99 problems (and my story has them all): Diversity and “issues books”

For a while there, I had a great writing streak going. Ideas popped into my head at the most random times – at meetings, during conversations, while driving, or in the shower. I started carrying a small notebook with me so I could jot these ideas down before I forgot them – because too many times, I’d said to myself, “Oh, I’ll remember.” And, well, you know how that goes, I’m sure. It was like I couldn’t write fast enough. My day job was beginning to feel like this big inconvenience, because I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do justice to all these great ideas. But when an idea grabs hold of you, it’s hard to let it go. So I made the time to write, whether it involved staying up late, getting up early, or grabbing a few minutes here and there. The writing didn’t always come easy, and sometimes what seemed like a good idea in my head sounded clunky on paper.

And then . , . the well ran dry. For months, I’ve had trouble coming up with new, fresh, and compelling stories. Many writers I know have experienced this very thing, and in each case, the writing eventually started up again. But this felt a little different that what I’d heard people describe. It wasn’t like the well ran dry slowly, like a riverbed drying up in a drought. No, this felt more like the coin-operated showers you find at campgrounds – when your five minutes are up, the water stops abruptly, and there you are, freezing and dripping wet. Strange. And I had no idea why.

Until today.

Every spring, I attend a writing conference that’s hosted by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Last year’s conference focused heavily on diversity in children’s books, probably in response to the well-publicized and much-needed #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. One of the workshops was “How to Write Diversity Into Your Stories,” which, ironically, was led by young White female associate editor from a large New York publishing house. At the end of the session, one of the questions I had was this: When writing for a diverse audience, how do you incorporate issues like racism, homophobia, class oppression, etc., in a way that’s appropriate for children?

“I wouldn’t focus too much on those things,” she said. “If you do, then it’ll be an ‘issues book,’ which are the scourge of the publishing industry.”

An “issues book.” I’d never heard the term before. But since the conference, I’ve seen that term tossed around quite a bit, along with its sibling, the “problem story.” Book reviewers tend not to like issues books, and if they do, it’s despite the presence of these issues. Most children’s picture books with LGBT characters fall into the category of “issues books.” Many books featuring people of color do as well – and when they don’t, the race and ethnicity of the characters aren’t really a central part of the story.

So now what do I do? I thought to myself. I’d written a manuscript about a girl who’s grieving the loss of her transgender sibling – an issues book. I’d started working on another one, at the request of my editor, about a mixed-race girl with two daddies who’s trying to figure out how to navigate Mother’s Day at school – another issues book. I’d been playing with a story about an intersex character, and another about a child whose mother comes out as transgender – which are, of course, issues books. Meanwhile, in the back of my head, round and round like the stock ticker in Times Square, I’m hearing, Issues books are the scourge of the publishing industry. No wonder I couldn’t get anything on paper! So many of my ideas involved addressing a character’s personal struggle triggered by oppression, and the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to a scourge.

That was only part of my epiphany. The other came this morning, when I read this article from the Diversity in YA blog. What they had to say about “issues books” basically boiled down to this:

  • If your characters are part of historically marginalized groups, then oppression is part of their experience.
  • If your characters have multiple minority identities, then the issues they face will involve these complex intersections. (For that reason, most books don’t include characters with more than one minority identity.)
  • Simple narratives that have a clean ending don’t reflect the realities that multiply minoritized people face.
  • As long as minoritized people face oppression, then books that realistically capture their experience will need to include issues – even if it seems like “too many issues.”

BINGO. This article nailed it. This is what I wish I’d thought to say at that conference.

It’s scary to me how easily this editor’s words derailed me, which speaks to the power of internalized oppression. I’ve studied internalized oppression for a long time (my dissertation focused on internalized homophobia), and I’m continually amazed at how, like a toxic mold, it can creep up and invades our psyches so easily. Internalized oppression may keep us from writing the stories we want to write. It keeps publishers from putting those stories out there – they fear they won’t make money, or they’ll be too depressing. But I don’t think it’ll keep readers from reading them – because, for many of us, they are our stories.

Just before I started writing this blog post, a little story idea popped into my head. I jotted it down, and later I’ll play around with it. Yes, that quickly, the idea well seems to be filling again.

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Filed under children, covert homophobia, culture, intersectionality, intersex, LGBTQ youth, media

My flip-flopping stomach

 

Monday morning, 6:15AM. I stumbled into the kitchen, tired and bleary-eyed, and I headed straight for the electric teakettle. COFFEE!!! I NEED COFFEE!!! Somehow, my brain doesn’t fully kick into gear until I have a few sips of coffee in my system. While I waited for the water to boil, I picked up my phone and scrolled through my messages and updates. The e-mail from Jess is the one that catches my eye.

Congratulations on the Stonewall! it said.

Now, let me backtrack. Jess isn’t a close friend of mine. I know her because she works in my city councilmember’s office. In fact, I got to know her because she was trying to help me catch a stray rooster that was terrorizing my chickens and waking up the neighborhood at 4 AM every morning. (I’m not making this up. I swear. I actually wrote a children’s story about this rooster, but I scrapped it when the real-life rooster turned horribly evil.) So, on many levels, this was a totally bizarre e-mail message to be getting from her.

So I replied. Did I win the Stonewall? I hadn’t heard.

The next thing I knew, my Twitter account was pinging and dinging all over the place. My children’s picture book, This Day in June, had in fact won the 2015 ALA Stonewall Award. The most prestigious LGBT book award, as a matter of fact. Since then, my brain has been buzzing, and my stomach has been flip-flopping all over the place. I’m still in a state of disbelief about it. And I haven’t really had time to digest this – a few minutes after I found out, my daughter woke up, and the frenzied before-school routine was set in motion.

So now it’s Tuesday, and I’m at work, and I have a window of time between checking things off the to-do list and teaching classes all afternoon. Now I have a little time to process this. And what better way to do that than writing about it?

So. How do I feel about this?

I feel excited. Make that EXCITED!!! I’m excited about the award. I’m excited about the possibilities that come with it. I’m excited to see This Day in June getting national attention. And I’m excited that I have another reason to wear a dress I bought for an upcoming black-tie event. (I know, how shallow!)

I feel anxious. Sick, almost. Why, I don’t know exactly. Maybe because this is unfamiliar territory for me? I just know that my stomach hasn’t really settled down since I got the news. I feel jumpy and restless – to the point where I didn’t really want the coffee I’d made that Monday morning. (That’s a first for me.)

I actually feel a little guilty. Why? Because there are so many authors who have been writing much longer than I have whose books have not won the award. Me, I’m a first-time children’s book author, and my book gets the award. It’s a huge honor, for sure, but it’s also very humbling.

I feel energized. I want to write. I haven’t blogged for a while, mostly because I felt like I was running out of things to say. But now the words are coming back. And I’m realizing that you can never run out of things to say, just like you can never run out of stories. But sometimes, you have to take a breath in between before the next thought comes.

I feel hopeful. The ALA had diversity on the radar screen this year – the Newbury and Caldecott Award winners were books with diverse content. And not only was This Day in June the first picture book to receive the award, it’s a book that pushed the envelope in many ways.  (It’s not every day that you see children’s picture books featuring drag, leather, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.) The ALA sent a message this year, and that message was this: Get out of the box, and start taking diversity seriously.

All kinds of feelings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But even just a few minutes of writing has settled my stomach a little, and grounded me. Amazing, the power of the written word.

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The power of silence

Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. – Mahatma Gandhi

Your silence will not protect you. - Audre Lorde

To be an activist is to use your voice. To speak up. To take action. Silence, for an activist, is a death knell. It signals complicity with the aggressor. Silence equals death.

Right?

These last few weeks, I haven’t posted any blog articles, which marks the longest stretch of inactivity since I started blogging at The Active  Voice. I can cite lots of reasons for this. I’ve been incredibly busy at work. My daughter’s school and social calendar has taken on a life of its own. And lately, I’ve been driving all over the place – Fresno, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – for book signings and presentations. My gas tank was running on empty – and for weeks, when blog-writing time rolled around, I chose instead to rest, regroup, and refuel. I wanted to be still and quiet. And I wasn’t feeling good about it. You’ve got a blog article to write, the nagging voice said. Don’t slack off.

And then, last week, a friend sent me an article that changed my perspective.

That article was titled “10 Important Reasons to Start Making Time for Silence, Rest, and Solitude.” Oh great, I thought to myself. Another fluffy self-help piece. But the article resonated with me, on several levels – and I found myself realizing that silence is not only personally healing, it can be a powerful tool in a social justice activist’s toolkit. In fact, I probably need to utilize silence much more frequently than I do. I won’t talk about all ten reasons outlined in the article, but I’ll focus on a few.

Silence strengthens intention and action. Most of us think of “silence” and “action” as mutually exclusive and incompatible concepts. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says this in the article: “During silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.” I might, for example, be dissatisfied with my job, to the point where it affects my work performance. However,  if I’m constantly in a flutter of activity, I’m not creating any space to process what that dissatisfaction is about – and that step needs to happen before I can identify what actions to take.

Here’s an example: Recently, my daughter came home from school singing a song that I thought had lyrics that were sexist. “Who taught you that song?” I asked her.

“My teacher,” she answered brightly, and then went back to singing it.

My initial reaction was anger. RAGE, really. I was ready to pick up my phone and fire off an e-mail to the teacher. Then I thought, No, it’s better to tell her my concerns after school. I started to write down what I wanted to say to her. Maybe I’ll text one of the other parents and see what they think, I thought. And then, somewhere in the depths of my soul, a tiny voice said, Wait.

I listened. And I’m glad I did. Later that day, after she had some after-school “quiet time,” my daughter was singing that song again. When she got to the offending lyric, she said, “I don’t like that part. I’m going to change it.” And she did – she created a totally different line that was positive and non-sexist. “From now on, I’m going to sing it this way at school,” she announced.

Had my daughter not been quiet, the idea might not have come to her. Had I not been quiet, I would have charged like a bull towards the teacher – and I would have denied my daughter the opportunity to take action. In hindsight, her way was far better than mine.

Silence gives us “a-ha” moments. In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about how he gets his ideas: “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” But in order to recognize them, you need to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have studied this very phenomenon. When we’re quiet, they say, we’re more likely to daydream, to let our minds wander. Mind-wandering and daydreaming give us what they call an “incubation period,” where we digest our thoughts and let our ideas percolate – and this is where we’re most likely to have that “eureka!” moment. Interestingly, studies indicate that people who are more prone to daydreaming are more likely to score higher on tests of creativity – an essential skill for an activist navigating the rocky terrain of social justice work.

Silence increases our tolerance for discomfort. Try this: Find a comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes, sit, and do nothing until the alarm rings.

How was it?

If you’ve never meditated before, I bet it felt like the longest five minutes of your life.

So many people HATE silence. They’ll chatter incessantly just to fill space. They’ll crack a joke after a period of uncomfortable silence in order to break the tension. Even texting or Facebooking on our phones is a way to prevent silence. If I’m in the waiting room, or on the bus, or in line, just sitting quietly might be too much to bear  – so it’s iPhone to the rescue, to keep the mental chatter going.

Several years ago, I participated in the Day of Silence, an annual day of action organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). Participants take a day-long vow of silence as a symbolic representation of the silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s a powerful experience, and for me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Every time I nonverbally asserted my right to silence, I felt uncomfortable. Every time I watched other people’s uncomfortable reactions, I felt uncomfortable. The whole thing was just . . . uncomfortable. And that, actually, was the most illuminating part of the whole experience for me. I tolerated a tremendous amount of discomfort throughout the day, and to cope with it, I drew on internal resources I didn’t know I had. At the same time, I witnessed discomfort in others – lots of it. For me, it was an exercise that created a boundary between my discomfort and theirs – and that it’s not my job to rescue people from their feelings. Because the only way to do that, of course, would have been for me to break my silence.

Silence as a regular practice. Think about it.

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What counts as “history”?

A few days ago, I read an article on the Internet titled, “Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters.” It’s an excellent read, and it briefly covers a few LGBT historical events that many people don’t know about. However, that’s not what most struck me about the article: Reading it triggered a memory of an event I hadn’t thought about in years, an event that was shockingly similar to the college incident shared in the article.

In my 11th grade AP History class, one of our assignments was to write a paper about a 20th century historical figure. Mr. Reinhardt, my history teacher, rattled off a list of examples, most of which involved the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Boring, I thought to myself. The last thing I want to do is write another paper about a dead White president. I wanted to learn about someone who isn’t usually studied in a typical history class, but I couldn’t think of anyone. One night, I was watching a baseball game on TV with my father, and I asked his advice. “Who would you write about?”

My dad didn’t miss a beat. “Jackie Robinson,” he said. (Obviously he had baseball on his mind.)

“Who’s that?” I asked.

My dad snorted. “Write your paper about him,” he said, “and you’ll find out.”

The next day, I did some research at my high school library. (This was 1987. Google didn’t exist then.) Once I learned who Jackie Robinson was, I got so excited about writing that paper. History seemed like such a boring subject, probably because all we talked about were wars, dead White presidents, and military heroes. No wonder I had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. This paper opened a door for me, and made me realize that history could be about baseball players and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only Black man and civil rights activist of importance.

The day after our paper topics were due, Mr. Reinhardt asked me to stay after class. “You can’t write your paper on this topic,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “Why not?”

“Because Jackie Robinson isn’t a real historical figure.” (Yes, my teacher really did say that.)

I was a pretty good rule-follower in school, and I rarely challenged authority. But this time, my automatic knee-jerk reaction was to pick a fight with Mr. Reinhardt. “What do you mean, he isn’t a real historical figure?” I asked. Many years later, I still remember Mr. Reinhardt’s eyes narrowing when I said this.

“He was just a baseball player,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “There isn’t much else to say about him.”

I remember standing there in total disbelief as he said this. “If you let me write my paper about him,” I said, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Mr. Reinhardt laughed. “Okay,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk your grade.”

I was willing to risk my grade.

In high school, “history” was about White men, for the most part. And that’s true in most academic disciplines, including psychology. (Read Even the Rat Was White for an expose of the history of racism in psychology). It wasn’t until I got to college that I took courses in women’s history and African-American history – neither of which were graduation requirements. In graduate school (which, by the way, is a program that’s lauded for its approach to multicultural education), we were required to take just one class that focused on a historically marginalized group. I took several – one on Mexican-American history, one on Asians in America, and one on the history of those indigenous to the Americas. I have never taken a class on LGBT history.

The point is this: It’s easy to spend years in higher education without ever really learning about women, people of color, or LGBT people. And invisibility is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. If you don’t see people like yourself represented, then people like yourself must not exist. Or people like yourself who are important must not exist. If, on the other hand, you only see people like yourself represented – well, nothing breeds privilege and ethnocentrism more strongly than that.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue – we’re seeing the real-world consequences of this. Many studies have documented a significant achievement gap between White students and students of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Several of those studies show a link between poor academic performance and the lack of representation of these groups in their curricula. Several studies, including one recently conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, show that Black individuals who lack knowledge about their history are more likely to endorse negative Black stereotypes. Other studies, including classic work by psychologist Claude Steele, demonstrate that internalized stereotypes can have a negative impact on test performance – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” And LGBT history is rarely taught in schools; most of my students have no knowledge of the Compton Cafeteria Riots or the Stonewall Riots, just to give two examples. In fact, very few of my millennial students have meaningful knowledge about the AIDS crisis.

Recently, our pastor at church gave a sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. After she told the story, she asked, “And where was Sarah in all of this? How come her voice isn’t heard in this story?” I’d heard the story of the sacrificial lamb many times, but it had never occurred to me that Sarah’s voice had been silenced. But this happens all the time – the voices of those who lack power don’t make it into the history books. In elementary school, I learned that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who discovered the Americas. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that “bravery” from one point of view is “genocide” from another. Who gives voice to a particular historical event determines who gets seen and heard, who is deemed to be “important,” who appears on your AP History list of possible paper topics.

So I wrote my history paper about Jackie Robinson. And I worked my ass off. I visited multiple libraries (including a university library), searching for every shred of information I could find. I wrote and rewrote the paper with fierce determination until it was as good as it could be. Mr. Reinhardt decided that my efforts were worth a B+. And I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have to convince an authority figure that something is worth learning about.

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Dress to impress, not to oppress (redux)

Last week, a friend of mine made the following comment on Facebook:

“Your friendly reminder.”

Under that comment was an article from Everyday Feminism titled, “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” The article begins like this:

Halloween is a holiday about glorifying all things spooky and scary, a day to dress up in a costume for the sake of having fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the “fun” comes at the expense of others, and the scariest thing is how rampant racism is on Halloween.

Before you give me an eye roll and say, “Relax, it’s just a joke,” listen up. Because I used to be you.

I read the article. I thought the argument was made clearly, simply, and expertly. And yet, that article generated one hundred and forty-nine comments, many of which had an angry, defensive, and snarky tone. My friend’s reposting of this article generated twenty-five comments, many of which were similarly angry, defensive, and snarky. It stunned me, actually, that so many people were unwilling to consider the possibility that certain costumes just might be offensive.

So. Halloween is coming up in a couple of weeks. I encourage you to read the article from Everyday Feminism. I also encourage you to read my blog post from October 2012, which I’ve reposted below. And I’d like to ask this of you: If you read the article and my blog post, and if you find yourself feeling reactive, please don’t post a comment immediately. Instead, go inward, and take some time to ask yourself why you’re feeling so reactive. Ask yourself what buttons are being pushed, and what nerve is being touched. Think about it. Write about it. Talk about it with others. Sit quietly and uncomfortably with it. But don’t immediately react, and don’t immediately shut down. That will yield a much more productive conversation, one I wish had happened on my friend’s Facebook page.

* * * * * * * * * *  

Think about the costumes you dressed in as a child, or saw other children dressed in. How many children were dressed as Indians, complete with fringe and feathers? Or as a Mexican, with a large-brimmed sombrero and a brightly colored blanket? Or maybe as a kimono-clad Japanese woman, her face whitened and chopsticks in her hair?

The student images above say it all:  This is not who I am, and this is not okay.

A student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) recently launched an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” – a campaign that has taken off like wildfire. College campuses across the country have begun to distribute these posters on their campuses. As of last week, these images have been shared on social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr more than 50,000 times. Given that Halloween has a longstanding association with poor decision-making (think Mischief Night and college drunk-fests), it seems like a prime opportunity to convey the message to think before you do something offensive and stupid.

Extending the concept to LGBTQ oppression, the Cantu Queer Center at UC Santa Cruz has taken this campaign one step further by creating their own set of posters. Headlining with the statement, “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume,” the campaign calls attention to the fact that many people (especially young heterosexual males) consider Halloween the one time of year where it’s okay to cross-dress – to take gender identity and make it into a costume.  You can see an example of their poster below:

“Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” poster by the UCSC Cantu Queer Center, inspired by the Ohio University STARS “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign.

Frankly, when I think back to my high school experience, I can think of a LOT of boys who dressed in drag because they thought it was a big joke. In fact, I can think of quite a few people who did exactly that in college – and they, too, thought that this was hilariously funny. And it’s pretty offensive, when you think about it.

The irony, of course, is that Halloween is notorious for being a BIG gay holiday. Up until 2006, San Francisco hosted an annual “gay Halloween” street party (the party ended when nine people were wounded in a shooting, prompting the city to call off the event). Mardi Gras-like Halloween events have sprouted up in gay enclaves like Christopher Street, West Hollywood, and Key West. There are lots of reasons why Halloween has become such a big deal in the LGBTQ community. It’s a holiday with pagan roots, appealing to those who have been shunned by mainstream churches. It’s a way to be flamboyant and theatrical while still being closeted – if you’re wearing a mask, people won’t always know who you are, and this was particularly important in the days before gay liberation. But on a very basic, obvious level, doing drag and playing with gender, which is usually totally unacceptable in our essentialist two-gender system, is fair game on Halloween. In fact, in the LGBTQ community, there’s something seriously wrong if NOBODY is doing drag on Halloween.

So why is it okay for people in the LGBTQ community to do drag on Halloween, but it’s not okay for a bunch of straight male high school students? An analogy that comes to mind is the use of the word “queer.” Why is it okay for me – a member of the LGBTQ community – to use the word “queer,” but it’s not acceptable for non-ally heterosexual people to use that word?

I have two words for you:  Cultural appropriation.

When people engage in cultural appropriation, they’re borrowing aspects from a cultural group (usually a group that has been subjected to marginalization and oppression) without a true respect or appreciation for what they’re doing. Wearing dreadlocks because it’s “cool” is a form of cultural appropriation. Naming baseball teams and summer camps after Native American tribes is an example of cultural appropriation. It involves commodifying the “trendy” elements of a culture without recognizing the decidedly “un-trendy” historical oppression that group has been subjected to.

Many historically oppressed groups have coped with cultural appropriation by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. When groups engage in cultural re-appropriation, they reclaim terms and aspects of culture that have traditionally been in a disparaging way against that group. When LGB people call themselves “queer,” or lesbians call themselves “dykes,” or trans- and gender-variant people call themselves “trannies,” they’re engaging in cultural re-appropriation. Interestingly, this concept has spread to a vast number of groups – the word “fat” is used by large women and men in the size acceptance movement; the word “crip” is used in the disability activist community; the concept of “geek culture” is emerging among people who belong to said culture; various racist terms have been reclaimed by different racial and ethnic groups. Cultural re-appropriation is an act of empowerment – it’s saying, “We own this word – you can never again use it against us.”

To be sure, this is a controversial idea. Some people in the gay community – particularly older people who remember the sting of these epithets – find the words “queer” or “dyke” to be highly offensive. At the other end of the spectrum, some people view any violation of gender boundaries – whether it’s by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or a group of heterosexual college males – to be a positive thing. In fact, some would say that the “Our Gender Identity Is Not a Costume” campaign takes things a little too far, punishing them for pushing the envelope on gender boundaries.

I think it’s important to reflect on these questions: If you’re going to wear a costume, are you willing to learn about the person inside the costume? Are you willing to consider the baggage of oppression that is held within that costume? Are you willing to fully experience how others respond to you while you’re “in costume” – and to consider how it might feel to those people whose “costumes” can never be taken off?

Happy Halloween to you all.

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Filed under biphobia, Castro neighborhood, coming out, disability, gender nonconformity, homophobia, LGBTQ, racism, San Francisco, stereotypes, transgender, transphobia