K.A. Holt is the author of Rhyme Schemer, House Arrest, Knockout, and the forthcoming Redwood + Ponytail (all from Chronicle Books), along with several other books for young people. She lives in Austin, Tex., and is active within the vibrant Texas writing community.
I am in a gym.
I hold a microphone in one hand, a remote in the other.
Three hundred and fifty middle school kids size me up.
I ask them if they want to see my seventh grade yearbook photo.
I click the remote.
A slightly blurry photo appears on the giant screen behind me.
Me at 12. Looming large. The hair. The glasses. The definition of awkward.
The irony isn’t lost on me that, back then, I spent a lot of time trying to make myself invisible, and now here I am, on display, having a great time.
This is a scene that repeats itself dozens of times a year. As an author of middle grade novels, I visit lots of schools to talk about my books and writing. I also talk about poetry and where my ideas come from. I talk about how to combat writer’s block, and how to structure a story. I answer questions about publishing, about my dog, about which of my books are my favorites. Sometimes a student will ask if I’m married. I’ll say, “Are you proposing?” which gets me a laugh every time. Then I say, “You’re too late! My wife and I got married last year.”
Guess what happens next.
Ninety percent of the time? Nothing. The hands go back in the air and I answer the next question. Sure, 10% of the time there will be a few giggles. Sometimes a kid will say, “I knew it!” and high-five the kid next to them. If no one asks if I’m married, someone will often say, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Ellen [DeGeneres]?” I know what this is code for, and they do, too. For those kids, I’m the only lesbian they’ve seen other than Ellen. Sometimes middle school girls will cry when I sign their books. I am their bookish, gay lady Beatle.
But most kids don’t care at all. I am a grown-up who wrote a book they read. Cool. Can you sign my book and my arm? Yes, I can if your teacher says it’s okay.
My presentation is not about being gay. It’s not about my personal life or my marriage. It is not called Lesbians: They’re People Just Like Us! Being gay is irrelevant to what I’m there to present about. And yet, on a student-by-student basis, it can become the most relevant thing we never talk about.
When I walk into a school, I do not unfurl an eight-foot-long Gay Agenda and hold everyone hostage until they pledge allegiance to the rainbow flag. In fact, when I visit schools I do everything a straight author does, except for three things:
- I’m a lady and I say “my wife” when asked about my spouse.
- I give every LGBTQ+ kid in the audience a flesh and blood example of an LGBTQ+ person who isn’t on TV, who isn’t a stereotype, who is proud and confident, who is a human just like everyone else.
- I give every non-LGBTQ+ kid in the audience a flesh and blood example of an LGBTQ+ person who isn’t on TV, who isn’t a stereotype, who is proud and confident, who is a human just like everyone else.
It might not seem like much, but I can tell you, for some kids this is everything. We don’t always know which kids these are, but they are there. Trust me. Of course, I meet loud and proud kids, but I know that for every one of them there are the kids who haven’t found a safe space, the kids who are just noticing that their path is maybe bumpier than their friends’ paths.
Those are the kids I think about when I reflect on a recent school visit. I walked through the front doors of the school and, with chilling precision, was met with so-called “soft” censorship. Not of my books, but of me, as a person.
Wait, you say. What is soft censorship? What does that even look like?
Soft censorship looks like bright smiles in a school’s front office.
Soft censorship says, “Hello! We’re so glad you could visit!”
Soft censorship smilingly leads you to the auditorium as it says, “Oh! I almost forgot to tell you… because of some sudden scheduling conflicts, we’ve made a few changes to the day.”
Soft censorship smiles politely and says, “I hope that’s okay!”
Soft censorship walks you to the front of the empty auditorium.
Soft censorship tells the tech support person, “We won’t be needing a microphone today.”
Soft censorship gives you yet another bright smile as it says, “Instead of speaking to the whole school, you’ll be speaking to 20 students.”
Soft censorship says, “Yes, I know the whole school read your book, but the students really need to study, so there will be no book signing.”
Soft censorship forgets to tell you that administrators Googled you and were upset when they saw gay pride flags.
Soft censorship doesn’t say that parents complained about you visiting the school.
Soft censorship neglects to inform you that you, as a person, were deemed inappropriate for nearly all the students, and that is why your audience was so small.
Soft censorship is the most insidious, cowardly discrimination of all because you don’t even know it’s happening. Sure, you suspect something is a little off, but you believe your hosts. The kids have to study. Okay. I take you at your word.
Soft censorship doesn’t start to dawn on you until students contact you directly to ask questions about the book you wrote. They tell you to keep your chin up, that you’re a good person, that discrimination is real. They’re sad they couldn’t get their books signed. They’re sad they weren’t allowed to see you. Oh, and can you tell them where you get your characters’ names? How long does it take to write a book?
Soft censorship is a slow motion kick in the guts, as the kicker assures you they are not kicking you.
You drive to the airport.
You fly home.
I flew home.
I felt stupid.
I felt angry.
My heart still breaks for every kid that day who, instead of learning about writing and story structure and my dog’s cute haircut, learned that because of who they are, they should be made invisible to their class, their school, themselves.
I emailed the school.
I asked for more details as to why most of the students couldn’t see me that day.
I didn’t tell them the students had already told me why.
Soft censorship answered, “We welcomed you. We smiled with you. We were so polite. We paid you. How does that make you invisible?”
I guess they’re right, in a way. Maybe they didn’t make me invisible. Maybe they turned me into a ghost. There, but not there. A whisper in the hallway.
But the whispers have been growing louder. Students continue to find ways to contact me. They ask for book recommendations. They ask for advice on writing. They call out the school on social media.
Now, I am in another gym.
I hold another microphone.
Three hundred and fifty kids size me up.
I tap the microphone.
“Can you hear me?”
They all shout, “YESSSSS!!!”
I laugh and say, “Can you see me?”
“Good,” I tell them. “I see you, too.”
Everyone deserves to be seen.
Everyone deserves to be a main character.
Let’s save the shadows for the cowards.
They know who they are.