Writer and historian Morgan M Page recently explained to me that the oldest surviving work by a known author is The Exaltation of Inanna, written by Enheduanna more than 4,000 years ago. Enheduanna was a Mesopotamian Gala priestess, someone assigned male at birth who lived as a woman in service of the goddess Inanna. Her poetry influenced both the Hebrew psalms and Homeric Hymns. “To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inana. Desirability and arousal, goods and property are yours, Inana,” is perhaps her most famous line.
I consider the poetry itself an unfolding love story, shared at first between the writer and her goddess, and now by scholars and those of us seeking to place our obscured selves in history.
I was trying to tap into this when I wrote At Certain Points We Touch, trying to make my contribution to the trans love story, a boundless genre that I cherish. I’ve attempted to write something that expands the romance genre, in the same way trans people expand ideas of gender. The books I’ve chosen here also gleefully resist taxonomy and trouble the concept of the love story itself.
1. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
If you’re looking for a YA novel to help explain complicated ideas of gender and sexuality to the teenagers in your life then this is the book for you. It’s a tender story of two New York teens falling in love as they navigate their desires, their intersectional identities and their last summer before college.
2. The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White
White was Australia’s first recipient of the Nobel prize in literature. He wasn’t trans himself, but I adore this book and all of the polysexual, globetrotting love affairs within it. White’s unmatched skills give us the unrepentantly amorphous character of E, who in their hop-scotching from sheep farmer to brothel madam, calls to mind no one more than the trans rock’n’roll icon Jayne County.
3. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
How could I not include this keystone of queer literature? Perhaps because of the rampant racism and the abhorrent snobbery? Perhaps because the mere mention of dear Ginny from a trans person brings down blanket accusations of lesbian erasure? Though I can’t ignore (or excuse) any of this, I do think that (re)reading Orlando today offers us an opportunity to reappraise our literary heroes, and, indeed, the canon itself. Plus, Orlando is surprisingly hilarious, and you get not one but two steamy love affairs across the centuries.
4. Queer Sex by Juno Roche
Adore, adore, adore. This study of sex and love takes us deep into the desires of 13 trans and queer people (including the author), and it gets real spicy, real quick. It’s wonderfully affirming to hear all of Roche’s subjects talk about finding themselves, finding their partners and finding their sexual vocabulary, but there is more at play here. Throughout the book, Roche is also finding out who they are, discovering their own desires and falling in love with themselves. Cut through with a fiercely anti-patriarchal critique, Queer Sex is a call to arms and a total delight.
5. My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel
In a better world, Lemebel would be as widely read as their close kin, Jean Genet. Matador is the story of the Queen of the Corner, who, like her creator, is a poor Chilean drag queen/trans woman/gender nonconformist (who would dare define Lemebel?). The Queen meets a Marxist revolutionary who is part of a cell trying to overthrow the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, and naturally the two embark on a love affair. This book has none of the soapy clean politics of our post-Stonewall world, rather it is grimy, tattered and extremely real.
6. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
If you are in possession of anything that even remotely resembles a sex drive, do not read this book in public – take it from someone who learned the hard way. Lawlor’s protagonist Paul/Polly can literally shapeshift and modulate between genders, shedding their sex as a lizard sheds its skin. Set with perfect pitch in 1993, Paul/Polly falls in love on every other page and takes us on a magnificently prescient expedition through desire, asking us to consider what constitutes gender identity and who (if anyone) ought to police it.
7. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Peters stole the show in 2021 with this comedy of manners-cum-transgender love triangle. A cis woman, a trans woman and a former(?) trans woman muddle through the thorny mess of motherhood, as jealousies flare and kinships are (re)forged. Somehow this book manages to be wildly provocative and extremely comforting, offering the sagest of advice: life’s a journey, baby, so take it.
8. Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho
You’ve probably never read anything like this, but don’t worry, I doubt anyone has ever written anything like it. Cho gives us a protagonist who takes a family holiday off the coast of Devon, only to inexplicably mutate into a moustachioed leather daddy called Bruce. And that’s just the first page. Our hero also becomes Whitney Houston’s bodyguard, a nun and eventually a gigantic rock star who crushes chunks of Tokyo before being captured by orgiastic fans who use all 100ft of his body as an erotic funfair.
9. LOTE by Shola von Reinhold
An instant cult sprang up around this multiple award-winning slab of marble brilliance upon publication. Not strictly a love story, it’s a baroque meditation on gender, class and ethnicity, as well as a fantastically bitchy takedown of certain aspects of the art world. For me, though, the very gentle romance between Mathilda, the protagonist, and the divinely decadent Erskine-Lily is the emotional heart of the novel. I will never stop recommending this book.
10. Youngman by Lou Sullivan
These are the collected diaries of a gay trans man who lived in San Fransisco throughout the 1980s, and who was loved by many (many, many) men. Sullivan’s writings are raunchy, frank and extremely raw, but best of all they give lie to the transphobic framing of trans men as brainwashed lesbians. Ultimately heartbreaking, the diaries offer an all too rare look at a trans person who was cherished not only by casual lovers, but by long-term partners, and, indeed, his family.
At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph is published by Bloomsbury. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.