the vagina being made invisible or thought to be “gross.” Her text attempts to deconstruct the negative connotations around female-sex genitalia as a way of more directly empowering women and helping them take ownership of their bodies and sexuality, and I appreciate the explicit nature of the material.

5. Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay

Image Via: Electric Literature

Unlike the other books I listed above, Difficult Women is a fictional short-story collection in which Gay talks about many women’s issues while navigating a patriarchal world. One gets the sense that women are constantly at risk of being taken advantage of, which isn’t necessarily the case, but is a concentration of these issues. The title “difficult women” is a sardonic comment on how patriarchal social systems disregard women and women’s issues, especially in this climate of the #MeToo movement’s aftermath, when women are shot down or their experiences invalidated. This collection is at times difficult to read, so use discretion if some topics are triggering for you.