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The Best LGBTQ Memoirs of 2019

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Native Country of the Heart by Cherríe Moraga is not just a personal memoir but also a heartfelt biography of the feminist Chicana’s mother, Elvira. In the first half of the book, Moraga tells the story of Elvira’s early life, a strong and resilient Mexican-American woman who had spent her depression-era childhood picking cotton in Southern California. Moving into her own story, Moraga recalls the dualities and conflict she felt as a child and young woman growing up queer in a Catholic, half-Mexican, half-Anglo household. Still, the story never ventures far from the true heart of the story, her relationship with her mother — who responded to Moraga’s coming out by asking, “How could you think that there is anything in this life you could do that you wouldn’t be my daughter?” The final section of the book becomes a moving memoir on illness and dying as the poet, playwright, and essayist recalls Elvira’s final years battling Alzheimer’s. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — Desiree Guerrero

Mr. Know-It-All by John Waters, the man known best for his cult comedies like Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, is a sinfully fun memoir full of juicy Hollywood anecdotes as well as a manual for living your best, most fabulous life — Waters-style. From tips on how to “fail upward” in Hollywood, to creating a home “so ugly and trendy that no one but you would dare to live in it,” Waters delivers it all with his signature smutty-yet-sophisticated rapier wit. And he’s not afraid to name-drop either. The book also includes fond and often hilarious memories involving some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Divine, Kathleen Turner, Johnny Depp, and Patricia Hearst. “Beyond the expected raucous stories of a life in radical showbiz,” writes author Alex Ross (The Rest Is Moise), “Mr. Know-It-All is steeped in pungent wisdom; it shows you how to live freely [and] make fearless art.” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — DG

I Know Who You Are, But What Am I? is author Ali Sands’s refreshingly frank exploration of gender, love, community, and identity when her (previously female-identified) partner comes out as a transgender man. Few partner books on the market today take us on the journey from coming out to hormones, surgery, and social transition with a happy ending, but Sands stands by her man as her relationship evolves along with both of them. It’s a poignant and transparent memoir that has Sands, after finally coming out queer, wondering what this new change means not only for her relationship but for her own identity. After determining you are a queer woman, who wants to be with queer women? What does it mean to suddenly have your butch come out as a man? What do we lose when our relationships no longer signal to the world that we’re queer, the way same-sex relationships do, and the community we’ve come to love feels at arm’s length at times, especially through no fault of our own? Sands asks these questions and sometimes answers them, but other times does not because there is no real answer. The battle to exist in the LGBTQ community, to be seen and to belong, is a battle for folks who “could” blend into the straight world, even if they don’t identify with it. Sands, now an engaging public speaker with her own TED talk,  relied on the Minneapolis LGBTQ community, her own chosen family, and her own enduring love and devotion to navigate all this, aligning her whole life with the mission to bring visibility to families like her own. Her book is the first step in making her own relationship and those like it universally relevant to the rest of us. (Thomas Noble Books) — Diane Anderson-Minshall

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Breaking the Ruhls: A Memoir by Larry Ruhl is the heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring account of the author’s troubled childhood and adolescence, and how he eventually was able to heal, reclaim his life, and now help others cope with similar traumas. While his mother’s untreated mental illness kept the family walking on eggshells, Ruhl’s father was secretly abusing him sexually. By his senior year, he was overwhelmingly depressed and suicidal. For decades, Ruhl was lost in this darkness and struggled with addiction, sexual confusion, and career struggles. Still, the book beautifully illustrates how, despite the traumas one can experience in life, you always possess the power to heal, transform, and thrive. (Central Recovery Press) — DG

Selling Dead People’s Things by gay antique expert Duane Scott Cerny is an unexpected look at the importance of possessions in life and death. Cerny’s Chicago antique shop is a mecca for spectators and serious buyers alike and each item in his store has a story. Over a lifetime of experience, Cerny has seen it all, and his stories reveal great insight into how we as a society view and value property. There are also some surprisingly creepy chapters worthy of inclusion in an anthology of horror. Particularly haunting episodes involve a ghostly writing desk and an abandoned hospital infamous for its experiments. These true tales offer insight into the multibillion-dollar resale trade business but also reveal how our relationship with our possessions often goes much deeper than simple ownership. And with Cerny’s witty and engaging style, the book may have you thinking differently about tossing that ugly lamp your dearly departed great-aunt cherished. (Thunderground Press) — Donald Padgett

The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation by Human Rights Campaign board member Jodie Patterson starts with ruminations on her place in a long lineage of strong, well-educated Black women. She’s seen her three children as a continuation of that maternal line, until her 3-year-old announces, “I’m not a girl. I’m a boy.” While the familial love and acceptance never falters, it awakens Patterson to the plight of trans people — and the parallels to what she calls “the mechanics of oppression.” Less about her son’s transition, and more her own “transition of the human spirit,” The Bold World reminds us that even things that appear immutable can change. (Ballantine) — Jacob Anderson-Minshall

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The Light Years by Chris Rush is the artist’s retelling of his wild and turbulent early life from a young child to a young man. For Rush, his life had all the trappings and appearance of a normal, moderately affluent, late 1950s and early ‘60s life. His father ran a highly successful construction company. His mother was always impeccably dressed, her house modern and immaculate. He had an older sister, and three younger brothers. Life seemed idyllic, but in fact there were disturbing secrets boiling just below the surface. At the age of 12, Rush finds himself casually drawn into experimenting with drugs with the help of her older now-hippie sister and her friends. Talented, sensitive, naïve, and artistic, he is sent away to a boarding school where he soon becomes a dealer of marijuana to his fellow students. Not long after, he is selling LSD, which eventually leads to his hushed expulsion. Meanwhile, Rush’s family is slowly falling apart. Dad is drinking heavily while Mom descends into depression and abuse of prescribed “diet pills,” so prevalent at that time. Rush leaves home and by the age of 15 he ends up working with a major drug distributor, earning thousands of dollars but slowly losing his grip on reality in the process. Eventually homeless, he takes his drugs and profits, and lives on a mountaintop just outside Tucson. Rush is temporarily saved by an old friend, but an overdose and near-death experience is the only thing that finally puts him on the road to recovery and personal redemption. The Light Years is an amazing memoir due not just to its amazing yet true content, but also in the light and airy writing style that still is able to effortlessly land a punch to the gut. (Farrah, Straus and Giroux) — DP

No Walls and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco follows the life and career of the bisexual artist and activist who never sacrificed her moral compass to advance her career. From her childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., as an emancipated minor to her opening her own recording label to maintain creative and ethical control of her work, DiFranco is a pioneer in both art and activism. Never one to shy away from controversy in the pursuit of social justice, a sane approach to climate, and a defiant stance in support of women and feminism, the singer is revealed as a tireless individual in pursuit of her goals. The Grammy Award-winning artist who challenged the synthesized music of the ‘80s with her own unpolished, authentic aesthetic released under her Righteous Babe Records label. Using the power of music and poetry to channel her feminism and political activism in pursuit of causes from prison reform to environmental stewardship, No Walls and the Recurring Dream is a primer for socially-aware artists who wish to be impactful within society while maintaining their artistic integrity. (Viking) — DP

Too Much Is Not Enough by gay actor Andrew Rannells is the deeply personal yet relatable story of one boy’s journey from the closet in Nebraska to the lights of Broadway. His resume is impressive enough, from the chorus of Hairspray to center stage in Book of Mormon, but before his successes came some horrible auditions, crushed hearts, and disappointed dreams. Rannells is open and frank about the commitment and trials that must be endured to achieve your goals. The high of getting cast in his first Broadway role was quickly overshadowed by the daunting task of having to master the role in two weeks. And, of course, the gods of theater made sure his opening night was a memorable one. He also talks of the tragic loss of his father, and a heartrending betrayal on the eve of his success. It was never easy for Rannells. He did not achieve stability and success as an actor until the age of 32 and his third Broadway show. Too Much Is Not Enough tells the story of those lost years, but also follows his personal growth as he seeks over time to reconcile his present self with that of his fearful and closeted past. (Crown Archetype) — DP

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Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color by Gilbert Baker is the story of the artist and activist who created the iconic symbol of the LGBTQ movement. Baker grew up a baby boomer in Kansas, but felt repressed in his conservative environment. After a brief stint training in the U.S. Army, he found himself in San Francisco. The young man from the Midwest found a welcoming and supportive LGBTQ community. In time, Baker began to establish himself as a designer and artist. It was his creation of the Rainbow Flag that would provide the burgeoning community with a visual symbol around which to rally. Baker created the flag as a proclamation of power for San Francisco’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day parade. Designed to capture the joyful liberation of sexual identity, the original flag was composed of eight colors representing sex, life, healing, the sun, nature, magic, serenity, and spirit. Pink and turquoise were later removed due to production issues, but the Rainbow Flag had been born. Rainbow Warrior: My Life in Color tells of those early San Francisco days when liberating change seemed within grasp, only to be followed by the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and the impending HIV crisis. It then follows Baker and his life of art and advocacy, from his drag shows with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to presenting a hand-dyed Rainbow Flag to President Barack Obama at the White House in 2016 for LGBT Pride Month. (Chicago Review Press) — DP

Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing by Elissa Altman is an honest look at what happened when a successful author became a caregiver for her suddenly incapacitated mother. Altman was finally at a place of peace and calm in her life. She was a successful author, foodie, and blogger, happily living in New England with her wife of 20 years. She had avoided the orbit of her overreaching, narcissistic Manhattan singer mother, and planned on continuing to do so. Then she receives news that her mother has taken a serious fall. What follows is their story — a taciturn New England daughter suddenly forced to become caregiver to the mother who had responded to her coming out by disparaging her preference for wearing suits (they made her "look like Fran Liebowitz"). By book’s end, though, both daughter and reader will come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the at once infuriating and endearing woman that is Altman’s mother, in part because of the simple yet heartbreaking revelation of just why she spent her life chasing beauty. This humorous, touching, deeply revealing memoir is sure to connect with a wide audience, as an estimated 43 million Americans, mostly women between the ages of 40 to 60, now find themselves in the role of inadvertent caregiver to a parent. (Ballantine Books) — DP

The Lie: A Memoir of Two Marriages, Catfishing & Coming Out by William Dameron is the deeply personal memoir of the award-winning blogger, memoirist, and essayist. Someone had stolen Dameron’s picture and used it to hook or “catfish” countless women into believing the fictitious persona displayed on various social media and dating websites. Emails began to appear in his inbox. Some asked if he knew them, while others lamented how the lie of the catfishing had left them feeling empty. For Dameron, though, this was more than just a case of stolen identity because he himself had been living a lie for more than 20 years. He was gay and in the closet, a fact that he had carefully guarded from the world, his wife, and his two daughters. In this unflinchingly honest portrait of his life and struggles to come to terms with his true identity, Dameron writes of the shame and homophobia of his childhood, his addiction to steroids, and ultimately the destruction his secret wreaked upon his own family. The Lie is a candid memoir of denial, faking it, betrayal, the struggle to accept one’s self, and ultimately the power and liberation of coming out. (Little A Books) — DP

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A Wild and Precious Life by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon is the personal memoir of the civil rights icon who helped changed the country with her landmark 2013 Supreme Court case recognizing marriage equality. Aside from her work as a civil rights activist, Windsor was also a pioneer for women in the male-dominated technology sector. She worked on the Univac computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and later worked at IBM. Here she became one of the few women to rise to the highest technical rank of senior systems programmer, and also contributed on the team developing IBM’s first computer software. Windsor began writing A Wild and Precious Life before her passing. It was completed by Joshua Lyon with cooperation from Judith Kasen-Windsor, who was married to Windsor in 2016 following the Supreme Court’s decision. The memoir makes extensive use of the late icon’s extensive archives of personal papers that stretch back to the 1940s. The book details her childhood in Philadelphia, the realization of her own sexuality, and her participation in the early gay scene of Greenwich Village. A Wild and Precious Life takes its title from a poem quoted by Hillary Clinton in her eulogy for Windsor, and perfectly encapsulates the essence of an amazing person and life. (St. Martin’s Press) — DP

Joe Kennedy Looks Back: An Aging Activist’s Personal Memoir in Words & Pictures by Joe Kennedy tells the story of the writer and activist. Kennedy was an early stringer for The Advocate from his home in New York City back in the 1970s. The period was alive with both hate and activism. Kennedy was in the middle of everything, writing stories and taking pictures that frame life during the turbulent yet hopeful period. As a naïve high school student living in a heavily segregated world, his eyes and heart were opened watching Dr. Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Not long after, he took part in his first civil rights demonstration in Harlem. As a soldier in Vietnam, he took part in some of the fiercest fighting. From Chu Lai to the Tet offensive, Kennedy served his country despite his fears and doubts. In the darkest moment, he made a promise to his creator that if he survived, he would do all in his power to bring all the soldiers home. Upon his discharge he did just that, taking part in anti-war protests. After the war he found himself engaged in another battle, this one for civil rights for the LGBTQ community. Kennedy considers his efforts following the Stonewall Riots to be the centerpiece of his own life story. (GayNewsAndViews.com) — DP

Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution by Amber Tamblyn is the personal story of the actress, author, poet, and Hollywood royalty. The daughter of West Side Story star Russ Tamblyn, she forged an acting career that spanned soap operas as a child to roles in The Ring, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and more as an adult. Her multitalented resume also includes several works as a poet and author. Despite her many successes, though, she found herself facing a time of particularly low energy fueled by rejection and disillusionment. Rather than give in to depression and stereotyped roles, she instead seized control of her future through self-reflection that follows upheaval and using this personal realignment to bring about action and change. From growing up surrounded by a surrogate family of her father’s friends Dean Stockwell, Neil Young, and Dennis Hopper to her revelations as a respected and outspoken advocate for women’s rights, Tamblyn shows how it is possible to change your future and bring about real change through honest introspection. (Crown Archetype) — DP

To read Ryan Sallans’s new memoir, Transforming Manhood: A Trans Man’s Quest to Build Bridges and Knock Down Walls, is to understand what it is to be a transgender man of Generation X, an activist sandwiched between the legendary (and, more often now, deceased) pioneers of the Baby Boomer generation and millennials. Does it matter? Most certainly. Sallans expertly navigates what it means to be a 40-year-old today in a gender diverse community changing so rapidly that even highly visible trans activists feel as though they’ve fallen out of favor — like shoulder pads and “Just Say No” billboards. Sallans explores how the language we use to define ourselves is constantly evolving. For trans folks today, that means a term of self-identity hard-won just a couple decades prior (like transsexual) could be considered a slur today. Even if it’s still the word you used when coming out, even if the sight of a rabble rousing “Transsexual Menace” jacket today fills you with both pride and awe at how far we’ve come and the lives it took to get here. While Gen Z is the group today most likely to identify as nonbinary, gender diverse, or transgender, they too are redefining what those words mean and the social hierarchy in which they sit. And this hits Sallans a bit hard at times.

The author, who spent his adolescence battling self-esteem issues and an eating disorder (not realizing there were gender issues at the root), identified as a lesbian when he came out in the early 2000s. Later, the author realized he was a transgender man (hat tip to Loren Cameron, one of those Baby Boomer pioneers). This discovery helped Sallans explain the variety of body issues he had battled, and put his life into greater context. Though he was a feminist already (working at Planned Parenthood) and an LGBTQ activist, coming out as trans led him to speak about his own experiences at schools and colleges, conferences, and businesses across the country. His first autobiography, Second Son, documented that process nearly a decade ago.

But in this new tome, Sallans is both steadfast and explorative, processing what activism and visibility mean today — from the shock of social media challengers to the changing priorities of gender diverse youth. When he’s questioned for being too binary (presumably because from a photo he can pass for a cisgender man), Sallans is alarmed. That’s not because he doesn’t want to elevate all trans and nonbinary issues, but because after more than a decade of speaking tirelessly everywhere he’s been asked, living as an out trans man both digitally and in his home state of Nebraska (the Midwest hardly being a gender melting pot), and serving as vice president of the Jim Collins Foundation (a non-profit that helps trans people get gender-affirming treatment), Sallans worries that some think his voice no longer matters.

Sadly, it’s a churn any LGBTQ activist over 35 knows well. While we all know older, even senior, activists today that we still revere, the trans and queer movements are always youth-driven, and what is de rigueur one moment is outdated the next. Sallans is just the latest to ride that wave, and while entering middle age, questioning what it means. That he does so with gracious aplomb while still offering a new vision for the future is what sets Transforming Manhood apart. Sallans falls in love and deals with sometimes mundane relationship issues, but he’s at his best while pleading with his own community to end acrimony and division, to be kind to one another, arguing that while 40 percent of trans people in one NTCE survey have attempted suicide at least once in their lives, supportive people can stop that. He makes a cognizant argument that the trans community is the only one that inherently understands the struggle of trans people without needing to explain it. He says this as a Midwestern boy, chagrined at the online bullying he’s seen and experienced.

But make no mistake, though Sallans discusses love and loss, his terrifying stalker, heckling, heartbreak, and a high school reunion that surprises everyone, in Transforming Manhood, he is mostly confronting his own legacy and his own death. While he confronts new fears (of saying or doing something that’s no longer politically “woke”), Sallans reflects on his trans heroes and those who influenced him greatly, but whose names are a mystery to kids today. He wonders how long it will be — Five years? Ten years? — before nobody recognizes his name anymore as well. Sallans doesn’t answer all the questions with Transforming Manhood. But he asks good ones, largely to himself but also to others his age (trans or not) who are undergoing the biggest transition of all. The dive into his own mortality will likely take him on a whole other ride, as bumpy and exhilarating as coming out did years ago. I’m thinking there will still be plenty of people who want to hear about it. (Scout Publishing) — DAM

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If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood is the devastating yet ultimately heartwarming memoir of a child of the Vietnam War dealing with the emotional aftermath left in its wake. Rosewood tells of a childhood spent in a world circumscribed by the fencing of a compound in Vietnam. Her mother’s work as an energy consultant trying to bring electricity to the poverty-ridden sectors of society had come to the attention of the Prime Minister. He oversaw a chain of corruption that embezzled funds earmarked for upgrading the electrical grid, instead purchasing outdated and faulty equipment that did little to help the people in need. Rosewood is then abandoned by her mother as it is the only way to save them both from the cruel machinations of an uncaring system. The two are eventually reunited, but Rosewood finds a soldier who becomes her only true source of basic human decency and compassion. Her mother soon finds a way to secretly get her out of the country to the United States, while she stays behind in Vietnam. Later in life Rosewood marries, but then finds herself falling in love with a woman. When tragedy strikes, her story comes full circle in an emotional conclusion. (Europa Editions) — DP

Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our America by Dustin Lance Black is the Oscar-winning screenwriter’s own coming-of-age story in the deep South, and how the traditional American values instilled in him by his disabled and deeply religious mother guided his life and career. His autobiography is as much his own story as that of his mother. Mostly paralyzed and forced to wear leg braces due to a bout with childhood polio, his conservative mother survived domestic abuse and financial hardship, and still almost singlehandedly raised three rowdy and rough boys on her own. The steely Southern values she instilled provided the guidance in both Black’s personal and professional life, from gay middle son living in Louisiana, Ark., and Texas, to accepting the Oscar for Milk. Black hopes that by sharing his story he can help dispel some of the myths that seek to divide red and blue, and demonstrate that traditional American values hold the key to building bridges rather than walls. (Knopf) — DP

Sex Talks to Girls: A Memoir by Maureen Seaton is the retelling of a life story through the experiences of Molly Meek, the author’s alter ego. Her life is bumpy, jumping from a desperate love of religion to the love of a butch named Mars. She cares for two children and endures the butcher-like editing of her stories that reduce them to painful poems. Sex Talks to Girls is the evocative memoir that chronicles the author’s journey from near-nun, to suburban mom, to woke woman. It is the story of marriage and motherhood, divorce and alcoholism, and finally to sobriety, redemption, and awareness of both self and the surrounding world. Seaton’s journey of self-discovery from religious fervor to award-winning poet is equal parts funny and heart-wrenching, leaping from one extreme to another in her quest to know and accept her identity. Along the way she meets fellow converts and drunkards, swingers, and drag queens. In the end, she learns that it is not the trappings of the world but what’s inside us that defines personhood. Seaton is a professor of English at the University of Miami where she teaches creative writing. She has the author of nineteen solo and collaborative collections of writings. (University Press) — DP

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Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir details Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali’s journey from war-torn Africa to the West. Lost in a strange country (the Netherlands, then Canada) and culture, Ali found it difficult to assimilate. His sexuality was suddenly accepted but remained at odds with the cultural heritage of his family. Angry and alienated, Ali descended into drugs and alcohol. Angry Queer Somali Boy is interwoven with a contextual background of world history and sociopolitical commentary on both the East and West, from the vantage point of a gay Muslim immigrant. (New York University Press) — DP

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald is the memoir of a young Black (closeted) gay man who rises from poverty to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C. He orbits powerful people, shares a stage with President Barak Obama, and launches an explorative committee to examine the possibility of his own assent to the highest office in the land. And then everything falls apart. He is disillusioned by the reality of Obama’s administration and the limits of our elected officials to change the inequalities perpetuated by America’s system built on white supremacy, slavery, and racism. Years before Pete Buttigieg would begin to change the narrative, Gerald is cautioned that coming out gay would threaten his chances of campaign success (perhaps even his physical safety), particularly in his conservative home state of Texas. He’s further knocked off his spiritual center when a mentee and friend dies by suicide. Gerald reaches what he calls “my dead end,” and flees — first to New York City (“as outcasts have always done”) and then further afield, across America. Collectively, he concludes, we are “up Shit’s Creek, together,” but he offers some advice on fashioning paddles with which we just might manage to stay afloat. (Riverhead Books) — DP

Space Between by Nico Tortorella is a memoir written by the author and actor who personifies the country’s transformation in regards to gender and sexuality. From growing up in a loud, loving, yet dysfunctional Italian family in suburban Chicago to successes in Hollywood, the author writes of the good and the bad in their life. Tortorella writes honestly and openly about early loves, spirituality, relationships, and the spiral of addiction fueled by fame and fortune. Space Between is more than an autobiography, though — it’s a personal treatise on the rights of all people: human, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, Indigenous, Black, and more across the spectrum of gender and humanity. This compelling story is an exploration of love and a journey of self-acceptance. Tortorella stars in the hit series Younger and is an outspoken advocate for the rights of everyone in the LGBTQIA+ communities. (Crown) — DP

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