THE BOOK OF LIFE: PART 1: Through the Window with Lee Wind
7:18PM Jun 14, 2020
[NOTE TO READERS: The podcast intro was updated slightly after this transcript was made. To see the info that's missing here, please see the links about boosting black voices at https://jewishbooks.blogspot.com/2020/06/through-window-lee-wind.html.]
[COLD OPEN] I think a lot about... I'm gay. I'm the G of LGBTQ AI plus two. And my job is to be an ally to everyone else in that alphabet soup. And more than that, to everyone else, to to women and to people of color and to disabled people. Because they're all my people, right? Like, we're all struggling to have agency and be heard and be empowered. And that's very dear to my heart.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Today's podcast is a part of Through the Window, a diversity exchange created by the Association of Jewish Libraries to fight antisemitism and other forms of bias through education and allyship. Here's how it works. Jewish organizations swap content with other marginalized communities to give both groups a look through the window at our common humanity. If you'd like to participate, check out Jewishlibraries.org/throughthewindow. My partner in this exchange is author Lee Wind, who blogs at I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell Do I Read? We opened the window wide to interview each other about Jewish kidlit and LGBTQIA2+ kidlit. It was a really fun conversation. Enjoy!
Let's talk about intersectionality. First, let's define it. And then let's talk about what intersections we each have in our own lives.
Absolutely. Intersectionality is really important and it's becoming more important, especially to younger people because they are intersectional. Right? That means that they have more than one identity. Like I just said, I'm queer, and I'm Jewish, but I'm also a vegetarian. I also am a guy that has had, you know, serious health issues in my life. My parents are immigrants. I'm first generation American. There are so many ways each of us fall both inside and outside the margins of what our society favors. And I think it's really an opportunity to acknowledge that we have connections. I was talking with my 16 year old daughter, and I was saying that I was part of a group and I felt weird because we were all white. There was no no people of color in the group. And I said, You know, I wanted the group to be more representative of underrepresented people. And I said, and I and I'm gay, and she said, Well, yeah, Poppy, and the other four people on the group are women. I was like, Oh, yeah, women. That's right. As a white guy, I forget that women are so marginalized in our culture. And I have to remind myself of that. And I see so many parallels between how we put down women in our culture and how we put down queer people in our culture, specifically gay men. The language we use to sort of shame gay men is by calling them effeminate, that they are like women. And these parallels continue, when you look at the stereotypes against Jewish people, throughout history are pretty similar to the stereotypes that have been used about queer people, in particular that we're dangerous to children. You know, the blood libel for Jewish people, the pedophilia myth for gay men. These fears have been stoked by the people in power to keep our groups marginalized. And we see this still happening today with these rules that are passed about women's bodies and lives, that are designed to keep women from having agency. I think a lot about... I'm gay. I'm the G of LGBTQAI plus two. And my job is to be an ally to everyone else in that alphabet soup. And more than that, to everyone else, to to women and to people of color and to disabled people. Because they're all my people, right? Like, we're all struggling to have agency and be heard and be empowered. And that's very dear to my heart.
I hadn't thought about the parallels between the stereotypes. And you're right, that the reason behind those stereotypes is really just an attempt to disempower each group. So to talk a little bit about my own intersectionality: It's interesting because we are a Venn diagram. So for instance, we overlap in that we're both Jewish, we're both white, we're both cisgender. We're both able bodied. But we're of different genders. I am in the female gender group. I'm not a first generation American. What else? I'm a science fiction fan. That's a big part of my identity, a geek. So I'm in that Venn diagram with a lot of other people, we're both bloggers...
We're both passionate about children's literature, its power to change the world. And we're all so many things, right? We all can find commonality with almost anybody.
Right. You talked about the alphabet soup and acknowledging that some of my regular listeners are also intersectional with the queer community, I think many are not and would appreciate help in decoding that ever growing acronym. So can you educate us about that?
Yeah, yeah. And it doesn't have to go down like medicine. It can be like chocolate. Here's the thing, the big picture thing that I love to share with people is that the word homosexual isn't particularly helpful, because it emphasizes sex. And it makes the distinction between someone that is queer and someone that is not being how queer people have sex. Our culture is pretty messed up about sex. We're obsessed with it and we vilify it. And I think that if we were to talk instead about love, about men loving men and women loving women, and about identity, about people living outside gender boundaries, I think then we would have very different conversations... like if the word was homolovual rather than homosexual it would be a completely different scenario right? If we were talking about homolovual rights and homolovual history. So I think when we're talking about definitions, it's really useful to think about love because the love that keeps me and my husband together, the love that we share with our teenage daughter, the love that holds my family together is the exact same love that holds everybody else's family together. Love is love. That's something we can have in common. And let's emphasize that. So my definitions of LGBTQAI plus two are.. I don't want to lose track... so L is for lesbian, a woman who can fall in love with another woman. G is for gay, it can describe a man who falls in love with another man. Gay has also been used as an umbrella term. So people talk about gay rights. There are people who identify as women who consider themselves gay. Really labels are something people should choose for themselves. We should not be labeling other people. But when someone chooses it, we should be respectful. B is for bi. I use bi rather than bisexual. In fact, the bi community generally uses bi, again maybe it's because of trying to not have sex be the focus of the conversation. So bi is interesting because there are two different going definitions within that community. One is that a person who is bi is someone that can fall in love with anyone else regardless of their gender. A synonym for that is pan, which is short for pansexual. Again, we put the sex aside and we just go by pan. Another definition is for people that view gender more binary. Some people who are bi consider that they can fall in love with either a man or a woman. Those are the letters that sort of cover an affective orientation, like who you can fall in love with. Then there are the letters of the alphabet that recognize people's identity in terms of their gender, and how they sit in the world. So first, we should talk about cis and trans, right, you said that both you and I are cisgendered which is true, like when we close our eyes and imagine ourselves in the world. I see myself as a guy, I open my eyes and lo and behold, my body is that of a guy. So I match and cis is actually Latin for on the same side of, so cisgender, our internal identities and our external bodies align. Trans is Latin for on the other side of, across, someone who is trans might close their eyes, envision themselves as a woman, open their eyes and their body is more of a masculine body. It doesn't mean that they're transitioning necessarily, it just means that their internal identity and their external bodies are across from each other. And then there is Q for queer or for questioning, questioning, someone who's figuring it out, trying to quiet the noise of the world to sort of figure out who they are, who they're attracted to. And then Q's also for queer, which is a word that's really changed in my lifetime. When I was a kid, queer was a slur but it has really transitioned into be reclaimed by the queer community. There are queer studies programs in colleges, and it is really used as an umbrella term. So you can use it instead of all the letters and the numbers. A is for asexual and people who are on that spectrum. I is for intersex and people whose bodies don't conform to the binary expectations that our culture has. And fascinating point is that it turns out that the number of people who are intersex is the same proportion as the number of people who have red hair.
Huh. That's interesting.
Fascinating. An old term for it was hermaphrodite, someone whose physical body has characteristics of what we would consider feminine and what we would consider masculine or maybe in between, something that would be more gender neutral.
And then there's still a little bit more to this, right...?
Right, yes, there's the number two, which stands for two spirit and indigenous people who identify as part of the queer community. And then plus has been added to include everyone else that doesn't feel like they fit any of those things, but they do feel like they're part of the queer community.
Wow. Well, I'm really glad that queer can be used as a shorthand because it's it gets really complicated.
Yeah... you do have to be aware though that for people over 50, queer can be loaded. They remember it used as a slur against them. So, meaning you know, inflection, intent, it's all really important. So if you are a non queer person and you're using queer, be careful with your tone, because you want to make sure that you're being respectful.
Just like any word, right? Like, you can say, chocolate, yuck. Or you can say chocolate, right? Like, it's all about context. We should be aware that this is a word that people have a history with. It comes with baggage.
Yes. Thank you for that reminder. I just laughed because who would say that about chocolate?
Yech, chocolate, I'm gonna get hate mail.
So do you have a question for me? because we're interviewing each other today.
I do! So we're both super involved with kidlit. And I'm curious, because I listened to the podcast that you had done it with the Highlights Foundation, about the Holocaust and holidays, and how do we do more stories than that, and I was also thinking there are sort of the shtetl stories from the 1900's. And I'm wondering, what's the resistance? What's going to open things up so we can have more varied Jewish kidlit?
I think the reason that we have so many Holocaust books and so many shtetl stories and holiday books is because it's that same vicious cycle that causes us to have a preponderance of superhero movies. Success breeds more success. So if those books have sold well, the publishers think Well, that's a sure thing. I'll do that again.
But wouldn't it time out like the vampire thing? We have this big vampire moment and then everyone was like, Oh, I don't want another vampire book, and how come we can't seem to get a breakout... have we have we had a breakout Jewish story that's outside those things that can start to change things?
That's a really interesting question. Because these themes that we see repeated in Jewish kidlit have not been fads or trends. They have just been staples. The Holocaust books, I think, are partly fueled by the success of earlier Holocaust books and partly fueled by the fact that it's really strong, compelling material. You know, it can be done well or done poorly, like any other topic, but it has the potential to be very moving or to be very dramatic, or very exciting. Just the nature of that material. Plus the fact that it's that disaster rubbernecking effect, you know, people can't look away from something that's really terrible. So it's been a point of fascination for many years, and I don't see that going away anytime soon. Although, as I've talked about on the podcast, with many people many times, it's overrepresented in the genre, there's, you can't really say there are too many Holocaust books. But you can say there are not enough other books in relationship to the numbers of Holocaust books.
It makes me think of the thing that we have on the queer side, which is that there's a lot of discussion about like, Are we done with coming out stories? I wrote an essay about that, like 10 years ago for Hunger Mountain. No, we'll never be done with coming out stories, but... and... right, not but... AND we need more stories where the characters are queer and they're on an adventure. And it's not about their being queer. We need that "Yes, and" that improv concept, right? Yes, we need the Holocaust books and we need the holiday books, but we need the other books-- and AND we need the other books too. Oy, I did it, I said but. AND we need the other books too.
You're exactly right. We need the Holocaust books. We need Hanukkah books because we do want to feel like we have something to sparkle about in December along with everybody else, AND we need more books about Rosh Hashanah and we need fantasies with Jewish characters.
Absolutely, and queer characters too, the Harry Potter thing...
And Jewish queer characters!
And Rainbow Rowell, right, like give it up for her, she did Wayward Son and Carry On. I said those out of order but like that was, that was the queer Harry Potter. And I just was so grateful and it did quite well.
Right? Well, if you're plugging titles, I will also mention Anya and the Dragon, which is a fantasy with Jewish characters. And it's not about the Judaism, but Judaism is definitely an important part of the story
Love it. We've got to plug books we like. Oh, I have a question for you. When I was growing up, there was a lot of Oh, that's too Jewish, or, Oh, that's too gay, especially as I was figuring stuff out and learning to come out and be my authentic self. And I guess I I'm wondering what's Jewish enough compared to what's queer enough? Is a name or just a mention casually that like, "Oh, yeah, after I got back from celebrating Hanukkah..." is that enough to make it something that makes an impact on a young person?
That's a really interesting question. And I've had some conversations about that recently. I'm going to be very Jewish and answer a question with a question. So my question is, enough for what? And also "what is a Jewish book?" is a question being constantly asked within the Jewish kidlit community, we have that conversation all the time, what makes a book a Jewish book? And that's sort of another form of this question of what's Jewish enough or queer enough?
For me, I think it's about enough to resonate with the reader. I was talking with Arthur Levine, the editor, and he was asked a question if someone said, Well, I write really young chapter books, how can I include queer content. I'd like to but my characters don't have any affective interest in other people. They're not even having crushes yet. How can I do it? And he said, it's as simple as one character asks the other if they can come over for a playdate. And the response is, I don't know, I have to check with my moms, just making mom plural. Suddenly, you've changed the universe of that story. And that one letter, I think, for me, as a reader would have had a huge impact, that sort of reflection that oh my gosh, there's somebody else. I mean, if it had been dads, I would have you know, collapsed and started weeping, probably. When you're really starved for it, I think even the slightest bit could be super impactful and resonant for a young reader.
Yes. And that's kind of what I was going to say, is enough for what, meaning enough to be a mirror book like you're saying?A mirror book, of course, being that famous metaphor about books as mirrors to reflect your own identity back at you, or a window to see somebody else's life through. So If a book has just enough to be a mirror and show you that you are represented in the literature and you are validated, then that's enough for that purpose. And it might be as simple as that letter at the end of the word just making two moms or two dads. Or it could be that a character's last name is Cohen. That's the only hint. But you're like, Ah, I see that I'm represented by that, I see myself. But on the other hand, it might be enough for a mirror book, but not enough for a window book. Maybe there's readers who don't recognize Cohen as a Jewish name. So to them, that book does not show them the world of Jewish people. Or maybe it's not enough for a Jewish book award. So for instance, I have served on the Sidney Taylor Book Award committee that recognizes the best Jewish kidlit. And a book that just has a character who happens to be named Cohen would not win that award, because that's not Jewish enough for that purpose. So I think that the question is, enough for what? And the answer is different depending on the situation.
And I guess we should acknowledge that you don't reverse engineer it in that way, like you write the book that you authentically are trying to write. But it's useful to keep in mind how you have so much power as a writer to hold up those mirrors, present those windows, open up those sliding glass doors.
Exactly. It's... with great power comes great responsibility, as Spiderman would say.
It's true, right? And and as writers we are the masters of the universes that we create, we decide what's going to happen and why and who these characters are. Until of course, the characters get real enough and they start to do things you didn't expect them to do. And you're like what, which is a little bit of magic that I don't think anybody can actually articulate and explain but it's fascinating.
So I want to ask you about the state of the genre for queer kidlit and even for adult lit if you are aware of that. What is being created? What else do you think needs to be created? What are you excited about?
If you could address readers or publishers or agents or other potential authors, what do you wish people knew about the queer community or about its literature?
More! There's my one word answer. And then I'll give a very long footnote. "More" in that when I started my blog, I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell Do I Read? I started it back in 2007. So I've been doing it for a while now. And when I started, it was because when I was a kid, there was nothing. There was absolutely nothing that I ever encountered that had queer characters in it, except for an evil pedophile villain in Dune, Baron Harkonnen, which was not helping. I love that book. But that was problematic. When I wanted to find books with queer content for kids and teens, there was no safe place to find it, even a book as lovely as Todd Parr's The Family Book, when it was listed on Amazon. The Family Book is a really sweet picture book with cartoony images of different kinds of families. It's like, "some families look alike," and it's a bunch of purple and pink dogs that all look very similar. You know, "some families look different." And it's a tree with all these different kinds of animals in it. "Some families adopt children," and it's a row of ducks, with a penguin sitting on the back of one of the ducks. And then you turn the page and it's like, "some families have two moms or two dads," and it's cartoon faces, two men and then under it two women. And literally the review said, If you tear out the page with the two moms and two dads, this is a lovely book about diversity. And I thought, Oh my gosh, first of all, it was so painful, but but it was also like, way to miss the entire point of diversity. But to Amazon that's not hate speech. That's just a person expressing their opinion. But it's not safe, it didn't feel safe. And I felt like, wow, I really want to create a safe place online where people can find out what are the books that have queer content. So I started, and I really thought there were about 30 books when I started, and I was like, Oh my gosh, how am I gonna have something to say on this blog? I did one book a day, one book a post. And I asked people to give their own reviews because I didn't want it to be Lee's choices. I wanted it to just be here are the books, here's what's queer about them, if you want to, add a review in the comments field. And it just started building and I went from just a handful of books and always trying to find more and, you know, the original, the books that were early, all had tragic endings, because those were probably the only books that could get published. The character was sort of punished for being queer at the end. And then there were books like Nancy Garden's....
Annie on My Mind?
Annie on My Mind, thank you. I just ...my bookshelf is right there so I turned... Annie on My Mind, which was really like the first happy or hopeful ending for a lesbian teen love story. And that was amazing. And I got all emotional reading it. I'm not a lesbian, but it doesn't matter, right, because I connected with that story, it was so beautiful. As more books have been coming out, it's been interesting to see like, there were a lot of gay teen books at first, and very, very few books about lesbian teenagers. And then there were some, and then there were very few trans or gender non-conforming books. And there was like three of them for like five or six years. And now suddenly, there were more. And so now at this point, there are over probably six or 800 books on my blog in different categories. And I've had to kind of make the categories more specific, like, you know, books with LGBTQ parents or caretakers. I really wanted it to be a resource. And then it also sort of gave me a platform to start to talk about these other things that I saw that were making me crazy in our culture that I wanted teens to be paying attention to. Things like how there are parallels between how we put down gay people and how we put down women. There was a hazing thing that happened in baseball, where they would humiliate the rookie pitcher by having him dress up like a little girl. And it was televised, and millions of people saw it, and it was a big deal for me. And I wanted to point out to my readers, you know, and at first I had like, no readers, I was like, telling my husband, I had 15 people come to my blog today! I was so excited. Twelve plus years later, we just passed 2.9 million page loads.
Wow. Mazel tov!
Thank you. Yeah, it's been really fun. So the "more" is what I really been noticing. There's just so much more. And there's a wonderful resource in addition to mine, is the Rainbow List by the American Library Association. They actually put together a list of what they say are the best LGBTQ books for kids and teens every year. There's over 100 books on it each year now for the last couple of years. So that's exciting. And that's a really good resource for librarians who are looking to be able to say, hey, this book has been vetted. Oftentimes, librarians are a little nervous about bringing in books with queer content. So it's helpful to be like, oh, it has this accolade. It's been approved. Also, for librarians in really, really conservative locations I sometimes suggest that they look at books where it's an ensemble, where one of the characters is LGBTQ. Ellen Hopkins is an example that comes to mind of a YA author that almost always seems to include an LGBTQ character among the four or five main characters in her amazing books of novels in verse and that's something that I think can be very powerful.
All right, great. So it sounds like the state of the genre is that it's growing and it's diversifying, and it's getting less judgey. Would you say that's true?
Yeah, yeah. What's the state of Jewish kidlit?
It's definitely diversifying. There are conscious attempts to represent beyond white Ashkenazi East Coast Jewish characters. We're still in the phase where it's more like the crowd scenes than the main characters. But we're getting there in terms of representing Jews of color.
That makes me think of the gay best friend thing, right?
Yeah, right, right. In the picture books, there's a lot of crowd scenes that include people with a lot of different skin tones.
I'd like to see more picture books that include to mom and two dad families, which is a nice way of getting LGBTQ inclusion in picture books. And I'll give a shout out to Everywhere Babies, you know, among the many exhausted parents of the adorable babies in that book, there's a two mom family. And then there's books like Blackout by John Rocco, which in one of the street scenes does include two guys strolling along under the starry sky holding hands. I want to see more of that.
Yes. And I think similarly with Jewish kid lit, we are starting to see... I call it casual representation. There are characters who happen to be Jewish and they're just there, just to normalize things the same way as those characters in Blackout who are just strolling along happening to be gay. It's like, okay, whatever. So the same thing is happening in Jewish kidlit. I also get a big kick out of what I call stealth Jewish characters. It's almost like a secret handshake, like you wouldn't realize they were Jewish unless you're looking for it. So for example, there's this hilarious picture book called Company's Coming by Arthur Yorinks, in which aliens land in the backyard and their spaceship looks like a giant barbecue grill. And the woman says to her husband, "Oy, you had to get a barbecue that was so big?" like you can just tell that they're Jewish just from the way that they talk. But if you aren't familiar with that, maybe it would go over your head and it would just be a funny story about aliens Or Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are a lot of times when he sort of sneaks in a Yiddish word. And he's actually said in interviews that the Baudelaire children are Jewish. Now, their name doesn't make them sound Jewish. And you wouldn't know that from anything that happens to the story. But he's Jewish and so he says that his characters are too. Fancy Nancy, also, in the one where her grandparents have a anniversary party, I think it is, there's a banner that's hanging up with their names on it. And you can tell from their names, that they are Jewish. And she's Nancy Clancy, so I'm assuming she's Jewish on her mother's side. But, you know, it's just those are fun little things that are out there. So I think that in terms of the state of the genre, it's nice because there's so many different levels. So there's that level where it's just sort of like a wink at anybody who knows and then there's other more obvious casual Jewish inclusion. And then of course, there are the books where that's the point and they're dealing with Jewish issues or celebrating a Jewish occasion or lifecycle events.
I have a follow up question.
Being Jewish can be that you were religiously Jewish, or it can be that you're culturally Jewish. And I'm wondering if that sort of cultural being distinct from religious is something that is reflected in Jewish kidlit?
That's a great question. I would say yes, both are represented in Jewish kidlit. And it's interesting because I think that Judaism is maybe kind of unique in that way. The book that won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for picture book category, most recently was The Book Rescuer by Sue Macy, which is a picture book biography of Aaron Lansky, who's the guy who started the Yiddish Book Center. And Sue Macy said when she interviewed Aaron Lansky, that he said Jews are a people with a culture that's so all-compassing, we even have our own religion. And that was a great description, because the religion is part of it, but not all of it. And you can definitely be Jewish without being religious, you can be atheist and Jewish, you can be Buddhist and be Jewish.
I'm raising my hand on atheist and Jewish, I'm a spiritual atheist who's Jewish.
Right. And there are so many streams of Judaism. So some Jews would say that if you don't follow the rituals, or believe in God, that they would not consider you Jewish. But there are plenty of other people within Judaism, who would say you're Jewish, if you feel that you are.
Well, and maybe it doesn't matter what anybody else says, maybe it's like labeling, you should be able to claim your own religious identity or cultural identity without anybody else telling you what you are, and we should respect that.
Right. So there's so many definitions of what it means to be Jewish and so that's reflected in literature too. There are books in which the people are following the halachic rules, and they are performing the rituals, and they are communing with God. And then there are other Jewish books in which the character is eating a bagel. And for them, that's enough. They're both in the literature. And I think that that's also important because when I promote Jewish literature to the world, I don't want just Jewish people to read it. I want everybody to read it because I want it to be a window book for other people. And I think it's especially important with a group that has historically been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse, that you need people to read those window books to understand that we're just people too and there's no reason to hate us.
To see the shared humanity.
To see the shared humanity. And I think it's very important, therefore, to point out that a lot of the Jewish books are simply culturally Jewish. They're not religiously Jewish, and they're not here to try to convert anybody. You know, we're not proselytizing. Traditionally Jews don't proselytize anyway. But the books are not here to try to tempt you away from your religion if you're something else.
I just have to say also with the queer books, reading a queer book is not going to make anybody queer.
That's a myth. Right?
Exactly. We just want to be seen. We're not trying to make you join our team. And I think the fact that many of the books are not actually religious books, but are simply cultural books should make it even easier for people who don't want to get too close to anything that smacks of some religion besides their own. They can still read Jewish, they don't have to worry.
So what would you want to tell my listeners, people who have an interest in Judaism and Jewish kidlit, what do you want them to know about queer kidlit and the queer community in general?
So I'm very inspired by history and what I've been discovering is that history's sort of been sanitized, but not for our protection. It's been sanitized for the protection of those people in power. A lot of stories don't get shared: stories of women, stories that people of color, stories of disabled people, stories of religious minorities, like Jewish people, and the stories of men who love men and women who loved women, and the people who live outside gender boundaries. So I went to a talk a few years ago at this point, saying that the letters between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed convinced them that Abraham and Joshua were in love. And I just was like, What are you talking about? That that just absolutely cannot be possible. But I went to the library and I got the letters out. I didn't come out until my 20s and I dated girls in high school and in college and always sort of judged that it was the right thing to do with what my parents from Israel wanted. It's what the culture said I had to do, but I never felt it. I never felt what I knew I was supposed to feel. And in this letter from Abraham to Joshua, they lived together four years, and now, Joshua had moved back to Kentucky and had married a woman named Fanny and eight months after the wedding, Abraham writes him a letter and says, "Are you now in feeling, as well as judgment, glad that you're married as you are? From anybody but me this would be an impudent question not to be tolerated, but I know you'll tolerate it from me, please tell me quickly, I feel very impatient to know." I got goosebumps reading that because that's exactly how I felt. I judged it the right thing to do, but I didn't feel it. And suddenly, you know, this, this mirror from 1830s Abraham Lincoln. I was like, Oh my gosh, I think he was in love with Joshua. So I started digging into it. And we don't have the answer. But we do know it was only four weeks later that Abraham married Mary Todd. So as I dug into it, I just kept thinking, if I only had a time machine to go back and tell my 11 year old self, that Abraham Lincoln was probably in love with this other guy, it would have changed my entire life. And I don't have a time machine. So I'm a writer, so I decided I'm going to pay it forward. So I wrote a story, a YA novel called Queers as a $5 Bill. And it's all about a kid who's closeted today, he discovers these letters, he has the same epiphany that I did. And he decides that he's going out Abraham Lincoln to change the world. And it blows up in his face in this gigantic media firestorm and conservative backlash and the story is about how he makes his way through, and there's a bit of a love interest, the son of an African American civil rights attorney that they bring in to help. And he has to decide, is he going to stick by his story that Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy? But then he can't come out because no one will believe him if he says that he's gay, too. Or is he going to let this secret from history fade back into history? And try to see if there might be something with this guy that he likes? So it's sort of like, are you going to change the world or are you not? And then as I was doing the novel, there was so much evidence that kept coming up and I was like, I can't cram this all into a novel. Maybe there's a nonfiction book, but I thought I don't want to write a medicine history book, I want to write that chocolate history book. So I sold a proposal for a book called The Queer History Project: No Way, They Were Gay? Twelve different chapters exploring different people in history, men who loved men, women who loved women, and people who live outside gender boundaries. And the whole idea of the book is like, let's put aside what everybody else is saying, what all these hundreds of years of historians have said, and let's present the primary source material to the young people. I'll tell them what I think, I'll explain that historians don't generally agree with me, but let them read it. The letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, let them read the letters between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach. And then they can make their own decision. I mean, the soulmate of Gandhi's life wasn't his wife Kasturba. It was this German Jewish architect called Hermann Kallenbach. And when I was reading the over 200 letters between Gandhi and Kallenbach, I had a bit of an epiphany, which was that Gandhi is the guy that said, You worship facing one way, and I worship facing the other, why should I become your enemy for that reason? We all belong to the same human race. We all wear the same skin, we all hail from the same land. He wrote that in 1911. And in 1911, he was also writing these love letters to Hermann Kallenbach. This is a big breakthrough in humanity, right? And it happened maybe, partly because Gandhi was in love with this guy, that sort of opens history up like a flower, things start to make more sense. Why was Eleanor Roosevelt, the person that fought through the UN for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It might have been because she had this extra connection, right? She was in love with this other woman. She had friends that were women couples, she knew from being an outsider herself, even though she was the first lady, right, that a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was so important. You know, why was Abraham Lincoln the guy that freed the slaves? He was a bit of a racist too. But why did he care? Was it maybe because knowing that he couldn't be his true self, he had extra compassion. Maybe he had an extra affinity for trying to make the world a better place because he was in love with another guy. And I think that that just becomes very exciting. So the novel is out, I crowdfunded it. It came out a couple of years ago. It's won a bunch of awards. That's been very exciting. And the nonfiction book is going to come out from Lerner in May 2021.
That's great. And I have to tell you that I read Queer as a $5 Bill this week, because I knew I was going to talk to you and I loved it. It was awesome.
Thank you so much! I didn't know you did that. That's great.
Yes. So I hope people will read it. And I read it on your website, because you had actually put it out there just so that people could read it before it was even available. Is it officially published now?
It is. I crowdfunded it. So the story is wild and crazy. I finished the novel and it went out on submission, I thought, and then the nonfiction book was sold to one of the big five publishers. We were working on it for over a year. year I was very excited. I was a little bit like, why hasn't the novel sold, but I was focused on the nonfiction thing. And then our current president was elected. And two weeks after his election, I got a call that the book was cancelled, that the publisher decided they just absolutely couldn't publish a book about queer history with stories like Abraham Lincoln in it. And I was devastated. It was probably the hardest thing I've experienced in my career. And the agent I had at the time was like, Don't worry, this will get picked up, it's so strong. And eight months went by, and no one was interested. And at this point, the novel had been on submission for over a year. And I was just like, you know what, I feel this sense of responsibility. There are kids out there that this would help and it's not out there. So I have this blog. It had a lot of traffic. And I thought, all right, well, I'm going to put it up on my blog, I'm going to serialize it. And that way, it's there for free for everybody forever. And then I decided I wanted it to be a book. I wanted to be able to hold it in my hand and for it to be in libraries. So that was a big for me, because I love libraries. I love librarians. They're such allies. And it's so important to them to empower young people. So I did a Kickstarter, but I hated the idea of doing a Kickstarter that was like "help Lee publish Lee's book because Lee wants his book to be published." I was like, No, no, this is a book about empowering young people. So I was like, alright, if you contribute to the Kickstarter, what you're doing is you're getting yourself a copy, but you're also donating a copy to an LGBTQ teen. And I teamed up with a nonprofit. And the idea was to raise enough money to publish the book and donate 400 copies. It seemed like a really big number. The project funded really, really fast. At the end, we raised enough money to give away 910 copies. So that's been really exciting. And there's an audio book that's amazing. And Michael Crouch did the narration and he's the guy that narrated Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, beautiful audiobook. It's an e-book. It's a paperback. It's a hardcover, everywhere books are sold. So I'm very proud of it. It's won some awards. It was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Indie Success Story, and it won a National Indie Excellence Award. So thank you, I'm so excited that you read it. And one cool thing is that because I was the publisher, I was able to make all the primary source quotes bold, because I didn't make up any of the history. And then there's a whole end note section where you can actually read and see that I didn't make up any of the history. And there's all these books that you can read the letters that Abraham wrote, Joshua.