Dual Cover Reveal & Interview: NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves by Lee Wind
All right, all right, all right. I think we’ve all seen a lot of collective biographies in the last few years. Some were memorable. Some were not. And a bunch were about LGBTQIA+ folks. Often they’d have very nice art and then some rote little write-ups encapsulating entire lives in a paragraph or two.
It’s time for something different.
Boy, I’ve known author Lee Wind for more than a decade, I think. We bloggers, we stick together, and the man has a longevity that I admire beyond measure. Now his latest book is bound to make some waves. Are you ready for the cover? Because I think you need to see it before I start talking to Lee himself:
Oh yeah. We are going to TALK about this.
Betsy Bird: Lee, thank you so much for joining me here today! Now the first time I got to know you it was because of your blog I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? And you’ve been writing on that blog since friggin’ 2007. THAT is amazing. What keeps you going?
Lee Wind: Thanks, Betsy. It’s an honor to chat with you. I love your blog, and school librarians – can I just say that librarians are the coolest people, and the way they can be there for students is so important, and powerful, and empowering! I’m a fan.
Yes, next week will be 13 years of blogging about LGBTQIA2+ kid and teen books, culture, and politics, and it will probably cross 3 million page loads next week as well – as I write this the blog is at 2,998,442. (Not that I’m counting, but Google is.) I’m laughing because I remember so clearly how nervous I was those first few weeks of blogging, and saying to my husband “oh my gosh – 15 people came to my blog today!”
So the numbers are nice, but even more than that is the impact the blog has had on individuals, some of whom have been kind enough to write me over the years to say things like, “I read it almost every day when I was first realizing I was gay and was coming out…” (From a teen who started reading my blog at 12) and “you are incredibly welcoming to not only LGBTQ teens and those who serve them, but also to potential allies. I started getting a bit teary when I read that.” (From an adult ally) And “I send kids there all the time, and… use it myself to keep up with what’s new :)” (From a librarian. I told you I love librarians!)
The blog remains a way for me to have a voice, and is a direct parallel to the books I write – I have this mission statement up on my wall that says, “I write the books that would have changed my life had I read them when I was a kid.” The blog is an extension of that – it’s the blog I wish I had had. I don’t have a time machine, so with blog and books, I’m paying it forward for young people today. That keeps me going.
BB: I mean, librarians love hearing that stuff. No lie. So your book NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY? is an utterly fantastic topic for kids. Break down for me where you got the idea for this book in the first place. And what’s the age range?
LW: I keep saying it’s for ages 11 and up – which is pretty much exactly what the blog is. That’s my age-of-arrested development voice, I guess. (I do have a 16 year-old age of arrested development which I channel for YA, and I guess an even younger one for picture books.) Madeline L’Engle had this great line, “I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be…” I think that’s so true!
The idea for NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY? came in three parts.
Part one – The false façade of history I was taught in school that told me there was never anyone like me in history. I’m Gay, and felt so alone. I spent my teenage years dating girls because I judged it to be the right thing to do and kept hoping the feelings that were supposed to be there would magically appear. They didn’t, and I finally got honest with myself and others in my 20s.
Part two – About ten years ago I heard a talk about the real historical letters that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed, letters that convinced the speaker that Abraham was in love with Joshua. And I was like, that can’t be true. But I got the letters from the library, and oh my gosh – there’s this one letter that Abraham wrote Joshua after Joshua had been married to this woman Fanny for about eight months, and Abraham asks, “are you now in feeling as well as judgment glad that you are married as you are?” And I was like, That’s me! That’s exactly how I felt!
Part three – I decided to write a YA novel about a closeted Gay teen who discovers the exact same letters I did, has the exact same goosebump moment I did, and decides he’s going to out Lincoln to change how everyone feels about Gay people. He’s going to take this secret from history and change the world with it – and it all blows up in a giant conservative backlash and media firestorm. (Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill, crowdfunded and published in 2018, and selected as a Publishers Weekly Indie Success story.) So as I was doing research for the novel, more and more evidence of Lincoln being in love with Speed kept coming up, and there came a point where I was like, I can’t shove all this in here. Maybe there’s a nonfiction book I could do where I can put it all in.
But a nonfiction book about just Abraham and Joshua felt too narrow… And I started thinking about how Abraham and Joshua are like the first crack in the false facade of history. As I did more research, I discovered there are so many other stories about men who loved men, and women who loved women, and people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries.
And I got all excited, because a book that took down that façade was the book I wanted to write. To put aside the hundreds of years of historians who hid or otherwise denied Queer history and just look at the primary sources with kids, and share how I see these as foundational stories of our Queer History.
Break down that false façade and let all this amazing rainbow light of history shine through. And that’s NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves.
BB: Okay, I just gotta ask. Could you identify all the people on the cover of your book? I knew about Roosevelt and Lincoln but Gandhi was a complete surprise to me, and I’m ashamed to say I don’t recognize the fourth person featured. Help!
LW: No worries! I wouldn’t have recognized We’wha (top left) before doing the research for this book. But her story is amazing: We’wha visited Washington, D.C. in 1886 and was celebrated as a “Princess of the Zuni Tribe.” It was only later that anyone outside the A:shiwi (Zuni people) realized We’wha was not a woman, or a man, but someone with a third-gender identity.
Lincoln had to be on the cover – his love for Joshua was my entry point for the whole project. For my whole understanding of Queer history behind that façade.
And Eleanor Roosevelt and her passionate love affair with Lorena Hickok – the letters they wrote each other offer a completely new window onto how Eleanor leveraged her position as first lady to change our world for the better.
And Gandhi! It blew my mind when I learned that the soul mate of his life wasn’t his wife Kasturba, but a German Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach! Reading their letters, all in the public domain, was incredible.
I actually had the biggest breakthrough reading those 160+ letters, mostly from Mohandas to Hermann. I’d been thinking about how some of the most incredible people in history did these amazing things, and discovering they were men who loved men, or women who loved women, or people who lived outside gender boundaries was this fascinating footnote to who they were and their accomplishments.
But reading the letters where Mohandas talks about Hermann’s “ancestral faith,” and the contract where the two men pledge “more love and yet more love” between them, “such love as, they hope, the world has not seen.” made me rethink it: Maybe it’s not a footnote. Maybe it’s the headline.
Maybe Mohanadas Gandhi was the guy who had that breakthrough in the philosophy of how, despite our different religions, we should all be able to live together in peace because he was in love with Hermann.
Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt was the one who championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and got it adopted by the United Nations because her loving Lorena helped her see and understand our shared humanity.
Maybe the traditional and honored place of third-gender and fourth-gender people in Native cultures, like We’wha held among the A:shiwi, is inspiration to re-think the gender binary we cling to in our culture.
Suddenly, all this rainbow light from history started pouring through!
BB: Is it safe to say that this is your first work of Nonfiction for young readers? How did you find it? Are you utterly enamored of the form and intend to go more in that direction or was this a one off?
LW: Yes, this is my debut Nonfiction for young readers!
THE QUEER HISTORY PROJECT is conceptualized as a series of three titles. NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY? is about people (men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries.) GENDER BENDER will be about how gender is a social construct, and how many other cultures saw and still see gender differently that we do. And A NOD TO THE GODS will cover LGBTQIA2+ Legends and Myths – because there are so many fascinating stories and characters that are the foundations of how Queer people are still seen today.
So there will definitely be more rainbow light to come!
BB: I can already hear the distant rumbles of people who believe that discussing the secret gay lives of famous people is, they would say, a bad thing. They will want evidence. They will want written records. They will want receipts (Item: One receipt for purchase of same-sex attraction). But as the very description of your book points out, queer lives are censored when historians tell their stories. So how did you research this topic? What sources did you have to consider?
LW: Yes, people want to play CSI History all the time. The problem goes back to the word homosexual, which I think doesn’t do the Queer community any favors. I think a much better term would be homoLOVEual. Because love – the love that holds my husband, myself, and our daughter together as a family – is the same love that holds everyone else’s family together. And if we focus on who loved whom in history, we actually do have receipts – the primary sources these people left behind.
NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY?’s premise is that if we look at the primary source materials – Sappho’s poems, Shakespeare’s love sonnets to the mysterious Mr. W.H., photos of the sculptures showing the transition of the pharaoh Hatshepsut’s gender presentation – we can bypass the hundreds of years of historians who have hidden this Queer history and let the true rainbow light of history shine through.
BB: The title of the book suggests that kids reading it will be surprised by some of the inclusions. Was there anyone who surprised YOU when you were making the book?
LW: Everyone surprised me. Truly. The organizing principal of who to include in the book was how they were a complete surprise to me. New Zealand mountains named after Freda du Faur and the woman she loved, Muriel Cadogan! Bayard Rustin being the openly Gay Black man hidden in the Civil Rights movement, teaching Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about the principles of nonviolent protest and organizing the famous march on Washington where King gave his amazing “I Have a Dream” speech! The crucible of fame navigated by Christine Jorgensen, the first person to become world-famous for transitioning their body to match their gender identity!
No Way! was this internal thing I kept saying, and that’s where the title came from: NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY?
BB: What ended up on the cutting room floor? Was there anyone you wanted to include but for one reason or another couldn’t quite work in or got edited out at the last minute?
LW: So much! But there was a decision that had to be made – make the book more of a survey, brief tidbits on a whole bunch of people, or really go in depth on a dozen people. I chose the latter (and still tucked in another dozen in shorter form.)
Because I didn’t want the chapter on Shakespeare and his 126 love sonnets to another man to have just one or two lines from the sonnets in it – I wanted to include four full sonnets. There needed to be enough primary source material with some explanation of how I interpret it, acknowledgement that most historians don’t agree with me, and space to let young readers make their own call.
Every chapter also includes a “tricky tricks” section that includes background on how this Queer part of history has been hidden – in the case of Shakespeare, the sonnets were altered in 1640 so those addressed to the young man were altered to appear addressed to a woman. Sonnet 108 had a moment:
What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy…
But in the altered version, “sweet boy” became “sweet love.” For 150 years, the altered versions were the Shakespeare sonnets the world knew.
Knowing any one of these stories back when I was a kid, when I was a teen, heck, when I was in my early 20s, would have had changed my whole life. And here’s a book with two dozen incredible stories. All that light that I get to share.
I’m so humbled, and honored to be able to share it.
There’s this wonderful quote from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, where she says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” I think of that all the time. The goal of this book isn’t to convince everyone that I’m right and they’re wrong about history. It’s more like, Oh my gosh, look at this amazing stuff I discovered. Here, I’ll shine a light on it – I hope it helps illuminate your path, too.
BB: This is a big swing, so I just gotta ask you: What the heck are you up to next?
LW: There’s a social justice picture book I wrote that was inspired by a true story. It’s coming out Fall 2021. It hasn’t been officially announced quite yet, but I’m really excited about the impact it could have. Letting kids know that they can stand up for themselves and each other and make a difference in our world feels like another light in that lighthouse.
I can’t wait to share it!
Big time thanks to Lee and the good folks at Zest Books/Lerner for this lovely interview. You can look for No Way, They Were Gay? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves on shelves everywhere April 6, 2021.
Filed under: Cover Reveal, Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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