My Story, Your Story, Their Story, Who Gets to Tell It?

First Voice/Own Voice and Indigenous, POC, LGBTQI Children’s Books
art from Prietita and the Ghost WomanMy Story

I have been involved in the children’s book industry for over 20 years. I joke that they accidentally let me in. Indeed, something must have been going on…stars momentarily aligned, portals briefly opened… because not only did I get “in,” but my first book, Prietita and the Ghost Woman was written, translated and illustrated by all queer Chicanx people. Gloria Anzaldúa, Francisco Alarcón and myself.

AND not just that, it’s a decolonized retelling of a traditional folktale, La Llorona; AND Prietita, the main character is a young genderqueer person; AND they’re apprenticing with a curendera. I mean, oh my gawd, what?! This is amazing! Truly.

I was ushered in on the wings of a multicolored Alebrije singing the song of Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal on the wind, right? YES!

And, not so much.

It was 1996. None of us were closeted, but I know for myself, queerness was not what I talked about when I went on school visits. And on the rare occasion I presented with Francisco I never heard him broach the subject either, with anybody, not once.

Back in the day it was radical enough to be in a school talking about race and ethnicity, belonging and reflection, even equity with kids of color.

Back in the day it was radical enough to be in a school talking about race and ethnicity, belonging and reflection, even equity with kids of color. So the character Prietita and I, put one foot in the proverbial closet. I stayed silent about their gender queerness to the kids, and when asked if I was married I never denied that I was partnered, but if possible I avoided talking about the truth of who my partner was.

A sage queer, I knew how to measure and sense; sidestep, to keep myself safe and solid. I usually had a day’s work to get through and I needed to keep things moving.

Incidental homophobia would slow me down.

I’m tattooed, pierced, my hair is dyed and I dress fabulously! To the kids I was an edgy oddity that wanted to PLAY! But at every turn, I could see how my queerness might erase the work I was doing, work that I loved and was committed to. I had a part of myself that would go on autopilot with the kids, the teachers and principals. I was aware of what I was doing, but it was beyond my control.

I was teaching about First Voice and equitable reflection, but honestly, I only felt safe with a part of myself being heard and seen. I was protecting my heart, my livelihood and my life’s work.

I was teaching about First Voice and equitable reflection, but honestly, I only felt safe with a part of myself being heard and seen. I was protecting my heart, my livelihood and my life’s work. Gentle avoidance and partial acknowledgments became a part of the game. It helped soften the edges as I skittered through situations that would clearly have been inaccessible to me or greatly altered as the BIG QUEER that I actually am.

I comforted myself with the fact that queerness was deeply embedded, coded, into the understory of all my books, whether illustrated or both illustrated and written by me. I knew as queers, we always search for ourselves and each other, between the lines.


First Voice, is the idea that a community should speak for itself.


Working with Children’s Book Press changed me. I used the opportunities provided by the press to heal myself, and my own silence and invisibility and still do. Simultaneously, it was CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) that provided a sane-making, touchstone along the way to reference with their statistics on children’s books by and about People of Color and First/Native Nations. I have been sharing them for as long as I’ve been making books.
a look back...journey into voiceThe journey has been long. Children’s Book Press began moving toward First Voice in 1975. It would be another ten years until CCBC would begin keeping stats for books by and about African American authors, and another 9 years before Native Americans, Latino and Asian Pacific Americans were included. Now another 24 years later, LGBTQ Americans are included in the numbers. 43 years.

Likewise, with 20 years of social justice work in the industry, it wasn’t until 2015 after 31 years as an OUT QUEER, that I “formally came out” as an LGBTQI children’s book author and artist.

Healing takes time that’s why I always call out the heart and the bones of it. We get sick, have kids, dear ones pass. Presidents, politics, social movements. We have to bring our bodies and spirits and emotions through. We must negotiate safety and fury and find peace. It takes time for a paradigm to shift. It has to happen inside and outside. But it is occurring.

I have learned. Voice is a revolution.

The Background Story

art from Prietita and the Ghost WomanVOICE: within a patriarchal, Western society those who can be heard is based on how close one adheres to social standards either by birth or behavior. As a consequence, many queer/trans/intersex authors and artists who create children’s books remain silent about their private lives, especially if they’re Indigenous or POC.

Across communities, the LGBTQI community has been severely marginalized through deep judgment about who we are. Historically, this has been used to create separation between queer/trans/intersex people and kids in society, even our own. Despite recent progress in marriage, parenthood, adoption, civil rights, social justice, California education initiatives and more, judgment and aggression still happen in both big and small ways. It can be social, political, legal, personal, professional, even physical and can weigh heavily on queer/trans/intersex people, often adding to the silence already experienced as Indigenous or POC.

 There is a growing trend. Just like with Indigenous and POC communities, many of the people writing about the LGBTQI community are not from the community.

As a result there is a growing trend. Just like with Indigenous and POC communities, many of the people writing about the LGBTQI community are not from the community, and consequently do not have to negotiate the same kind of structural and personal silence. Instead they are parents of queer/trans/intersex kids, as well as related professionals. They lack lived experience and often any connection to the actual LGBTQI community.

However well-intentioned, their work tends to perpetuate implicit bias and power structures that contribute to the very oppression they hope to mediate. (speaking specifically to children’s books)

Not only do those writing from outside the community generally perpetuate the binary and erase its historical context;

– they often prioritize and give greater value to all things cisgender and heterosexual;
– fix emotions and related gender and queer experience as complicated, sad, scary and overwhelming;
– affirm frames that require queer/trans/intersex children to be exceptional, saviors or self-sacrificing;
– focus nearly exclusively on males, especially ones wearing dresses;
– and consistently include bullying narratives.

They also tend to be almost exclusively white.

2017 LGBTQ children's books statistics inforgraphic

When we look at the newly documented LGBTQI statistics, we can clearly see that the vast majority of children’s books are by non-community members. And while authors could stay in First Voice or #ownVoice as parents and professionals, they rarely do. Instead they step in and speak as authorities and/or use their voice as the voice of the LGBTQI community.

 It only makes sense that the same Social Justice frameworks developing for equity in children’s books regarding race and ethnicity include the LGBTQI community.

This is problematic on numerous levels. And with great thanks to CCBC for providing yet another touchstone to move forward, the time to heal this must be now. It only makes sense that the same Social Justice frameworks developing for equity in children’s books regarding race and ethnicity include the LGBTQI community, especially since queer/trans/intersex people are a part of every indigenous and community of color. It’s time to bring this next level of the conversation forward and unite Indigenous, POC and LGBTQI equity in children’s books. And beyond. These oppressions are intimately tied together.

Within a social justice frame it must also be noted that the next to be heard in LGBTQI children’s books are almost exclusively white, cisgender voices of gay or lesbian people. While necessary and important, they tend to perpetuate uneven power dynamics, including implicit bias around race, ethnicity and sometimes gender. It goes without saying that when white voices are the only ones heard, it gives the impression that only white people are queer and trans.

Who’s Controlling the Narrative

2017 Statistics #ownvoice/#firstvoice reflection for the last 3 years
It’s fascinating to look at the CCBC stats and literally see who’s telling stories. Except for the Native American community (which I believe is in large part due to the amazing work of Debbie Reese) ALL MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES have the majority of their stories told by authors OUTSIDE OF THEIR COMMUNITIES.

There are countless, amazing stories about Indigenous and POC and queer/trans/intersex people that ALL NEED TO BE TOLD, but it matters who is telling them. Not just because there will be greater meaning and veracity for a first voice/own voice author, but because our presence is needed. 

There are countless, amazing stories about Indigenous and POC and queer/trans/intersex people that ALL NEED TO BE TOLD, but it matters who is telling them. Not just because there will be greater meaning and veracity for a first voice/own voice author, but because our presence is needed. This is not a trend. This is not about ‘diversity sells.’ This is about real people and communities. The heart and the bones of it. We are here and we need to have our actual body, spirit and heart included for the change to be both real within and without, and final.

We speak differently, see differently, even feel and think differently and we can and should affect the world. This is our gift and power. Our stories and ideas cannot be co-opted then sifted through white, cis, straight authors and publishers and remain real. Beyond actual plagiarism, the very act of others telling our stories takes our power away, contributing to both real and systemic silence.

These stories about us are not actually about us. Ultimately, they can only ever be frames that show how white, cis, straight authors and society feel about, and see us. Even if they value us, it is still ultimately about them.
2017 statistics of last 3 years US Publishers only and ABOUT vs. BY

What does this communicate and at what level?  That our lives are a publishing trend? That we are not adequate to tell our own stories? Or simply that our lives continue to be a source of income for the dominant culture, but not for ourselves?

I have heard amazing tales of workshops at large conferences specifically designed to teach white authors how to write stories about POC. Is that why in the last 3 years stories about and not by have dramatically jumped for communities of color? What does this communicate and at what level–to Indigenous, POC, LGBTQI people? And what about to white, cis, straight authors and artists?  That our lives are a publishing trend? That we are not adequate to tell our own stories? We cannot be trusted to speak our own truth? Or simply that our lives continue to be a source of income for the dominant culture, but not for ourselves?

Sitting at a table of librarians recently, I asked if they thought it was better to have a book that was deeply flawed, or not have a book at all. I thought we might have a lively discussion, and being librarians I thought they’d go for the books, but everyone agreed. It is better to have no books at all than books that are fundamentally flawed. A book out in the world stands as an independent authority. It generally doesn’t come with an informed librarian, parent or teacher to point out where to apply critical thinking to see beyond the limitations of the author or how that author fits into a larger dynamic in society. It is what it is.

Books are power.

Children’s books are raw power.

First Voice/Own Voice and Healing

art from Prietita and the Ghost WomanI’m haunted by my first book. In my imagination, the spirits of Gloria and Francisco have entered the pages and are walking down the road with Prietita. A self-described dyke, a gay man and a genderqueer youth. Prietita is holding a drawing of Ruda. This is the herb that the curendera needs to help heal their mother. They’re committed to finding it even though they must cross into forbidden territory to do so.

Published over 20 years ago, the queerness of this book has become more and more obvious to me recently. It was always there. But healing takes time.

First voice/own voice is an essential turn toward equity. Just like Indigenous and Children of Color, LGBTQIA2S+ kids should have access to stories by and about authors and artists just like them and not have to read between the lines. This open reflection, relevance and empathy contribute to a sense of well being, value and belonging in the world, making it doubly essential for queer/trans/intersex kids from those same communities. The ongoing stigma that separates and silences our community in relation to kids and family is changing, but MUCH more change is necessary.

Has that time come? Now that we’re included in the count?

I’m ready. I’m ready. I’m finally ready.

QueerEternal/GenderNow

OUR VOICE is a REVOLUTION.

xomaya


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