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A Guide to Literature’s Most Iconic LGBTQ+ Characters

A celebration of the characters (and writers) who inspired awakenings, understanding, and inclusion.

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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

‘The Color Purple’: A Sublime Portrayal of Lesbianism Ahead of Its Time

Alex Jiménez
The Daily Californian

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.)”

How Oscar Wilde Painted Over “Dorian Gray”

Alex Ross
The New Yorker

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.”

Book Club: Madeline Miller - The Song of Achilles [LISTEN]

James Naughtie

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?”

Teenage Tales: Sneaking Looks in Sexy Books

Emily Danforth
All Things Considered - NPR

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”

Ryan Porter
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!”

I Am Not Your Negro | James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show

Netflix Film Club

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.”

Armistead Maupin on “Tales of the City”

Steven Dryden
British Library

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-West

Alison Bechdel
The 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.”

Pulp Librarian


AD: “This Twitter thread on lesbian pulp fiction, and how it shaped society’s ideas about same-sex relationships, is fantastic. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thread, enjoy scrolling for pictures of those vintage covers and headlines.”

Amanda Deibert

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.