In Queer History A to Z: 100 Years of LGBTQ+ Activism (Kids Can Press, May 2024), Robin Stevenson, who was recently honored with the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in British Columbia, explores the people, events, and circumstances that helped shape the rich history of LGBTQ+ activism in North America. Stevenson, a Stonewall Book Award recipient, spoke to PW about making queer history accessible to young readers, researching the topics featured in the book, facing down challenges to LGBTQ+ literature, and more.
How did you go about choosing the subjects to include in Queer History A to Z?
Queer history is complicated and endlessly fascinating — if I'd included everything I wanted to include, the book would have been a hundred times longer! In the end, I managed to narrow it down to a pretty diverse mix of people, places, concepts, and events, some that young readers may have already heard about and others that will likely be new to many of them. Of course, the A-to-Z format added an additional challenge (I had long lists of contenders for S and T, but X and Z were tricky!).
As you were researching for the book, did you come across any queer figures you hadn’t known about previously? Or did you gain any new insights into queer history?
One piece of history that was new to me was the story of the Brunswick Four, four Canadian lesbians who were arrested 50 years ago after singing their own made-up queer lyrics at an open mic night at a Toronto bar! I also really enjoyed reading about Ernestine Eckstein, who joined the New York chapter of the lesbian rights organization Daughters of Bilitis in the 1960s. A Black lesbian, she brought a wealth of experience from her work with the civil rights movement, and she pushed the group to focus on building community and educating others through direct action.
From your perspective, why is it important for queer history to be shared with new generations of readers? And what can be done to push back against attempts at censorship of LGBTQ+ literature?
Queer people have always existed, but until fairly recently queer people were largely invisible in children's books about history. This wasn't merely inaccurate, but also harmful — especially for queer youth. All kids should be able to see people like themselves in history books, and all kids should be able to learn the history of the communities they are part of. And of course, learning about the long fight for LGBTQ+ rights isn't just important to queer youth — it's a part of the history of our countries, and all young people should be able to learn about it. History isn't just about the past: it is also about how we got to where we are now. The more young people know about history, the better they can understand the complexities of the world around them.
I think it's important to recognize how much is already being done: in communities all across the U.S. and Canada there are many people organizing and pushing back against book banning — because they believe kids have a right to read, to find answers to their questions, to know that they are not alone, to learn about others, to explore their own thoughts and beliefs and choices, and to develop a broader and deeper understanding of the world around them.
One easy thing people can do is to call or email their local school boards and libraries and let them know that they expect, support, and appreciate LGBTQ+-inclusive classrooms and bookshelves. The people challenging queer books — often without having read them — can be aggressive and intimidating, but they do not speak for the majority; we need to make sure that their voices are not the only ones heard and that misinformation and bigotry never go unchallenged.
We also need to continue writing and publishing and sharing these books and to resist any temptation to self-censor out of fear of challenges. And finally, we need to pay attention to our local elections, including school board and trustee elections, and vote for people who will stand up for diverse books and for young people's freedom to read and learn.
I hope readers enjoy the book, that it answers some of their questions, that it inspires them to learn more about LGBTQ+ history and rights, and that it encourages them to also speak up for what they believe is important.