Pride 2023 continues as Jeff & Will welcome author Lisa Bunker in this conversation that was recorded live at Capital Books in Sacramento. Lisa discusses her new middle grade book Joy, to the World, which she co-wrote with teen activist Kai Shappley. The book tells the story of a 12 year old girl who is banned from her school’s cheer squad because she’s trans. Lisa shares what led to her collaboration with Kai, what she hopes readers get from this story, she also reads an excerpt. Lisa talks about what allies can do to support the trans community, and we also hear about two more books coming from Lisa this year.
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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.
- Lisa Bunker Interview
- Lisa Bunker website | Twitter | Instagram
- Kai Shappley website | Twitter | Instagram
- Joy, to the World by Kai Shappley and Lisa Bunker
- She Persisted: Rachel Levine by Lisa Bunker
- Almond, Quartz and Finch by Lisa Bunker at New Wind Publishing (pre-order until November 7, 2023)
- A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle Series Book 1) by Ursula K. LeGuin
- Felix Yz by Lisa Bunker
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
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Will: Coming up in this episode, author Lisa Bunker is going to be joining us to talk about her new middle grade book, “Joy, to the World.”
Jeff: Welcome to episode 425 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of queer romance fiction. I’m Jeff, and with me, as always, is my co-host and husband, it’s Will.
Will: Hello, Rainbow Romance Reader. It is so great to have you with us as we continue our super summer bonus episodes.
Jeff: And this week we’ve actually got two episodes for you talking about books for younger readers, which is perhaps even more important than ever to talk about in this Pride Month as book bans continue to crop up around the country in an effort to keep books out of the hands of younger readers.
In addition, it happens that the two books we’re gonna be talking about this week also take place in Texas, which is one of the key states where much legislation has focused on trans and queer youth.
First up is my conversation with author Lisa Bunker, which we recorded live at Capital Books in Sacramento as Lisa celebrated the release of “Joy, to the World” a few weeks ago. Lisa co-wrote the book with young trans activist Kai Shappley, and this story focuses on a 12-year-old trans girl in Texas who ends up becoming an activist when she is kicked off the cheer squad.
Lisa talks about figuring out the story that they wanted to tell and how her particular background happened to tick all the boxes for her to be the author to co-write this book. She’ll also read an excerpt so you’ll be able to experience some of this story for yourself, which I have to say, it sounds like it’s really heavy material and there’s certainly some heavier parts of this book. But overall, the book, just as the title indicates, it’s filled with a lot of joy and heart. I really enjoyed this read.
Lisa’s also gonna share some details on a couple other books that are gonna be coming out from her this year. And of course, since its Pride Month, Lisa’s going to share what pride means to her.
Lisa Bunker Interview
Jeff: Lisa, I’m so excited that I get to be part of your book launch week and to be here to talk about “Joy, to the World.” I got to read it early. It’s really an incredibly inspiring and Joyful like the title, but honestly it also makes me a little angry, too, with the times that we’re in and the things that Joy has to go through. Tell us a little bit about what this book is about.
Lisa: “Joy, to the World” and there is a comma in there after Joy. “Joy, to the World” is about a trans tween in Texas who gets on the cheerleading team in her middle school, and then partway through the year, her principal discovers that she’s transgender, trans for short, and she gets kicked off the team. And then we see the aftermath of that event. We see her learning to be an activist and discovering family of choice and trying to find her way back into the sport that she has fallen in love with at the start of the book.
It is drawn in part from my co-author’s life, joint writing project with the young trans activist, Kai Shappley, who back when I got to meet her in person was still living in Texas. Real life has outstripped the story that we wrote together, and she and her family have actually fled the state of Texas. They don’t live there anymore. It became unsafe for them to live in Texas with the changes that were being made in state government that was injurious to trans kids. So, we actually ended up writing a story that was gentler and more positive than what actually ended up happening to Kai, but the idea was to, sort of, put a regular human face on a story of a trans kid who just wants to be herself and pursue her loves and who runs into official, sort of, institutional prejudice and bigotry and then what follows from that.
Jeff: How did you and Kai meet up and, kind of, come together and decide to write a book?
Lisa: The deal was made with the publisher first that she was going to write a book with someone, and then they went looking for a co-author and they wanted an out trans author who already had some books out for young readers who had significant legislative experience. And I am that person. I am the one out trans author who served in a legislature in the United States, so they found me and I was recruited to help with the project.
Once I was underway, I had extensive online conversations with Kai and her mother, Kimberly, and I visited them at their home in Austin at the time and got to know them really well. And they’re really inspiring figures to me. Kai is this incredibly self-confident 12-year-old who started building an internet following after she was really cheeky to text the state legislators and the clips of that went viral.
And her mom is really interesting to me, Kimberly, because Kimberly was raised as a fundamentalist Christian in rural Mississippi, and she’s an evangelical Christian or I don’t know if she would describe herself exactly as that. She’s a committed Christian. And when Kai was a little kid, Kimberly was a preacher at Joel Osteen’s mega-church in Houston, Texas. I mean, she was deep in the evangelical Christian movement and then she had this child who, as young as a year and a half old, was insisting on her essential femininity and Kimberly tried a home version of conversion therapy for a couple of years and, as she tells it, was on a track to break her child. And then when Kai was four, one day Kimberly overheard Kai praying to Jesus to go home to heaven rather than spend one more day living as a boy in the world, and that changed her mind.
And if Kimberly could change her mind, I think anybody can change their mind about trans kids, because there’s an enormous amount of misinformation and prejudice against trans kids and trans people in general in the world right now. it’s being manufactured cynically as, sort of, you know, to give politicians something to talk about in advance of the 2024 elections, so there’s this completely artificial moral panic that has been invented for cynical purposes to make regular kids and regular trans people of all ages seem like scary monsters when in fact we’re just regular humans trying to survive our lives like everybody else.
Jeff: As we sit here and record this in mid-May, Texas is just really terrible. The bills that have just passed and moved forward this week targeting trans kids is just… It’s mind-blowing to me that that’s happening in 2023. How did you approach the landscape as you were working with Kai? Because if this is like most traditionally published books, you probably had it finished for, like, a year now but it seems so of this moment at the same time. How did you approach that?
Lisa: We wanted to show what actually happens. A large part of the book is a realistic depiction of learning how to be an activist. So, the character, Joy, who is not based directly on Kai. Kai appears as a character in the story, so Kai is a separate figure. So, Joy is a completely fictional kid. And she has no idea of activism when the story’s beginning. She just wants to be a cheerleader, but then this thing happened. She gets kicked off the team and she and her family begin to discover how you show up at a school board meeting and that you have to be there early to sign up to speak. And then they end up going to the Capitol and, you know, trying to talk to the people in power. And they don’t get it exactly right the first time. You know, it’s just like anything else. To learn how to do activism effectively, you have to have a few experiences and, sort of, learn the ropes. So, we wanted to show that. We want to show a kid discovering how to be an effective advocate for herself when somebody with prejudicial views separates her from the thing that she loves.
Jeff: It feels like it could actually be partially a how-to for some parent and some kid on how to approach that. And besides the legislative side, it also digs into how to deal with y our friends who might become former friends and their parents. So, there’s a little bit about that too that all really resonates because of course kids are influenced by their parents and it’s really interesting to see some of the younger people who were on the team and then she left the team and how they react to all of this too as part of the mix. Did that also come from Kai’s background just being in school in Texas?
Lisa: A little bit. It was mostly up to me to craft the moments that happened in the story, and I just drew on long experience, you know, my own and other people’s. It can really go both ways. You can have somebody who was a friend. They learn this thing about you that they didn’t know before that you’re trans, and they can just completely flip. They can just become hostile. That does happen. That didn’t happen to me personally when I came out fortunately for me, but I’ve definitely known many people that it happened to. It’s a very common event not just for trans but for any other letter in the rainbow spectrum, too.
And on the other hand, there are a couple in the book where surprising allyship happens where the characters are not expecting to be supported by someone but that someone turns out to be supportive. That also happens in real life. It’s fascinating. You change everybody’s perception of you, and it’s impossible to predict how that’s going to go with any given person. That’s one of the things that makes coming out as anything such a heightened experience. It’s terrifying, but you can be surprised by love as well as by hate.
Jeff: Was Kai always intended to be a character in the book or did that kind of manifest as you collaborated?
Lisa: There was a first version which was basically just a lightly fictionalized version of Kai’s life, and the publishers didn’t want that. They wanted something more fictionalized and so it was actually a, sort of, three-way collaboration with the editor as well to brainstorm story ideas. And we did end up on the idea that Kai would be a character in the book and Joy finds out about Kai and, sort of, idolizes her and finally gets to meet her. It’s a big exciting moment.
So, another thing this book is about is internet fame and how that develops. You have a viral video and then people start to follow you and you start to get likes and follows when you post things and that’s definitely something that’s going on in Kai’s life right now. So, that’s another thread in the story.
Jeff: I really like how it was approached because Joy wants to watch all of the viral activity happen as it’s happening, “It’s posted, we’ve got to look at the comments.” And the mom is much more pragmatic about it and like, “We could look for a little bit. You’ve still got to go to bed. You’ve still got to get up in the morning,” but also shielding her from some of the true vitriol that comes out of those comments as well. I assume that Kai’s mother probably does the same thing with her.
Lisa: Yeah, that comes form their life. When I visited them, Kimberly was very clear about screen limits as you have to be, especially when you’re a controversial public figure. And another element of what you’re talking about is when they start to receive hate. How do you feel that? What do you do when some random stranger, you know, posts a comment on something you put on one of the platforms, suggesting that they’re going to kill you? What do you do with that? I mean, it’s probably not real. Death threats are a routine thing apparently on the internet these days, and obviously there’s not an enormous amount of follow through but that’s still horribly upsetting. Some random stranger wants you dead, how do you deal with that? How do you process that? So that’s another thing in the story.
Jeff: I imagine it would be difficult enough for an adult to face that, not to mention an 11-year-old.
How did your legislative experience really help you, kind of, craft what went on here? It would certainly put you in a good position to research what you needed to know about how Texas works.
Lisa: Definitely the fact that I served four years in the state legislature helped me craft those parts of the story because I know how it works. I know what actually happens. And when I was in Texas, I actually visited the state legislature there and sat in on a session and got the feel for how things go down there and went into a committee room in a random moment and listened to some testimony. But there’s a certain process where, you know, bills go through committee, and people speak for and against, and then they get sent to the floor with a recommendation. And I wanted to depict that realistically. And that does happen in the story. We see a bill that would be very injurious to trans kids being advanced and Joy, the fictional Kai, show up to oppose it. So, you get to see that and you get to see the characters experience the trepidation of being at that table with the microphones with all those serious-looking lawmakers staring at you with stony faces, so you can’t tell how they’re feeling about what you’re saying.
My legislative experience started with me being the activist in the room, the person showing up to testify, and I remember how frightened I was to talk to these people who seemed impressive, and distant, and powerful to me. And then I became one of them and I realized that everybody else on my committee, you know, were…they were retired school teachers and, you know, insurance salespeople, and they were just regular humans like me. That’s especially true in New Hampshire, which has a state legislature of 400. So, it’s less of a big deal to be a state rep in New Hampshire than almost any other state. I was one of four for a small town, so it’s pretty easy actually to get into the New Hampshire State legislature if the partisan split is in your favor. I lived in a safe blue town, so I was able to get elected as a Democrat. So, I got to be the activist shaking and my notes rattling in my hands as I tried to read my two-minute statement, and then I got to be the person listening to two-minute statements and knowing the fear that people felt trying to speak to us.
Jeff: Hopefully, you smiled down upon them occasionally from up there going, “I’ve been where you are.”
Lisa: Yeah, you know, I mean, I try to just give people a smile and a nod so they realize you’re human. Yeah, if you’re serving on a committee in a state legislature, you’re going to be hearing testimony that you agree with and testimony that you violently disagree with. And I did find it useful to stay just a little distant, because I didn’t want to scowl and frown at people whose testimony I didn’t like. That seemed impolite. I mean, it is scary to testify and even if you don’t agree with somebody, I think you just, sort of, give them the courtesy of your calm attention.
Jeff: Calm attention. I at least hope, reading what’s in Texas, that those people in the House who are voting on these bills, that they are at least giving calm attention, I hope, and taking on at least the gravity of the situation. But, I mean, who can say how it’s really going down there?
Lisa: My sense of other state legislatures as well as New Hampshire is that there’s a very strong expectation and a norm of courtesy, but we have seen that weaponized in recent weeks in Montana when the trans representative, Zooey Zephyr, was testifying against a bill that would’ve been injurious to trans people, and she told the state legislators that if they passed this bill, they would have blood on their hands, which is actually pretty typical rhetoric for testimony in a state legislature. It wasn’t outrageous, but the Republican Super majority took the rare step of expelling her from the chamber for that in the name of courtesy, in the name of, sort of, proper etiquette for the chamber. So, that doesn’t read right. They wanted to eradicate her to erase her presence from their chamber, and they found an excuse, you know, a fib about courtesy to expel her. So, yeah, even that’s breaking down a little bit, it seems to me, in certain cases, and that concerns me mightily because once respect and courtesy begin to break down, then we’re going to really start to have some problems.
Jeff: Yeah, even more of a challenge to democracy as we know it, really.
I would love to have you read a little bit for us from the book and give our listeners a little bit of what “Joy, to the World” is about too.
Lisa: I would be happy to do that. I’ll just start at the beginning.
It was just supposed to be an afternoon of pool fun to beat the Texas heat. Joy was not expecting to fall in love.
It was the first full week of summer vacation after sixth grade, and Joy’s good friend, Maxine Newman—Max for short—had invited her over to cool off. The hot, humid air lay over everything like a wet wool blanket. It felt hard to breathe.
“Come on through to the back,” Max said when she opened the big front door of her family’s elegant two-story suburban house. “Did you bring your bathing suit?”
“Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d rather just sit in the shade.”
“Really? You don’t want to swim? That’s cool.”
The pool was encircled by pretty landscaping with a concrete fountain, a fancy swing set, a couple of big shade trees, and a table with an umbrella. On the way through the kitchen, they picked up lemonade and crunchy snacks.
Someone who saw the two girls together might have thought they were sisters. They both had the same brown hair, a sprinkle of freckles across their cheeks, and skin that tanned easily in the Texas sun. Joy’s hair was longer, reaching down to the middle of her back in a long, straight fall. Max’s was cut shoulder-length and had a touch of curl to it.
In the pool, Max’s older sister, Priscilla, and her three friends were trying to do something, but Joy couldn’t figure out what. They were in the part of the pool where the water came up to just under their arms, standing all clustered together, and Priscilla and two of the friends kept throwing the fourth girl up into the air, high enough to try to do some sort of flying dance move. Then when she came down again, it looked like they were trying to catch her, but mostly they were diving out of the way. Each time they all laughed about it and tried again.
“What are they doing?” Joy asked.
“They’re trying to do a pike open.”
“What’s a pike open?”
Max dropped her mouth open in an exaggerated expression of surprise. “You don’t know what a pike open is?”
“No. What is it?”
“It’s a basket toss in cheer. You know what cheer is, right?”
“Not really, no.”
This time Max’s surprise was real. “How can you live in Appleton and not know cheer? It’s like the official sport of Texas. Well, besides football, of course.”
Joy felt a little defensive now, but Max wasn’t being mean—Max was never mean—so she felt comfortable saying, “You know we only moved here four months ago.”
“Oh, right. Remind me again, where did y’all live before?”
“Gucci.” Max pushed her hair to the side of her forehead. “Anyway, we have got to get you up to speed right away, because you can’t live in Texas and not know cheer.”
From the water came the sound of a shriek, and a splash, followed by laughter. The two girls looked back toward the pool. Max said, “Okay, check it out. See Priscilla and her friend Renee, there, standing on the sides? They’re the bases. And then Claire, the girl with the green bathing suit, she’s the spotter. She stands behind. Allie is the flyer. She the one they throw up in the air and catch.” As they watched, the girls in the pool clustered together again, did a countdown, and shouted like they were pushing extra hard. Allie flew higher than before and did the dance move, touching her toes and then arching her back. When she came down, the three other girls stayed in close and caught her. Then all four of them whooped and danced in the water.
“Yes!” Max hollered. “That was totally dope! They did it!”
Joy’s heart was beating in her ears, and she felt a warm rush go through her body that had nothing to do with the swampy summer air. Something about what Priscilla and her friends were doing called powerfully to her. “Max, can you show me more?”
Jeff: I love that you opened the book with that, because, I mean, as an author, you’re always looking for, like, the hook and the thing to make the person want, and we get that with cheer. But just the way that it causes that moment for Joy, almost like she might be falling in love with a person, it’s so visceral that you put there. So, I have to ask, did you know cheer before so you could, kind of, build all that or did you watch YouTube videos and figure out what that was or…?
Lisa: Not a lick. That’s just the power of research. It’s a fascinating world. The other thing that strikes me reading that chapter again is I’m reminded that we made a very conscious choice not to say that Joy is trans until she’s outed in the story. So, that doesn’t come until several chapters in when they get the phone call from the office of the Superintendent. I guess it is actually… I said before the principal, it’s the Superintendent who decides that Joy can’t be on the cheer team. So, they get the call that says that Joy is off the team, and it’s only then that she says to her mother, “It’s because I’m trans.” And that’s 100% on purpose because we don’t want to foreground that fact. I mean, the whole point of what we’re trying to teach the world about trans kids right now is it’s just this one very small and important detail about the life of an otherwise regular kid. They’re entirely regular kids. They’re ordinary children who have one unusual aspect to their being, and if it’s supported, it’s a complete non-issue. It doesn’t matter.
So, Joy transitioned before the story began. She’s been living as a girl all of her life. And it’s not important to the family. It’s not important till somebody makes it important by discriminating against her. There are little hints dropped throughout about what it’s like to live as a trans person in stealth. For example, Joy’s not comfortable in a bathing suit because her body doesn’t match what people would expect, so that’s why she doesn’t want to swim when she first shows up at Max’s house. So, those little things are there if people want to find them.
And there’s even elements of, you know, how does she change in the locker room and things like that. It still is in some places a huge deal, the scary idea of a boy in the girls’ soccer room. Trans girls are incredibly shy and bashful about their bodies. They don’t want anybody to see that they’re different. They’re going to find some way to go into a stall or something. They’re not going to be parading about. They’re absolutely no threat to anybody. They’re just trying to stay safe themselves. So, there’s little elements like that all through the story of what it’s like to try to navigate the world when at any time somebody with a harsh, preconceived notion about you or people like you might suddenly go on the attack. It’s waring, you know? You can never completely lower your guard. So, that’s one of the things that you see Joy experiencing in the background as she goes through her story.
Jeff: And yet she’s got incredible people around her. I loved the people that she had with her on the cheer team who were opposed to her having to be removed. You know, they understood the situation but didn’t understand why that even mattered. And the team, they rally around her, and they do her best to make her still feel included in some ways, which turns out to be huge later in the book. I found that so heartwarming against some of the other stuff that was going on.
Lisa: Well, and there’s also the thread where they start to make the acquaintance of other people in the Texas activist community. There’s a character named Aunt Caroline who’s based on a real person who was important in Kai and Kimberly’s life. Sadly, the real-life person passed away several years ago, a trans activist named Monica Roberts, but we wanted that character in the story, a powerful middle-aged African-American trans activist who had lived decades of oppression and prejudice and still just carried on strongly through it. And, you know, an energetic and funny trans man shows up, Uncle Mac, and they start to acquire new family of choice. You know, Aunt Caroline and Uncle Mac will say just right away, “Call me Aunt, call me Uncle.”
And at first, they’re surprised with that, but then they realize this is rainbow family and it’s an incredibly powerful thing that I’ve tried to write about in my other books. It’s so important when especially young rainbow humans lose their real families, if they’re lucky, if they’re fortunate, they find new family that supports and sustains them in the rainbow community. They find friend groups, they find family of choice, and that can save a life. So, that’s yet another thread that I wanted to make sure was in the story here is the power of found family, of family of choice.
Jeff: I’m curious with all the amazing things that happened in this book, do you have a favorite scene?
Lisa: For some reason, I really enjoyed the scenes when they go and confront the superintendent directly. It was very interesting to write the Superintendent Fellows. I think its name was Superintendent Fellows, and it’s important to me to not depict the people who have these prejudicial views as cardboard villains. I still wanted him to be human. I’ve struggled with this off and on as an activist because I think some of what gets said and done is just so awful. It’s so mean. There’s just, sort of, gratuitous meanness happening from the activist Right right now, the, sort of, petty glee in, sort of, insulting or hurting other people. And I find that very hard to think about it in any positive way. Still sort of remember that person’s humanity. But that feels really important to me. I don’t want to receive hate and return hate. I want to receive hate and return…if I can’t manage love, at least some sort of basic recollection of the other person’s humanity. So, it was very interesting to me to be depicting a man who’s clearly angry, bigoted but not turn him into just a monster.
Jeff: I have to say that I loved the journal entries. There’s such an insight into Joy’s internal monologue, what she’s feeling in the moment. They’re at times bursting with love and happiness, and other times you can feel the weight on her as well. Were those always, kind of, included as you were going or did they become something that came into the book a little later as it started, you know, having all the pieces kind of in place?
Lisa: That was part of the plan from the beginning. We wanted Joy’s voice direct to the reader. I mean, that’s what the book is called, “Joy, to the World.” And so, you know, she’s able to turn to the reader and say, “This is my life. This is my experience. When you say these horrible things about me, it hurts me. When you exclude me from things that all other kids get to enjoy without any trouble, that hurts me. It’s not fair.” You know, she gets to say those things directly, and we do find ourselves right now in a stretch of time where horrible, horrible things are being said about trans people, and there has to be a counter-narrative. There has to be a response to that, and we didn’t beat around the bush. Joy says what she needs to say directly to the reader. I mean, you know, maybe it’s a little on the nose, but it seems necessary. It seems important, and it’s her character. She’s a sensitive, emotional child. She feels everything strongly, and she expresses it, and that just makes her more real.
But over and over again in this book, if you read it, you’ll see she’s just a kid. You know, she’s not up to anything untoward. She just wants to do this thing that she discovered that she loves, and it is, in fact, blatantly unfair when she just gets kicked off the team and she doesn’t have any special advantage as a trans kid doing cheers. She struggles to do the basic moves. She’s actually not very good at it at first. I mean, we’re trying to dismantle all of these twisted hot-button narrative ideas that are getting advanced about trans kids in bathrooms, trans kids in locker rooms, trans kids in athletics, trans kids generally, whether they deserve to exist, whether the fact that they are trans is real or not. It absolutely 100% is. Transgender is a real thing that happens to a certain number of humans that are born. So, yes, all of these pernicious narratives need to be answered, and this book seeks to do that.
Jeff: And I think you mentioned they might be a little on the nose. They’re also from an 11-year-old’s diary. So, yeah, they’re exactly what they’re supposed to be, I think.
Lisa: Yeah, she’s just saying what she’s feeling and, you know, addressing us, the readers, and saying, “Just let me alone and let me live my life, please,” which is the basic message right now.
Jeff: It’s all any of us want to be able to do. I saw you speak a couple weeks ago, and you mentioned the idea that you’re kind of being pressured into being a lawyer lately, but you’re also trying to find other ways to be able to deal with the attacks on trans youth, on adult trans people. What are you trying to do to keep up your self-care for one thing amidst all this but also speak your activist voice as well?
Lisa: Yes, thank you for asking. That’s the key question right now. Yes, I mean, the thing that’s going on right now with people attacking trans kids from the right is being framed by some as a “culture war.” I’m doing air quotes right now, and I specifically reject that term. This is an unprovoked one-sided attack, but the answer is not to attack back. The answer is to downplay, ignore, respond. You know, it must be reacted to, but I think what we’re seeing right now can be framed in a way as it turns out that gender is way more flexible and optional than people have always thought.
Now, trans people have always existed, but just in the past 10 or 15 years, I feel like a tipping point has passed where there’s more of a general consciousness in our culture, of the existence of trans people and the fluidity of gender generally than there ever was before. And we as a whole culture are dealing with this right now. And one way to frame what we’re seeing from the right is the kind of panic reaction that sets in when there’s something new and potentially scary that comes along. If you know brain physiology at all, it’s the amygdala. You know, there’s a certain part of a certain group of people who are like the amygdala of our cultural brain, and they’re sending out this panic thing. It’s like, “Oh, my God. Scary new trans people. They’re a danger to our children. They’re a danger to our women. We have to do something to stop them.”
And the rest of us… It’s horrible that that’s happening, and the attacks are real, and the laws that are being passed are awful, and real lives are being affected in negative ways, but there’s also an opportunity here to be the grownup part of the cultural brain and stay calm and say, “Actually, no. When your danger alarm goes off, sometimes the danger is real and sometimes it’s not. And this is one of those times when it’s not. There is no actual danger here. Let us tell you our stories. Here I am. I’m a trans person. I transitioned in my middle life. I’m much more comfortable living as a woman in the world, and I’m no danger or threat to anybody. I’m just happier and more effective.”
Here’s an 11-year-old girl who wants to be a cheerleader, and she’s not allowed to because other people have wrong ideas about her, and they think that she’s evil but she’s not. She’s just a regular kid. So, we are under attack. We are in the public eye in a way that we’ve never been before. That’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity because the vast majority of the humans out there, they just want to know how to incorporate this with their understanding of life so that they can get back to what they care about. They’re uncomfortable maybe and uncertain, and they’re hearing these scary stories from one sector. So, we need to make sure that there are supportive, real, rational, generous stories for them to also discover and so they can make up their mind, not that trans people are evil and need to be eradicated, because that’s manifestly the opposite of what is true, but that just trans people are regular people trying to live their lives like everybody else. We can just not worry about it. We can leave them alone.
That’s what’s happening right now. It’s not a war so much as a measured counter-narrative to a toxic narrative. It needs to be done, but it is not just a crisis. It is also an opportunity to teach the world about the essential normalness of the trans experience so people can get over their panic and go back to living their lives and at least leave us be. If not embrace us warmly, at least say, “Okay, you do you. I’ll do me. You’re not a danger to me. I can relax and not worry about you.”
Jeff: How can allies help with that, whether it’s other people in the queer community, whatever community somebody’s a part of? How can we help change the narrative? And especially when the narrative isn’t ours necessarily at all, how do we put it out there without trying to necessarily appropriate at the same time I guess is the right word?
Lisa: This is a key question, and of course it comes up in all kinds of… I mean, I’ve thought about this question from the point of view of a white person concerned about racism, for example. It’s the same thing. How do you show up as an ally? You share what you’ve learned. You challenge if you see or experience prejudice in real-time, and you feel safe doing so, you challenge it in the moment, but it is really helpful, I find, for folks other than the group in question to speak up. You know, there’s a certain section, a segment of the body of people that we’re trying to reach who, no matter what I say or how I say it, will not hear me because I’m a trans person. They’ve already decided that I’m some kind of freak or abomination or whatever. They can’t hear me, but they might be able to hear you if you say, “Actually she’s just a regular person.”
So, I think there’s a power of allyship to show up when there’s enough prejudice already happening that the person themselves can’t be heard. And then there’s definitely an element here of critical mass. We need to reach enough people have agreed that trans people are at least harmless and cannot be worried about, that some sort of darker version of this story won’t come to pass, because there are darker versions here. I’m not seriously worried about them. I’m not seriously worried that there will be national laws that erase the presence of trans people in our world. I think we’re doing okay. In certain states, it’s very dark right now, not just Texas. Many other states, laws are being passed and sort of beyond that, there’s a sort of negative cultural vibe around trans people, which is very concerning.
But critical mass matters. And after a while, if enough people hear stories like Joy’s, and mine, and Kai’s and everybody’s and just come to accept it, then the worst possible outcomes will be safely avoided. There will always be prejudice. I mean, one way of looking at this is we’re 20 years behind the gay liberation movement. And in the 20 or 30 years or more, in the ’70s and ’80s, people were saying exactly the same horrible things about trans people, about gay people. You know, back in those days that you couldn’t trust a gay teacher to be alone with your child, you know, things like this. And now we have Queer Eye, you know, on TV and a broad acceptance by sort of broad culture of the existence of gay people. There is still homophobia in the world, but I don’t feel like gay folk are in imminent danger of erasure the way it feels like trans folk are in certain sectors of our society right now. We’re just behind you. You know, we’re just a little bit behind. We’re catching up. We’re going through that crisis moment right now where the cultural consciousness as a whole is deciding whether or not we’re an imminent threat or not, and I am reasonably confident that we’re going to follow the same trajectory and, in 20 years, there’s going to be Trans Eye on TV and this will be no big deal for anybody but the dedicated haters who are thankfully still in both cases a small minority, even though they’re really loud.
Jeff: It’s amazing how the minority can be so overwhelmingly loud.
It’s coming up on Pride Season. I mean, even as we’re here in middle of May, some of the communities around Sacramento are celebrating pride in the coming weeks. With all that’s going on, what does pride mean to you this year?
Lisa: Pride for me this year is what we’ve been talking about this whole time. It’s about showing up as an out trans person and advancing in whatever way I can in whatever arena I can. Positive narratives of trans people as regular, normal humans who simply want to live their lives in peace, protected equally under the law, afforded the same basic dignity and respect that all other humans are afforded by our culture and its institutions. It’s happening in some places, not in others. It’s a fight that we never win completely or a battle that we never… I’m falling into the war language again. It’s a struggle. It’s an effort. It’s a lifelong project that one can never completely complete, but you can definitely make progress and that’s what pride is about for me this year is being out, being open, and advancing trans narratives in whatever way I can.
Jeff: You’re going to be advancing some of those narratives even more later this year. You’ve got “Joy, to the World,” which has just come out, but you’ve got a couple of other books coming down the line this year. Please tell us a little bit about those. They’re vastly different from this. They’re vastly different from each other, but I think they’re both going to carry so much of these messages forward as well.
Lisa: Thank you for asking. I have another book coming out in early June. It’s one of a series called “She Persisted.” So, there’s about six books that come out per year in the “She Persisted” series inspired by a book by Chelsea Clinton originally. And it’s profiles of courageous women who make a difference in the world. And once again, I was sought out for this as an established out trans author of books for children who had legislative experience. So, that same profile got me this job as well, profiling Rachel Levine, who is our Assistant Secretary of Health right now, and the first out trans person to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to such a high role in our government in the history of our nation. And she’s an astonishing figure, just an incredibly hardworking and effective advocate for public health, and she’s trans.
And there’s already been a little flurry of sort of trolling online about the presence of this book. The Right wing websites discovered that it existed a couple of months back, and there was a little flurry of articles, and I got some nasty emails of course people saying, “Why do you have a book in a series about inspiring women about a ‘man,’ ” and I’m doing air quotes again, their words, not mine obviously.
Maybe I’ll just pause for a second and state a basic truth. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. We can trust people when they tell us who they are and what gender they are. That needs to be said out loud, I think, from time to time.
In any case, I’m excited to have that book coming out. That’s in June.
And then the third book is coming out in November with New Wind Publishing, which is a small scrappy publisher here in Sacramento. I’m having an amazing time working with them on this, and this one is the book of my heart. This is a novel I tried to place for five years without success in mainstream publishing. I think it’s just a little bit too edgy for what that world has become right now. This is a fantasy story and a, sort of, old-school Golden Age style, my direct precursor, the author that I love that it’s sort of modeled after is Ursula Le Guin in her “Earthsea” series. And it started with the question, what if there was a culture where children were raised without gender and at a certain point in their lives got to choose with appropriate ceremony? And then for fun, I put my young characters, my young gender variant characters in a complicated world with palace intrigue and cultural strife and a bunch of other fun elements. So, I’m very, very pleased that “Almond, Quartz, and Finch” will be coming out in November from New Wind Publishing here in Sacramento.
Jeff: Such a varied… I mean, just these three books alone, so completely different. It must be awesome to write across so many genres and non-fiction and all of that.
Lisa: I was really grateful for both opportunities that came to me to try writing something different. The really interesting part about the Rachel Levine book for me, well, besides getting to talk with Admiral Levine, who is an inspiring figure, was writing for the chapter book age group, which is, you know, much younger than most of the rest of the work I have done. So, it’s a six-chapter book with 6,000 words in it in very simple language, but it was a really interesting challenge to write that. The fantasy story is closest to who I really am myself as a writer.
Jeff: I can’t wait to read both of those because a chapter book on Rachel Levine sounds amazing and will inspire so many young women to reach for, you know, that stratosphere and even more so young trans girls who will read that.
Lisa: All of these books are books that I would’ve been astonished to discover in my library when I was a kid and especially with “Almonds,” the book coming out in November, my personal emotional goal with that book was to write the book that I wish I had found when I was a young unexpressed trans girl in the 1970s. If that book had existed, if somebody wrote it instead of me, and I had existed then, and it found me, it would’ve utterly transformed my life.
Jeff: And I hope it finds its way into many young trans girls and trans boys.
Lisa: The main character in “Almond, Quartz, and Finch” is non-binary.
Jeff: Yes, they’re all non-binary at this point because they have not chosen yet. So, yeah, hopefully that finds its way into many homes and many libraries.
Lisa: I hope so too despite the book bans.
Jeff: Yes, exactly. We could go a whole other hour on book bans easily.
Lisa: We could.
Jeff: Any questions from the folks gathered here with us for Lisa?
Lisa: The question is, are any of my books banned? Yes, my first novel, “Felix Yz,” actually lost a librarian her job some years back for putting it on a summer reading list. And my second novel that came out in 2019 called “Zenobia July” is on a number of the lists that are circulating currently in the states where book bans are happening. Absolutely. I mean, I have two novels out which are both about young rainbow humans, and they’re being routinely listed as among the books that are, I don’t know, imminent threats to the mental health of young humans or something. I don’t know, but I honestly don’t understand their logic at all. They’re books that need to be out there so that the kids who need them can find them. But these super restrictive views of what’s considered appropriate for children are circulating right now and they’re falling under that umbrella.
Jeff: Lisa, thank you so much for being here at Capital Books, for being a part of the podcast, and wish you all the success with “Joy, to the World” and the other books you have coming out this year.
Lisa: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me on.
Will: The transcript for this episode has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, head on over to the show notes page for this episode at BigGayFictionPodcast.com. We’ve got links to everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Jeff: Thanks again to Lisa and to Capital Books for letting us be on hand to celebrate the release of “Joy, to the World.” I hope that even if you don’t have middle grade children in your family, that you’ll pick this book up. Like I said, it was really such a great read and it can help you understand what trans youth are going through right now, and how to stand up and be an ally as you see people in the book doing.
It also highlights how important it is to keep up with what’s happening in our schools and in our states to help protect and defend the rights of young queer and trans people, or as Lisa calls them, and I really love this phrase, young rainbow humans.
Will: All right, rainbow humans I think that’s going to do it for now. Coming up next this Thursday, we’re going to be joined by creators of the “Northranger” graphic novel.
Jeff: I’m excited to share this terrific conversation I had with author Rey Terciero and illustrator Bre Indigo, to talk about this stunning graphic novel that is a queer retelling of Jane Austen’s gothic romance, “Northanger Abbey.” It’s a special bonus episode that is coming your way on Thursday.
Will: Thank you so much for listening. We hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kinds of stories 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. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.
NOTE: The excerpt from Joy, to the World is copyright 2023 by Kai Shappley & Lisa Bunker and is used here with permission.