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.)