Looking back on moving forward: New children’s book focuses on LGBT history

By : Ciara Varone
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Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci and Walt Whitman are historical figures whose accomplishments have long secured their places in classroom curricula. They were all also either openly or likely gay or bisexual – but those details often get left out of history books. Author Jerome Pohlen is working to change this with his newest book, released in October, Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights.

Pohlen says he was inspired to write the book after noticing the lack of LGBT representation in children’s nonfiction.

“I realized that there was no book out there for this particular age group, which is ages nine and up,” Pohlen says. “When you turn on the news every day, you see one story after another about gay, lesbian, bi, transgender Americans, but there is really no context, you know? Where did marriage equality come from? Where did these religious freedom issues originate? All of these are explained in the book from when they first sort of became an issue.”

As Pohlen’s book highlights, LGBT individuals have always played a part in American history; students just have not been told about them.

“They’re lies of omission rather than lies of commission,” Pohlen says.

For example, the book’s first chapter includes the story of Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the poem “America,” which would later be set to music and become the song “America the Beautiful.” This lyrical tribute to America, which some think should replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the U.S. national anthem, was written by a lesbian.

“The images that [Bates] uses in that poem were from her trip out to Colorado with her partner,” Pohlen says. “They were together when they were going through Kansas seeing amber waves of grain. They were together when they went to the ‘White City’ in Chicago, the World’s Fair, which she refers to as alabaster cities, and she was with her when she went to the top of Pikes Peak, and these were things that just were never referenced in the stories, and I think that it needs to be discussed.”

Pohlen is a former elementary school teacher, and this has helped him in writing this gay and lesbian history for a juvenile audience by showing him that kids like to be told things as they actually happened, he says.

“Children want to be told the truth and children appreciate just leveling with them about a variety of subjects, and they’re perfectly capable of handling it,” Pohlen says.

With media coverage incorporating gay, lesbian and transgender people into the mainstream, children are most likely already aware – sorry homophobes – of their existence.

“It’s sort of, I think, doing [children] a disservice not to talk about [LGBT] history, because it’s impacted their lives,” Pohlen says. “Gay and lesbian individuals have contributed to our society, and they deserve to be included in our history.”

Despite this, their stories have remained segregated, when not left out entirely, he says.

“The story all along has been, you know, LGBT people are over here and the people that aren’t are over there. Their lives don’t cross. Their stories don’t cross. And that’s just simply not true,” Pohlen says.

Gay & Lesbian History serves as a comprehensive reminder that LGBT figures have not simply made a difference in the gay community, but in world history as a whole. Pohlen points to Alan Turing as a prime example.

“A gay man led the effort to solve the Enigma code in World War II and shortened the war by two years. I think that’s a significant accomplishment, and he did it with a team. He was known to be gay by many of the people on that team,” Pohlen says. “[That] didn’t stop them from completing their mission.”

Besides providing brief histories of historical figures who were gay, he gives an overall timeline of the gay-rights movement. Though kid-friendly, he says there is a lot for adults to learn as well, and many of his overwhelmingly positive reviews come from adults who were surprised by how little they knew about the movement.

“Most people have kind of a vague idea of some of the major points. You know, they’ve heard of the Oscar Wilde trials and they’ve heard of Harvey Milk and, you know, they’ve certainly heard of the AIDS crisis,” Pohlen says. “But [gay rights activism] really got going in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, before Stonewall even happened.”

Beyond the facts, there are lessons of courage children and adults can learn from the history of the gay rights movement.

“This is like the ultimate underdog story,” Pohlen says. “These first groups were just, you know, a dozen people getting together. And they ended up, you know, starting a revolution that really has resulted in our present day, near-full acceptance within American society. There was no indication when they started that that would ever be happening in their lifetime.”

Pohlen said that having a book like this when he was growing up in Colorado and serving as an altar boy in church, oblivious to the fact that there were people throughout time who felt just like he did, would have meant a lot to him.

“It certainly would have made me feel less alone at times,” Pohlen said.

Pohlen did not come out until he was in his 20s, but he says his family has been completely supportive ever since.

“They have been wonderful from the very first time that I spoke to them about it,” Pohlen says. “It’s been a nice ride.”

Pohlen dedicates the book to his mother, who he says taught him about empathy and compassion. When Pohlen was a kindergartener, she gave him a lesson in kindness that he says he has never forgotten. Pohlen’s mother, Barbara Jean Standiford Pohlen, had heard that there were neighbors telling their children to stay away from Charlie, an older man who lived across the street and had a mental disability.

“She explained in no uncertain terms, you know, that Charlie was a great guy and not to listen to anybody who told you otherwise,” Pohlen says.

Pohlen spent three years researching and writing the book. Though he said he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to include the ruling on marriage equality in the final copy, he had a hunch. He wrote a different ending in December of 2014, but knowing that the book wouldn’t be printed until August, he contacted his publisher when the Supreme Court agreed to hear Obergefell v. Hodges in January 2015.

“I talked to the publisher and said, ‘Can we just leave some space on the last page of the last chapter?’” Pohlen says. “When the ruling came down, we were able to include the final outcome of that case.” The back cover shows a picture from the night the White House was lit up like a rainbow in celebration of the decision.

Now that the book is out, he says he hopes that it can become widely-used in classrooms. He says it has been especially well-received by librarians.

“Information is information. History is history,” Pohlen says. “They’re not judging one way or another, but they’re offering it up to their students and their patrons as something that if that’s what they’re looking for, then it should be available.”

California, the only state that requires by law that school curriculum be LGBT-inclusive, may be his best shot of getting the book brought into classrooms, Pohlen says. He sent a copy of the book to the first high school in the country that offers an LGBT history course in San Francisco a few weeks ago. He says that he hopes to hear back from them soon.

In the meantime, Pohlen says he thinks Gay & Lesbian History for Kids can inspire more people to write LGBT nonfiction for the upper elementary audience that, up to this point, has been neglected.

“I don’t want anybody to thinkthat I have all of the answers on this, because I certainly know I don’t.” Pohlen says.“I think that there’s room for all kinds of material for children to help them better understand the world that they live in, and I hope more people write for this audience.”

There is also plenty of history yet to be made. Pohlen says the next big step toward equality will be improving the treatment of transgender individuals, in light of the defeat of the Houston Equal Rights ordinance.

“I think that there’s a lot of catching up to do, even within the gay and lesbian circle,” Pohlen says. “I don’t think that there’s not a desire to embrace the trans community, but I think that there’s maybe a lack of understanding, or of a full, active understanding of just how difficult it is for transgender Americans.”

But Pohlen says equality is on the horizon, and he looks forward to seeing the effect of better education on future generations.

Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century Long Struggle can be purchased at ChicagoReviewPress.com or ordered through your local book store.

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