Ep 194: “Five Dollar Bill,” Queer History and YA Lit with Lee Wind
It’s the final week of Pride Month 2019. The guys wish everyone celebrating World Pride in NYC a wonderful time. Jeff talks about being homesick for New York and missing playing hockey. Pose‘s early season 3 renewal is praised.
Will talks about the special Masterwork Experiment happening on The Story Grid Podcast where they are breaking down and analyzing the story structure of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.
Jeff and author/blogger Lee Wind have an extended interview in which Lee discusses his debut YA novel, Queer as a Five Dollar Bill and how he’s become engaged in discovering queer history. They also talk about the YA book blog I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? that Lee began over a decade ago. Lee also recommends a couple of his favorite YA books and the queer history project he’s trying to jump start on Instagram.
Complete shownotes for episode 194 along with a transcript of the interview are at BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
Interview Transcript – Lee Wind
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Lee, welcome to the podcast. It is so great to have you here.
Lee: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here, Jeff.
Jeff: Now, I recently read your debut novel, “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill”. In fact, I reviewed it back in Episode 189. And absolutely love it. Now, tell people in your own words what this YA novel is about.
Lee: So it’s all about the fact that I don’t have a time machine. When I went…in 2011, I went to a game in summer camp kind of weekend. And there was a guy talking about the letters that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed that convinced him that Abraham was in love with Joshua. And I just thought he was full of it. Like how could that have been possibly been true? It’s the first time I heard about it.
And I went to the library, and I got the letters and I read them and because the emotions Lincoln speaks about are the same emotions I experienced when I was closeted in dating girls and sort of judging it the right thing to do, but not feeling it, I had this moment of sort of goosebumps, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I think maybe Lincoln was in love with speed.”
And I thought, “Oh, if I had a time machine and go back and tell my 15-year-old self that the guy on Mount Rushmore, the guy on the $5 bill, the guy on the penny, was maybe in love with another guy, I think it would have changed my whole life. I don’t think it would have taken me until I was 25 years old to fully come out. I think it would have been a game changer. But I don’t have a time machine.
So “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill” is my paying it forward. I’m a writer, I wanted to write the story about a 15-year-old who’s closeted and bullied and dating a girl because he kind of judges it’s the right thing to do, but he doesn’t feel it. And then he’s assigned a book report on Lincoln and he gets the same book that I got from the library, he reads the actual letter, where Lincoln is asking his best friend, after the best friend has gotten married to a woman, “Are you now, in feeling as well as judgment, glad you’re married as you are? From anybody but me, this would be an impudent question not to be tolerated, but I know you’ll tolerate it for me.”
And he ends the letter saying, “Please tell me quickly, I feel very impatient to know.” And we don’t have Joshua’s answer, because Mary Todd burned all the letters on that side of the correspondence. But we do know it was only four weeks later that Abraham had married Mary. So to me, it felt like wow, that, like what would happen if a kid today found that out and decided that he wants the world to know? Because everyone loves Abraham Lincoln in our country. And he thought, “Well, okay, so if he tells – the main character, Wyatt – if he tells the whole world that Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy, he thinks it’s going to change how everyone feels about gay people, cue the songbirds and the rainbow and happy ending.”
I do think if in our culture today if someone was to go really viral with the information that Abraham Lincoln was, wrote these letters and was in love with Joshua Fry Speed, I think there would be a huge conservative backlash and media firestorm. And that’s really that what I wanted to show in the novel, how this Wyatt, how Wyatt, this main character makes his way through this incredible maelstrom of fury that he’s ignited by just sharing what actually is part of American history.
And then to kind of ratchet the stakes up even further, I wanted to make it, like, how was it important for a teenager today? Why is Abraham Lincoln important? So I kind of situated him in Lincolnville, Oregon, a town I kind of made up. His parents own the Lincoln Slept Here Bed & Breakfast. And when the economy of the town kind of starts to tank and they’re threatened with losing their business, they bring in a civil rights attorney to help and she has an openly gay son and sparks fly between the two teens. But the main character Wyatt can’t do anything about it.
Because gay kids saying Lincoln is gay is really different than a straight kid saying Lincoln is gay. And he’s faced with his choice, does he follow his heart and see if something might be happening with this guy, Martin? But the cost of that is letting this secret fade back into history, and nothing will ever change in our world. Or does he sort of sacrifice himself and his own happiness, and persist with the story that Lincoln was indeed in love with another guy and see if he can change the world a little bit, even though it won’t change for him? So that’s the story of “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill”.
Jeff: And I feel like even before I read this book that I had heard, you know, some of the rumblings that Lincoln may have had a relationship, may have been gay. So I think it kind of dances around the edge of what some people know, because I can’t even begin to tell you where I heard it or anything else, just that it had been kind of back there somewhere in the memory of I don’t know, something. Does that even make sense?
Lee: Well, it’s been a big thing on “Will & Grace”, the revived series. They’ve been doing a whole run on jokes about Jack doing a one-man play called Gaybraham Lincoln, which is sort of all about Lincoln being gay, which I think has been good on the one hand, because it’s letting more people know that this is something that people are talking about, but it’s also doing so as if it’s a farce, as if it’s not true at all, and completely made up in a complete flight of fancy on the part of this bigger than life character. When in fact, if you read the letters, it is remarkable how to me it feels so clear that Lincoln was in love with Joshua.
Jeff: What was your process for researching the history? Because there’s more in here than just the letters themselves. There’s a lot of Lincoln history, there’s comparisons drawn between Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. In my review, you know, I kind of likened it a little bit, you know, you go see “Hamilton” and you get this big infusion of history, while you’re wildly entertained. What was kind of your process around gathering all the pieces you needed?
Lee: Well, first of all, thank you for comparing it to “Hamilton.” That is like the best compliment ever. I need to embroider that on a pillow or something. I did a lot of research. I started out with the letters and then I realized that I just didn’t know enough. I looked around and I live in Southern California. And it turns out in Redlands, California, there is an Abraham Lincoln Memorial shrine and museum. And it’s like a three-room edifice that has display cases and a gift shop.
And so many of the things that ended up being part of the bed and breakfast that Wyatt’s parents own were kind of taken from that real-world experience of going to this place and seeing that they actually had, you know, civil war chess sets. And they had, you know, little teddy bears that were gray or blue. And they had, you know, Confederate Flag and a Union Flag. And that was hugely helpful. And then just starting to dig in deeper to some of the things I discovered there, there’s a whole sort of subplot about how Wyatt feels that there’s no one he can actually talk to.
And so he’s developed this strange internal dialogue with this image of a soldier in the background of one of their display cases. And I actually have a photo of it from when I went to this Lincoln shrine. And it was there, it was behind all these ammunitions. And I don’t know that my gaydar works 150 some years later, but definitely, there’s somebody in that, they’re one of the soldiers in that photo does look like he could be gay. And I thought, “Wow, what if this was the only way that Wyatt felt that he could have somebody that recognized who he was, and how sad that was that he didn’t really have a friend?” And that was why I was excited to create the character of Martin so he had somebody.
Jeff: Were you a history buff all along?
Lee: No, I hated history. And I’m sure that they’re all these teachers that are like hitting their foreheads in shame right now. But like, honestly, I never had a history teacher that kind of got me excited about the stories of history, because I really feel like the way we teach history today, and my daughter’s in 10th grade right now and her history textbook could have been my history textbook from the 1980s, where basically, it’s the stories of rich, white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied men from Europe.
And, you know, history is more than that. There are the stories of disabled people and people of color and women and men who loved men and women who loved women and people who looked outside gender boundaries in history. And I kind of feel like, we have to crack that facade of that false facade of history and let people know that that there’s all this amazing light and you can see yourself in history. And, you know, Lincoln and Joshua are just sort of like the tip of the iceberg.
There’s, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, there’s Mahatma Gandhi and his love for this German Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach. There’s the pharaoh Hatshepsut in Egypt, there is Safa, there’s so many stories that impact us today. But we don’t really know them because they don’t get taught, or when they are taught, they’re not taught in a sort of, queer inclusive or respectful manner. So I kind of feel like now I love history.
And in fact, I wrote this novel, but as I was writing the novel, there was so much history, there was so many things that came up, so many more pieces of evidence, so many more pieces of the pie, things that made me surprised, like, I didn’t really know that Lincoln was sort of a racist, even though he’s credited with freeing all the slaves, he had this whole plan that he signed off on with Congress at that time to sort of, you know, explore shipping all black people back to Africa.
And I didn’t know that. And the deeper I dug, when I found a piece of information that kind of contradicted what I knew, I really wanted to find a way to include it in the story. Because I feel like that’s what we should be doing when we find things that show that history is complex, and that people are not black and white, that it just makes it all so much more real and so much more relatable. And if we can see reflections of ourselves in the past, like if we know that there were men who love men in the past, then we can believe that we have a place at the table today.
And if we know that we have a place at the table today, we can envision a future that is sort of limitless. And I want that for everyone that doesn’t feel like their history is included. I want it for all the women and all the people of color and the disabled people and the women who love women and the people who lived outside gender boundaries, too. Because that’s, you know, we call it LGBTQAI+ or QUILTBAG or whatever. But really, the job is about being an ally to other people. And me as a gay man, I have to think, “Well, how can I be an ally to everybody else?” And hopefully, they’re thinking the same thing. And that’s how we start to create societal change.
Jeff:: That is wildly profound. And especially, given that this episode of the podcast is dropping in the last week of June, as you know, the queer community celebrates Stonewall 50.
Lee: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I love that we’re celebrating Stonewall, I love that the gender non-conforming people that were there, the transgender people, the drag queens are getting some respect now that they were part of that and they were in fact, the leaders of standing up to the police finally. But for many, many years, Stonewall had a banner, the Stonewall Inn had a banner outside that read “Where Pride Began”.
And I think that’s really misleading. And we talk in the queer community in America as if that’s where pride began, right. Like, pride, “Hey, we’re celebrating 50 years of Stonewall, Hooray.” But wait a minute, Karl-Maria Kertbeny came up with the word homosexual 100 years before Stonewall. Right? Like Lincoln and Speed were writing these letters to each other 20 years before that.
You know, you can go back thousands and thousands of years and there’s this beautiful story from China before China was unified, where the State of Wey that the guy that ruled it, his name was Duke Ling and he had a guy he loved his name is Mizi Xia. And they were walking through the orchard one day and Mizi Xia picks a peach off a tree and starts to eat it. And halfway through, he stops because it’s so delicious.
He wants to share it and he gives the half eaten peach to the Duke and the Duke makes a really big deal out of it. Like, “I can’t believe your love for me is so profound that you would sacrifice your own happiness to give me the peach.” And something about that moment captured the imagination of people in that pre-unified China.
And for over 1,000 years, the way in Chinese that they said gay love was love of the half-eaten peach. Like we have this amazing, amazing history. And we just need to kind of breakthrough that facade and let all this amazing rainbow light shine through. So that’s kind of what I feel my mission is to kind of let people know that we have all this amazing history, and we can start to dive into it.
Jeff: Is this all history? Because you mentioned earlier that you’re not, you weren’t a history buff and you hated history. Have you gathered up all of this new knowledge since you were researching to write “Queer as Five-Dollar Bill”?
Lee: Yeah. So while I was writing “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill,” like I mentioned, there was just so much stuff that came up, so much evidence that I was like, “I can’t really cram all this into a novel, because at the end of the day, the novel is really about a kid today.” And I didn’t want it to feel like a historical novel. I wanted it to be this page-turner. So I realized that maybe it was two books, maybe there was the novel. But what if there’s a nonfiction book as well that presents the primary source materials, like a popup video thing on MTV or VH1, whatever it was, helps interpret, or at least how I interpret the thing?
So like, there’s all this talk about Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and how, while they’re very rarely taught, over 100 of the sonnets, Shakespeare wrote to another guy. And these are love sonnets that include really, really famous lines that we all recognize, like, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day. Thou art more worthy, yet more temperate.” That’s a line that Shakespeare wrote to another guy.
For hundreds of years, they had changed the pronouns of that in one of the folios. So it ended up being that for hundreds of years, people thought that Shakespeare wrote all those poems to a woman, to the Dark Lady. But when “The Riverside Shakespeare” came out, the editor of that section, he talked about how, “Well, we’ve restored the sonnets to their original, you know, pronouns, but you shouldn’t mistake that, you know, the affection men felt for each other in the 1500s was nothing like the homosexual attraction today.”
He wrote this in 1970s. And I’m like, “Really? Really?” Because, you know, “A man in hue all hues in his controlling, Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth,” it sounds pretty romantic to me. So what I realized what I wanted to do is to create a book that wouldn’t be just a book about Lincoln and Speed, but it would be a book about the broader thing, about men who love men and women who love women and people who lived outside gender boundaries.
So there’s 15 chapters. One is about Lincoln and Speed, one is about Shakespeare. And then there’s, like, you know, a bunch of other amazing people in history, and it really presents the primary source material. And I’m really excited because today – that we’re recording this – is the day that I’m signing the contract for that book with a publisher.
Jeff: Oh, that is exciting. Congratulations.
Lee: Thank you. It’s been a long journey, long and crazy journey. Because the book originally was set up at one of the big five publishers, and I worked on it for a year and a half with them. It was approved, we were talking cover design. And then two weeks after our current president was elected, they canceled the book. I think they were concerned that it was going to be too controversial. They just didn’t have the courage to proceed.
And that was really devastating. And it took a long time to find a new home for it. There were a lot of shenanigans, a lot of plot twists. The agent I had had at the time turned out to be a criminal who, well, she was telling all her clients she was submitting things and that they were having all these pending book deals. She was lying.
And the book was never submitted anywhere. Even after it was returned, the rights were returned to me. And the novel, “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill” ended up getting crowdfunded because I thought that I was being, well, stonewalled by the children’s book industry and they didn’t want word to get out about Lincoln and Speed so much so that no one would even respond to the submissions. So I crowdfunded it.
I have a blog, I think we’re talking about that a little bit later. But I have a bunch of people that know who I am and what I was trying to do, and they all supported me to not just publish the book professionally, but also, what I wanted to do is raise enough money to donate at least 400 copies of the novel to LGBTQ and allied teens, and the Kickstarter funded in six days, it was amazing. And then it went on for another 24 days. So we ultimately raised enough money to give away 910 copies. So that’s been really, really gratifying.
Jeff: That’s incredible. I mean, it’s really one of the great things about publishing today is that there’s really no more gatekeepers out there. Anybody can publish, get it on Amazon, get an audiobook done, etc, and get their messages out there.
Lee: There still is the thing, though, that being with a traditional publisher, you generally can reach more, especially when we’re talking about like middle grade, you know, or books, where you go into libraries, which I think that this nonfiction book really is a, you know, hopefully, it’ll sell like hotcakes. But also, I do think that to get it adopted more broadly into schools and into libraries, I think that coming from an established publisher is really useful and really helpful. So I’m excited about that. I do think that yeah, that there are many, many fewer boundaries than there used to be – or barriers than there used to be.
But at the same time, we have the additional challenge that while access to the marketplace has never been easier, the marketplace has never been bigger. So getting noticed in a marketplace, where there’s over a million books that are published every year now in the U.S., is a challenge. And that’s why it’s so important to have safe places to find out about these things, like your podcast, and my blog.
Jeff: Yes, absolutely. To spin back on “Five-Dollar Bill” a little bit and talk a little bit more about it. What were your inspirations for both Wyatt and Martin and the type of teenagers they would be?
Lee: When I was growing up, or when I was coming out, I think it felt like you couldn’t be gay if you lived anywhere except for one of the big cities like San Francisco or New York. And I really wanted to have a character that felt connected to nature. And that one of the thematic subplots would be, ‘Could he be himself where he was? Could he be himself in small town America, in a rural community, was there a way through for him to be successfully himself and authentic?’
I feel like I spent so much of my life being inauthentic, that I want to do everything I can to help teens be authentic now. So on the one hand, Wyatt was the study of a kid that was on a journey to be authentic and Martin was the flip side of that. Martin was the character that already was authentic, and was already reaping the benefits of that level of confidence. And you know, as soon as you, for me, when I came out, it was like this huge burden off of me.
And suddenly, I realized the weight of it was on everyone else, right? Like, if they had a problem with it, that was their problem. But it wasn’t me hiding or holding back, or pretending or acting, which I did for so long. My husband and I have a joke, where when you go to a Starbucks or something, they’re always like, “What’s your name?” And every time my husband changes his name. Like he just makes up different names every single time.
And they ask me and I’m always Lee because it took me 25 years to even start to like myself and to accept myself. And I finally got here. And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not anybody else. I am me. I am Lee.” It’s funny. I take a spin class and as a motivational thing the spin instructor does, “Who do you want to be today?” I’m always like, “Me, I want to be me.”
I spent so long being other people. And then also, it was really cool when I was creating Martin’s character, to think about him being African American. And that being an opportunity for me to talk about the complexity of Abraham Lincoln and him not being so perfect and explore those themes a little more. And it’s funny because I hear from a lot of people how much they love Martin. And yeah, he’s pretty lovable.
Jeff: Yeah, I really liked them both in their individual ways. For sure Wyatt…I grew up, I spent like middle school, high school, college in Alabama. So I could totally relate to where Wyatt was in his journey like he knows, but there’s no way he’s telling anybody. And I didn’t have a Martin for a best friend. So I also loved Martin, because he was the ideal friend to have for Wyatt in the moment to show him what could be.
Lee: Yeah, exactly.
Jeff: What do you hope the audience takes away from this kind of history/fiction mashup?
Lee: So I think a lot about words, you know, being a writer, and I think that the word homosexual isn’t helping us. I think that if we, because we’re so reactive and weird in our culture, in America about sex, and we are obsessed with it, and we don’t want to acknowledge it. And especially we don’t want to talk about it to teens. So when we talk about homosexual rights and homosexual history, all straight people are hearing, you know, to paint with a broad brush, is they’re thinking about sex and that we have sex differently than they do and how do we have sex.
And I just don’t think that’s particularly helpful. And I think that if we talked about love as sort of the binding element that makes me and my husband and our teenage daughter a family, or the love between you and your husband, if we talked about HomoLOVEual rights and HomoLOVEual history, I think we’d have a very different cultural conversation. So what the tagline of my book is, “What if you knew a secret from history that could change the world?” And I love this because it gets a little meta.
But it’s the challenge that Wyatt faces, right? He finds out the secret about Abraham Lincoln writing these letters and maybe being in love with Joshua Fry Speed. And he decides that he’s going to tell the world because it could change the world. And then it’s the same challenge that I faced because I knew the secret from history and I thought this drumming sense of responsibility, like I had to share it, I had to get it out in the world.
And because I wasn’t getting anywhere with traditional publishing, I thought, “Okay, well, I’m going to crowdfund it, I’m going to get it out in the world, myself.” And then what I am really excited about is that it’s also the challenge that the reader faces. Because when you’ve read the book, or you even heard me talk about the book, you know that there is something more to the story of Abraham Lincoln that has been taught to you.
And it’s that first crack in that facade of history. And it makes you think, “Well, wait a minute, when you see the picture of Mount Rushmore, or when you pick your kid up at the Lincoln middle school, or you’re driving on Lincoln Boulevard, you know, does it occur to you that, you know, our culture has not shared that part of who Lincoln is? And does it make you feel a little more pride about the fact that you know what, we do have history, queer people, and we need to lean into it?
And we have the opportunity to because there are hundreds of years of historians that are going to argue with us and that are going to say, “Yeah, yeah, it’s not true. It was very typical for men to share beds on the frontier.” Not that Springfield, Illinois was the frontier. But for four years, you know, Abraham and Joshua shared a bed long after Abraham could afford his own bed. “Well, it was cold.” Okay, yeah. But they shared a bed for four years. It’s not proof. But it’s interesting.
And I think that as all those things add up, we can all make our own determination of what we think, you know. Is it important for me that I convince the world that Abraham Lincoln was in love with Joshua Fry Speed? No. I think a lot about Anne Lamott, she’s a writer, and she writes about writing. She has a beautiful book called “Bird by Bird”.
And in that book, she talks about lighthouses, and how they don’t run all over an island looking for boats to save, they just sort of stand there and they shine. And I think a lot about that. Like, I need to be a lighthouse. Like I found out this amazing, cool stuff about history, and how it relates to today, and how empowering it is. And I just want to shine. And if people are interested, they can come closer to the light. And if they’re not interested, no worries, you know, watch out, there’s some rocks over there.
Jeff: Any chance of a sequel? Because I know I would love to see more of Wyatt and Martin at some point
Lee: I haven’t really come up with a good angle on a sequel, I had this funny idea for…one of the other pieces of history that really struck me was Mahatma Gandhi and the story of his love for Hermann Kallenbach. And we talk a lot about Gandhi having this sort of breakthrough where he talked about it doesn’t matter whether you pray facing left and I pray facing right – I may have that reversed. We’re all praying to the same God. Like he had this huge breakthrough, not just in terms of, you know, a peaceful protest, Satyagraha.
He changed our world in such profound ways. And at the same time, he was in love with this German Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach. And if he was in love with a Jewish guy, like that’s actually really interesting and really germane. Like maybe that’s why he had that inspiration, that insight about it doesn’t matter who you’re praying to, because it’s, we’re all sort of bonded by this sense of spiritual connection. Like, that’s really exciting. And I feel like there’s so many stories like that, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the woman that after, you know, her husband died, she went to the UN and became this advocate for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And would she had done that if she didn’t have this experience of being in love with another woman, and feeling that sort of outsider status, while at the same time being this empowered woman in our world? History starts to open up like a flower. So I don’t have an exact idea for a sequel for Wyatt and Martin, but I will put it in the hopper as ideas.
Reason I brought up Hermann Kallenbach and Mahatma Gandhi was that I thought, that would be an interesting thing to talk about a kid finding out about that, and how that would have changed their life. And then about, “Wait, that’s the exact same story over again, I don’t need to do that. I already wrote that.” So for now, I’m going to focus on the nonfiction piece and some other fiction writing that I want to get to that, actually, I’m very inspired by your book too, by the “Codename: Winger” series, because I love the idea of mashing up a gay teen with a sort of spy thriller.
Jeff: And I can’t wait to read what you might do with that. So please, bring that to the marketplace.
Lee: Thank you. I keep thinking, “Is there a way I can get gay history in here somehow?” I haven’t figured that either yet. But, you know, I’ll work on it.
Jeff: You’d mentioned earlier that you’ve got your blog, which I was so excited to find right around the same time as finding the book. You’ve been a YA blogger for more than a decade now. I believe you said it’ll be 12 years in September. And the blog is called “I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?” What led you to starting that?
Lee: Thanks. Yeah, there was no safe space to find out what were the books with queer characters for kids and teens. And I remember, there was a review on Amazon for a really sweet picture book called “The Family Book” by Todd Parr. And it’s sort of a cartoon-y book. And there’s like one page, it says, “Some families look alike.” And it’s a bunch of dogs that they all have similar features. “Some families look different.” And it’s a tree with all these different kind of animals in it.
“Some families adopt children.” And it’s a bunch of ducks. And on the back of one duck is a penguin. And then you turn the page and it’s, “Some families have two moms or two dads.” And it’s a picture of two women and two men. And then it continues, and there was a review, pretty high up that said, “If you tear out the page with the two moms and dads, then this is a lovely book on diversity.”
And I thought, “Wow, way to miss the entire point of what diversity is.” And I got so upset and so hurt, you know, because I’m a gay dad. And I thought this was an amazing book for my daughter, but also for all of my daughter’s classmates to see and recognize, “Yeah, yeah, you know, some families do have two moms and two dads.” And to Amazon, that wasn’t hate speech, it didn’t violate their terms of service, it was just somebody’s opinion.
Albeit kind of, you know, nasty, or at least I interpreted as nasty. And it got me thinking about how there really needed to be a safe place online, where a kid could go and find out what are the books that were out there. And when I started, there were maybe 30 books total that were inclusive of LGBTQ characters and themes for kids and teens. And what’s happened over the years is that by keeping this curated safe space, where I’m not vetting all the books, but I’m making sure that no nastiness is happening on the site.
We have over 500 books now in many, many categories. And it’s been really exciting to see that sort of explosion of content. And yet, it’s that sort of similar problem again. Like now, suddenly, there’s so much content, how do you make your way through it? How do you find the things that you want? So the idea behind it was to post about the books, what’s queer about the books, and then let readers add their own reviews. There hasn’t been a lot of review, there’s just too many places for people to leave reviews these days.
So I don’t see a lot of that. But I also didn’t want to make it, you know, “Lee’s favorite book site” because I think that that has a limited value, I thought that there was more value in it being a site that felt really comprehensive. And that’s what I aim for. And then it just became a place where I could talk about the stuff that I really care about, that I want queer and allied teens to know about. And over the years, what I’ve discovered is that the readership is split into thirds. There’s about a third, queer teens and queer and allied teens on it.
There about a third of librarians and teachers and people that work with LGBTQ teens. And then there’s a whole bunch of adults that are sort of reading the books for themselves and sort of healing their inner teen. And I think that there is a healing that happens. Every time I read a queer book that has a happy or even a hopeful ending, there’s a healing that happens. And I think maybe that’s part of why romance as a genre is so popular.
I know Will was saying in a previous episode that people get on his case for like ruining the ending, but it’s all romance, you know it’s going to be a good ending. And I think maybe that’s why people turn to it. So I know how empowering it is for me when I read something where I see a reflection of myself, and it’s a positive thing. Because when I was growing up, there was nothing to read, nothing positive. The only queer characters were like evil pedophile villains, it wasn’t particularly helpful.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s, unfortunately, the case in the history that you and I have from that era when we were growing up. In the decade-plus that you’ve been running the site, other than just more YA, how have you seen it all evolve?
Lee: There’s more, and there’s better and there’s deeper, and there’s less preachy and there’s room for it all. It’s funny, there was a kind of push a few years back for…well, maybe we’re beyond the coming out story. And I kind of got my dander up a little bit on that. And I felt like, “Well, we’re never going to be beyond the first love story when it’s, you know, a straight romance. So, Andrew Solomon has this great book that he wrote called “Far From the Tree” and it’s a nonfiction piece.
And he talks about how, you know, when your identity is…where you’re the apple that does fall far from the tree, or falls from the tree and rolls across the, you know, down the hill and across the orchard, when you’re queer, most likely your parents were not. And so you have this moment where you have to find your sense of community outside of the family that you grew up in. A lot of other identities, you share that. Like, usually, like me, I was raised Jewish and so I would, you know, my parents were Jewish. So I sort of shared that identity.
For all of our identities, we sort of are either sort of close to the tree or far from the tree. And when you’re far from the tree, there’s more work involved. So coming out, I think is going to continue to be this universal thing. Because just like, you know, my daughter has two dads, but she’s straight. So in a funny way, she’s going to have to, you know, she had a bit of a coming out where she had to tell us, sort of, you know, abashed, hoping that we’d be okay with it, that she was straight. And we had a good laugh about it. Because it’s not that big a deal for us. We just want her to be her authentic self and to be happy.
So we do want to have coming out books, and we also want to have books where being gay, like your character Winger, Theo, where it’s the least interesting thing about him. I loved when you said that in your interview. Because yeah, we want those stories, too. It’s like in acting, right? In improv, the rule is yes/and. So we want these books, and we want those books. We want the fantasy, we want the romance, we want the science fiction, we want all of it because truly, if you look at the numbers of books that are published – traditionally there about 5,000 books published a year for kids and teens.
And then, if you look at the world of self-publishing, let’s say that 5,000 are doing it really beautifully. And the books are indistinguishable with the quality of that from traditional publishing. That’s 10,000 books a year, a year. And you have all those years going back too. So what we want is the opportunity to sort of have all of those books and right now we still only have like 500. So we have a long way to go. We need lots more books, we need lots more voices, we need people writing their own voices, stories, we need more diversity included in everybody’s stories because truly, you’re not going to have a classroom today that doesn’t include someone that’s LGBTQ, we need it all.
Jeff: That’s very true. Given that you had the blog, did you always see yourself eventually writing the YA novel that you did? Or did that just kind of manifest itself because you have the story to tell?
Lee: I’ve always been a writer. I’ve written…I remember one summer when I was like between 9th and 10th Grade in high school, I was like, “I’m going to write a novel.” I sometimes think of those poor characters still trapped in the broken space station that was orbiting the Earth. And I’m like, “Oh man, I have to do something with that someday.” I don’t think I will. I’ve always written.
I think that for the last 14 years, I’ve really focused on writing for kids and teens. I also write picture books and middle grade. And when I found out this thing about Lincoln and Speed, it really inspired me to focus on writing that as a novel. I think that the blog has been a way to have my voice heard in a more direct way, and not wait for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Okay Lee, we’re ready for what you have to share.” So that’s been really empowering.
I remember, when I started the blog, there were very few people reading it, and I would get all excited, I’d be like, and I’d tell my husband, “Hey, 15, people went to my blog today.” And I was so, so excited. And now, all these years later, we passed 2.6 million page loads. I get between, you know, 15,000 to 25,000 page views a month. It’s remarkable, and humbling, and also a really cool responsibility to continue to maintain this safe place. And at the same time, I’m trying to keep writing and work on the new stuff, which has been really a good thing, because balancing the day job and the blogging, there’s a lot but I have stories I want to tell. And I’m going to keep trying to tell them.
Jeff: Good. Yeah, keep putting it out there. Because we always need more, to be sure. For people who haven’t seen the site yet, and we’re certainly going to link to it in the show notes. It has an amazing hero image across the top of the superhero. Where did that come from? And where did the name come from? For folks who might question the name too, because I have a pretty good idea where the name came from. But let’s hear it from you.
Lee: Sure. So “I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I read?” is a play on words of something we chanted in Act Up in the ’80s and ’90s. The chant was “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” And I thought, well, my issue is a little more “What the hell do I read?” Because I felt so starved for any books that included somebody like me. I mean, you know, I grew up and I really and truly thought I was the only person in the world that felt the way I felt about other guys.
And which was super ironic, because I have an older brother, who’s five and a half years older, and he’s gay too, but we never spoke about it. We are the children of immigrants and when my parents came from Israel, they sort of brought all their homophobia with them. And the American culture at the time was super homophobic, especially where we lived outside Philadelphia. It was not a safe place.
And it’s so amazing to think that you can grow up and feel like you’re the only person and everything I read, I was obsessed with the series by Anne McCaffrey called the Dragonrider series. And there was this super between the lines, sort of thematic thing that you could maybe interpret that there was gay stuff happening in that world, but you had to really stretch for it. And looking back, I think, well, maybe that’s why I was so obsessed with that book, with that series, because there was some faint, not even mirror reflection, but like the gleam of a tarnished piece of silverware. I was like, “Wait, wait, maybe that’s me.”
So that’s where “I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I read?” came from. The image happened a few years later. I had been running the site for about two years, it had been doing really well. And I realized I wanted to have a customized image. And yet, it’s a pretty wordy title. So I realized I needed an image that didn’t have any additional words to it.
So I contacted someone I knew, an artist I knew, Jim DeBartolo. And, I said, “Look, I need an image that says empowerment.” And he came up with this sort of superhero moment of like ripping the denim shirt off. And there’s this sort of T-shirt underneath with the sort of superhero logo, which is the website, which is leewind.org. And it was funny. We tried to play with the sort of partial face that you see, we tried to, you know, could we make it a person of color?
Could we do some things with you, know, the physique? But ultimately, it was sort of an avatar of me, and it took me years to admit it that’s sort of what of course it is, it’s an avatar of me, but I don’t have that good a jawline. But at least in my mind, I think that it’s been this sort of symbol of empowerment. And that’s really what I hope that people get from visiting the site, from reading anything I write. I want them to feel empowered.
Jeff: I like that. That’s a great story behind that.
Jeff: So relying on your…I’m going to call it a YA expertise because of the site that you run. What are three or four titles of current YA that you would recommend our audience to take a stab at?
Lee: Sure. So I have to start with “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell. I know it’s not super recent. But this is the gay Harry Potter book that I wanted so badly. And I was so frustrated that JK Rowling didn’t include Dumbledore as being gay in the canon. It sort of was outside the books that that revelation happened and you can go back and sort of, you know, read subtexts and stuff. But I really was hoping that there would be some sort of, you know, on the page, queer love or something, and it didn’t happen, there was really nothing.
And, you know, Rainbow Rowell, she wrote two books, one about the girl that writes the fan fiction, which is called “Fangirl”, which is really good. And then there was this book, which was the fan fiction, that ended up being a huge success on its own, called “Carry On”. And I don’t want to say too much, but it is absolutely brilliant. And if you are queer, or love queer stories, and you had any connection to Harry Potter, and that sort of world of magic, you’ve got to go read this. It’s just wonderful.
Jeff: Excellent. Her books have been on my TBR forever. And I actually need to take the leap and read them.
Lee: Read this one first. It’s just you will be so happy you did.
Jeff: So you mentioned the nonfiction that you’ve just signed the contract on and other stuff noodling around in your head… anything else you want to shout out that’s coming up soon for you?
Lee: So there are a bunch of things percolating. But nothing has come to full boil yet. So I will let you all know when it does.
Jeff: That is fair. I can’t wait to hear what they are. Because I think that, yeah, having read the one book from you, I’m looking forward to reading so much more. So where can people keep up with you? There’s leewind.org as we talked about, which is the “I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I read?” site. Anyplace else people should be looking for updates?
Lee: Yeah. I mean, I’m playing around with Instagram. I’m trying to do this thing. I had the idea that we could do a #queerhistoryiseverywhere. And I wanted people to upload photos of Abraham Lincoln or the word Lincoln wherever they saw it and just start posting it on Instagram. It hasn’t exactly caught on yet. But I still like that idea.
Jeff: Maybe our podcast listeners will play along with that.
Lee: Oh, yeah, that would be really fun. And also, I mean, as, you know, more queer history happens. I was speaking at the Bay Area Book Festival recently and someone came up after my panel and they said, “Did you know that Bābur from the Bāburnāma when he was a teen he was in love with another boy?” I was like, “Really?” Totally, I have sitting on my desk right next to me right now the “Bāburnāma” and indeed, when he was 18, he was in love with this other boy. And it’s so exciting to find out this stuff. So I feel like because it’s been hidden, the more we can crowdsource this information and share it and then all amplify each other. I think it’s very, very exciting.
Jeff: Very cool. So we will link to all that stuff, the books we talked about – everything else – in our show notes. And Lee, I’m so glad we got the opportunity to talk, spread the word a little bit more about this book and the website and thank you for all you’re doing to get more out there about YA literature too.
Lee: Thank you, Jeff. I really want to say thank you to you and to Will. I’m really a fan of the podcast and getting to be on it as a real thrill. So thanks.