People have been asking for the text of my Stonewall Book Award speech at the American Library Association Conference in Orlando, Florida, earlier today.
Here you go!
Thank you so much. Thank you to those on the Stonewall Award committee. I was blown away to learn about this honor, especially in a year with so many stellar young adult books that depict diverse aspects of the LGBTQ experience. I am honored simply to have my work considered on the same level as some of these incredible novels.
Thank you to my family at Scholastic, whom I happen to love, dearly. Cheryl Klein, my editor, will forever be the person in my life who saved me. Seriously. Before my second novel, Openly Straight, found a home, I thought it was quite possible I’d never be published again. This possibility terrified me, because I had so much more to say. Cheryl gave me a chance, despite not-so-stellar sales numbers for my first book, Out of the Pocket. And I will forever be grateful for that opportunity, and also for her brilliance as an editor.
Thanks to my agent, Linda Epstein. She believed in me when my own belief was faltering.
Thanks to my husband, who is my biggest supporter and fan. When I met Chuck 12 years ago, suffice it to say that relationships were not a part of my skill set. And then I met the perfect person for me, and I had to figure it out really quick. There have been times I haven’t been quite up to the task, but Chuck has been patient with me and I didn’t know it was possible to love someone as much as I love Chuck Cahoy. It just keeps getting better.
I have so many more people to thank, but I could literally spend the next 10 minutes thanking people. I hope that I’ve been good about sharing my gratitude with all of those for whom I am grateful, because, well, I have a lot I want to say and I don’t want to put you to sleep.
I wrote this book because far too often in my experience, LGBTQ people are made to feel as if the religious/spiritual realm is not our place. And I think that’s awful. I believe the cosmic mystery is a gift for all of us, and I wanted to reclaim it for young LGBTQ people. I know… ambitious.
In The Porcupine of Truth, 18-year-old Aisha Stinson is kicked out of her home for being a lesbian. At the end of the journey of the book, she says she’s “scrambled.” When asked what that means, she says, “I’m sad. But also I’m done. Like truly done with them. And I’m done letting them own God. Nobody gets to use God as a weapon against me anymore. I just fucking reject that stuff. Nobody owns my God.”
I can’t tell you how much the mass shooting at Pulse here in Orlando brought this home for me.
I’m done, too. Completely and utterly done, and here’s what I think:
It’s time for a religious revolution. For us all to rise up and say no to those who would use God as a weapon. Whether it’s telling people they cannot love who they love, based on race, or religion, or sexual or gender orientation. Or that they are lesser in the eyes of God. This is for the false prophets who claim to speak for God, yet utter any phrase that contradicts the idea that we should endeavor to love each other, all of us. For those who would pass off their hatred of LGBTQ people to their children, children who may be mentally ill and yet still have unlimited access to weapons of mass destruction because of the absurd power wielded by certain organizations, organizations which seem to own politicians to such a degree that it doesn’t matter that 90% of Americans wish to see stricter gun control laws.
It’s high time for us—all of us, by the way—to embrace progressive spiritual and religious leaders who reject violence, hate, and bigotry. You don’t have to believe to embrace. And the reason to embrace them is that they have the power to influence so many people. And it’s time for us as a society to say NO MORE to those who would have us believe that God hates anything.
In The Porcupine of Truth, an older gay man named Turk tells Carson and Aisha, “Rigidity is dangerous. When someone tells you they know exactly what God is, run from that person.”
Another character, Laurelei, says that whatever a person believes to be true about God is utterly, undeniably true, so long as you add two words: “For me.”
I so want to live in a world where we can all celebrate NOT knowing, together. Where we can all have our own notions of what God is or is not, whether they come from the Bible, the Koran, or any number of amazing sources. To me, that’s what I want written on my gravestone. That in some small way, I helped create a world where we’re all allowed to explore ideas and express them to each other, without someone having to be right. And know they’re right. That’s the danger.
And that’s where we come in, writers and librarians. Toni Morrison, the greatest living American writer, says, “All the books are questions for me. … I write them because I don’t know something.”
We as writers and proponents of literacy would do well to keep this in mind. We can practice not knowing the answer, seeking the elusive Porcupines of Truth that are just out of our grasp, and we can model how literature helps us to understand the minds, actions and perspectives of other people. It doesn’t offer answers, but it offers great questions, and those young people who begin to seek their own answers will become tomorrow’s leaders. If you’re putting good books in the hands of young people, you are helping to create this better world. I believe that to be true.
And beyond that, by displaying titles with LGBTQ protagonists in your library, you send the message to teens who are LGBTQ that they matter, and to those who aren’t that you don’t have to be LGBTQ to read these books. The first is life-saving. The second is world-changing.
In case you don’t believe that books save lives, let me tell you a story. Recently, a teenage fan from Missouri friended me on Facebook. A couple weeks ago, he asked me if I could talk to him about how to come out to his very conservative, religious family. I told him I’d be happy to do so, but that I needed a few days to gather my thoughts. Also, I was on vacation.
The night before I was set to talk to him, I saw he had posted on Facebook that his stepfather had outed him to his mother, and it hadn’t gone well. His mother had told the rest of the family, and they were all screaming at him that he was being possessed by Satan. His mother put him in Christian counseling, restricted his access to friends, and threw out all of his books.
I spoke to him the next day. He said losing his books was the worst part of it. He said books were his “low-key boyfriend.” What a great kid.
Here’s something he said to me by message that day: “I want a boyfriend. I can’t have that. I want my amazing romance novels. I can’t have that. I was to be able to say, ‘hey guys, I’m gay.’ I can’t. I am tired of ‘I can’t.’
“’I can’t’ are literally the worst two words in my life.”
Let’s you and me work to make a world for the millions of kids out there like my friend where they can say, with confidence, “I can.”