Set in Chicago's South Side in the 1960s, Stevie grows up with an alcoholic, janitor father and a conservative, bank-teller mother. She's eager to be cool and fit in, but being black and from the wrong side of the tracks make that difficult. And though she has a boyfriend, Stevie finds herself attracted to the school nurse, an older white woman. When she asks her mother about gay people, her mother tells her: "Women like that can never be happy. They live sad, lonely, tormented lives."
But Stevie's feelings continue to grow, and she tells Nurse Horn that she has a crush on her and worries that she's going to be a sick, sinning homosexual. Nurse Horn reassures her: "Not all psychiatrists agree that it's a sickness. And the God I believe in is compassionate and merciful and cares more about how we treat each other than about who we love."
Though Stevie doesn't have a same-sex relationship in Coffee Will Make You Black (she does in the sequel, Ain’t Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice, in which she graduates from college and then visits San Francisco in the 1970s), her coming-of-age story — set in the turbulent, politically charged early years of the civil-rights movement — is affecting and memorable, reflecting many young lesbians' coming-out experiences. — Malinda Lo
As an 18-year-old Norwegian on her first trip to the United States, Aud Torvingen rents an apartment outside of Atlanta. Her first night in her apartment, sleeping on the floor because she hasn't yet acquired any furniture, she wakes up to find a man with a gun threatening her. Without thinking, she grabs the flashlight next to her and slams it against his head, killing him.
"I can see it now, like a series of photographs," Aud says in The Blue Place. "It was as though this veneer fell away, as though I stepped aside from a mask, and it felt as though my heart slipped its bearings and hurtled loose. I came off the carpet without thinking, without even blinking, holding the flashlight — and it must have weighed three pounds — like a piece of kindling. It was so light in my hands. I surged off that carpet, muscles whipping like hawsers, swinging that flashlight up and out, and I was so sure. It was so easy."
Aud, daughter of a Norwegian diplomat and filthy rich, goes on to become an Atlanta cop and an expert in martial arts and self-defense. And despite the emotional distance she maintains from much of the world, she displays a persistent knack for falling into passionate encounters. In The Blue Place, while investigating the death of an art historian, she meets Julia, a woman who changes her life. Aud returns in two sequels, Stay and Always, and though she continues to wield her wealth and her violent skill with dexterity, she also evolves, becoming one of the most human and intriguing lesbians in crime fiction. — Malinda Lo
Clarissa Vaughan — The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
Michael Cunningham's The Hours, based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, follows a day in the life of three women in different decades. At the heart of the story is Clarissa Vaughan, a middle-aged lesbian living in Greenwich Village in the 1990s. She is throwing a party for her best friend, a gay poet named Richard who is afflicted with AIDS and has just won a prestigious award for his work. The relationship explores the intimate yet often overlooked friendships between lesbians and gay men.
Of all the characters Cunningham introduces — from Laura Brown, a despondent housewife in the 1950s to a suicidal Virginia Woolf trying to cope with her mental illness — Clarissa is the only one who is truly free. However, through the course of the day, she begins to unravel, and she clings to her dying friend as she revaluates her life.
In an especially poignant scene, she wonders what it would have been like had she and Richard decided to be together: "It is impossible not to imagine that other future as a vast and enduring romance laid over friendship so searing and profound it would accompany them to the grave and possibly even beyond. She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself. Or then again maybe not." — Heather A. O'Neill
Maud Lily, one of the heroines in Sarah Waters' Victorian thriller Fingersmith, is as manipulative as she vulnerable. Essentially held captive at her uncle's countryside estate, she helps him ink pornographic books for collectors in London. The opportunity for escape arrives in a marriage proposal from the shifty Richard, and Maud is forced to betray Susan, the woman she loves.
However, after the ceremony, she soon discovers that the ruse is also on her. The plot pulses with complexity. Maud is stubborn, but it is her ability both to justify her exploits and learn from her mistakes that makes her such a compelling character.
Here she is before her transformation: "Why should she [Sue] stay? She will go, and I shall be left — to my uncle, to the books, to Mrs. Stiles, to some new meek and bruisable girl … I think of my life — of the hours, the minutes, the days that have made it up; the hours, the minutes, the days that stretch before me, still to be lived. I think of how they will be — without Richard, without money, without London , without liberty. Without Sue. And so you see it is love — not scorn, not malice; only love — that makes me harm her, in the end." — Heather A. O'Neill
Brent Hartinger's 2003 young adult novel, Geography Club, introduced gay teen Russel Middlebrook as he came out and started a gay/straight alliance at his high school, code-named the "Geography Club" to deter curious students from joining. In the process of coming out, Russel learns that one of his best friends, Min Wei, is bisexual and even has a girlfriend. Min is outspoken, blunt and funny. In Split Screen, the third novel featuring Russel and Min and their friends, she explains her take on bisexuality:
"Most people really don't understand bisexuality. I hate it when people talk like bisexual people are indecisive, unable to make up their minds. It's not a question of being changeable, like a sea anemone, able to switch genders. I don't shift or waver or change, and I'm not on my way to anything other than being bi; I've always been bisexual, and I always will be. Why is that so hard for people to understand?"
Min is one of the very few queer Chinese-American characters in fiction, and possibly the only one in a young adult novel. And she's a particularly heartening character because Min's family is quite progressive. She has two Ph.D.-holding parents who adjust quickly to her coming-out; though they may not have expected the development, they never judge her for being who she is. This may be more fantasy than reality for a lot of queer Asian-American teens, but it's a positive one, and one we should see more of. — Malinda Lo