People have been goofing on my name and pronouns since I started telling people what they were almost twenty years ago. (Let’s be real, people have been goofing on my pronouns since I was born, but that’s for another day.) Twenty years of apologies. It’s gotten old.
At one extreme, there’s the overstrained and beleaguered nonapology. “Ugh, I’m sorry. It’s just so hard. You know how it is.” Yeah. I know exactly how it is. I am such a burden. Thanks for the heads up that you are not in alliance with me. If you don’t see what’s wrong here, you’re going to have to seek elsewhere, because I’m not up for it.
But then there’s another kind of unpleasantness, which is the overapology. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry. I know better. Really I do. I was just [blah blah blah]. I feel terrible about it.” Which socially puts it on me to be “the voice of reason” and take down the energy: “Oh, don’t worry about it,” “It’s OK,” and so on. Even if you should. Even if it’s not.
I’m actually a little rattled at the moment and would like the conversation to go somewhere else even more than you would. If you’re someone I’m in with, I know you’re sorry. If you’re not, telling me that you are can’t break through my armor enough to convince me. You will show me more in your ability to take in what you have done and not make the next few moments about you.
And now there’s a new variant on the theme. In twenty-four hours, I received the following:
- A text from a friend within publishing that a mutual friend in publishing had used the wrong pronoun in a conversation with me and still felt terrible and passed on an apology
- An email from a friend who had used the wrong pronoun about me in social media, deleted and reposted, and wanted me to know they were sorry
- A conversation with an old friend whose sibling had used my childhood name for me and thought her sibling would stress about it less if they knew I was OK with them
Three times in 24 hours when, outside the moment of the mistake, I have been asked to take care of the emotions of cisgender people. Nope. Done. Nope. No ill will to any of these people individually – I like them all very much – but come on! Two of these are instances I never even needed to know happened. And to be honest, I didn’t even remember the first one outside the moment – I get so many pronoun slips I can’t keep a tally. You’re not *that* special. And further, two of these are a person removed. But someone had to let me know they felt BAD.
And yes! You feel bad. That’s called shame. Awesome! We’ve gotten to a place where you see that your mistake is yours, not some special request I’m making. So what do you do?
Well, first, I suggest you do what I try to do. (And yes, I mess up on pronouns, including my own. Enculturation starts early and runs deep.) Apologize and move on. And in fact, I’m trying to move away from the phrase, “I’m sorry,” which often comes with the expectation to accept the apology, towards the phrase, “excuse me,” which is what you say when you fart. You stunk up the air. It happens. It can’t be undone, but let’s not dwell on it, OK?
And then, I’m going to challenge you to take it one step further. Brene Brown talks about shame being connected with silence, and the answer to shame being honesty. So what I want you to do is to talk to a cisgender person about it. And if someone comes to you with a story like that, please *don’t* go back to the trans person about it, even if they ask you to. Sit in it together. Share your feelings. Grow closer. Do the work yourselves. And maybe as a bonus, you’ll be less likely to goof in the future, because you got to be there, instead of hiding from it.
Here it is again, in three simple steps:
- Say “excuse me”
- Move on
- Process your feelings with a cis person
Think of it as the modern Stop, Drop, and Roll. Good luck!
I’m deep in revisions on book 2, and sloughing off irrelevant words. The tone of this piece no longer matches my story, but given that I have this outlet here, it’s too cute not to share. So, I give you a sneak peek of something that will NOT be in my next middle grade novel!! Here you go:
Macy’s mom, Tricia, is driving us to school. On the way, Macy suggests a round of Kiss, Kick, Keep. One person names three boys – from school, or famous people, or whatever – and then the other person decides which one to kiss, which one to get rid of (kick) and which one to marry (keep).
I have challenged Macy with the members of the boy band 2 The Top. We both hate every single hair on their stupid heads.
“You are so cruel! Can’t I kick all of them?”
“Of course not!”
“OK, fine!” Macy groans. “Kick Mark. No question. Kiss Ray-Ray. And keep Bastian. I guess.”
“I knew it! But I’d kick Ray-Ray.”
“Which means you have to kiss Mark.” Mark is Macy’s least favorite member of the band.
“Worth it.” I say.
“For what it’s worth, I’d kick Mark, kiss Bastian, and keep Ray-Ray!” says Tricia.
“Mom!” Macy exclaims. “Are you listening in on us?’
“Macy, dear, you’re a whopping three feet away. And why are they always boys, anyway?”
“MOTHER!” Macy presses her palms into her eyes, and her cheeks peek out pink between her wrists. Then she looks up in horror. “Wait, are you trying to tell me you’re a lesbian? Are you going out with a woman tonight? Be honest!”
“Macy, my love,” Tricia’s voice melds kindheartedness and sarcasm, “Item number one: I am seeing a man tonight. Item number two: that would not preclude me being bisexual.”
“MOM!” Macy shrieks.
Tricia continues undisturbed. “Item number 3: I am not bisexual, though I did kiss a girl once.”
“Item number 4: none of this is any of your business.”
“Then why are you even telling us?!?”
“Because you turn such an adorable shade of red when you get huffy.”
Here’s a close approximation of the speech I gave at ALA on Monday, June 27, 2016 on accepting the first ever Children’s Stonewall Award:
Good morning! I’m honored that you’re here. I’m honored that I’m here. First a few thank yous:
- To the Stonewall Committee, especially the Children’s & Young Adult Sub-Committee, and to Larry Romans and Michael Morgan, for understanding the importance of LGBTQI+ literature for young people.
- To friends and family, especially Jean Marie Stine, without whom Melissa’s story would still be a mangled mass of words.
- To the Timucua and other native people whose land this is.
- Sparkles and love to my agent, Jennifer Laughran, who revised and resubmitted my query into a book.
- Sparkles and love to my editor, David Levithan, and everyone at Scholastic who took this book on and wouldn’t let go.
- And endless gratitude to the booksellers, teachers, educators, and of course, LIBRARIANS, who are getting Melissa’s story into the hands of kids.
Last year was my first ALA. It was also Pride weekend in San Francisco, and Friday was the Trans March. I was in a car that evening, on my way to an ALA event. We passed by the march, and someone I was in the car with commented, “Look at all the bright colors!” Like they had just witnessed a pride of lions. (Or bears. Or otters.) Like we were on safari and had spotted the local fauna.
That very same day, gay marriage passed. And there were people at ALA who were congratulating me for it, as if I had personally accomplished something.
But here’s the thing: gay marriage has never been the top priority for trans people and marginalized queers. It’s barely in the top ten. The first priority for trans people is staying alive. The second is being ourselves. And while some people said, “Love Wins”, we sat nervously, because we know that progress on that long jagged arc towards justice brings backlash, which more often than not falls on the most marginalized parts of a community.
So for me, personally, and for my book GEORGE, it’s been an amazing year. I’ve been to dozens of bookstores and community centers, spoken to hundreds of kids and schools, met whole classes who read Melissa’s story. I’ve gotten countless emails, from adults and kids, trans and cis. One of my recent favorites was a tweet from the mom of a seven year old. They had just finished reading the book, and her daughter had declared her stuffed bunny trans. What a delightful and playful way for this kid to incorporate transness and how to ally with trans people into her understanding of the world.
At the same time, there are places that aren’t purchasing my book because of “content”. It’s been placed on special shelves in libraries, arbitrary minimum reading ages have been declared, it’s been disallowed for book reports, and an amazing speaker and author in his own right has been disinvited for booktalking it. Melissa’s story has literally been pulled out of children’s hands. Because for all the progress, there’s backlash.
And now, here I am, accepting a queer literature award in Orlando, Florida, where we just lost 50 people. Mostly queer. Mostly Latinx. Mostly in their 20s. And not only because of extremists in our country who don’t understand the meaning of “well-regulated” or what a musket is. But also because of internalized homophobia. And because progress brings terrifying, tragic backlash.
I’m sharing the sad part. In the story arc, it makes the redemption more powerful. Because what do we do in the face of backlash? We progress boldly beyond it. We keep going.
We don’t control the past. We barely have a handle on the present. But we can guide the future.
And that’s why writing middle grade fiction is so important to me. Ages eight through twelve are a critical time in figuring out who we are as distinct from friends, from family, from school, society, and the media we take in. These are formative years and young people need and deserve tools to help them make sense of their world.
I have this image that runs through my mind. It takes place 10, 20, 30 years from now. A cisgender, heterosexual, heteronormative, dudey-dude-bro, football playing, fraternity faithful guy is walking down the street. I mean, Dude-Bro. Total stereotype. Drunk as drunk on PBR at 4 in the morning. And in the other direction, walking towards him, is someone he identifies as trans. And somewhere in his notions and connections of transness, is Melissa’s story. And he thinks of Melissa as a person, and he sees the person across the street, and that real, live, possibly-trans person makes it through the night. And nothing happens. Nothing happens.
We book people say it because it’s true: BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES. BOOKS SAVE LIVES.
It is worth the risk to get books like George on your shelves. I know, especially for school librarians, that parents can be scary. But you have so much more agency that the kids who need to read stories like GEORGE.
And it’s not just trans kids who need to read trans stories. We all need to see each other as people if we have any hope of getting through the next century.
I am honored and delighted to be accepting a NEW award – for children’s LGBTQI+ literature, separate from the wonderful world of YA, because it means more quality queer literature for young people is coming. Books are consumable. We one and need another.
So once more, thank you. Keep reading. Keep sharing. Please. Kids need you.
A minimum of 103 shots were fired. Probably more. Probably lots more.
How long was the music still playing before the DJ noticed? How many people were still dancing as they were shot?
In about a minute, I said, and someone felt the need to correct me on my facts.
No more shootings, I pleaded, and someone tried to tell me my reasoning was inaccurate.
No more guns, I cried, and someone quoted a bible verse to tell me that Muslims would use stones instead.
And when I say someone, I mean white men. Probably straight. Probably cis. Probably non-disabled.
It is a privilege to think that I’m making a rational argument, when what I’m doing is pouring a little bit of my heart on the page, both because it’s flowing over inside of me and because maybe if I share it, someone else will find what they need in it. If you think I’m open to discussing it, I didn’t write it for you.
I wrote it for those of us in pain today, knowing that we lost fifty lives, most of them queer, lots of them People of Color, many of them young and finding themselves and ready to great things in and for the world. They are gone.
And another fifty-three scarred and scared, wounded long beyond their injuries heal. They will never be the same, carefree to dance. No, they will be wondering who has the nearest gun.
And for Muslims everywhere who continue to live in fear because white America can’t grasp the chasm between religion and terrorism if the people we’re talking about aren’t white.
And for all of us. I feel society forging forth into the future. And I feel the weights of fear dragging us down, and back, and around and around through the maze to freedom.
I’m going to be in Orlando in two weeks, accepting the first ever ALA Stonewall Award specifically for Children’s LGBT literature. I was going to be a partying queer. Now, I don’t know.
I don’t know what comes next.
One of the questions I’ve been fielding a lot lately is “will there be a sequel to GEORGE?” The short answer is NO. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, but this email I wrote to a read covered it pretty well so I’m going to pilfer from myself:
Thanks for your email. I will not be writing a sequel to GEORGE. I appreciate that you’re interested in hearing more about Melissa’s story. However, the next steps in Melissa’s life are going to be very personal: they will involve therapists and conversations with Mom and important decision about how to present at school, etc.
Right now, transgender people are very “interesting” in popular culture. And while there are some good parts of that, there are also many cisgender people who are “fascinated” by transition, and being observed that way can feel like being an exhibit at a zoo. I’m going to keep that part of the story private.
If I ever return to Melissa’s world, it will be several years later, and from the point of view of a different character – possibly Rick, the bully Jeff’s main friend. It’s one thing to be bullied – it’s another to be under the bully’s thumb but apparently on his side. That story interests me a lot.
If you are interested in learning more about transgender kids, there are many non-fiction resources you can check out online. The TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation (http://www.transkidspurplerainbow.org/) is a great resource.
Thanks again for writing and I hope you understand and will share Melissa’s story anyway.
ETA: To be clear, I’m just speaking for me. Other trans writers and other trans people may have differing opinions on the topic.
Every once in a while a poem-like thing comes out of my fingers. They tend to take me by surprise, since I consider myself a prose person who doesn’t get into poetry too much. But thought I’d share what happened this morning.
That Weird Kid
You know the one.
With her nose in a book
His face has a look
She eats those strange lunches her great uncle cooked.
But there’s more to them than that, you know
Secrets they hold back, don’t show
At home or at school
It wouldn’t be cool
To drop the curtain and share what’s below.
Where they sparkle with bright fairy wings
And dance with a light step that practically sings
She bakes in her boots
He builds in his heels
Even when people say don’t do those things.
That doesn’t stop them, oh no.
It just makes them stronger, you know.
They demand to be seen
They deserve to be seen
And denial just makes the trip longer, it’s so.
And when you find this.
Or – if you find this
Tell my children that it filled me with bliss.
To see them traipsing around and about
And just in case there is any doubt
Let me be clear.
Come oh so near.
When I speak of my children, I mean you, dear.
Big and exciting news: I’m buying an RV later today! It’s a 1996 Rialta Winnebago. 22′ long, drives like a van, VW engine, full-size bed, two burner stove, fridge, heater and AC, self-contained bathroom. The works. It even has a solar panel already installed! And a back up camera! Here are some photos of a the same model, for the curious. This one is newer, but the set up is very similar.
Why am I buying an RV, you ask? Great question! I’m heading out on an epic road trip for (hopefully) a creativity-inspiring, experience-having year of wonder. Now that writing is my only job, I don’t need to be any one place. What’s more I’m supposed to be a bunch of different places this spring and summer anyway, so why not already be mobile? And I love the idea of being able to write at home but also in a beautiful different park every day. Oh, and Bay Area housing is pretty out of control, so while I’ll be around and about, I will be considering new stomping grounds. Wooing is encouraged.
I am filled with anxiety, also known as excitement, also known as a reasonable response to such glorious risk-taking. I have traveled cross-country in an RV, but not with plans to stay in it indefinitely, and not alone. At the same time, as a hardcore introvert and reluctant empath, I am excited for this chance to explore solitude away from the constant hum of other people. And I’ll be visiting lots of people and events along the way. Plus, with modern smartphones and hotspots, I’ll be connected most of the time.
I have struggled with the environmental impact of this decision (I’ll be driving a lot!) However, the Rialta gets about 18-20 mpg highway, which is better than plenty of SUVs. I have a solar power on the roof, which covers just about everything but AC & microwave (which are really only usable when plugged in.) And when I use the AC or (propane) heater, it’s a small space to maintain. What’s more, I’m not going to be connected to sewer (I’ll be dumping my tanks at designated sites), and very conscious of my other water usage. While I can’t say for sure that things will even out, it’s greyer than it might at first seem.
I have a estimated departure date of April 3. Once the trip starts, I’ll be posting about it sporadically on twitter. I’m starting off by driving through AZ and NM towards mid-April conferences in Houston and Dallas. After that, I’ll probably head towards the Midwest, New England, and family in Virginia. After that who knows? If you are affiliated with a bookstore, school, library, or community center in any of those plaecs, and you’d like me to visit, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So yeah, that’s my plan. Next task: Get a bumper sticker that says “Go around, I’m already home!”
I’ve spoken about this in interviews and in person about my support for the singular-they as a gender neutral pronoun before, but an email I got prompted me to write a full response that I wanted to share with you all. So, here’s the question, as well as my answer.
Note: Current usage is transgender, not transgendered. It is who a person is, not what has happened to them. Think “yellow” vs. “yellowed” paper. Also, the singular-they is just that. Singular. It’s not plural.
I find it confusing to see transgendered folks refer to themselves in the plural (“they” instead of he/she). Do you suppose you could get folks onboard using the term “xhe”?
No. While language is held together by rules and standards, it is a living, breathing, ever-changing creature of endless growth and potential. The singular-they may be unusual to you, and perhaps jarring, in that sense, but I would argue that it’s extremely rare that it’s actually hindering your ability to understand the sentence it’s in. English speakers use “you” both in the singular and plural, and it seems to work out OK. In fact, we had a singular-you (that’s what “thee” is) but we dropped it centuries ago.
Many attempts at creating new pronouns have been made. They are about as successful as Esperanto. (Neniu ofendo.) I’ve tried them for myself for years before giving up and going back to gendered pronouns. I couldn’t get used to them. For myself. Having people regularly not use my pronoun felt awful. And it kept turning my gender into the focus of the sentence, which wasn’t the point at all.
On the other hand, the singular-they was a quick and simple adaptation, and judging on how people have been using pronouns around me, my experience isn’t alone. Few people consistently used gender neutral pronouns for me, and for those who did, it was nearly always a conscious action. In comparison, most people report adapting to “they” within weeks.
If a person prefers third-gender pronouns, or no pronouns at all, I try to respect that. It’s clunky, but sometimes so are our genders, especially living in a culture that blocked our paths for so long. And I know how much it sucks to ask for people to do a little something extra to respect you and have them not do it. But I do believe the most seamless way forward is by shifting the purpose of a word we already have, like language does. And for me, that means proudly taking on the singular-they, and using it when I don’t know someone’s gendered pronoun.
At the end of the day, it’s more important to respect people and how they want to be called than to be “right”. Try the singular-they for a bit and see if you can adapt. Animals make great test subjects for this practice.
As for the old-school grammarian who’s still railing, I refer them to the Oxford English Dictionary (see usage notes) and note that a Washington Post copy editor deems it just fine (after a rousing bit about hyphens). Jane Austen used it, as did C.S. Lewis. To really name drop, it goes back to writers as old as Chaucer and Shakespeare. Also note my own use of the singular they earlier in this paragraph, which, unless you enjoy pointing out errors for their own sake, you probably glossed over.
More on the history of the singular-they here:
Edit: I am happy to add that I sent this to the person who wrote the question above and we’ve got another convert, friends of the singular-they. Not only are they going to start practicing with their pets, but they noticed, for themself, that they should have done their homework first. Quoting them: “Consider me a ‘they’ zealot now!” Keep spreading the good word!
Another Edit: There are lots of trans people who do use “he” and “she” and that’s also well and good and to be respected. Please don’t deny anyone their pronoun because you heard some trans person say that we’re supposed to use “they” for everyone now. That’s not what this is. Perhaps that’s obvious, but I’ve seen words twisted in weirder ways before.
Last month, I had the privilege and pleasure of traveling around New England and the Mid-Atlantic with GEORGE. I got to share Melissa’s story with children, adults, and folks in-between at:
- 11 public events
- 3 school events
- 7 meals with librarians, teachers, booksellers, and other VIPs
- 15 bookstore drop-in stock signings
I presented before my first full-school audience (thanks Monson Middle School in Monson, MA!) and joined in a Homemade Halloween parade (hi Summers-Knoll in Ann Arbor, MI!) I spoke on-stage with Leslea Newman and with an amazing panel of fresh writing voices at the Celebrating Diverse Literature conference.
And I left a trail of signed copies (they let me write in the books!!) in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia.
Along the way, I:
- Stayed in 16 hotels
- Drove over 3300 miles in 3 rental cars (rock hit the first’s windshield; the second had mechanical trouble)
- Lost a rental car key and and a hotel room key (like, the actual key kind)
- Found the rental car key while looking for the hotel room key (after having gotten a duplicate made)
Endless thanks to everyone who helped put this together, especially my publicist Sheila Marie Everett, and Scholastic sales reps Nikki Mutch and Sue Flynn. And of course, the booksellers, librarians, teachers, and principals who were kind enough to invite me into their spaces. And to everyone who came to an event, and everyone who asked questions, and everyone who thought about coming but couldn’t/didn’t make it, and everyone who read the book. You’re all fabulous!!!
A full list of events, including pictures is right here. You can also read more about my adventures by checking out #GeorgeOnTheRoad on twitter.
Until next time, sparkle on!!
Visit GayYA for my recent guest blog post, Clearing Paths In Middle Grade Fiction, about the issue of “age-appropriateness” of trans issues in children’s literature. Basically, I say “uh, yeah, it’s age-appropriate for people who are figuring out who they are to to read about other people figuring out who they are. But, like, with more words. and gravitas and stuff.