The best books that helped me claim my identity as a lesbian and feminist

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm an activist/scholar and I taught in the Feminist Studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz for 40 years. My most popular class was Introduction to Feminism. Then I taught another large, undergraduate course Feminism & Social Justice. By the time I retired I had taught over 16,000 students, and worked with scores of graduate students. My online class, Feminism & Social Justice, on the Coursera Platform has been taken by over 107,000 people located on literally every continent. My teaching and writings are always anti-racist, and explicitly queer. They've drawn on my life experiences. They come out of my passion to lessen suffering, and embrace compassion. 


I wrote...

Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s-1990s

By Bettina Aptheker,

Book cover of Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s-1990s

What is my book about?

The U.S. Communist Party banned lesbians, gay bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) people from membership beginning in 1938. The ban didn’t end until 1991. During these 60 years lesbians, gays, and non-heterosexual people who did join were deeply closeted both within the Party and in their public lives. Bettina Aptheker was among them.

Having been raised in a Communist family she joined the Party in 1962 when she was 17 and left in 1981 after she had come out as a lesbian. Based on a decade of archival research, correspondence, and interviews, Bettina Aptheker explores this history. Individual queer Communists laid some of the political and theoretical foundations for lesbian and gay liberation, women’s liberation, and contributed significantly to peace, civil rights, and Black and Latinx liberation movements.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Bettina Aptheker Why did I love this book?

When I was struggling with my sexual identity as a lesbian, and also beginning to understand how that was connected to feminist ideas, I discovered the writings of Adrienne Rich. Primarily a poet, this book revolutionized my thinking.

As Rich wrote about her own experience as a writer “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” and re-visited the poetry of Emily Dickinson showing her as a deeply closeted woman-loving woman, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” and re-visioned what honor meant for a women as contrasted to what it meant for men “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,”  and another titled “The Meaning of Our Love for Women is What We Must Constantly Expand,” among many other essays in this book, my whole world was turned upside down and inside out.

It was published many years ago, is still available in print, and still resonates.

By Adrienne Rich,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked On Lies, Secrets, and Silence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At issue are the politics of language; the uses of scholarship; and the topics of racism, history, and motherhood among others called forth by Rich as "part of the effort to define a female consciousness which is political, aesthetic, and erotic, and which refuses to be included or contained in the culture of passivity."


Book cover of Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Bettina Aptheker Why did I love this book?

Audre Lorde described herself as a Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, warrior.

She was primarily a poet, but she also wrote powerful prose including Zami that she called a “biomythography,” describing Black lesbian life in the 1940s and 1950s primarily in New York. This book, Sister Outsider is comprised of a series of short essays that profoundly changed and influenced my thinking from a Black, feminist, queer perspective.

Titles suggest new ways of thinking. For example: ”Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” 

So much of her writing was about breaking silence, about writing as a way of helping to sort our ideas, and feelings, about sexuality as a source of empowerment rather than shame.

There was an uncompromising clarity about the pain and politics of racism. And even before we had more fully developed the language for it, the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality all are intertwined systems of domination, how we are all part of one another, how difference can be made into a way of knowing and a source of empowerment, rather than division and fear.

I have worked in anti-racist movements throughout my life, and Lorde’s work was deeply personally meaningful and clarifying to me. 

By Audre Lorde,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Sister Outsider as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The woman's place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep

The revolutionary writings of Audre Lorde gave voice to those 'outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women'. Uncompromising, angry and yet full of hope, this collection of her essential prose - essays, speeches, letters, interviews - explores race, sexuality, poetry, friendship, the erotic and the need for female solidarity, and includes her landmark piece 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House'.

'The truth of her writing is as necessary today as…


Book cover of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Bettina Aptheker Why did I love this book?

Gloria Anzaldúa was born and raised in South Texas, growing up along the U.S.-Mexican border. For many years she lived in San Francisco, and then in Santa Cruz, California.

The first 113 pages of the book are stories and essays drawn from her life experiences as a woman of Mexican and Indian heritage, daily experiencing life at the physical border between the United States and Mexico.

She was raised in a strongly Catholic tradition, while also drawn to and inventing her own spirituality rooted in indigenous practices of harmony, balance, and reverence for the earth. She was a lesbian in a straight world that condemned her woman-loving sensibility.

Each of these is a “borderland” to be navigated and negotiated, and each of these borders is rich with insight, life, laughter, tears, violence, and love. The last 100 pages of the book is titled “Un Agitado Viento/ Ehécatl, The Wind.” It is the wind of poetry.

The Spanish language filters throughout the book but you are provided enough context and/or translation to understand even if you don’t speak the language.

This book revolutionized my thinking because it taught me (again) how to use personal experience to illuminate political life. And it taught me about the specific dislocations of colonialism and thefts of land, and exploitation of labor in deeply personal ways, opening my heart to love and kindness, and understanding. “This land was Mexican once

Was Indian always

And is.

And will be again”

By Gloria Anzaldúa,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Borderlands/La Frontera as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country--a border culture."--Gloria Anzaldúa

Rooted in Gloria Anzaldúa's experience as a Chicana, a lesbian, an activist, and a writer, the essays and poems in BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA: THE NEW MESTIZA profoundly challenged, and continue to challenge, how we think about identity. BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA remaps our understanding of what a "border" is, presenting it not as a simple divide between here and there, us and them, but…


Book cover of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Bettina Aptheker Why did I love this book?

Alison Bechdel is a graphic artist, and for many years her weekly comic strip was syndicated in queer newspapers across the United States, and then published in a marvelous and hilarious series of books called Dykes to Watch Out For.

It was so wonderful to have a comic strip that reflected back to me so much of my own interior life and also the queer people and communities I knew. Then in 2006 Allison Bechdel took the queer world by storm when she published this memoir based on her childhood in a small New England town in which her father ran the funeral home (the fun home of the title) and taught English in the local high school.

He was gay, a secret he kept from everyone in his family and in the town, until an incident leaked it out into the family and beyond. Bechdel recreates her childhood, her family’s dynamics, her feelings, in graphic sequences that are visually compelling with an accompanying text that reproduces dialogue with extraordinary immediacy.

All of this influenced the way Allison Bechdel explored and acknowledged her own lesbian identity. Alternately gripping, funny, literary, and psychologically complicated Fun Home was ultimately made into a Broadway musical.

It received rave reviews. In this way, it ‘crossed over’ from a solely queer to a mainstream audience. The story resonated with me personally in many ways; and, I also appreciated it as a brilliant work of art and literature.

By Alison Bechdel,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Fun Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

DISCOVER the BESTSELLING GRAPHIC MEMOIR behind the Olivier Award nominated musical.

'A sapphic graphic treat' The Times

A moving and darkly humorous family tale, pitch-perfectly illustrated with Alison Bechdel's gothic drawings. If you liked Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis you'll love this.

Meet Alison's father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family's Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high-school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and the family babysitter. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is…


Book cover of When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History

Bettina Aptheker Why did I love this book?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s and 1950s. As one of New York City’s 5 boroughs it has character and even a mystique about it, and we Brooklynites are often very proud of our heritage.

Until I was about 13 the Brooklyn Dodgers were the zany, irreverent, baseball upstarts who sometimes even won the World Series. And they hired Jackie Robinson, desegregating professional baseball. All of this is to say that when High Ryan published his book, I devoured it as it fused my Brooklyn heritage and my queer identity.

Starting with poet Walt Whitman, he takes us through the writers, the dock workers, the socialists, the communists, the college professors and artists, who were lesbian or gay and both shaped and were shaped by the city, Ryan’s archival research is amazing, and his writing style breezy, and accessible.  Even if you’re not from Brooklyn (!) you will enjoy the book.

By Hugh Ryan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When Brooklyn Was Queer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The never-before-told story of Brooklyn’s vibrant and forgotten queer history, from the mid-1850s up to the present day.

***An ALA GLBT Round Table Over the Rainbow 2019 Top Ten Selection***
***NAMED ONE OF THE BEST LGBTQ BOOKS OF 2019 by Harper's Bazaar***

"A romantic, exquisite history of gay culture." ―Kirkus Reviews, starred

“[A] boisterous, motley new history...entertaining and insightful.” ―The New York Times Book Review

Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer is a groundbreaking exploration of the LGBT history of Brooklyn, from the early days of Walt Whitman in the 1850s up through the queer women who worked at the…


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American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By Brett Dakin,

Book cover of American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

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What is my book about?

Meet Lev Gleason, a real-life comics superhero! Gleason was a titan among Golden Age comics publishers who fought back against the censorship campaigns and paranoia of the Red Scare. After dropping out of Harvard to fight in World War I in France, Gleason moved to New York City and eventually made it big with groundbreaking titles like Daredevil and Crime Does Not Pay.

Brett Dakin, Gleason's great-nephew, opens up the family archives—and the files of the FBI—to take you on a journey through the publisher's life and career. In American Daredevil, you'll learn the truth about Gleason's rapid rise…

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By Brett Dakin,

What is this book about?

MEET LEV GLEASON, A REAL-LIFE COMICS SUPERHERO!

Gleason was a titan among Golden Age comics publishers who fought back against the censorship campaigns and paranoia of the Red Scare. After dropping out of Harvard to fight in France, Gleason moved to New York City and eventually made it big with groundbreaking titles like Daredevil and Crime Does Not Pay.

Brett Dakin, Gleason's great-nephew, opens up the family archives-and the files of the FBI-to take you on a journey through the publisher's life and career. In American Daredevil, you'll learn the truth about Gleason's rapid rise to the top of comics,…


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