“Proud Fierce Papa Bear” – The Speech

Following is the text of my talk at ALAN on Nov 19, 2018. It touches on an event that happened at a panel at NCTE on Saturday. Video is available here.

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Thank you. I am honored to be here with you today.

I feel a strong need to start off by talking about an experience I had just this weekend at NCTE. Since we’re talking about acting up and speaking out in YA literature, I would be remiss to not start by talking about an experience in which I had to act up and speak out at a major YA literature conference.

As some of you may know and some of you may not, I I had a challenging experience on Saturday at a panel that was supposed to be about disproportionately banned and challenged books. Most of the panelists came to talk about that topic, but one of the panelists did not.

I’m not going to name this panelist. I don’t care enough about her to elevate her by doing so. If you want or need to know, you can probably look it up. Later. It was section L.06, and she wasn’t me, she wasn’t Michael Cart, she wasn’t Sabina Kahn, she wasn’t Joan Kaywell, and she wasn’t Tillie Walden.

She was allegedly there to talk about challenges to Latino texts for young adults, but when asked she passed on that, claiming that Latinos were not disproportionately challenged at all, that in fact the major concerns she had were for the marginalized groups in this country: straight people, Catholics, and the police.

Her comments included the following:

-LGBTQ people make up only 3 to 4 percent of the population, so why do we need all these books for so few kids?

-Books like THE HATE U GIVE paint cops in a bad light, and are dangerous. She’s a cop.

-Parents have a moral responsibility to protect kids from LGBTQ texts.

-Gays are mentally ill and that the average gay man only lives to 39.

By the way, on that last fact: I pushed back and said that sounded wrong and if not wrong, probably taken from the middle of the AIDS epidemic. She assured me it was modern. Someone from the audience fact checked her. It came from The Family Research Council, considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, from 1994, the height of the epidemic, and had long since been debunked as a myth.

She did this all, she brayed about the tragic, horrible deaths of so many young gay men, with a confident smile on her face.

So: Homophobia is not new to me; I’ve been dealing with it all my life. But I definitely didn’t expect to encounter it here. At NCTE. In a panel discussion. By a panelist. My shield was down, and I got, as they say, triggered.

I was the first to counter her. First nicely, trying to engage her in dialogue, and then, when it became clear that she wasn’t there for a conversation, not as nicely. I was angry. My hands were shaking up there on the stage.

I was not alone in my anger. The other panelists were also angry. So was, it seemed, just about the entire audience, who had come to hear about strategies to overcome the disproportionate challenges to these books.

I’ll tell you: I’ve spent a lot of the last couple years looking for ways to connect with people who feel differently than me. Because a part of me still believes that we are all the same. That we are all connected.

Saturday I found my edge. I found the place where I will not–cannot–equivocate.

When it comes to young people who are marginalized, whether for reasons of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability… there is no conversation to be had about whether their lives have as much value as the lives of other kids. I won’t engage in that conversation. I will not give credence to an “other side” of this argument, because there is none.

I know first-hand what these books mean to LGBTQ kids. I’ve received so many messages—emails, tweets, Facebook messages—from young people who wanted me to know what my books did for them. That they ingested them, they clung to them, that these novels carried them in difficult times. I assume all LGBTQ YA authors have similar stories. The fact is that books are powerfully different than movies or TV shows. They feel more personal, and the connection is quite powerful. So yes, these books save lives.

And those who wish to restrict young people’s access to those books? They put young lives at risk.

This is a health and safety issue. According to the CDC, LGB youth are five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth. For trans youth, the number is far higher. More than half of transgender male teens who participated in a study by the American Society of Pediatrics reported attempting suicide, as did nearly 30 percent of transgender female teens. Among non-binary youth, the number was over 40 percent.

When this idea was brought up, this panelist inferred it was because LGBTQ people are mentally ill.

She is wrong. The reason the numbers are so high are because of the bigotry of people like this panelist, of people who tell LGBTQ youth that their lives are less important than the lives of straight kids.

I know this too well. My life almost ended at 27. And it was a lifetime of being called a fag and hearing that I was dirty and sinful and wrong and perverted that led me to that place. And when I woke up in the hospital after my stomach was pumped, I knew that I could not spend the rest of my life running away from the pain. That I had to face it head on. Which I try to do but even at 48, believe me. The urge to not feel is so great, because sometimes that rib crush is unbearable.

Words like hers are powerful and destructive and harmful. There were no high school kids in attendance, but there were some young (college aged) people, and I saw the looks on their faces. The hurt. The dismay. I wanted to hug each of them and say, No. This is not about you. This is about this woman and her stuff. Not about you and yours.

 Another panelist, debut author Sabina Kahn, is the parent of a bisexual child, and she spoke powerfully from that capacity. I thought about how I don’t have kids, and then, quickly, I realized that I most certainly do.

LGBTQ youth are my kids. And I’m a fierce papa bear and you do not come after LGBTQ youth. Let’s widen that. You do not come after marginalized kids. They, too, are my children. We’re adults, and this panelist is free to believe whatever bullshit she wants to about me. Where I draw the line is when she advocates against my children.

So.. um. Enough of that. The Music of What Happens. Okay.

Interestingly, this is NOT a book about homophobia. It’s a love story between two boys who are openly gay, who are comfortably out. That’s a modern tale, and despite all the people like that panelist out there, it’s not an incorrect one. It’s just … complicated. We live in multiple worlds at the same time, it seems, these days.

This is a book that couldn’t have been written 10 years ago, because it wouldn’t have made sense to have kids NOT dealing with coming out. But now, thank god, we can have some books that are just about the lives of LGBTQ kids.

The Music of What Happens is the story of Max and Jordan, two 17-year-old boys from Mesa, Arizona, who fall in love one summer while working on Jordan’s family food truck. They are very different boys.

Max, who is half Mexican, half Irish, is a dude bro who plays baseball and loves video games.

Jordan is a more delicate white boy who writes poetry.

Both boys have secrets. Max had an unwanted sexual experience the night before the book starts, but he’s been taught by his father that men don’t get upset. He believes he’s a superhero, and that his smile is his superpower. He smiles through adversity, and always has. Jordan’s mother has just told him that if the family is about to lose their home if they can’t pay three months of back mortgage. Jordan, however, has inherited his mother’s belief that he is powerless and worthless.

This book is about the music of what happens when our desire for the thing we need most–love, in this case–butts up against the agreements we’ve made about who we are supposed to be.

It’s about the cultural messages we give boys about who they have to be. How they have to be. And in particular, how those messages fall on gay and bisexual boys.

I got a lot of interesting messages growing up. From my stepfather, who was my hero and the man I considered to be the ideal man, I learned to hide my pain. When I was 11, we were playing this game we used to play where he spun me around by my feet. It was fun until my head thwacked against an armoir in our living room. It hurt so much, and I started crying, but when I looked up at him for love and support, he said, “Pain doesn’t mean that much to me. Buck up.”

I got other messages, too, once I came out. I was told—and this one is interesting—that it was okay to be gay, so long as I was masculine. I was also told that men don’t take things into their bodies. This may have been meant physically, but it has an emotional corollary, doesn’t it?

The message I got there was about making sure I wasn’t vulnerable.

This book is about the search for wholeness in a world where we’ve internalized messages that keep us from being whole.  Because I wasn’t whole, due to these messages. I could not allow myself to be open, because I had been taught to fear my own feelings. To fear anything that my stepfather deemed as not masculine.

This is the basis for what we’ve come to understand as “toxic masculinity”. It’s the basis for every school shooting that happens. It’s the basis for most of society’s ills.

I wrote this book in 2017, right after we elected the worst possible role model for boys and put him in the white house.

The election elevated to the highest office in this country a man who is utterly unwilling to look at himself and see his own shadows. A man who is entirely unaccountable, unwilling to take responsibility, unable to be authentic, who dives into anger as it is the only emotion he allows himself. Because he’s a “real man.” He denies the existence of all other emotions.

But a new kind of masculinity is emerging.

One that is balanced. Based on being accountable, emotionally intelligent, connected to others, authentic.

One that understands that there’s power in vulnerability, and that there are things to learn about how and when to put up our shield and brandish our sword, and when to take it down.

In fact, the definitions I just implicitly made about what true masculinity is, are also the definitions for true femininity, in my opinion. The men’s movement and the women’s movement are full allies. The vision is the creation of a world in which men and women and all people honor each other, work in harmony.

And I hope this book, The Music of What Happens, can be a small part of that.

Thank you.

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53 Responses to “Proud Fierce Papa Bear” – The Speech

  1. Ed Hawkins says:

    Bill,

    Thank you for being a champion, even a gladiator in the war against the know-nothing culture that refuses to accept science, truth, and us. You wrote, “, , ,even at 48, believe me. The urge to not feel is so great, because sometimes that rib crush is unbearable.” I’m 71, and the rage is intense, but the fact that my time is short makes me embrace it and, sometimes, scream it. Thanks again.

    Ed

  2. aprilvazquez says:

    Amen! Beautiful post. It’s heartbreaking to think of bigots like this having the power to hurt amazing young people like my daughter. Keep fighting the good fight.

  3. cubbieblue26 says:

    I cannot even believe that someone like this made it on to the panel (and I am not even going to dignify trying to find out who it was). The world is a better place and the world is grateful for those like you who advocate and speak up for others everyday. You are a true champion!

  4. I’m so sorry you had to experience this on your panel, and thank you so much for speaking up for LGBTQ children. I don’t know how she was allowed to be on this panel to speak so much hate. I’m glad you and the other panelists were there to try and mediate it as much as you could.

  5. Kate Capshaw says:

    Thank you so much for this response. So many young people’s lives and imaginations are at risk in this awful social and political moment, and your statement heartens me.

  6. I am absolutely appalled that this happened to you, and I am stunned by that woman’s behavior. Thank you for responding with poise and courage, and for pushing back on her insistence on dealing out lies and bile. I don’t know how anyone can keep their heads in a moment like that. I am in awe.

    And on a personal note, as the mom of two completely awesome gay kids, I treasure the fact that you are doing this work – both on the page, and on the panels, and in the world. From my family to yours: thank you. It matters.

  7. I am so extremely sorry this happened, but very glad that it was with a panel of people who were willing to say no to the outrageously misinformed and harmful panelist in question. Your wonderful response is an example of why hate will not win, and exactly what our kids in marginalized communities need to hear. We are with them. THANK YOU.

  8. janet E Ilko says:

    Thank you for speaking up and continuing to challenge those who try to minimize the importance of the work we all try to do to support all kids. Thank you.

  9. Lee Bennett Hopkins says:

    HER NAME should be known. Thank you for your comments. This is outrageous talk.

  10. Lora Hyler says:

    Thank you for your courage. I discovered this on Twitter and as someone who is a children’s book author and advocates for ALL of our children, I thank you.

  11. Matt McMann says:

    Bill – thank you so much for sharing this and for your wonderful example of courage and standing for your convictions. Marginalized kids of any stripe should have many protectors – all thoughtful, compassionate adults should be included – but in you, they have a strong and eloquent leader. I’m proud to stand beside you on this and learn from your example.

  12. Thank you for this speech, Bill, and the way you actively connect with young readers. I’m so sorry you and all the panelists had to deal with this at all and in a place of learning where it seems very much to be about camaraderie.

  13. Marie says:

    Bravo for standing up against this ignorant woman. I also wanted to say that books featuring marginalized characters are wonderful and important for readers who are of those demographics, but also for readers who aren’t. Emotionally connecting to a character who’s different from us in some way is so helpful for creating the kind of empathy that can reduce the bigotry in the world.

  14. I’m so sorry to learn of this wolf in sheep’s clothing appearing at NCTE and on a panel no less. Thank you for championing our kids. We need your voice in the world 🌎 strong and loud and clear! ❤️

  15. Katie Russell says:

    I am so sorry to hear that this happened at NCTE! I attended the conference this weekend and had a great time connecting with colleagues. There were many sessions with great conversations supporting marginalized students. I was not at this session but I wish I had been. It really upsets me that someone would attend a panel like this with an obvious intent to spread hate, let alone be on the panel! I’m not sure how panels are formed and if she misrepresented herself to be on there? I wish that this had not happened to you or the people in that room. NCTE should be a safe place for EVERYONE! However, I am not surprised by the things she said. This is the ignorance and hate we are fighting everyday. I say we because there are so many of us standing there with you! Thank you for the work you do for our kids! This post, and the many other responses I’m seeing, are a reminder that there is still so much work to be done.

  16. Thank you, Bill, for your words here and for your commitment to the kids your serve with your work. I am so sorry this happened to you, and the rest of the panel, and the entire audience at NCTE. But thank you for your reaction to it. Thank you for your passion and your dedication and your thoughtful, inspirational words. We can overcome the hate.

  17. Thank you for speaking up and being a champion for these children. Thank you for being a model to adults who also want to respond in unfortunate situations like these with courage and poise. Thank you.

  18. I read this account with tears of rage at the terrorist attack on you at this panel. Thank you, Bill, for your courageous response and for protecting your children. Let’s widen that: our children.

  19. Pilar says:

    Thank you for publicizing this appalling session. I was in the audience and was in disbelief the entire time. I could see the pain on your face along with the other panelists and I can only imagine how hard it was to be up there as it was so hard to be an audience member. I am the woman who commented on the biased and offensive characterization of the Black woman by the presenter. This whole event reminded me how far we have to go as there’s still so much undoing that needs to be done- whether it’s by outward bigots like Sara Cortez or it’s by “well meaning white folks” like the presenter. Thank you!

    • bkonigsberg says:

      Hi Pilar, and thank you. I was so horrified by the entire event and wanted to make it all go away. I was so glad that you said what you did about that scenario. It was deeply offensive and yes, sometimes us well-meaning white folks go sideways and we need to listen more than talk. Sending love and appreciation your way.

      • snowfleury1 says:

        Hi Bill,

        I was also at your session, and I loved the message that was reverberated by most of the panelists – we need to see ALL children reflected in YA Literature. Thankfully, through your tenacity and fortitude the message still resonated, even in the midst of the shocking bigotry. In fact, the horrifying behavior from one panelist only reinforced the need to give all marginalized children a face and a voice. Thank you.

        Kathryn

    • snowfleury1 says:

      Hi Pilar – I am the woman who sat directly to your right, and I am so glad you spoke out! Addressing deeply entrenched biases is as critical as calling out egregious offenders, like the panelist. It is certainly not easy.

  20. Tere Kirkland says:

    Just here to give hugs, Bill and say thanks ❤

  21. Kylene Beers says:

    Thanks so much for this beautiful response to such hateful comments. Her comments do not represent NCTE’s core values and had no place on the program. But now we know how she thinks and what she believes and that has completely altered how I think about her.

    I deeply appreciate your comments and will hold them close for a long time.

  22. MP says:

    Thank you for this, Bill! As a new kidlit author and the mother of a trans child, I cannot thank you enough for using your platform to send this important message loudly, clearly, and passionately. It is life-saving for kids. On this Transgender Remembrance Day, I needed to see this. Thank you. ❤

  23. Amy Zimmer says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. Silence leads to silent nods that don’t go away.
    We over @MTBoS (Math twitter Blogosphere) stand with you.

  24. I am angry.
    In tears.
    Rendered nearly speechless.
    I don’t know what to say except, I see you and I support you and all of the readers you are fighting for.

  25. Thanks for speaking a powerful truth against filth and lies and bullying discourse. I’m angry and hurt for you, but I’m glad you’re putting NCTE on notice, too.

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  27. Bill, for all you have endured, all for being your beautiful self, I offer my enraged sadness, and a gazillion warm hugs (if you accept hugs from strangers). My sister (gone for fourteen years now) had to be silent about who she was (she was a high school teacher), and I remember feeling strange when she told me I had to keep her truth a secret. Why? I thought. Now, I have a passel of kids, and all have been raised to know better, to know that the subject of gender and sexuality is far broader than the current world espouses or accepts, that there is no space for discrimination, racism, misogyny and the like. Seven beautiful souls who will, I know, speak up when the dark-hearted, misinformed spout their lies. Thank you for being you.

  28. fefeeley412 says:

    Reblogged this on F.E.Feeley Jr and commented:
    This needs to be read by everyone.

  29. Laura Cudmore says:

    I got you. I got them. Not to worry, there are people like me everywhere. My classroom library is expansive and inclusive. My book talks shine on great texts that challenge and comfort. Text like The 57 Bus, Dear Martin, and The Hate U Give live and breathe because kids want to read authentic voices. Don’t worry. Kids know. I got this. 🙂

  30. Joanne Marie Peluso says:

    Thank you.

  31. Bill, I was in shock when I heard about this. Your response is so powerful.

  32. Jean says:

    This made me cry. You’re a terrific advocaten and as I read I was picturing my students that you were speaking for too. Though this hate is egregious, especially at this event, I love that you spoke for so many.

  33. Collette says:

    I am so sorry to hear this happened at NCTE. English teachers know how much your books mean to our kids. Thank God for authors like you that give our kids the feeling that they are not alone, but best of all that help students realize everyone is not alike and it is perfectly ok. In fact, it is wonderful. God bless you.

  34. Kevin Craig says:

    From someone who is not quite there yet, not quite fierce…thank you so much! These words will spread out and find someone who needs them. I’m confident of that. I remember being an LGBTQ youth on the brink. People like the women you discussed here did there best to push me over that abyss. Voices like yours save…just as much as these important books do. Thank you.

  35. Pingback: On Mental Illness and LBGTQ+ Books for Kids | Dreaming in Typeface

  36. Soraya Laboy says:

    You are a ferocious Papa Bear. Thank you. Gracias. Merci. In all the languages of the world, for all our children.

  37. Three of your books are being donated to my neighborhood school in your name. Thank you for speaking out.

  38. Susan Lubner says:

    I’m so proud of you, Bill. Thank you for speaking up and I’m sorry you had to endure that nasty and hateful situation. ❤️

  39. lmconnors says:

    Thank you for your courage and writing about this experience.

  40. Sarah Tobias says:

    This makes me so sad, yet, it also makes me more resolute to be a protective Mama Bear. We are all connected, special, important, and loved. Some may not yet see that, but many of us do and strive to act with kindness and understanding everyday. Sending you love and healing.

  41. I’m glad you showed your teeth. And I hope that woman was shown the door.

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