Last week, I published an article on Buzzfeed titled LGBTQ History Should Be Taught in Schools. Here’s Why. Check it out! It’s a mash-up of information contained in some of my previous blog posts, as well as some new perspectives.
June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month (LGBT) and chances are/hopefully there are a lot of festivals, programs, and other events going on in your area to celebrate! Here are some books you may want to read to your students, children, or just for yourself to learn more and to celebrate people – everyone is different, we love who we love, and we are who we are, so let’s honor that and treat everyone with respect and kindness. Here are some of my favorite books to share that might help you with that!
George by Alex Gino – Excellent novel for upper elementary/middle grades. The main character, George, looks like a boy. But, inside she knows she is a girl. No one knows how George really feels until it’s time for the class play, Charlotte’s Web, and George decides to try out for the part of Charlotte.
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Today is the official release day for my new children’s picture book! It’s called When You Look Out the Window: How Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Built a Community, and it’s about . . . well, I bet you can guess what it’s about. The illustrations (which are gorgeous) were created by Christopher Lyles, and his artwork really brings the story of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin to life for children.
What made me want to tell this story? Especially to children? Sit back, because it’s going to take me a minute.
I met Phyllis Lyon five years ago, when I was working on a different book project involving a collection of interviews with people in the LGBTQIA community. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for a number of years, I knew about the work Phyllis and Del had done for lesbians and for women in general. They were, essentially, the founders of the modern lesbian civil rights movement, and they were also the first to break through the “lavender ceiling” of the women’s movement. They were legendary to San Franciscans, yet virtually unknown by everyone else. I wanted to change that, because I didn’t want their stories to get lost.
This, by the way, is a common phenomenon in the LGBTQIA community – for stories to get lost, twisted around, told and re-told (but never written down) like a game of Telephone. And I’m sure you know how Telephone usually ends. That’s often how it’s been with LGBTQIA history. Sadly, a lot of our history has been lost forever, simply because no one felt that it was important enough to record. Or because no one bothered to listen to people who wanted to tell these stories.
So that’s partly why I decided to reach out to Phyllis Lyon. Del Martin had died in 2008, shortly after they had married during the short period when same-sex marriage was legal in California. Phyllis had been living alone in the house they’d bought together ever since. When I met with her, she was 88 years old – which brings me to the other reason I wanted to interview her. In many communities, LGBTQIA people over the age of 65 are largely invisible. The bar/club scene isn’t always their thing. Nor are youth-oriented events – for obvious reasons. There often aren’t community spaces designed for older LGBTQIA people, and they’re a population that’s often ignored. The film Gen Silent paints a powerful picture of the experiences of older LGBTQIA people, and I wondered if Phyllis could relate to this in any way.
The interview itself didn’t yield a ton of information. Although Phyllis was very gracious and seemed pleased to talk to me, her memory was in serious decline, and she really couldn’t recall many details about her activism. But when I arrived at her home, what immediately grabbed me (and then stuck with me) was the unbelievable view of San Francisco from Phyllis’ living room window. Her house is tiny – maybe 700 square feet – but it’s perched at the top of Castro Street in Noe Valley, with a huge picture window overlooking the city. Initially, the image reminded me a bit of the Hitchcock film Rear Window – Phyllis, like Jeff Jefferies, was largely housebound, and her engagement with the outside world only existed through that pane of glass. The image, and the feelings associated with it, stuck with me for a long time. I felt like I needed to do something with the image of the picture window, but I didn’t know what.
Fast-forward a few years. For various reasons, the original book project faltered. In the meantime, I took up children’s writing and wrote a picture book called This Day in June. People liked the story, but so many of them REALLY liked the overview of LGBTQIA history and culture in the back of the book. “I had no idea about any of this!” was the most common thing people told me, which didn’t surprise me. “I’m embarrassed that I DON’T know about most of this,” said lots of people in the LGBTQIA community. That didn’t surprise me either. It’s uncommon for LGBTQIA history to be taught in schools. Even in California, which passed the FAIR Education Act several years ago, the inclusion of LGBTQIA history and culture in public school curricula is, well, pathetic at best, completely absent at worst. (To be fair, some of that isn’t the schools’ fault. Last time I checked, I could only find one picture book about an LGBTQIA-identified public figure. Guess who it’s about? The answer is provided at the end.)
And then, I had an epiphany: I could tell stories about LGBTQIA history. I could help people connect their present-day experience with past events. If I wrote books about our history for kids, teachers would have resources they could use in their classrooms. And a picture book might just be the perfect way to capture the image of Phyllis and Del’s living room window overlooking the city. Thinking about it from a child’s perspective, I began to experience the image of the window in a different way. Rather than conjuring up memories of Rear Window, I imagined Phyllis gazing out over the city that she and Del had worked so hard to transform.
And the rest, as you might imagine, is history.
A percentage of the proceeds from When You Look Out the Window will be donated to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. Because our histories need to be recorded, shared, and celebrated.
(The answer to my earlier question? Harvey Milk. At least, that’s all I could find for young children. The title of the book is The Harvey Milk Story.)
Over the last three decades, LGBTQ children’s books have gained in prominence and importance. We owe our gratitude to children authors who were and are brave enough to broach the subject head on despite knowing the backlash that would ensue. Thirty five years on we have seen greater acceptance of these books into a wide cross section of family units. Be it read for awareness, education or the simple pleasure of enjoying the word, they play an important role towards universal same gender equality.
By the same token, we still face challenges. We still face discrimination and injustice toward such literature, aimed at nothing more than to express one’s belief or simply as a resource for children growing up in modern society. Let’s delve into how these books have risen to the occasion against all odds and how they have made a credible contribution to the literary world.
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Last Saturday, I attended a charity fundraising gala for the Sacramento Public Library Foundation. The event, called “Authors on the Move,” literally involved “authors on the move” – over 40 authors (including me) rotated from table to table, speed-dating style, and chatted with attendees about our books, our writing process, and all sorts of other things. We were treated to a champagne reception, a four-course gourmet meal, plenty of wine, and a live auction. It was a very lavish and fun event, and it was an incredible honor to be asked to participate.
And I almost didn’t go.
Why? Because the invited keynote speaker was Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket. Many children know him for his books, including A Series of Unfortunate Events, All the Wrong Questions, The Dark, and We Are Pirates. Many people got to know him because of his remarks at the 2014 National Book Awards Ceremony. When he presented Jacqueline Woodson with the award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler quipped that Woodson is allergic to watermelon – likely assuming that our “post-racist” society could find humor and social commentary in such a statement. He also probably assumed that, because he and Woodson were friends, that he could joke with her about watermelon and that she would “get it.”
But she didn’t get it. No one did, actually. And even though Handler later apologized, and even though he tried to make amends by making a large matching donation to We Need Diverse Books, the wound lingered. If you read Jacqueline Woodson’s New York Times op-ed piece, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke,” you can feel the sting of that wound. It takes seconds to tell a joke, but years for the stab wounds to heal.
And that’s why, when I learned that Daniel Handler was the keynote speaker at this event, I had second thoughts about attending – and I knew I had a dilemma on my hands. If I went, my attendance could be taken as a form of passive acceptance of Handler’s racist behavior, and as a reinforcement of his privilege. If I didn’t go, then diversity in children’s books probably wouldn’t be part of the conversation at the event. You see, in a split-second epiphany, I realized that among the children’s book authors, I was the “diversity” – meaning that my book was the only one featuring a historically marginalized and underrepresented group. Layers upon layers of oppression, you see.
My dilemma, of course, was minor in the grand scheme of things. Those of us who identify with minoritized groups face all sorts of no-win situations like this, and in many cases the stakes are much higher. But the bottom line always boils down to this: How do I choose a course of action that maintains my integrity, and that doesn’t involve participating in systemic oppression?
As you know, I decided to go. But even up until the night of the event, lots of evil voices in my head kept telling me that I was making a bad decision. You just want to get dressed up fancy! the evil voice said. You just want to sell lots of books! Boycott the event, and be a REAL activist!
Somehow, through all that clamor, a quieter voice kept saying, Go.
So I did. I trusted my gut. And I’m so glad I did.
I got dressed up real fancy. So fancy, in fact, that I got more questions about my necklace than I did about anything else. I sold lots of books. All of them, actually. I ate wonderful food, met many interesting people, and watched people bid huge amounts of money on dinners, weekend trips, and other auction items. (Dinner with me brought in $1,400, to give you an idea.) The Sacramento Library Foundation raised over $100,000, much of it to be used for their Summer Reading Program for kids.
And at every single table I was seated at, we talked about diversity (and oppression) in meaningful ways. We talked about the limited narratives in LGBT children’s literature; the absence of LGBT writers of color in the children’s book world; the dangers of raising children to be “color-blind,” rather than educating them about racism and other forms of oppression; the importance of being able to see oneself reflected in books and other forms of popular culture. We talked about Daniel Handler and the National Book Awards, reflected on whether he would address it in his keynote, and debriefed afterwards about what he did say. (He did address it, and it was the one time during his whole talk where he was dead serious.) Among the highly privileged, we even had discussions about privilege – White privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege. And we had time to talk about lighter topics, too – like where I bought my stunning necklace.
Would those conversations have happened if I hadn’t attended? It’s hard to know. But I do know that if you live in the bubble of privilege, it’s very easy NOT to have those conversations. I think this is what my gut knew all along, and why it kept quietly telling me to go. Inserting ourselves into privileged spaces and speaking our truth is a powerful act, I’m realizing.