A Q&A with Michael Bronski
Even though some states have recently passed legislation requiring inclusive curricula in public schools, many LGBTQ students still grow up without ever seeing themselves reflected in textbooks and history lessons. According to a 2017 report by GLSEN, less than twenty percent of LGBTQ students in the United States are taught positive representations of queer people or queer history in their schools. That’s where Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States for Young People comes in. Adapted by Richie Chevat, the book shows that queer people have long been vital to shaping our understanding of what America is today. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Bronski to ask about the inspiration behind the book, what’s new in this edition, and more.
Christian Coleman: How did the idea of publishing a young adult edition of A Queer History of the United States come about?
Michael Bronski: The idea for YA versions of books in Beacon’s ReVisioning American History series largely came from educators and librarians. My editor, Gayatri Patnaik, and I learned that teachers were looking for resources, and Gayatri suggested we answer their call with a young reader’s edition. With support from the Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility, senior editor Joanna Green reached out to educators, librarians, and adapters, who generously and enthusiastically collaborated on this effort. At the moment, Beacon is releasing my book A Queer History of the United States for Young People as well as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. There have been, in the past five years or so, a surge in YA nonfiction publishing, particularly adaptations of adult non-fiction for younger readers. So, the time seemed right, and the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall seemed to be perfect timing.
CC: What about the project excited you?
MB: I think what excited me most about the project was having the chance to rethink so much of this material. Not only because it was for younger readers—although that was a challenge—but rather going back to the original sources and finding new insights. This material is so rich that there are always fresh angles to be discovered. For example, I discovered, after I had published the original book, that the emotional relationship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette was so intense—as we see in their letters in the book—that Lafayette named his son after Washington (Georges Washington Louis Gilbert de Lafayette), and when he died was buried with coil from Mt. Vernon that he had transported back to France for this purpose. I included this information in the YA version of the work.
CC: What are some examples of changes made from or added to the original publication?
MB: Aside from new details I discovered—such as Lafayette naming his son after George Washington—the major change in the YA version is that I take the history up to the present. A Queer History of the United States essentially ended in 1992 with a nod to the activism that had happened since then. But this book includes people and events that are still in today’s headlines. I write about Aiden DeStefano’s lawsuit against his high school for not allowing trans-inclusive locker rooms. He won the first round of the suit, and just last week he won an appeal. So, the book is very much up to date.
The other big change is that this is not the usual narrative history that covers 500 years in sweeping strokes. Because it is a YA book, the format had to be different, and I break the story down to thirty-four short chapters that focus on individuals or themes, so the sweep of 500 years is now more personalized through a series of short, detailed portraits and vignettes. It is a different way of telling history and it gave me more freedom to explore the lives of these incredible people—such as Public Universal Friend, Victoria Woodhull, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson—many of whom only got a sentence or two in the original book.
CC: Were there any challenges with adapting the text for a younger readership?
MB: Yes, challenges that Joanna and I never even imagined when we began. The main challenge was that a YA book is completely different from an adult book, and we were enormously helped and guided by Richie Chevat—listed as the adapter—who has written and adapted numerous books for young people before. The main challenge was to tell the entire story through the lens of smaller stories and to always keep in mind that each piece of the mosaic had to tell an important part of the larger story. There was no problem with the material—this is not a “cleaned up” version of LGBTQ history for kids—and all of the individuals in the book are presented as complicated, complex people who have faults and sometimes serious problems. Young people today are sophisticated and intelligent to know that people, even heroic people who change the world, are complicated.
CC: Who are some of your favorite historical figures that you’ve written about in the book?
MB: One of my favorite people in the book is Charlotte Cushman, who was one of the most famous and critically acclaimed actors of the nineteenth century. She lived a very public life with a series of women partners who were accepted as her spouses. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the leading British poets of the time, said that Cushman and Matilda Hayes “made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other—they live together, dress alike . . . it is a female marriage.” However, we know from Cushman’s letters that they were certainly not celibate. Cushman played many roles but was famous for playing male parts and was celebrated for playing Romeo to her sister Susan’s Juliet.
I also am intrigued by Felix Gonzalez–Torres, a Cuban-American artist who did some of the most important work reflecting the loss and pain of HIV/AIDS epidemic. His 1991 installation Untitled (Placebo) consisted of a pile of hard candies the exact weight of a human being in a corner of the museum. Visitors are urged to take a piece of candy, and during the day the pile becomes increasingly diminished like the body of a person who is suffering from HIV/AIDS. The installation was inspired by the death of Gonzalez–Torres’s lover, Ross Laycock, who died shortly before the piece was conceived.
CC: Why do you think it’s important for educators to have a resource like this in the classroom?
MB: In both this book and the original A Queer History of the United States, I say, counter-intuitively, that there is no such thing as gay American history: there is only American history. Unfortunately, historically, many LGBTQ people, as well as other minoritized people, have been left out—erased—from the “official” history of America. All I have tried to do in each of these books is to give a fuller, more complete picture of how the United States evolved and who took part in that. Most, if not all, educators want to give their students the most rounded, full education possible. The problem is that they do not have all the resources easily available. And let’s not forget that middle-school and high-school teachers are incredibly over worked, underpaid, and generally unappreciated. It would take a prohibitively large amount of time to do the research required to bring all of this “erased” material into the classroom, as it is not in the assigned history texts that are used. I hope that both of these books will be useful tools for teachers—as well as students—to see the full range and scope of American history.
CC: And what would you like for educators and kids to take away from the book, especially now with the news of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera getting statues made in their honor in NYC?
I think there is an easy lesson to take away from A Queer History of the United States for Young People. LGBTQ people have always been a part of American history. They helped shape it, move it forward, and are integral to it today. They are not separate from American history but rather they are part of it. This is slowing changing, and we now see historians considering how the sexual identity of historical figures may have played a part in their lives. Also, we as a culture are coming to a better understanding of what is important in our history. Just recently, New York City announced it was going to erect a memorial to Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two of the founders of transgender activism just after the Stonewall riots. This is great and should be applauded. But we also need to remember—and teach—their lives in the full tapestry of American history and how important they were in shaping and improving the lives of so many people in their time and later.
About Michael Bronski
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.