The Stonewall Book Awards bolster a simple yet important mission: Celebrate and promote LGBTQ+ literature and increase its visibility in libraries, schools, and society at large. Sponsored by the Rainbow Round Table (RRT) of the American Library Association (ALA), this prestigious literary accolade is named after the Stonewall Inn, the famous New York City bar and National Monument where pivotal moments in the gay rights movement took place. To be eligible, books must be published in English in the United States during the previous calendar year and display exceptional merit relating to the LGBTQ+ experience.
In honor of Pride Month, here are a few standout winners from the adult fiction and nonfiction categories over the last few decades to put on your radar, from queer classics and cultural criticism to intimate memoirs and inventive works of historical fiction. There are also more details about the evolution of the awards down below.
How Did the Stonewall Book Awards Start?
First conceptualized in 1971, the awards began as a grassroots initiative among the LGBTQ+ publishing community. It was known as the Gay Book Award for over a decade; it wasn’t until 1986 that the honor received its long-awaited recognition as an official ALA Award, the same year that the ALA’s own Task Force on Gay Liberation became the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. (It would eventually adopt the Rainbow Round Table title in 2019.)
In an effort to continually encourage inclusivity and mirror the ALA’s LGBTQ+ professional organization, the awards have also held other monikers over the years, such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Book Award (1994–1998) and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Book Award (1999–2001), before landing on the current umbrella title in 2002.
The Stonewall Book Awards have also been expanded into multiple categories since their inception. The ALA first set this precedent in 1990, when two separate awards were created for works of adult literature and adult nonfiction, respectively. Twenty years later, a third category for children’s and young adult literature was also added into the mix. Today, the three Stonewall Book Awards in full are the Barbara Gittings Literature Award, the Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award, and the Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award.
15 Unforgettable Stonewall Book Award Winners
1. Patience and Sarah (1969) // Isabel Miller
The inaugural winner of the award was a historical romance titled Patience And Sarah by lesbian activist and writer Alma Routsong, writing under the pseudonym Isabel Miller. (Isabel is an anagram of “Lesbia,” and Miller was the author’s mother’s maiden name.)
The novel was originally self-published under the title A Place For Us before it secured a traditional publisher. The project was an entirely independent venture in the beginning; when publishers continually rejected the manuscript on the basis of its queerness, Routsong typed the text, paid to have 1000 copies printed, and even designed the cover art with her partner.
Centering courage and critiquing the restrictive gender roles of early America, Patience and Sarah follows two women who live, work, and fall in love in puritanical New England. Because their sheltered farming community is unsupportive of their romantic connection, they seek out—as the original title suggests—a safe place where their relationship can blossom. The timeless story has transcended the page in the decades since its initial publication, having been adapted for the stage in an opera that premiered in 1998 during New York’s Lincoln Center Festival.
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2. The Cancer Journals (1980) // Audre Lorde
“I have cancer, I am a Black feminist poet. How am I going to do this now?” So writes Audre Lorde in The Cancer Journals, an intimate collection of essays and diary entries that chronicle the late poet and activist’s heartbreaking experience with breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy.
Upon receiving her initial diagnosis in 1978, Lorde turned to the written word as a way to process and sift through her raw feelings of fear, powerlessness, and ambiguity. The result was a stunning work of nonfiction that not only won the 1981 Gay Book Award, but provided a brave and empowering new blueprint to help others conceptualize and face illness head-on.
Lorde spoke openly about her decision to share such deeply personal thoughts publicly, attributing it to a sense of duty she felt to help liberate other women and ultimately break the silence that so often surrounds sickness. Five years after the publication of The Cancer Journals, Lorde discovered that her cancer had metastasized to her liver; she struggled with the disease throughout her remaining years until she died in November 1992.
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3. Working Parts (1997) // Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Best friends Lori and Mickey, a lesbian and a straight man, are the central characters in Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s 1997 novel Working Parts. Lori, a brilliant bike mechanic with undeniable charm, faces a difficult truth at the age of 28—she cannot read. In the hopes of one day going into business together, Mickey encourages her to enroll in an adult literacy course, which Lori agrees to on one condition: Mickey must also commit to working through his own shortcomings. Namely, the debilitating shyness that prevents him from making headway in his (largely nonexistent) love life.
As the winner of the 1998 Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Book Award, Bledsoe’s heartwarming adult debut illustrates two friends who embark on separate journeys of self-discovery to overcome their secret challenges. Working Parts also tackles complicated issues around literacy, race, and class prejudice, which retrospectively can be seen as a testament to the author’s lifelong work as a social justice activist. Bledsoe—a six-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and a three-time finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award—has also penned over a dozen other books for both adults and young audiences alike.
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4. The Hours (1998) // Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham’s fourth novel, The Hours, was the recipient of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Book Award in 1999, along with the same year’s Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
A contemporary retelling of Virginia Woolf’s celebrated work Mrs. Dalloway, the story is relatively simple in its premise, showcasing a single day in the life of three women—one being a fictionalized Virginia Woolf—living in completely separate corners of the world at varying times in history. Cunningham pays homage to the late writer and feminist’s life and legacy by inserting her directly into the narrative, mirroring her avant-garde, signature stream-of-consciousness writing style, and depicting the profound ways that modern audiences are still deeply affected by Woolf’s musings on life, mortality, and mental illness today.
Cunningham spoke about the significant impact Mrs. Dalloway had on his own life in a 2011 piece for The Guardian, citing it as the singular piece of fiction that sparked his initial fascination with words and literature. This genuine love for Woolf’s work shines through The Hours, where hidden nods to the source material await familiar readers at every turn. (For example: The book takes its title from one that Woolf had originally workshopped for Mrs. Dalloway.)
Since its publication, Cunningham’s reimagining has been adapted for a variety of performance mediums, including a 2002 film starring Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman. More recently, the story made its stage debut as an opera in March 2022, in concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then at the Metropolitan Opera House the following November.
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5. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (2002) // Joanne Meyerowitz
Christine Jorgensen was an actress, singer, and recording artist widely known for being one of the first openly trans women to undergo hormonal and surgical treatment in the 1950s. When the media sensationalized her story, trans issues were thrust into the global spotlight for the first time in history as Jorgensen also confronted both instant celebrity and intense public scrutiny.
Author and scholar Joanne Meyerowitz discusses the way that Jorgensen’s experience altered the trajectory of transsexuality in her 2002 work How Sex Changed, which later earned the Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award in 2003. (The second year in history with the award’s newly christened name.) Broadly, the text is a comprehensive look at the medical, cultural, and social history of transsexuality in the United States. However, Meyerowitz’s account places distinct focus on Jorgensen’s highly publicized life, acknowledging her case as one of the earliest visible examples of trans people searching for public acceptance and support.
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6. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) // Alison Bechdel
If you’re a musical theatre aficionado, you may already be familiar with the Tony Award-winning production Fun Home. The show opened on Broadway in 2015 and dominated the proceeding awards circuit, earning 12 Tony Award nominations (five of which turned into wins, including for Best Musical), plus a nod at the 2016 Grammys for Best Musical Theater Album.
But before it became a smash hit on stage, Fun Home first entered the zeitgeist almost a decade prior as American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s debut graphic memoir. A brilliant autobiography that received the 2007 Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic blends introspective storytelling with the unique visual medium of comic strips. The book chronicles Bechdel’s complex relationship with her closeted gay father, who died just months after she came out as a lesbian.
Interestingly enough, Fun Home wasn’t the first time Bechdel conceived a cultural touchstone. She is also heralded as the original creator of the Bechdel test, a widely referenced measure that analyzes the representation of female characters in media. The assessment first appeared in Bechdel’s 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For; the artist credited the idea to her friend Liz Wallace and the writings of Virginia Woolf.
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7. Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (2010) // Emma Donoghue
Novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and literary historian Emma Donoghue is best known for crafting fictional stories with unforgettable characters. Her breakout second novel Hood marked the author’s sole Stonewall Book Award win in the Literature category in 1997, while her novels The Sealed Letter (2008), Frog Music (2014), and most recently, The Pull of the Stars (2020), have also appeared on the Stonewall Honor Books lists (meaning, where award finalists are listed) in their own respective years.
But one of Donoghue’s lesser-known works is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, a compendium of literary history 12 years in the making, which maps the depiction of female relationships in Western literature. Organized into six sections that scrutinize the “most perennially popular plot motifs” of women in both widely popular and obscure literary stories alike, Donoghue’s study asks the deceptively complex question: How has love between women historically been depicted?
While the book does touch on erotic female-female relationships, let’s be clear: The subtitle’s phrase “desire between women'' is purposefully vague. In fact, Donoghue makes a point to avoid the word “lesbian” throughout the study, noting that it doesn’t “do justice to the variety of women’s bonds in literature.” Upon Inseparable’s publication in 2010, the monograph earned both the 2011 Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award and shortlist status for the same year’s Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Non-Fiction.
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8. Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims (2013) // Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle
Though much progress has been made toward inclusivity in recent years, queer identity and fluid gender expression have often been met with hostility in many parts of the Muslim world. State punishments have historically ranged from hefty fines to consequences as severe as the death penalty, casting a bleak shadow over those who find themselves at this intersection of faith and queerness.
This animosity is exactly what Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle—trailblazing author, activist, and professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University—aims to dismantle. His 2013 book Living Out Islam specifically delves into the firsthand experiences of 15 gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims as they grapple with the complex task of reconciling their religious beliefs with their personal identities.
Blending exclusive interviews with original reporting, the text is a necessary and timely reflection that sheds light on the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ Muslims, while also providing a platform to amplify these rarely heard voices. In addition to receiving the Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award in 2015, Kugle’s work was also nominated for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Non-Fiction.
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9. Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial (2015) // Kenji Yoshino
In 2009, Kenji Yoshino—a legal scholar and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University’s School of Law—was a newly married man in Connecticut while a major legal development unfolded on the opposite coast. What followed were a series of court cases that would eventually become the subject of Yoshino’s 2015 work, Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial, which later earned the Israel Fishman Award for Non-Fiction in 2016.
The book—which is partly a historical report, as well as an intimate memoir of the author and scholar’s own experiences as a gay man—recounts the litigation involved in what Yoshino collectively refers to as “one of the most powerful civil rights trials in history.” From its early days in Northern California through its 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Hollingsworth v. Perry challenged the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8—an amendment intended to ban same-sex marriage— on a federal level.
Yoshino, who was first ambivalent about the case as a whole, recalls being so moved by the 3000-page trial transcript that he was immediately inspired to write a book about it. “The transcript, for me, was a shining civil rights document that encapsulated the most rigorous, best conversation about same-sex marriage I’d ever seen,” he says in a promotional video for NYU School of Law. “And I wanted to bring that to the world.”
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10. The Great Believers (2018) // Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai’s captivating third novel, The Great Believers, collected the 2019 Barbara Gittings Literature Award. The book is at once a sweeping portrait of Chicago during the early years of the AIDS epidemic and a devastating look at how its repercussions still echo decades later.
Reflecting on themes of friendship, loss, resilience, and mortality, the story is told in chapters that alternate between two interconnected storylines of past and present. One tracks a woman in 2015 who travels to Paris in hopes of finding and reconnecting with her estranged daughter, while the other follows a tight-knit group of friends who navigate the too-close-for-comfort tragedies unfolding before them in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Upon publication, this celebrated work of historical fiction was met with critical acclaim, earning the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and achieving finalist status for that year’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, among other accolades. Makkai has also spoken openly about her pointed decision to set the majority of the novel in Chicago, citing a severe lack of coverage on the disease’s lasting impact on the Midwest. “When people are writing the big books about the epidemic, it’s always coastal and it’s never about Chicago,” she told the Chicago Review of Books in a 2018 interview. “There are personal accounts, certainly, but I was sort of astonished by the dearth. That’s still a gap that needs to be filled.”
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11. Cantoras (2019) // Carolina De Robertis
Carolina De Robertis’s second book, Cantoras, is a devastating portrait of sisterhood, survival, and political resistance that transports readers back to a critical moment in Uruguayan history during a time of mass revolution and social upheaval.
The story opens in 1977, when the country is operating under a frightening military dictatorship and the everyday rights of citizens are under attack. It spans over three decades as the interconnected lives of five women—cantoras, as they were called—unfold. When the group flees the capital city of Montevideo, they stumble upon a miraculously uninhabited sanctuary where they aim to live out the rest of their days in peace.
A generational saga of love and found family, Cantoras also includes some important nods to queer history. The title itself is an old-fashioned word for “singer” in Spanish, and a widely coded term that Uruguayan women used to clandestinely come out to each other as queer or lesbian under the military regime. “It was sort of a way of looking at a woman and saying, do you think she’s a cantora, too? Does she sing? [You] know, wink wink,” De Robertis joked in a 2019 interview with NPR. “But there’s also something very powerful and resonant to me about the term cantora as a code for lesbian—a woman who is going to lean into her voice, a woman who sings, a woman who’s not afraid to make sounds and ripples in the world and kind of claim her life or voice on her own terms.”
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12. Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games (2020) // Dr. Bo Ruberg
Dr. Bo Ruberg, associate professor of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine, likes to casually define their academic focus as a “fruit salad hodgepodge” of sorts. Dr. Ruberg, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature with special certifications in New Media and Women, Gender, & Sexuality, conducts research that broadly explores the interesting influences that gender and sexuality have on digital media. On a more granular level, the non-binary scholar works with graduate students who actively design video games and tackle social-justice issues at the Critical Approaches to Technology and the Social (CATS) research lab they co-run at UCI.
Queer Games Avant-Garde is Ruburg’s second published monograph and it won the Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Prize in 2021. The title itself serves as an important definition; Ruberg noted in a 2021 talk that it refers to “a vibrant network of queer and trans folks making video games.” The book, which includes fascinating interviews with over 20 different LGBTQ+ developers at the forefront of the industry, examines the artistic and political practice of making interactive entertainment on the heels of the recent seismic shift toward greater inclusivity in the gaming world.
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13. The Thirty Names of Night (2020) // Zeyn Joukhadar
Prior to writing a Stonewall Book Award-winning novel—or even pursuing writing as a full-time venture—author Zeyn Joukhadar earned a Ph.D. in Pathobiology from Brown University and even worked as a biomedical research assistant for a period of time. Today, the Syrian American writer’s work isn’t necessarily scientific in nature. Rather, his narratives ruminate on themes of self-discovery, gender identity, immigration, and grief.
Joukhadar’s second published book, The Thirty Names of Night, specifically embodies this as it follows an unnamed Syrian American narrator in present-day New York City who is mourning his late mother and grappling with his true gender identity. When he stumbles upon the tattered diary of renowned painter Laila Z., what he finds inside are the unexpected histories of queer and transgender people within his own community, plus a mystery that inextricably connects the artist’s death to his own mother’s.
This coming-of-age story reiterates the fact that, despite facing widespread societal erasure, queer people have always existed. The Thirty Names of Night won both the Barbara Gittings Literature Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Fiction in 2021.
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14. Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir (2021) // Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi is a prolific Nigerian artist and storyteller whose award-winning novels span an assortment of genres, from contemporary romance to magical realism. Dear Senthuran, their debut memoir, is the author’s first work of nonfiction, shifting the narrative to a definitively personal one, in a style similar to their 2018 essay for The Cut.
Written in intimate letters addressed to family and friends, the book recounts the harrowing obstacles they’ve faced as a Black, queer, and non-binary transgender individual during their rise to success and beyond, while also providing hopeful and insightful commentary on the highs and lows of pursuing a creative career.
Emezi’s unforgettably poetic writing has earned them numerous accolades over the years, including a spot on the Time Next Generation Leaders of 2021 list. Specifically, Dear Senthuran’s 2022 Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award win marked Emezi’s first Stonewall Book Award; their novels Pet (2019) and The Death of Vivek Oji (2020) were recognized as Honor Books in 2020 and 2021, respectively. They’re also the first and only writer in Stonewall Book Award history to have been nominated for all three categories.
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15. Sorrowland (2021) // Rivers Solomon
One of the most recent Stonewall Book Award winners is Rivers Solomon’s subversive third novel, Sorrowland. The story opens as the main character Vern—a Black albino intersex teenager—flees an abusive cult (where she was married to its leader) just as she is about to give birth to twins. Now alone in the suffocatingly dark and isolated wilderness, Vern must survive against all odds as she encounters insidious threats that continually endanger her family.
As the plot unfolds, Solomon’s work continually blurs the definitive lines between genres. Elements of science fiction, magical realism, and Gothic literature pepper the pages of Sorrowland. But at its core, the book is a modern parable, a commentary on the dark history of the exploitation, violence, and harm inflicted upon Black bodies in the U.S. and society at large.
In 2022, the novel received the Barbara Gittings Literature Award and was also nominated for other literary honors, including the third annual Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction, which was announced as part of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
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