Lee Wind is director of marketing and programming for the Independent Book Publishers Association, a nonprofit that advocates for small indie presses. Wind is also a blogger for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and is the founder of the YA blog “I’m Here. I'm Queer. His upcoming picture book, Red and Green and Blue and White, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky, will publish in October. Wind’s 2018 YA novel, Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill, a BookLife Prize semifinalist, is an #OwnVoices coming of age story about coming out. Working on a fictional book about uncovering secret gay history inspired Wind to write his new book, No Way, They Were Gay?, a collection of historical biographies, which was published earlier this month. We spoke with Wind about interpreting queer history, and what it means to be an ally.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’m gay, and I didn’t come out until I was in my 20s. When I found out that there was historical evidence that Abraham Lincoln may have had a love affair with his friend Joshua Speed, I was completely floored. I saw myself in history for the first time. I didn’t really like history when I was growing up—it was all about memorizing dates and names, and I never found a reflection of anyone like me. So when I started thinking about Lincoln maybe being gay, I wondered, “What if I could go back and tell my 11-year-old self about this?” It would have changed my whole life. Since I don’t have a time machine, I decided to write a book about it, to help change someone else’s life.
My book profiles several dozen historical figures, and is organized by the categories “men who loved men,” “women who loved women,” and “people who lived outside gender binaries.” It’s a start for readers looking to learn more. It’s so empowering to know you have a place in the past. Then you believe you deserve a place at the table today. So you can imagine a future that’s limitless. If this book can save one reader years of being closeted, that’s a win. I’m so excited and grateful that I can pay it forward in this way.
What does queer history mean to you?
I wrote a history book, but it’s not the kind you usually read in school. History is crafted by the people who recorded it, by the people trying to preserve power by protecting the status quo. This has meant that historical records kept queer people disempowered. We need to focus on sharing the truth that queer people have always existed. If we can recognize that people being trans or gender nonconforming or gender queer is not really new, that is really empowering for young people today, and for everyone else, too.
Initially, I wrote a YA novel, Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. But I felt like there was also a nonfiction book there. I realized that there are so many more stories about queer people throughout history that deserve to be told. For someone who didn’t like history at all, I became obsessed with discovering queer history. But I knew that I couldn’t have a “CSI: History” approach to this material. There is no DNA-type evidence that will irrefutably prove that Eleanor Roosevelt had a gay relationship with Lorena Hickok, yet we can read thousands of intimate letters between them. The book reproduces excerpts of these primary sources, because I wanted the book to be as transparent as possible. Primary sources sometimes contradict the main point you are trying to make. History is fascinating and complex, and it’s a form of interpretation. Kids are smart enough to hold a complex individual in their mind. My aim is to take these archival materials and present them to readers, and to let them make their own call.
Which historical figure in your book means the most to you?
I had an epiphany while I was reading Mahatma Gandhi’s correspondence with [German-Jewish architect] Hermann Kallenbach. Gandhi wrote hundreds of letters to Kallenbach, and we still have them—I read them all. Clearly Kallenbach was the soulmate of Gandhi’s life. I realized that I had been thinking of a historical figure being queer as a footnote to their life, but then I started to think of it in a different way. Gandhi is famous for thinking about all of humanity as connected to one another. In 1911, he wrote, “You worship facing one way and I worship facing the other. Why should I become your enemy for that reason? We all belong to the human race...” I started to think that maybe a person was capable of expressing this thought partly because they were queer, so they were able to think things through differently, and express ideas in a way other people couldn’t. You could think of Eleanor Roosevelt along these lines as well. Maybe she was able to champion the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she loved a woman, at one point in her life, and that being queer enabled her to see beyond the structures that society imposed at that time.
Who do you hope reads this book?
I hope this book is read not just by young queer people but straight, cis kids—to help them open their eyes, and to help empower them to become allies of the LGBTQ community. My journey is to be an ally to everyone else who is part of the rainbow, to people of color, to disabled people. I’m inspired by another figure I profiled in the book, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rustin said, if we want to do away with injustice to gays, it will be done because we eliminate injustice for all. We can’t leave anyone behind.
No Way, They Were Gay?: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves (Queer History Project) by Lee Wind. Lerner/Zest, $18.99 paper Apr. 6 ISBN 978-1-5415-8162-3