Jane Crow by Rosalind Rosenberg (Oxford): This is a fascinating look at the incredible life of Pauli Murray, a mixed-race, transgender scholar, lawyer, activist, priest, and trailblazer who played a pivotal role in the civil rights and women’s movements of the 20th century. Though the book uses female pronouns as Murray did, it’s clear that while he deftly combatted racism and sexism, he was never able to reconcile his gender identity at a time before there was a word for trans people, and was relegated to a role given to any female who “felt” male, loved women, and tried unsuccessfully to get doctors to prescribe testosterone. Murray, the first African-American to get a law degree at Yale, helped Thurgood Marshall challenge segregation, pushed Betty Friedan to found what became the National Organization for Women, and coined the “Jane Crow” theory, which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to argue that the 14th Amendment protects people of color and women against discrimination. Murray, who died in 1985, didn’t live to see modern intersectional politics or the trans movement, but it’s clear without his impact we never would have either.
Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley (Riverhead): Growing up the son of a Baptist preacher in small-town Arkansas is tough on any kid, but for one struggling with his sexuality, it can be traumatic. Garrard Conley was still a teen when he was outed and forced into a monstrous course of reparative therapy, each night taking a moral inventory of his failures as a “real man.” All the while, he was wasting away, no longer interested in food or life, filled with shame, self-doubt, and suicidal ideation. That he persevered is a testament to the human spirit. And the memoir as a whole is a reminder that in a world where the vice president of the United States advocates for reparative therapy, it is still a radical action to be openly gay in many families, religions, and communities.
Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts by Robert Hofler (University of Wisconsin Press): Nobody has had a front-row seat to wealth, power, and privilege like journalist Dominick Dunne, but his life behind the scenes remained enigmatic. Author Robert Hofler details Dunne’s life from Hollywood producer in the 1950s to his many incarnations after: author of five best-selling novels, storied crime journalist at Vanity Fair, justice advocate (after his own daughter’s murder), and power player whose relationships with women included Princess Diana, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Walters. His own personal identity and his sexual and romantic relationships with other men is among the more fascinating stuff here (late in life, after his divorce, Dunne called himself alternately bisexual, gay, and celibate), as is how that identity impacted his opinions (for example, regarding the Menendez brothers murder case).
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury): This unflinching, lyrical, and often crushing memoir about love and the need for connection is a must-read. Abandoned by her birth father (who leaves only “an inheritance of addiction and Native American blood, it’s meaning a mystery”), Febos struggles to find connection and intimacy elsewhere, including a long-distance love affair with another woman that’s as obsessive as it is passionate. As with her prior memoir, Febos’s honest examination of her own life makes for quite an aggressive personal narrative about the search for love and identity.