“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.