Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Post for Leslea, and Everyone Else

I was going to write about some other stuff today--a combination of weird dumb things I've done lately (ask me where my car is parked right now; ask me why) (oh, okay--blocking the barn doors, because I left the lights on while doing an hour's worth of chores and ran the battery down, and that was a week ago and I still haven't bothered to jump it) and my plans for NCTE this weekend (all I will say there: ARCs of Fighting Words at 2 pm Saturday at the Penguin booth), but I got a little derailed by something, and it's bothering me.

Two somethings, really. The first is small: I continue to notice, when I look at the statistics on this blog, that the most-read post is whatever is the most recent one, which makes sense. The second most-read post is always, always, "A Touch on Lesbianism," a post I wrote in January, 2015. To find that post you'd have to search for it. Apparently a lot of people do. So apparently it's still a Thing.

The second thing bothering me is much bigger. The Nerdy Book Club posted an interview of me on their blog last week, about Fighting Words. The day before, they posted an essay by my friend Leslea Newman. (Her first name ought to have an accent on the a--it's pronounced Les-lee-ah, not Les-lee-- but I can not figure out how to put it there. I'm sorry, Leslea.) Leslea is a more accomplished and gifted writer than I am. She's published over 70 books in every genre--adult fiction, nonfiction, children's picture books, middle grades, YA, poetry for all ages--and she's a talented, compassionate teacher. She's Jewish. She grew up in Brooklyn. She's married to a woman.

Leslea structures her school presentations around sets of her books and a central theme. She offers lots of options for different ages and topics--easy to do when you've written so many marvelous stories. Recently she was scheduled to speak at two conservative Jewish schools in Brooklyn (where Leslea herself grew up) about her Jewish-themed picture books, including her recent Gittel's Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is based on Leslea's own family history. A few days before the visit, the schools called to reconfirm that Leslea would only be talking about her Jewish books. She agreed that yes, she would be.

Then the schools cancelled anyway.

Leslea is also the author of the picture book Heather Has Two Mommies. She's also the author of October Mourning, a teen book about Matthew Shepard.

The schools were afraid she was going to talk about gay people. Or represent gay people. Or simply be a gay person that the students might come to like and respect. I'm not sure which. But Leslea wrote an essay about it, and it made me furious, on her behalf and on behalf of all the kids who missed out on hearing her. Who missed out on an important book about family and courage and Jewish identity. Who missed out on learning how to turn history and facts into poetry and beauty. Who missed out on meeting a woman they would like and respect, whom they might discover, at some point, was gay. Or not.

There are gay children at the schools who cancelled Leslea. There are children with gay parents at the schools who cancelled Leslea. There are children who will someday have gay children at the schools who cancelled Leslea. To pretend otherwise is to ignore truth.

We as a society have got to stop being afraid of gay people. Homosexuality isn't smallpox. You can't catch it from other people. It isn't syphilis. There shouldn't be any shame attached. You can belong to a religion that doesn't allow gay people to be married in your church, and still affirm the rights of gay people to be married under civil law and to be generally as decent as straight people. You don't have to hide their existence from your children. If your children haven't already figured out the existence of gay people, they will soon enough: all they learn from silence is shame. What's that Taylor Swift lyric? "Shame never made anybody less gay." But it might make them suicidal. Pushing another person toward suicide, that's a sin in any faith.

Most of the one-star reviews I get for The War That Saved My Life are from people outraged that I say that my character Susan Smith is gay. (It's not explicit in the books.) What might crack me up if I didn't find it so incredibly irritating is that the reviews often contain an edge of self-righteousness--"I don't hate gay people, I hate sin." Susan, not once, not ever, in either of my books featuring her, commits a sin of sexuality under any definition you could offer. She does not date nor seek to date nor have any sort of romantic or sexual relationship whatsoever. She does not pine for one. She's mourning someone who's been dead three years. For all any reader can tell, Susan may be planning to remain celibate the rest of her life--I myself don't know, because I'm not writing about that--which would render her, in any faith, spectacularly non-sinful. And still. This isn't something children should be exposed to? I can't understand the logic.

I also can't understand the hate. I read my Bible. Among other things, Deuteronomy forbids wearing mixed-fiber clothing, women cutting their hair, tattoos of any sort, and eating owls. Owning slaves is okay. Jesus never once talks about homosexuality, but he forbids divorce a whole bunch of times, and we're all okay with ignoring that.

I'm imaging a world in which a large percentage of the population hated anyone with red hair. Thought red hair was sinful. You could, of course, dye your hair so no one would know. Pretend to be raven-haired. Parents would sit down with their babies and swab their roots. Carefully dye each little eyebrow. Puberty would complicate matters--there's that private hair. You'd have to step up the concealment, or never reveal your private parts to anyone. And your hair would still be red. No matter what you did.

Leslea's website carries the tagline, "Changing the world, one book at a time."

My friend, I certainly hope so. Mazel tov on your work so far.

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