Happy Pride Month!
To kick off Pride, Jeff reviews Phil Stamper’s middle grade book Small Town Pride. Jeff also talks about the dangers of book bannings and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and that everyone should be actively supporting causes that fight for diversity and inclusion.
Children’s book authors Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, authors of the classic And Tango Makes Three, join Jeff to talk about their book, which has been repeatedly banned and challenged since its publication more than 15 years ago. Peter and Justin discuss what’s different about the current rash of book bannings, their response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and have tips on how everyone can take action.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper
- Heartstopper on Netflix
- S04:32: EE Ottoman: A Trailblazer Episode on Fated Mates Podcast
- EE Ottoman on Amazon
- The Purpose of Book Bans Is to Make Queer Kids Scared by Lev AC Rosen on Lit Hub
- Camp by L.C. Rosen
- Episode 251 – A Trip to Summer Camp with L.C. Rosen
- Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell Interview
- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richards & Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
- “Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name” by Dinitia Smith in The New York Times (Feb 7, 2004)
- Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid They’d Ask by Justin Richardson & Mark Schuster on Amazon
- March of the Penguins on Amazon Prime
- Opinion: “Avoiding Our ‘Gay Penguins’ Book? Better Steer Clear of These Kids’ Classics, Too” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson” in the Washington Post (Apr 15, 2022)
- The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
- Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
- American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom website
- PEN America website
- National Coalition Against Censorship website
- Christian, the Hugging Lion by Justin Richards & Peter Parnell, illustrated by Amy June Bates on Amazon
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Coming up on this episode, we begin Pride month with children’s book authors Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.
Will: Welcome to episode 381 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of gay romance fiction. I’m Will, and with me as always is my co-host and husband, Jeff.
Jeff: Hello, rainbow romance reader, happy Pride month. We are so excited to have you here for the first of our Pride month episodes.
Book Review: Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper
Jeff: So, before we get to this week’s interview, I want to take a moment to review a book that is actually perfect for this episode as we start Pride month. Phil Stamper has had a great 2022 so far. You may recall, Will give a rave review to his YA book “Golden Boys” a few weeks back in episode 376.
Will: Loved it! Loved it! Loved it.
Jeff: I believe you called it the book of the summer.
Will: And I stand by that declaration.
Jeff: Now I’m going to give you a rave on Phil’s first middle-grade book, “Small Town Pride.” Like I said, I really can’t think of a book more appropriate for this Pride month.
And this is one that begs to be read, not just by middle school age kids, but really by everyone as it gets to the core of what’s going on in conservative towns and states across the country. While this book can yank on your heartstrings, make no mistake, it’s full of joy and hope and tells the story about a young man, his friends and family, that show a town and what it means to have Pride and to embrace diversity.
Eighth grader Jake has come out to a few friends and to his family, but his dad really pushes everything over the top when he raises a giant progressive Pride flag in their front yard. They happen to have a flagpole already, and dad is really a fan of oversized flags. And so, this was a great opportunity for him to raise a flag and support his son.
Of course, now this means that everybody knows, and Jake isn’t sure how he feels about that. He starts to see that while he loves Barton Springs, not everyone is thrilled with the flag or the fact that he’s gay. He’s seen other instances of the town behaving in this way, too, such as when the mayor had all of the Black Lives Matter signs removed from people’s yards.
Jake likes to compare his village… and that’s what a town as small as Barton Springs is by the way, population 2000 in the state of Ohio. So, they’re called the village. He compares this town a lot to the village in the farming game that he loves called Songbird Hollow. In the game you can love whoever you want. And Jake is planning to propose to his in-game boyfriend, Peter, as soon as he can gather enough gold shells to make a ring. The in-game village is supportive of all of its residents, unlike what Jake is seeing right now in his real life.
Now, besides his parents, there are definitely people who support him and the flag and that includes his best friend and next-door neighbor, Jenna. And he gets an unexpected bit of support from Brett, who is the mayor’s son who happens to live across the street. They decide what the town needs is a Pride festival. Other small towns have them, so why can’t Barton Springs? Except in Barton Springs, the pushback is massive.
As Jake, Jenna, and Brett plan to make a presentation to the town council to get a permit, a mistake is made on who finds out about the plan a little too early, which means that the mayor catches wind of it. She is up for re-election, and she starts putting roadblocks up for the event before it can even get to the council to vote.
The mayor is also putting extra pressure on Brett to be perfect in school, perfect when he attends events with her. And, of course, she wants him to have no part of what’s happening with the festival and not even hang around Jake. This makes it difficult for Jake and Brett to see if maybe there’s more between them than just friendship.
I have to say that Phil does an incredible job with Jake. Like I said, Jake loves his village, but as he starts to see the hate spill out from villagers, who are sure that there are no people like that in their village, and to the mayor’s efforts to kill the festival, and how some people can’t even be trusted or won’t stand up for him, he begins to wonder if he could stay in Barton Springs or if he’ll end up moving away for an inclusive and likely larger city.
One of the lines that really struck me and has stayed with me from this book comes from Jake’s thoughts after the council has voted no on the festival. He thinks this, “Hateful people are everywhere. I know that. But couldn’t they just shut up for a minute? Why did they always have to have the last say when it comes to celebrating people who are different than them?
The haters do always seem louder don’t they, for whatever reason.
Now, Phil surrounds Jake with a loving mother and father who, even while they’re a little overenthusiastic, are truly amazing. Jenna and Brett are also great. Jenna honestly is the best friend that everybody needs. And she’s got a great story going on here as well as she learns how to play the symbols to get closer to a boy that she likes. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like learning a musical instrument just to get near somebody that you want to like. Her story is really a lot of fun in the book. But what she’s doing also causes a bit of friction because Jake is so caught up in what’s going on with him, that he’s not paying as much attention as he should to what Jenna needs from him.
And then there’s Brett and this friendship slash crush that’s developing between him and Jake. Brett is under so much pressure from his mom that he’s failing classes. He’s being very scattered. But through it all, he and Jake have some really nice moments and they really kind of ground each other, which is really nice. And just watching their burgeoning, whatever it’s going to be between these two middle schoolers, it’s really magical to see what goes on with them.
Now, of course, this book gets a happy ending, though I’m not going to tell you how they pull off the festival. You’ll have to read that for yourself. But I really loved it and how so many people pulled together to make it happen for Jake and for the town. And to let the residents of Barton Springs know that they did, in fact, support diversity, or at least most of them did.
Phil’s written at a really incredible book here, and I expect that so many young people are going to find themselves in Jake and how he tries to find his place among his friends and in the town that he lives in. And really trying to figure out, even at 13, if it’s a place that he might be able to stay and raise a family of his own.
I think this is really such an important book for young people. And really, like I said, at the beginning, I think it’s an important book for everyone to read because it captures how difficult society can be for LGBTQ+ youth today. And it also gives us a story of hope and love, which means it should definitely be on your Pride month reading list. I am so happy I could review this book to kick off Pride month. It really shows how one person, including a young person, can create change to fight against homophobia and injustice, and push for inclusion to create happiness, love, and joy.
Pride, Book Bannings and Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation
Jeff: Now I hope you’ll bear with me for a minute here, because there’s a few things I really want to talk about as Pride 2022 gets underway.
Now, many of you know, we’ve watched “Heartstopper” on Netflix. In fact, we’ve watched it three times in just the first month of its release. And we know some of you out there have even watched it more than that. And I’m a little bit jealous that you’ve actually been able to watch it more.
It’s a message of love, finding the courage to be your true self, and triumphing over those who would look to make you feel less than, I think resonates with so many people. There’s a line in episode eight as Charlie arrives in the art room to perhaps hide out from Nick and the whole sports day goings on. And it speaks so much to me right now with all the hate that we’ve got on display, in particular in the U S right now. Art teacher Mr. Ajayi says this, “Don’t let anyone make you disappear, Charlie.”
And that’s exactly what right-wing conservatives are trying to do to so many of us right now. The anti-LGBTQ legislation that’s come up in Florida, Texas, Alabama, and other red states, seeks to send us back to the closet. You can look at the leaked Supreme Court abortion decision that recently came out and see that they’d also like to come after other rights like marriage equality. So many communities are under attack right now, women, persons of color, LGBTQ+. It seems like many of us are being told to disappear.
We hope in this Pride month, and every month, you find the strength to stand tall and not allow yourself to disappear, and to not allow others to disappear, particularly those who may not be able to speak out for themselves for whatever reason. As you all know, Pride was born out of a protest. And for all the progress we’ve made, the protest must continue.
An area that deserves everyone’s attention is book banning. And it’s a primary example of how conservatives are indeed trying to make us disappear.
It’s so dangerous to keep books away from people who want to read them, whether it’s to see themselves reflected in a story, or to learn about people who are different from them, or to learn about history, even if that history makes some people uncomfortable.
In an April episode of “Fated Mates,” which was part of their trailblazer series, romance author Sarah MacLean and romance reader Jen Prokop talked with EE Ottoman in an incredible interview about his books and his time in publishing. EE happens to be the first out trans author to publish romance, and if you haven’t heard that conversation you really have to give that a listen and it will be linked in the show notes. At the end of the interview, which they had done several months before everything was going on with some of these laws and the book bannings, there was a conversation that Jen and Sarah had, and talking about what was happening, and what that impact could have, especially for large publishers where there’s an 18-month to two-year lag time before a book comes out. And they actually wondered aloud, you know, what will happen if they start to dial back on books with content that may cause controversy or get banned?
That thought really struck me hard because we’ve seen so many mainstream publishers coming out with queer books lately, whether it’s romance, or YA, or biographies and autobiographies, and such. But you can imagine it being in the realm of very real possibility. Sarah and Jen said it, and I completely agree, that we need to take serious action on these bannings now, so that they’re not allowed to become the norm. All the books that are targeted, queer or otherwise, are simply too valuable.
In addition to that “Fated Mates” episode, there’s something else that’s worth your time too, and in this case, it’s something to read. It’s an article that AC Rosen, who is the author of the YA book “Camp,” that he wrote for Lit Hub. It’s called “The Purpose of Book Bans Is to Make Queer Kids Scared.” It is a very powerful article. And we’ll have that link in the show notes too.
In this piece, AC talks about his own books being banned, and actually being called a pedophile by a priest during a city council meeting. And it’s also about the repetition of history that we’re witnessing right now. It’s a very powerful piece. It’ll give you lots to think about. So, I hope you give that a read.
And we’re going to talk right now a little bit more about this topic with two guys who have been through many challenges and bannings. In 2005, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell released the groundbreaking children’s book “And Tango Makes Three.” It’s an adorable, true story about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who raised a baby penguin from a hatchling. This book has been repeatedly banned since its release. And I got to speak with Peter and Justin recently to talk about this book, how they feel like this latest round of book bannings is different from what they’ve seen before, and how you can help fight against bannings in your communities as well as helping out nationwide.
Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell Interview
Jeff: Justin and Peter. Welcome to the podcast. It is really a thrill to have you here to talk to us.
Peter: Thanks so much.
Justin: Thank you. Yes. Great to be here.
Jeff: I’d like to have you take a moment and introduce yourselves and how people might know you outside of “And Tango Makes Three,” perhaps.
Justin: Sure. I’m Justin Richardson and I am a psychiatrist. I’m an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, and a psychoanalyst in practice and I live in New York here with my husband, Peter and our daughter and our dog.
Peter: And I’m Peter Parnell. I’m a writer. I write plays and I write for TV and Justin is my husband and have been together for a long time. Our daughter is 13, so.
Jeff: Oh, congratulations. That’s awesome to hear about such long-term relationships. I want to talk a little bit about, as we get into our primary topic cause we definitely want to talk about all the book bannings and some of the anti-LGBTQ things that are going on and what we can do about those.
But what’s kind of brought you into this was a book that you wrote almost two decades ago now with, “And Tango Makes Three.” Tell everybody a little bit about what this absolutely delightful children’s book is about.
Peter: Sure. Well, let’s see. It’s a true story. It’s something that was written about in “The New York Times,” which we read about in a piece that was dealing with homosexuality in the animal kingdom, and it was an example, the major example in this article in the “Times,” was about this pair of penguins in the Central Park Zoo, who pair bonded and try to hatch a rock. Their names were Roy and Silo. And the zookeeper at the Central Park Zoo noticed this and knew of another penguin pair who could only hatch one egg and he gave an egg that wasn’t yet hatched to Roy and Silo.
And they did all of the things that you need to do before the egg hatches. And the egg did hatch the zoo named her Tango. And they were in a sense a family. Which we read about, and Justin primarily got very excited because he saw the possibilities of it as a story that could be for different kinds of families.
Jeff: How did you go from that initial, like this could be great story for families, to actually deciding to collaborate on this project?
Peter: Justin always says yes or comes in very excited with and says we can do this. And I usually, I go, well, I’m not so sure, but…
Justin: So, it was a Saturday. We were in the process of trying to start our family. So, our daughter wasn’t yet born, but we were working on that. So, it was very much on our minds. The nesting process was very much on our minds. So, the article in the “Times” landed at a very fertile moment and I saw it in the Saturday paper. We were at the breakfast table. I said, oh, Peter, you have to hear this story. And I read the story to him aloud. And there was something about reading it aloud. It just sounded like a children’s book. It sounded like a picture book and put down the paper and I think I kind of said that we have to write this, today.
And Peter said what he usually says. Oh… And I said I’m starting. And you know, we had a draft by the end of that weekend. And I had published a book just a couple of years earlier. It’s a parenting book that I co-wrote with a pediatrician named Mark Schuster, who’s the dean of the Kaiser Permanente medical school called “Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid They’d Ask.” So, I had a very clear sense of you know, the situation that parents find themselves in, because I was speaking at schools around the country to parents. And you know, we obviously knew two dad and two mom families, who were going through the process of having little kids and we were sensitive to the need of those families to have some picture books that representative their families.
But also, because I was traveling around the country and speaking at schools about how to talk about sex to groups of parents. I understood the anxiety that a lot of parents have about talking about sex in a way that is age appropriate. Now, how can I say this without, in some way, damaging my child or inspiring my child to have sex or saying something that’s inappropriate? And one of the things that had come up in these talks was what’s a book that, you know, we can share with our kids to tell them about the two mom or the two dad families that they’re going to encounter in school. And at the time, you know, this was like the late nineties that I was doing, these talks that really wasn’t all that much.
So. Seeing the article, seeing that it had… This story had the structure of a classic children’s book. Cute characters who really want something that they probably can’t get. And they try, and they fail. And then some nice person intervenes and helps them realize their dream. I mean, it just seemed so perfect, and it also seemed really clear. Okay, if we give this book to families that feel like they want to talk about the two dad family down the street, but don’t know how. This will give them the courage to do that and know that they’re doing it in an age appropriate way. They’re talking about penguins, hatching an egg.
So that’s really what you know, kind of lit the fire under getting this thing done and getting it out. So, by the end of that first weekend, we had a draft which was you know, a first draft for sure. And sent it to my book agent, who had little kids, who had been to the central park zoo, who gave us some notes and we revised it.
And learned about, you know, from scratch, how you structure a children’s picture book. There 32 pages, we didn’t know that. How do you sequence the text across those 32 pages, thinking about pacing, timing and so on? And we worked on it a good bit. And then it went out as a submission to a number of publishers.
Jeff: How long did it take for it to get picked up? Cause I mean, we’re talking, as you said, like late 90’s, early 2000’s. The book actually came out in 2005, you’re 10 years before marriage equality and all that.
Peter: That’s right. First of all, we felt that it was something that we wanted to try to get published as quickly as possible, as did Justin’s agent. But also, there was a gentleman who has sadly passed now, but who was wonderful editor, a book editor named David Gale at Simon and Schuster. And David really trailblazed both picture books like “The Sissy Duckling,” Harvey Fierstein’s book, and a lot of YA fiction that would be appropriate for teenagers dealing with LGBTQ issues. And David was really, really was one of the pioneers in doing that. And he read our manuscript and got very excited about it and also knew, or very much that it was something he could try to in a sense, put it on the fast track. And so, being you know, first time picture book authors, but not being an illustrator.
And usually classically, I think in publishing picture books that the illustrator isn’t the same person as the writer, they very often don’t communicate. And in this case, we very much wanted to help select who could illustrate the book and to be able to work with the illustrator.
And it was to David strengthened, Simon and Schuster, his great strength that they said yes. And we met Henry Cole and that began our collaboration with him. In terms of the pictures in the book.
Jeff: And the pictures are just gorgeous. I mean the way that they look almost to me, it’s something between watercolors and chalk drawn. I don’t know. I just think it’s just wonderfully and soft. Like you can just feel the softness of those penguins.
Justin: Well, that’s exactly, you know what we said. We said we wanted something that was soft and that would have some realism, but also would be really appealing to young kids. And, you know, we were, trying to decide to actually between two publishers. Because there was, you know, it was a moment that major publishers had suddenly just become ready to publish a book like this. The previous books for little children had come out of much, much smaller presses. So, there was actually a lot of interest from a lot of presses and there was an auction, and we were trying to decide between two presses. And that was when we started to talk to each press about illustrator options and who, if we went with this press, who would they offer us? And Henry had read the book, David Gale sent it to him, and he wrote us a letter and he sent us two drawings, one of Tango and one of Roy and Silo.
And they were so perfect. That just decided it. You know, okay, we’re going with Simon and Schuster, and it’s got to be Henry Cole. And the rest of that collaboration was just kind of a dream. And people who write picture books and don’t illustrate them don’t often have the kind of experience we had with Henry Cole, which was, he was so collaborative and such a pleasure to work with.
You know, we went to the zoo together and we looked at sketches and gave each other notes and worked on the pacing. And the art director was a great facilitator of this collaboration. His name is Dan Potash. And it was just a joy, the collaboration really from beginning to end.
Jeff: That’s amazing. And I love hearing just wonderful collaboration stories like that.
Now, this book has an unfortunate designation in the midst of all this, as being one of the most banned books over the years going all the way back to when it first came out. And it actually leads to a question that Gigi who’s a member of our Patreon community has for you. When you started writing this cute children’s book about penguins, did you imagine that it could be so controversial, and even controversial for years on?
Peter: Yeah. Well, you know, because as Justin just was saying, you know, there was at the beginning of an appetite for a book like this, but there weren’t books out there like this. And so, we knew that, while it was a true story, and while it was a story about penguins, and we could use it as a way to talk about different kinds of families, I think we thought, at some point there might be a reaction.
And in fact, the pre-publication reviews, and the sense of celebration around the book was really strong and as it’s continued. But for the first year, year and a half, there wasn’t that much. And it really took parents, you know, where a child would bring the book home from the school library or from the public library, parents who began to react and feel that the book was inappropriate for their kids that started this.
And, once that began, which was funny, it sort of happened at the year that “March of the Penguins” came out, that movie. And so, penguins were on everybody’s mind, but in a different way. And penguins were being used in a sense from different political points of view. And as a result, the book then took on a different kind of life in a way.
Jeff: What have you seen change over the years on the types of challenges that the book has faced.
Justin: Well, you know, there’s been a recent change, really, I would say within just the last year. And I’ll say the previous challenges were challenges, as Peter said, they were for the most part brought by a parent whose child had taken the book home and the parent was surprised and felt that the book was inappropriate for their family because they had anti-homosexual attitudes in their family.
And they did not want a book that was accepting of gay families, read by their child. That was the sort of engine of pretty much every challenge, at least in the United States that we saw. Quite often the book was seen by these families is in conflict with their religious beliefs. And that happened in Europe as well.
Most recently, we’re seeing something very different. And it’s in tune with the movement in the Republican party, which would be in the so-called parent’s rights movement. Which is to say that what we’re seeing is politicians who are making complaints about this book and books like it as a way, in a sort of cynical gesture, to stoke parents’ anxiety and to propel their own political career. So that’s very much what you see with Ron DeSantis and the state legislature in the state of Florida. I really doubt that any of them has read our book, and if they did, if they could possibly make an argument that there’s something about it that’s harmful children.
But that’s not the point, right? The point is to get media attention, press attention for doing something that kind of stirs up their base. And so, in a way, it’s much more frightening. I mean in the past years, the way of a challenge would play out, say it was in Loudoun County, Virginia, or was in Chico, California. There would be a complaint about the book to a school librarian. School librarian would pass it onto the principal would pass it onto the superintendent. The school board would meet, and they would say, well, we need to figure out a process whereby we review books that are challenged, and we have to decide whether we’re going to take this out of the library or keep it in the library.
And at a certain point in that process, an attorney for the school district would tap somebody on the shoulder and say, you know, actually it’s against the United States Constitution for you to take this out of the library. It’s a violation of freedom of speech. So, you know, there are great Supreme Court precedents that have established that you can’t censor a book because you don’t like the content of it.
So, a school library, that’s a public school, if the book is in the library, the book stays in the library. And so, we would, you know, kind of wait for this process to go, you know, wind its way to its conclusion and feel like it’s going to be okay.
I think now, when it is a state legislature that’s pushing it, or as in the case of Texas the gentleman was actually running for attorney general in the state of Texas, who is rattling cages of school librarians. It’s much more frightening and dangerous. And, you know, truthfully the law passed in Florida, and it was signed into law by the governor. So, our book really cannot be read in any public school in Florida, unless the school is willing to risk being sued.
Jeff: You wrote a really interesting opinion piece for the “Washington Post” back in April. And you were addressing specifically Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill. But you also take on book bannings a little bit too, because as you noted the book bannings now are on a much broader level than just a single parent, you know, raising an objection to a singular school or library or whatever.
And I really loved how you looked at other children’s books that should be reexamined within the Florida law. Can you share a couple of selections from that piece to kind of give a flavor of what you did in that article?
Peter: Well, first of all, in the history of what we’ve just told you about, we got very involved with the folks at the American Library Association, who were dealing with book bannings year in and year out.
And when, “And Tango Make Three” became sort of the lightning rod for this, we would read at read outs against censorship and removal of books, as Justin said which are unconstitutional to remove from the library once the libraries bought it. So, we were familiar with that aspect of book banning. Do you want to explain?
Justin: Yeah, well, I, you know, the piece, it’s a satirical piece that we’re really delighted to publish in the “Washington Post.” And one of the great pleasures of it actually just to go back to Henry Cole was that the “Post” said, “why don’t we see if your illustrator will draw the penguins again?” And so, Roy and Silo and Tango got redrawn for the first time in how every many years to illustrate the piece in the “Post.”
But the piece is satire about this really wretched law in Florida. And one of the things that we noticed immediately when reading the text of the law is that the law bans any discussion. Discussion is in the introduction or instruction, which is in the later part of the law, about sexual orientation or gender identity. And I thought this is the law that could only be written by heterosexual people who have not realized that heterosexuality is a sexual orientation. And that being boyish as a boy or girl as a girl is a gender identity. And so, we wanted to play with that idea, because in fact, the way the law is written, any discussion that would lead to a discussion about sexual orientation, such as heterosexuality, or gender identity, such as being a boy or being a girl, is forbidden.
So, we then took a look at books like “Ferdinand” and…
Peter: “Make Way for Ducklings…”
Justin: “Make Way for Ducklings…”
Peter: Wonderful books, classics that we love. And that influenced us even growing up as kids. I mean, “Ferdinand” was probably Justin’s favorite picture book.
Justin: And we went to all the great classics, and we said, okay, let’s look at “Make Way for Ducklings.” Well, it starts out with there’s really no way around the sexual orientation of this duck pair. One’s a male and one’s a female. They’re obviously heterosexual. So that’s sort of off the table and look, they reproduce in it. So, you’re going to get all sorts of forbidden questions. Like why does a female duck marry a male duck? What does it mean that they had children?
So, all the way down to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” which we, at that point in the piece were getting even a little bit sillier, and we’re talking about the fact that the caterpillar transforms into a quote, beautiful butterfly. And we thought, you know, some people might see that as a bit of a metaphor for being trans. So best to avoid that one as well.
But the point of the article is really quite dead serious, which is the framers of this law have not recognized that they have sexual orientations too, and that they have gender identity too. And they’ve just outlawed speaking about any of that from grades K through 3 in all of their schools in the state. How ridiculous is that?
Peter: Or another way of looking at it, and I don’t know is that it is written in such a general way, the law, in order for them not to be accused of what has become, Don’t Say Gay, which is to be intolerant of gay, of LGBTQ people, and parents to two moms, two dads, single moms, single dad families. That in order to not to be accused of that, in fact, the law, which is rather badly written, therefore is ambiguous in ways that allowed us to take this satirical point of view on it.
Jeff: Satire does such a great job of pointing out some amazing truths.
Justin: Yeah. It was very fun, you know, to do and to get back in touch with Henry and to have him illustrate it. And then the “Washington Post” had us tape a recording of us reading the piece, which was also really a delight. And it’s fun to listen to.
Jeff: Oh, that’s awesome. We’ll definitely link to that and the article as well, so that people can see all of this.
I have to say my favorite bit, because you picked up one of my favorite children’s books as well. Like I loved “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” as a kid. And the fact that you raised the question of, you know, how can you tell if the engine’s a boy or a girl? Can boys be backhoes?
Peter: That’s right. That’s right.
Jeff: And they’re all single, are they asexual? Who can say? But maybe you should steer clear that book too.
How was the reaction to the piece after it ran?
Justin: We got so many responses from friends who said, “I laughed so hard, and it is so sad.” You know, because as you said, it’s both things. We’re trying to be funny to point out something that’s really kind of tragic development, especially in the lives of kids in Florida.
Peter: And, and what feels like, as Justin was saying before a further step in this, in that when we’ve been asked in the past, what was our reaction to being censored or attempted banning, on one level there’s a certain amount of attention that comes to the book, but of course it’s in pursuit of something that we’re completely opposed to, and that is against the constitution and that we have to fight to maintain and preserve the integrity of. So, I do think it is a further step in this battle.
Jeff: And it just seems to keep growing too I feel like. We’re talking specifically on May 12th, and I feel like, every week, every few weeks we’re hearing about more book bannings, more anti-LGBTQ bills that are popping up, it seems like a really difficult time that we really haven’t faced in, mostly since marriage equality, but certainly things got crunchy with our last president as well.
What advice you might have for how parents can help support their queer children with what’s going on and how allies can support too, because there’s just so much negativity. And I think, those of us who are older, kind of know how to deflect that to a certain degree. But I feel so bad for the young people today who are just having to hear all these various messages, even if they don’t live in the effected states.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s right. We found time and again, even way back when the book was first having these controversies that when local newspapers, when local LGBTQ+ groups, when members of school boards who were against censorship, when people banded together, got together, did read outs or you know, let it be known, have the publicity known of what was going on, it was very, very helpful to the community.
I mean, Justin mentioned Loudoun County. The local gay group there dressed up as penguins and went to the demonstration in favor of the book and read the book aloud. I mean, you know, this was a community that was coming together in a sense to make sure that people understood what was going on. And I think local on that level, which is in a sense what Florida is, and then it ripples out to the rest of the country or Texas.
Justin: Yeah, I think we really recommend finding other families is so important and it’s important psychologically, and it’s important politically. In a psychologically to simply be able to connect for kids with other kids their age who are queer identified, for parents who are queer identified to have other parents. For parents who are heterosexual, who have kids who are identifying as queer to meet other parents like that. These relationships can be so sustaining and so protective. Even in a school where there’s a lot of negativity coming at a kid, if they have their group that’s all the world to them.
But also, you know, as Peter was saying, politically organizing can be very, very persuasive. I think probably the most persuasive form of demonstration we saw in the last 15 years took place in Singapore. And this is around 2014. The government of Singapore decided to pulp every copy of our book that was in any library in Singapore. They announced this and it seemed like the announcement was spurred on by there having been the very first gay Pride parade in Singapore. And the government took this action.
And of course, there were a lot of people who were very unhappy about this. And a group, a rather large group, of parents got together and they staged a read in. They took their children in their pajamas to the steps of the national library in Singapore. And there must have been, I don’t know, maybe 50 children and parents there. They brought a videographer. So, there were cameras and they read our book and other books like our book to their children on the steps of the library. And this video got quite a lot of play on the local news and the national news and international news. And I think it was one of the things that actually forced the government to change their minds. And they decided not to pulp “And Tango Make Three,” which was a great outcome. And it was, I think, largely because of this kind of public protest, which just starts with families finding one another.
Jeff: What have you seen coming from Florida and Texas? I mean, we keep mentioning those states because they’ve certainly been some of the more high-profile ones, but about how people are rallying in those states and starting to push back.
Justin: We loved, there there’s a high school in Florida and I can’t remember the name of the school district now where they had a say gay walk out. And there were hundreds of kids, and their supportive teachers who just walked out of the school onto the sports field in the middle of a school day. That’s the kind of action that gets a lot of attention and gets on the news. And, you know, you hope has an effect at minimally. It has an effect on the queer kids in that state to see how many kids there are, at least in one school, who have their backs. This happened before, around Ron DeSantis signed it. Certainly, didn’t stop him signing it into law, but I’m sure that it was very helpful to a lot of kids and families.
Jeff: What can you recommend for people on how to help, especially if they’re in states where these aren’t happening? What’s some good, maybe national, and local resources, if you can kind of point us in the right direction, on where people can help if they’re not in these states? And then even how to defend to make sure they’re not going to end up in a state like that.
Justin: Sure. Well, there are some great national organizations that combat censorship. One of them we’ve mentioned, the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom is a great organization. And they have folks there who are tracking challenges and helping bring attention to the risk of suppression of ideas, all the time. So that’s an organization you might want to support. You can go to their website and check out the information that they have there.
PEN America is another organization.
Peter: Yes. Well, PEN America, which is a great organization, has a children’s book division basically in which you cannot just lodge complaint, but you can file a report with them. They are more than supportive in the same way that the ALA, American Library Association, and the ACLU, as a matter of fact.
Jeff: Excellent, we’ll definitely link to those organizations for our listeners so they can get more information and hopefully support those organizations to help push back against these. And I think it can’t be understated as well that get out and vote. Definitely try to put people in office who aren’t going to support banning books that aren’t going to be looking to set up more anti-LGBTQ bills.
Justin: That’s right. And we’d also mentioned the National Coalition Against Censorship, which is another great organization that’s very much on top of this issue.
Jeff: Another great one. Yeah, definitely. I hope many of our listeners will go and take some action there.
Now this interview is going to be airing in Pride month. And I would love to know what Pride means to each of you in 2022.
Peter: Gosh, I would say that when I was, I don’t know, 14 or 15, there was a TV show that David Susskind hosted called “Open End.” And one of the first, I was a kid, I was in bed on a, whatever it was, Sunday night, my parents were watching the show and it was the first panel, Arthur Bell I remember was on it from the “Village Voice” about homosexuality from talking about the lives of, in this case it was gay men. And I actually think it’s the moment I remember of it as if it was sort of struck, you know, I was hit over the head. I suddenly realized, and I was at an age where I was beginning to think about other boys and I realized, what or who I was. I felt both the same and different, and I remember the next day walking around, mailing a letter or whatever, thinking I am me and yet something I’m naming something that I wasn’t aware of. I would say that first, for me, that first day, that awakening for me to think of the fact that just two or three years ago, our daughter marched in the gay pride parade.
And, you know, ran up and down shaking the hands or slapping the backs of supporters while we marched with her. There is you know, in a sense of lifetime and a whole journey that, which way to I can’t go into here, but that really does have to do with the movement, with being proud and with owning who I was and who I am and what it means to me to be in my case, to be married, to have a daughter, to have a family.
Justin: One of the great things for us is that June is Pride month and it’s also the month of Father’s Day. So, it’s a time that we celebrate joy of being dads together and it all comes together when we march down Fifth Avenue with our daughter.
But I think it’s just a helpful reminder that you know, I we’ve been together for like 25 years. And you can get to a certain point of thinking, oh gay-smay. It’s like, you know, isn’t that so like yesterday. Is this really still an issue, but we’ve come so far, et cetera, et cetera. But you know, now that our daughter is 13, we’re in touch with 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds who are just coming to terms with their sexual orientation. And guess what? It’s still hard. It’s still hard for them.
And you know, all of us, we live with a certain degree of homophobia, like a bit of shrapnel from a war that’s in us that we have to find a way to live with and live around. But for these kids it’s now been solved. It’s still quite hard, even in a place like Manhattan. There’s still the challenge.
A 12-year-old recently said to our daughter, “Life in the closet is hard.” And we thought, you know, two things, one that is so adorable, at 12 you were able to say that, and you were you were spared 10 years in the closet. So that’s great. On the other hand, he’s right. Even when you’re 12, maybe especially when you’re 12, it’s hard. It’s not easy. And those kids need us to make these events for them.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. I just it strikes me as hearing that from a 12-year-old it’s like, I wish that we could have, you know, when we were coming up and, as young adults could have pushed the world further to make it better for that 12-year-old where they didn’t have to have that pressure. But yeah, it’s still there.
Justin: Yeah, and that’s the task for us now with this Florida law and all the ones that are gonna follow. It’s on us to help those kids.
Jeff: I’m curious if there’s any projects that you’re working on that we should be looking out for in the future, as we kind of wrap up here.
Justin: Well, you know, we came together to write this picture book and a subsequent one called “Christian, the Hugging Lion,” which is another kind of gay family story, in this case involving a true story about a lion. But since then, we’ve really gone back into our corners and I’m being a psychiatrist and Peter’s being a playwright and he’s got some plays that are being worked on right now. And that will be the next art that comes out of our household.
Jeff: I love how you phrased it, that way, the next art that comes out of your household.
And I love that you kind of came together to do these couple of books, and then you were kinda done with that piece of creation and then moved bound to, you know, some other things too.
Peter: It was yes. And it was a great pleasure and privilege to be able to do that because we both love picture books. We grew up loving them, even if we didn’t realize that they were only 32 pages long. But we love them, and we met so many fantastic people and librarians who are at the forefront of this and obviously in parents and families and kids. So, it was an amazing experience for us.
Jeff: And we really can’t underestimate librarian. I don’t think we’ve sung their praises enough cause they’re on the front lines trying to get these books to the right people while also facing any vitriol that may come from people who don’t want kids to have books like these.
Peter: That’s right.
Justin: Right, and they’re in a really precarious situation. They need to protect their jobs and every time they get a list of books that they can consider whether to buy or not, they have to think, this is a great book, but will it jeopardize my job if I buy it. That’s a terrible situation for them to be in, and that is exactly the kind of dilemma that folks like this lawmaker in Texas is trying to create in their minds. It’s a way of creating censorship without ever having to write a law. It’s simply through intimidation. So, they are the frontline and they’re under enormous pressure, especially in some states.
Jeff: Yeah. So, anything you could do to maybe tip your hat to your local librarian the next time you’re in, definitely do that, let them know that they’re appreciated.
Jeff: Well, Peter and Justin, it has been such a delight talking to you. I wish we’d met under slightly better circumstances than talking about book bannings and such, but I’ve loved hearing your story. And I hope our listeners have some action steps they can take to help fight against this problem.
Peter: We hope so too and thank you so much for having us.
Justin: It’s a delight to talk with you.
Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, simply head on over to the show notes page for this episode at biggayfictionpodcast.com. The show notes page also has links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
And if you’d like to keep up to date with the show and recent releases in our genre, check out the Rainbow Romance Reader Report, our weekly dispatch that delivers the latest news right into your inbox every Friday. Go to biggayfictionpodcast.com/report for more information.
Jeff: Thanks so much to Peter and Justin for helping us kick off Pride month. I can’t tell you how much it hurt my heart as they talked about the 12-year-old who told their daughter that life in the closet was hard. No twelve-year-old, or anyone else, should have to feel that way. Hopefully we can all work together to find ways to make life better for people like them, and everyone else who feels anxious about simply existing these days. Remember the show notes has the links to all of the organizations that Peter and Justin talked about in our conversation.
Will: All right, I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up on Monday in episode 382, Big Gay Fiction Fest begins, and we get started with an author spotlight featuring Kate Hawthorne.
Jeff: Kate’s latest book, “Not Allowed,” is the first in her “Not Ready for Love” series and we have a great discussion about these stories. Plus, we find out how she got started writing, and how she managed to stay so prolific over the past couple of years. It’s a great way to start Fest that you’re not going to want to miss.
Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself we want to thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kind of stories that we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Production assistance by Tyson Greenan. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.