21 LGBT Biographies or Memoirs You Should Read Now

From German counts to Utah cave-dwellers, there's something for every reader on this list.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 13 2012 12:29 PM ET

My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped by Lev Raphael (Terrace Books, $26.95)

Lev Raphael’s parents survived the Holocaust and he’d sworn never to set foot in Germany, the land they escaped. Having published 19 books of fiction and prose, Raphael is one of the most prolific writers about the experiences of second-generation Holocaust survivors. When a book tour for his 2003 novel The German Money took him to Germany, he had to face his mixed emotions with visiting locations where his family had lived and died. Raphael’s experience is all the more intense as it corresponds with his coming out as a gay man.

This book is part family history and retelling of his mother’s experiences in a slave labor camp and part recollections of a childhood where his parents didn’t speak of their life-changing experiences. A classic travelogue meets a coming-out story, My Germany takes readers along on Raphael’s journey of growth and self-discovery and offers reconciliation with the past. (UWPress.Wisc.edu)

Derailed: A Memoir by Jerry Tanner (Balboa Press, $17.99)

Jerry Tanner started a $20 million health care company from the ground up. He then took over a bankrupt pharmacy and turned it into a $30 million company within one year. Then when the sons of an evangelical pastor alleged sexual assault, all that changed. In Derailed: A Memoir, Tanner describes how his life was turned upside down when reactions to his sexual orientation morphed into false misconduct allegations and finally a criminal indictment. "American society was founded on the principles of equality and tolerance," says Tanner. "I was a highly successful businessman and I was brought down by mere allegations of misconduct, plus being gay." An incisive coming-of-age story and a reminder that the legal system isn't always fair when you're on the wrong side of what your commuity considers morally right. (BalboaPress.com)

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press, $25)

This long-awaited memoir by the lesbian author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (which became a film, see video below) covers much of the same material as that autobiographical nove, but delves even deeper into her relationship with a religiously zealous adoptive mother who treated her like the spawn of Satan.

“Mrs. Winterson,” as Winterson calls her mother in the memoir,  was an enormous British woman and “flamboyant depressive… who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.” The elder Winterson waited wit h baited anticipation for an imminent biblical apocalypse that would strike down her godless neighbors and deliver her into the rapture her piety must have surely earned her. As must have raising Jeanette and doing her best to wrest the disobedient child into a god-fearing Christian. “The Devil led us to the wrong crib,” Mrs. Winterson liked to say.  She employed all of her resources in her fight against Satan, sparing neither rod nor scripture. But nothing — not beatings, shutting the child “in a coal hole,” nor routinely locking her out of the house all night — seemed to work.

Opposed as she was to all forms of intimacy, including [hetero]sexual intercourse, it came as no surprise that Mrs. Winterson did not take kindly to learning of her daughter’s lesbianism. But, the author writes, the ensuing three-day exorcism failed to expel her demons. That Winterson survived the torture of her childhood is astonishing. That she did so with her wit and mental faculties intact is inspirational. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” she jokes. In that reflection, Winterson came to recognize that her mother was both her kryptonite and her steel: “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift. My mother was in charge of language.”

The author was forbidden to read secular books, but Mrs. Winterson read aloud from the Bible every night and, once a  week, would send her daughter to the public library to check out murder mysteries (the one vice to which Mrs. Winterson was addicted). At the library, Winterson discovered a means of escape: “A book is a door. You open it. You step through.”

After Mrs. Winterson discovered and destroyed the author’s secret stash of paperbacks, Jeanette began creating her own stories inside her head. So, before you condemn the cruel Mrs. Winterson, consider that we may owe her those finely crafted stories that have filled the pages of Jeanette Winterson’s 16novels. (GroveAtlantic.com)

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