Do you recommend any other reading to accompany this title?
Actually I’d recommend that readers who want to know more start with some viewing. Try “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall” or “Stonewall Uprising” to learn more about the riots and how they shaped the gay rights movement. Then turn to David Carter’s book Stonewall, written for adults, an in-depth look at the events of 1969. I am so focused on the world of nonfiction, that I can’t offer a strategic list of appropriate fiction, but I can say that I could not put down Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, which I read for pleasure while I was researching my book. I’ve just started reading Skyscraping, a new work that uses verse to explore hidden family stories, including issues of gender preference, and I’ve been completely drawn into the narrative. One of the books on my reading wish list is Double Exposure by fellow Wisconsin author Bridget Birdsall; her 2014 novel explores the story of an intersex athlete and has earned commendation as a great anti-bullying resource.
Why did you choose Stonewall as the event to center the book on?
Stonewall was one of those defining moments in history that electrified so many mental light bulbs at once, illuminating a path forward that had barely seemed imaginable beforehand. The awakening of a people—the unity that comes from forming a collective identity—is powerful stuff. Stonewall serves as a natural fulcrum for an examination of the national gay rights movement that followed and the green shoots that had already begun to arise among the nation’s first gay pioneers. The Stonewall story is a foundation story in gay rights history. Not to know Stonewall would be like trying to build an understanding of our national heritage without the events of 1776. Everyone—gay or straight—should know this story.
Why did you decide to write this book now?
Actually I’ve wanted to write this book for more than a decade, but in recent years a path for creation began to take form. The spark came in 2010, as I explain in my Author’s Note, when I learned of the death of Tyler Clementi, a young college student who had jumped from the George Washington Bridge after being betrayed in a particularly cruel and public way by his roommate. I committed myself to creating a book that might give teens a bit of hope and strength from the power of the Stonewall story. Over the next few years, everything came together—the time I needed for the project, an enthusiastic publisher, and a potentially more welcoming world for the topic. When I started this work, gay marriage was legal in a mere handful of states. When I finished it, a majority of states sanctioned gay marriage and a majority of Americans did, too.
How did you come up with this idea? What is your connection to this particular subject?
I’ve spent more than a decade writing about social justice history, and Stonewall hit all my hot buttons. Dramatic. Inspiring. Courageous. Clever. Surprising. I knew I wouldn’t rest until I’d explored this chapter from our nation’s past. I’m drawn to write about overlooked moments from history, and Stonewall is one of those under-told stories from the past. In fact, it’s a drastically under-told story. The events of Stonewall may be widely known, at least generally, within the LGBT community—Christopher Street and Stonewall still draw recognition in many Pride parades, for example—but beyond the LGBT family, I’ve never drawn so many blank responses from friends and strangers who asked me, “What are you working on now?” That knowledge gap didn’t make them disinterested, though. Even a short sketch of the history sparked their desire to know more.
These repeated encounters with the firewall that kept this history segregated from much of society fueled my efforts, too. It would be as if the events of Seneca Falls were only known to women or the march from Selma to Montgomery was only recounted within the African American community. Everyone should know these stories. As Barack Obama said in his Second Inaugural, events such as these arose from a deep belief in “the star that guides us,” the belief that “all of us are created equal.” They’re part of who we are as a nation and should be cherished, understood, and celebrated.
What do you hope teens will get out of STONEWALL?
My good friend and fellow author Sue Macy shared excerpts with me recently of an interview she’d heard where the conversation pointed out a unique conundrum faced by LGBT youths. Unlike almost any other identity group, these young people can’t automatically turn to parents for a cultural history lesson. The oral history chain that we take for granted as we explore our ethnicities or religious beliefs or geographical roots must be sought out anew by each generation of the LGBT community. Through Pride parades, through community groups, through social settings, bits of the oral history may be passed down, but there is no “talk” or rite of passage or family reunion that front-loads these young people with a sense of their place in LGBT heritage.
I hope Stonewall can help to fill this void. Everyone needs a sense of belonging, an affirmation of one’s identify, a foundation story upon which to build one’s own life. I hope Stonewall can help to anchor and inspire young people during those years of inevitable teenage angst. I hope teens—wherever they see themselves on the spectrum of sexual identify—will gain a deeper understanding and respect for their peers. If Stonewall can foster more tolerance, greater acceptance, then I will be very happy indeed.
I’m told that this book is one of the first nonfiction titles for teens about gay rights history. I’m so proud of Viking for having the courage to publish it. Decades ago Harvey Milk implored closeted gays to come out: “You have to come out,” he declared. And people did.
Now it’s history’s turn to come out of the closet. And it’s about time!