Author Archives: gaylepitman

About gaylepitman

I am a professor of psychology and women's studies at Sacramento City College. I teach courses on psychological disorders and on gender issues, and I'm currently teaching an exciting class called "The Psychology of Sexual Orientation." Backdrop is my first published book.

LGBTQ Children’s Picture Books And Its Evolution

Originally posted on Pigeonhole Books:

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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This author’s diversity dilemma: Reflections on Authors on the Move

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 QuestionsThe 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.

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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.


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.


Filed under children, human rights, LGBT families

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.


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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Filed under activism, mental health, psychological research, sexism