Amanda Deibert: “Alice Walker was the first Black woman to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her winning book, The Color Purple, is a masterpiece which grapples with race, class, gender, assault, abuse, religion, and of course, the life-altering, empowering love affair between Celie and Shug. I will forever be sad this was reduced to just a kiss in the film. (Though worth noting: I still love the movie, and it’s my grandma’s all-time favorite.)”
Anyone who’s ever felt truly seen by a book understands the life-changing, life-affirming power literature can provide.
For so many LGBTQ+ teens and young adults in decades past, these moments were too few and far between. That has only made the influence of past works with queer representation all the greater, helping them find new audiences and inspiring writers long after publication. To celebrate the characters and stories that buoyed generations of queer readers, we asked author Amanda Deibert to curate a collection of stories about pioneering literary heroes, past and present.
It’s fitting, considering Deibert has spent the past several years steeped in the stories of one of literature’s earliest queer icons, the out lesbian detective Helen Keremos, brought to life in the noir novels by Canadian mystery writer Eve Zaremba, which were published beginning in 1978. The books became cult classics — author Margaret Atwood blurbed one, calling Keremos “a cross between Philip Marlowe and Lily Tomlin” — and 30 years later, it was Atwood who suggested Zaremba revive the character in a graphic novel.
As the writer tapped to bring Detective Keremos back to life in 2021, Deibert collaborated with illustrator Selena Goulding to create Work For A Million, which introduces Keremos to a new generation of fans.
Read on for Deibert’s annotated syllabus on the LGBTQ+ characters and creators who paved the way, weaving from The Color Purple to Stone Butch Blues.
Image by daboost/Getty Images
AD: “‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is iconic literary canon, a confirmed classic… but in the 1890s this novel turned the world upside down when one publication said the book would only be of interest to ‘outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys.’ Oscar Wilde was convicted of ‘indecency’ within five years of publication.
Related: ‘Outlawed Noblemen and Perverted Telegraph-Boys’ is my new band name.”
AD: “Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi makes their debut with PET, a novel that bends genre and gender in beautiful and poetic ways. It may be a young adult novel, but it is also a beautiful read for old souls and gives me so much hope and inspiration for the future of literature.”
AD: “This book is yet another delicious lesbian romance that was watered down in the film adaptation. Why, movies, why?! It makes me want to scream ‘Towanda!’”
AD: “I loved Madeline Miller’s book Circe. When I finished it, I sought out her first book with no idea it was a beautiful love story between two young men, Patroclus and Achilles. There is nothing gayer than Ancient Greece. And what is better than hearing the author discuss the love story with fans with lovely British accents?”
AD: “Ask any queer woman ‘What is the first sexy book you read?’ And the answer is likely: Rubyfruit Jungle. This recollection on All Things Considered is so deeply relatable: I also snuck lesbian content while desperately not wanting my grandparents to find out.”
Canada Reads Winner Joshua Whitehead: Representing Two-Spirit and Indigenous Excellence “The Highest Honour”Quill and Quire
AD: “Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny, in Jonny Appleseed, is a two-spirit and Indigenous queer youth who is dealing with a different kind of transition: From reservation life to city life. This novel is so important and has been optioned to be made into a film by Indigenous producers! My hopes for this film, and the additional awareness it will bring, is so High. Let's see this get made!”
AD: “LGBTQ+ literary history is complicated because the history of our ability to get published is complicated. The main character in Stone Butch Blues, Jess, is gender nonconforming and partners with a transgender woman. Feinberg is considered one of the founders of the modern trans movement and yet, zir book is very difficult to find.“
AD: “‘Harold, they’re lesbians.’
If you are also a lesbian who is extremely online, this caption is a very funny joke… if you’re not, you may not have known the film Carol is based on this novel.”
AD: “I cannot write about powerful LGBTQ+ literature and characters without mentioning the incomparable James Baldwin. He drew on his life and experiences to write his characters… and I cannot mention him without making you watch this amazing clip.”
AD: “Maggie & Me playwright Damian Barr was strongly influenced by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (yes, it also became a mini-series with Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney). The two authors come together for this delightful and very funny conversation. As a lesbian writer who owes so much to those who came before, and who found myself in literature, I LOVE everything about this.”
‘As a Body Hers Is Perfection’: Alison Bechdel on the Love Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-WestThe Guardian
AD: “Speaking of paying homage, this trifecta of lesbian authors makes my heart sing. I am obsessed with all three. Virginia Woolf wrote her novel, Orlando, as a tribute to her friend and lover — and fellow author — Vita Sackville-West. Allison Bechdel, yes, of the Bechdel test… and writer and illustrator of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home wrote about their love letters here.”
Patricia Cornwell: ‘When I Was Outed as a Lesbian, I Didn't Leave My House for a Month - I Was Afraid, Horrified and Humiliated’Belfast Telegraph
AD: “Patricia Cornwell learned to fly helicopters because her lesbian character, Lucy, is a helicopter pilot. What could be more badass?! Cornwell is my wife, Cat Staggs’, absolute favorite author of all time and it has a LOT to do with Lucy.”
AD: “Tomas Moniz gives us the story of bisexual Chicanx single-dad, Juan Gutierrez in Big Familia, a novel that takes on parenting, love, racism, homophobia, and teen pregnancy. As a lesbian mom, I love this look at real modern families — Tomas discusses this, and his own approach to fatherhood, on the Wash Your Mouth Out Podcast.”
AD: “This one is near and dear to my heart. The first out lesbian detective, Helen Keremos, was created by lesbian author — who is now 90 years old — Eve Zaremba. She is an amazing trailblazer in so many ways and I am incredibly honored to have been able to adapt Zaremba’s Keremos novel Work for a Million into a graphic novel illustrated by Selena Goulding.”
Amanda Deibert is a New York Times Bestselling comic book and television writer. Her comic book writing includes DC Super Hero Girls: Weird Science, DC Super Hero Girls: Infinite Frenemies, Teen Titans Go!, Wonder Woman ’77, Batman and Harley Quinn, Flash Facts, DC’s The Doomed and the Damned, Wonder Women of History, Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman, and Love is Love (NYT #1 Bestseller) for DC Comics, stories in John Carpenter’s Tales for A Halloween Night volumes 2, 3, 4, 5 , & 6 for Storm King Comics and more. She is currently writing for the animated series He-Man and The Masters Of The Universe for Netflix. Other TV credits include work for CBS, SyFy, OWN, PIVOT, HULU and four years as writer for former Vice President Al Gore’s international climate broadcast, 24 Hours of Reality. You can find Amanda on Twitter (constantly) @amandadeibert and on her website amandadeibert.com.