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The importance of teaching kids about LGBTQ history and culture

Gayle Pitman's latest book tells the history of the rainbow flag.

CREDIT: Sewing the Rainbow, written by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown
CREDIT: Sewing the Rainbow, written by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown

Over the past decade, there’s been a plethora of books aimed at children on LGBTQ themes. Some of these books tell familiar romantic fairy tales with same-sex protagonists, while others provide basic education about kids who might be transgender. Author Gayle Pitman, however, is trying to create space for books that actually teach kids about LGBTQ history and culture.

Pitman’s latest book, Sewing the Rainbow, tells the story of Gilbert Baker, inventor of the Pride Flag. Not only does the short story talk about the importance of the flag, it shows that Baker was a proud gay man, but that his sexuality wasn’t his only defining feature. Pitman also wrote the picture book This Day in June, which features illustrated scenes from a Pride parade.

Pitman’s day job is teaching psychology and women and gender studies at Sacramento City College. She spoke with ThinkProgress about the lessons in her kids’ books and in her courses, and what she’s learned from both.

THINKPROGRESS: A lot of children’s books on LGBTQ themes feature queer characters, but your books focus a lot more on LGBTQ culture and history. Why is it important to incorporate those topics into children’s books?

CREDIT: Gayle Pitman
CREDIT: Gayle Pitman

GAYLE PITMAN: When I first started writing children’s books — my first children’s book came out in 2014 and that was This Day in June, about an LGBT Pride celebration — I was scouring through the various LGBT themed kids’ books that were out there, especially picture books, and finding that they tended to fall into one of two categories. They were either about two mommy or two daddy families, or they were about a boy or a gender nonconforming child in a dress — some variation of that. Both of those narratives are important, but they’re not the only story we have to tell. So that was one motivator: just to get away from those two tropes that I had seen over and over and over again and still continue to see. It’s not that they’re bad, but that’s not, again, the only story we have to tell.

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And then the other things that really got me motivated to share more about our culture, and our history, and our community is my college students. I teach classes on gender and sexuality, and it is astounding to me that even today in 2018, many of my students have never heard about Stonewall, or never heard about the persecution of gays during the Holocaust, or many of them are unfamiliar with the nuances of the AIDS crisis. They know that HIV and AIDS are a thing, but they don’t really know about the devastation that occurred in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s just astounding.

Part of what I try to focus on in my books is sharing some of those elements of our history — both with a younger audience, as well as with an adult audience.

I was just at the D.C. Capital Pride Parade and our grand marshals were Dennis and Judy Shepard, and there was this young boy who was engaging inappropriately and was very clearly unaware of who they were. I said, “Oh that’s Dennis and Judy Shepard, they’re Matthew Shepard’s parents,” and then he said, “Who’s Matthew Shepard?” …I was so taken aback that he wouldn’t even have heard of that story before.

Right, well that’s the thing: There’s no guarantee that kids are going to learn that history from their parents, because either their parents don’t know about it, or it’s not important to them, or they’re homophobic and of course they wouldn’t share it. So it’s unlikely it’ll come from their parents unless they’re intentional about it.

The chance of them learning about it in school is slim to none. Even in California where it’s required for public school kids to learn about LGBT history and culture —  a new curriculum recently got approved so it’s more robust than it’s been in the past — but still you can easily get through school and learn nothing about Matthew Shepard.

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I mean, I remember where I was and what I was doing the day that I heard about Matthew Shepard’s death. It was one of those pivotal moments in my identity as a queer individual. I just think it’s tragic that so many of our young people, and even people that are around my age, are disconnected from our history and our culture. And I don’t think it’s their fault; I think it really is part of systematic oppression against our community.

Right, I know my colleague over at The Advocate has been really passionate about pushing back on attempts to straight-wash even the Pulse shooting because of some details that came up during the trial of the shooter’s wife and the suggestion that he didn’t target Pulse just because it was gay. And he’s trying to explain even to other prominent LGBTQ writers that Omar Mateen still decided to start shooting when he got to the gay club as opposed to the other ones that he skipped, and he knew it was a gay club when he started shooting. To just say, “Oh, it wasn’t a hate crime,” or “Oh, he wasn’t only out to attack the queer community,” is an erasure of our history and certainly — for those of us who will have remembered where we were when that happened — how that felt.

Absolutely, I hadn’t even heard that, that there were attempts to straight-wash the Pulse shooting. I mean, just, even hearing that sounds so ridiculous. But that’s our reality, and it’s not an isolated incident at all.

Surely there are many parents out there who say children are too young to be taught about a community whose identities are wrapped up in sexuality and gender. So how do you respond to that concern? I’m sure it’s a question you get a lot.

I do, and I get it in a couple of different ways. Sometimes I’ll get it as a challenge from folks who really aren’t interested in LGBTQ+ rights or history. You know, they’re pursuing their agenda, so it’s not uncommon that I’ll get that question in kind of a confrontational way.

But I’ll also get it from adults and parents who are well-meaning and well-intentioned and actually care about the LGBT community, but they’re scared. They’re worried that the content is too mature for young children. They’re worried that kids aren’t going to understand. They don’t really ever say this, but I actually think that one of their big fears is that their kids are going to start asking questions about sex, and they don’t want to answer questions about sex at all, but definitely not about gay sex. They don’t want to go there. What I tell them is that kids are smarter than we think, that they typically will understand things as long as we explain it in a simple way and don’t add too much embellishment or nuance. They’ll understand it!

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A good example is: My partner is intersex and so of course we had to have that conversation with our daughter pretty early on. I think she was maybe two or three when we started talking about “intersex” and what that meant. And we just kept it really simple. Some people are girls, and some people are boys, and some people have girl bodies, and some people have boy bodies, and some people are boy with a little bit of girl, and some people are girl with a little bit of boy. And actually we had some fun coming up with all different types of possible combinations of bodies and identities. She totally got it! She was like, “Okay, I got this.” So by the end of the conversation, she got that her “Maddy” is mostly girl with a little bit of boy. We don’t need to right now get into all the nuances of what her intersex identity is, but for a three-year-old, this works.

After the sex thing, I don’t know. I personally am not afraid to talk to kids about sex in ways that they’ll understand. But I’m a psychologist, so I know about child development. For most three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, sex conversations are not even remotely on their radar. That’s just not where their brains are. They’re interested in their bodies and they’re interested maybe in other people’s bodies and what makes us similar and different, but I think that the fear they’ll ask where babies come from, or how do two men or two women have a baby together or that kind of thing [is unfounded].

Even if those questions do come up, I think that the best approach is just to answer it in a straightforward way and not get too advanced for them and really just answer the question that they ask. I think sometimes parents, in their nervousness, end up just laying the whole deal out for kids. They can’t stop themselves, because they’re anxious.

 

One of your newest books, Sewing the Rainbow, tells the story of Gilbert Baker and the creation of the Pride Flag. Baker, of course, just passed away last year. In the book, you describe him as wanting to be his “colorful, sparkly, and glittery” self, but you don’t really talk about boys liking boys or anything like that, and I can’t help but think that maybe was an intentional choice. Can you talk a little about how you decided to frame his story for this young audience?

It was intentional but it wasn’t. I unfortunately didn’t ever have the opportunity to talk closely with Gilbert. I had met him on one occasion, but it was a very brief introduction and I can’t at all say that we had a meaningful interaction, so I was left really to rely upon stories from people who knew him and interviews and documentary footage and those kinds of things. And what I got from all of that was that Gilbert … could have a biting, edgy sense of humor. But he also had this enormous heart, just really a loving, generous, caring person, but also edgy and campy and subversive and all those other things. Those are really what stood out.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews — and Kirkus was one — where there was a little bit of distress about the fact that the word “gay” isn’t really mentioned. I guess I could have made it more obvious or explicit; it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I think I just felt like it was obvious, but maybe it needed to be made more obvious to really spell out his gay identity. So that’s part of it. I just assumed everybody knew, but of course, how would people know if they’ve never been introduced to Gilbert Baker before? So that might have been somewhat of a blind spot on my part.

At the same time, he wasn’t a simple individual at all. He was a complex human being as all of us are, and gay is a part of who he was, for sure — and a core and central part. I’m not trying to say it’s not important, I’m trying to search for the right way to say it. I feel like there are so many other nuances to Gilbert in addition to being gay that really kind of shape who he was as a person.. I feel like in many ways this is a story about a gay man, even though that wasn’t explicitly stated, but it’s also a story about an individual who came from a place that just completely did not accept the type of person that he was. It just couldn’t handle his creativity and flamboyance and his love for fashion and sewing and glitter, and all those kinds of things. So he found a place where he could thrive, and that of course was San Francisco, and he put his creativity to use in a way that advocated for social justice. And he did so in an incredibly creative way, which I think is an important message across.

And I did not mean to say that it was necessarily a bad choice, so much as a choice that I also noticed. It struck me that in some ways it lets the picture be more open about being different and finding ways to channel your difference into successes and accomplishments. I wasn’t trying to impugn you for that, I was more just trying to see if there was some other thought behind what you were trying to accomplish there.

No, I wasn’t feeling accused at all. I will say that the Kirkus reviews felt a little… “Really?” Their review felt a little harsh in respect to that. I think about the books that are out there for kids and that for so long, there was just no imagery of gay people whatsoever, and even saying the word “gay” was even like “Ahhh! You can’t do that!” I don’t necessarily think that we’re beyond that. We’re not in this post-gay or post-LGBTQ society whatsoever, not even close, but I do think that there’s ways of helping people who are cisgender, straight, etc, relate to the experience of being queer that doesn’t just focus on our sexuality. I think there are other ways of relating.

The details about not wanting to fire a gun when he was drafted into the military and things like that  — they all are relevant details as well about him finding ways to embrace his differences. I think that makes a lot of sense.

It’s a story about someone who’s a square peg in a round hole, if you want to use a cliche. But he wasn’t going to try to fit himself in. He owned who he was and he stood up for himself. That moment where he’s on the battlefield and they’re trying to force him to fire the gun and he refuses, I think it’s so inspiring. It teaches kids that you can be who you are and you don’t have to apologize for it. You just don’t.

CREDIT: This Day in June, written by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten.
CREDIT: This Day in June, written by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten.

Your previous book This Day in June showcases a bunch of different scenes from a Pride parade. And though you stopped short of assless chaps, jockstraps, and puppy hoods, the picture book otherwise features dykes on bikes, leather daddies, the sisters of perpetual indulgence, and quite a few other colorful characters. You, of course, provide a reading guide with more background on these representations, and also tips for talking to kids of all ages about queer issues. But I saw that and thought to myself, “I’m not sure how many teenagers are going to sit down and read a picture book with only four words on each page.” So I’m curious in the years since this book came out what the reception has been? How are families using this book?

I’ve heard a lot of really interesting things. Obviously, the text itself is written for a very young audience. It’s just little rhyming couplets, and I think the whole thing not counting the reader’s guide is like 63 words, so it’s super short.

Golly, I’ve heard so many stories. I know of parents using This Day in June and reading it to their kids before they take them to their first Pride celebration, so that they have a language to talk about it and some expectations. I’ve met a lot of adults, teens and adults, who’ve approached me that when they first read This Day in June, they cried, because it touched that place in side of them that never had that when they were a kid. It was like an emotional corrective experience for them. They read this book and it’s like “Oh my God, this is the affirmation that I wish I had when I going through whatever Hell I was going through during my childhood, or my teen years, or what have you.”

I had that reaction… I didn’t quite sob, but I definitely had the chills of imagining what it would have been like to have these books at a different age.

When I was at the American Library Association convention a couple years ago, I was signing This Day in June, and there was a guy that came up to me. He’d been waiting in line, and he had been crying, and he said, “Thank you so much for including guys in leather, because that’s me and I never see myself anywhere.” He started sharing a bit of his story: He’s a leather guy and he has kids and trying to find reflections of him and his family and his experience is just impossible, because leather is equated with being inappropriate for kids or too racy. So he just broke down and it’s been powerful to see people’s reactions.

CREDIT: This Day in June, written by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten.
CREDIT: This Day in June, written by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten.

Kids, of course, love the fact that the book is colorful, and even though there’s so few words, it’s a fun book to play around with. When I’m reading it, there’s a page that has a lot of dogs, and so I can hold it up and they have to search for the dogs. And then the last page with the shoes, they pick out their favorite pair of shoes. “Which pair would you want to wear?”

I also did that.

And it’s been used in lots of ways too. So it’s been read at Pride celebrations, obviously. It’s become quite a hit at the drag queen story time circuit, so I see that as part of the reading list, which I think is super awesome. It’s really exciting to me to see how it’s being used.

Now, you obviously don’t just write kids’ books; you’re also a professor of psychology and women and gender studies. What have you learned through your research that has informed — or even motivated — the kinds of lessons your books teach? And vice versa, has your college teaching changed at all as a result of your work with these younger audiences?

It really has. I have this theory — that is probably not a terribly flattering one — that many people in academia are actually blocked creatively. They have a talent inside of them that wants to get out but it doesn’t get out because academia doesn’t necessarily allow for that.

Writing kids’ book has allowed me to kind of tap into that space. It’s also helped me to see that there are so many different ways to teach students, no matter what age they are. College students don’t just have to listen to me lecture all day, take notes, and then spit it back on a test. Obviously, I don’t think that’s great teaching anyway to begin with. There’s many more playful, creative, and interactive ways to engage students and you never know what they’re going to relate to.

I don’t require any of my kids’ books for my classes, but sometimes I bring them in just as examples of depictions of queer culture. It’s a really interesting session when I share my books and other books that are out there. It really adds to the experience of the classroom and the conversation that students have.

I always find it ironic that the whole point of gender studies and queer studies is to talk about oppression, how we got here, dismantling it, our culture, etc., and yet the language that’s used in the scholarship is so inaccessible. Like Judith Butler? I love her work, but I teach community college students and they’re not going to read Judith Butler. They’re just not.

It’s Pride Month, and you’ve written a lot about Pride, so I want to end by asking you what Pride means to you, and how do you observe it?

Oh, boy. I suppose the right answer would be that I observe Pride by going to Pride celebrations every year, but I don’t. I sometimes do, but I don’t always.

For me, Pride means — and this is in some ways tying back to Gilbert Baker’s story — being who you are and owning it and not apologizing for it or not trying to hide it, but just being honest and as authentic as possible in a world that makes it hard to do that. That’s really what Pride means to me. It’s an act of resistance that dates back almost 50 years to Stonewall and the first Gay Liberation March. For the first time in more recent history, our community banded together and said, “We’re not going to hide in the shadows and and we’re not going to go running out the back door of the Stonewall Inn every time there’s a police raid. We’re not going to wither and hide. We’re going to stand up and we are going to keep our feet on the ground and we are going to band together and we are going to assert our right to exist on the planet. Period. That’s what Pride means to me.

In terms of observance, sometimes it means going to a Pride celebration. Sometimes it means spending the day with my family and being grateful for the fact that we are a family and that we get to occupy a space in the way that we do. I think there are a lot of ways to honor Pride.

Yeah, I didn’t engage much with Pride this year. I just took time for me, and it felt great. The existence of Pride still resonated with me whether I was engaging much with it or not.

Absolutely. So when the Pulse shooting happened, that year my family decided that we were going to go to San Francisco and participate in Pride. We were actually going to march in the parade. I don’t know if you’ve been to San Francisco Pride before, but it’s everything you would imagine. It’s over the top and it’s long and it lasts forever, and there’s lots of criticisms of it that it sold out and that it’s become very commercialized and strayed far from the original roots of Pride.

But, when I was there after the Pulse shooting, I felt like there was a political spirit there that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. And also there was this sense that no matter how commercialized it is — no matter how long it takes for the Apple contingent to walk through, or the Google contingent, or the Yahoo, or all these other expensive tech companies —  we’re shutting the city streets down and that’s an act of resistance! That whole downtown is impenetrable; you cannot go downtown unless you go to Pride. Coming to that realization was a powerful one for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.