Queer stuff can sometimes be hard to get your head around—take it from me, a person who has been on a deeply befuddling identity journey and been swimming in the deep pool that is queer theory for nearly four years. Academia on queer and gender issues is notoriously difficult for the everyperson to get into, often associated with stuffy and complex language and galaxy-brain concepts that may or may not resonate with one’s own day-to-day experience.
This is not universally true, and I promise not all academics are trying actively to make their work inaccessible as some sort of wicked ploy. Still, trying to Do Your Research and hitting a mental roadblock can be alienating and demoralising. Not everyone can pick up Judith Butler and immediately absorb that stuff into their brain (seriously, don’t feel bad—I have senior supervisors who admit to needing to read her work a couple times to “get it”!).
The good news is, you don’t have to! There are more accessible, beginner-friendly resource books on queer identity than ever before, and I’ve compiled a little list of some of the texts I’ve found most helpful, both for research and for fun.
This is by no means a comprehensive list—these are just the books I’ve read and enjoyed, and that I think a more general readership might also find enjoyable and helpful. Because a lot of my research has been about non-binary gender identity, quite a few of these texts relate to that, and given that this list falls somewhat into that niche, there are obviously other areas that aren’t as represented. But hey, this can be a two-way conversation: if there are resource books or essay collections you think might be worthy additions, let me know in the comments! I hope that there’s something to pique your interest in this post, whether it’s for your own projects, curiosity, leisure reading, or maybe recommending to a friend or family member.
Queer: A Graphic History (2016) and Gender: A Graphic Guide (2019) by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele
If you find that your brain absorbs complex ideas better through comics, art, or graphics, these two books could be a really useful resource. Queer: A Graphic History provides a neat jumping-off point into the gnarly world of queer theory, covering a lot of formative ideas about identity, activism, and politics in an accessible way. Gender: A Graphic Guide is sort of a sibling text, specifically exploring what we talk about when we talk about “gender”—from the way masculinity and femininity are constructed in different contexts, to a brief but handy guide to non-binary genders.
Again, these are both very much meant to be jumping-off points, so they cover a lot of ideas but can’t go into an awful lot of depth. If you see a concept or citation that piques your interest/seems useful for your own research, pull up the ol’ Google and investigate it further. Of course, if you (or the person you’re maybe gifting this to) don’t want to explore any deeper, these books provide enough introductory information in an accessible tone and format that they’re still immensely useful resources.
The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality by Julie Sondra Decker (2014)
A little like the A Graphic Guide books listed above, this functions as a great introductory text. Decker positions the book as a guide for people with multiple levels of knowledge, including those completely unfamiliar with asexuality as a concept. This means it’s versatile: if you want to learn more, it’s a good window in; or if you’re maybe figuring out where you might sit on the ace spectrum it can be a useful tool for unpacking that further. It could also be a great book to hand to someone in your life who you want to be more knowledgeable—Decker will do the explaining that you may not have the energy to do.
The language and tone is informative and conversational, and Decker digs through definitions, issues, and histories that are super interesting (even if, with the rapid speed of Internet communities, some of the spaces and terminology referenced might be less popular or entirely vanished by now). It provided me with a lot of useful language for this paper, as well as a few “hey, I do that” moments.
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (2007)
This is a foundational trans theory text: sometimes memoir, sometimes social studies, sometimes science, all a fantastic picture of the complex and thorny business of being a trans woman in the twenty-first century. If you’re not familiar, it’s a useful place to learn about trans history from a trans perspective, and to get your head around the problems trans people face—from the media’s morbid curiosity with “The Surgery” to how gender presentation is policed to make sure trans people are doing their “new” gender “correctly” (especially trans women—Serano has a lot to say about the way the world views femininity, which is super interesting and valuable).
Serano writes with a bit more academic language, but this is still an accessible text for more general readers. In places, it can even be pretty funny, in a dark-comedy memoir sort of way. This is a super important book for grounding yourself in trans issues, and I’d recommend following it up with her second book, Excluded, which digs ever deeper into discrimination, transphobia, gender policing, and why it happens and how we might try to fix it.
Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (2019)
Another one for comic fans, and fans of moving and quiet personal reflections. If you’re unfamiliar with non-binary or genderqueer identity, this is a pretty neat insight into one person’s version of what it’s like. Kobabe writes about the complicated feelings related to eir assigned gender and the expectations that come parcelled with a body read as female, and eir journey to finding comfortable labels and self-expressions that fit—with plenty of detours through fantasy novels and fanfic along the way.
It’s just one person’s story, so don’t take it as solid, immovable fact that applies to everyone. But it is a super interesting exploration of the ways that gender, sex, sexuality, and sense of self all tangle and collide. As it’s a memoir, it doesn’t have a conclusive ending so to speak—in fact, Kobabe talks about how e’s still figuring out a lot of things and trying to get brave enough to voice them in public. But that’s an important narrative to familiarise yourself with: we’re all works in progress, after all!
Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon (2020)
A bite-sized introduction to non-binary experience from activist and fashion icon Alok Vaid-Menon. Again, just one person’s perspective, but a deeply useful one: though the text itself is short, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into regarding the way society genders everything and casts expectations and assumptions on people and their bodies based on arbitrary characteristics. The writing is conversational and pretty damn witty, so if you want a little short-and-spicy beginner’s guide of sorts to the hegemonic nonsense of rigid gender expectations this could be a good one to grab.
Growing Up Queer in Australia edited by Benjamin Law (2018)
A collection of personal essays about exactly what it says on the tin. If you’re Aussie, you may find things to relate to deeply here, but even if you’re from elsewhere I’m sure you’ll find some valuable insights. Contributors come from a range of ages and backgrounds, and while this does mostly focus on Gs and Ls, there are some really interesting pieces from bisexual, intersex, and trans (binary and non) writers, as well as various intersections of race, class, and disability—all aspects that will inform our sense of queerness differently. Some are poetic, some are very funny, some are harrowing. There’s a lot of variety, which makes it a great cultural snapshot.
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman (2010)
Writings from a variety of trans people about gender throughout history and their own lives. Again, some very melancholy, some very funny, some a mix of both because that’s just how it is.
There is some interesting historical context here: this collection was intended as a sequel of sorts to Bornstein’s 1994 book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us to explore how much things had changed for trans people since then with regards to the communities, language, and expressions available. Reading this in 2021, it’s fascinating to see how much has changed all over again, and how much remains. It’s good to keep up with modern texts, but also crucial to read widely and get a sense of historical context.
Non-binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities edited by Jos Twist et al (2020)
Another personal essay collection, this time focusing specifically on the many ways to be non-binary—an important thing to showcase, given the diversity of experiences under that umbrella!
Some skew more academic than others, and some more tragedy than comedy. The variety of stories—peeks into a variety of lives, a variety of ways of being—provides a glorious tasting platter of gender experiences that makes for eye-opening reading.
Life Isn’t Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi (2019)
This is also a neat introductory text: almost fashioned as a Beginner’s Guide to the concepts of beyond-the-binary thinking. This examines not just gender and sexuality (there’s more to it than heterosexuality/homosexuality, and male/female) but expands these discussions towards the harmful ways that perceived binary splits govern other parts of our lives, for example “mad”/sane or emotional/rational—both of which are overly simplified ways of thinking about mental health and our own emotions which can really screw us over.
It’s a useful text for stretching your brain. It’s written by two therapists who know they’re getting a little galaxy-brained, so the book is constructed carefully to be accessible and not too heavy. There are even moments where it asks you to stop, breathe, and process, which is kind of nice. More textbooks should do that TBH.
Bonus: Basically anything by Jack Halberstam
This is carrying us more into academia territory, but hear me out. Halberstam’s work is hugely influential: if you’re heard phrases like “queer time” or “queer failure”, they’re the one who came up with them! Halberstam writes in a way that I find pretty readable and at times downright fun and moreish, and they dedicate a lot of analysis to pop culture, which provides a familiar grounding point for the issues of gender and sexuality they’re trying to unpack.
Female Masculinities (1992) is a fascinating look at the different ways AFAB people have “done” masculinity over the years, from the Victorian era to modern day Butch scenes, with a stop-off at the double standards surrounding “tomboys” in film and social narratives about female coming-of-age. It’s also kind of a painful book, because it was written more than twenty years ago and we haven’t solved a lot of the problems addressed—in fact, some BS like “the bathroom problem” have arguably gotten worse. Argh.
In a Queer Time and Place (2005) brings us the concept of “queer time”—the idea that heteronormativity sets out a specific calendar of milestones, but living life differently isn’t so bad. This book also examines a few key examples of trans representation in film, pointing out the negative tropes that have been associated with it (and how art by trans creators might help take us away from these) in a way that is still really relevant and useful today. Likewise, The Queer Art of Failure (2011) looks at pop culture from Finding Nemo to Dude, Where’s My Car? to study different, weird, wonky ways of being and doing that have queer undercurrents. It’s a gloriously quirky “textbook”.
Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (2018), is a return to some of the themes of Halberstam’s older work, with a retrospective eye. It’s pretty wild to think how much social change this one author has written their way through… and, again, it makes you grind your teeth to think how many of the issues they wrote about years ago are still causing problems. It puts things in perspective, that’s for sure.