In this installment of Author showcase we speak with Lee Wind. Lee tells stories – true and fictional – that center marginalized kids and teens and celebrate their power to change the world.
Q What made you decide to start writing queer material for kids? Were there things you wish you had seen when you were growing up?
I remember the exact moment when I was 11 years old when I realized I was attracted to other guys… and how, less than two minutes later, I knew I had to keep that a secret from the people that were supposed to love me best, my family. I was closeted for 14 years, until I was 25, and so much of what I do now is write the books (and produce the podcasts) that would have changed my life if I’d read (or listened) to them when I was that 11, or 13, or 15 year old scared gay kid, who thought he was the only guy to like-like other guys in the history of the world…
I don’t have a Time Machine to travel back and share these stories — and Queer history — with myself, so I’m paying it forward, holding safe space, and empowering LGBTQIA2+ teens and their allies today, with the hope that they can be authentic now, or at least, as soon as it’s safe for them to do so.
Q Your book Queer as a five-dollar bill interweaves the idea of Abraham Lincoln and the coming out story of a teenager, what inspired you to come up with the story?
So all the time I was closeted I dated girls – I judged that it was the right thing to do, what my family wanted, what society wanted, but I didn’t feel what I knew I was supposed to feel, what all the love songs told me I was supposed to feel. Until at last I got honest with myself and others and came out as gay. Dating guys, I finally felt what everyone was talking about when it came to attraction, and crushes, and love.
It was about ten years after I came out that I heard a talk by Randy Harrison (not the actor) about the letters Abraham Lincoln wrote to Joshua Fry Speed that convinced him that Abraham was in love with Joshua. I didn’t believe it, but couldn’t get the idea out of my mind – Abraham Lincoln? The guy on Mount Rushmore? On the penny? On the Five-Dollar Bill? I went to the library and got a book out that included the letters, and I flipped to this page where Abraham was asking Joshua “Are you now in feeling as well as in judgment glad that you are married as you are?”
I got goosebumps. That was EXACTLY how I had felt dating girls. And there, in history, was a reflection of me. Abraham and Joshua had lived together for four years, and then Joshua moved back to Kentucky and married a women named Fanny. This letter was written 8 months later, and Abraham apologizes for the question and then says he’s impatient for the answer. We don’t have Joshua’s response, but we do know it was only a few weeks later that Abraham married Mary Todd. So maybe Abraham also judged marrying Mary the right thing to do, but didn’t feel it… Just like me. Maybe Abraham Lincoln was gay!
I dove into the primary sources, and became convinced: Abraham Lincoln was in love with this other guy. I wrote a novel about a closed gay teen who is inadvertently dating his best friend (a girl) and stumbles upon the same Lincoln letter, has the same goosebump moment I did, and decides to out Abraham Lincoln to change how everyone sees gay people. This triggers a huge conservative backlash and media firestorm.
Doing the research for the novel so much evidence came up that I realized maybe there was another book, not just about Abraham and Joshua, but about how history is taught as this false facade, and doesn’t really include the stories of people of color, or women, or Indigenous people, or disabled people, and certainly not men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside the gender binary. Abraham being in love with Joshua is one chapter of No Way, They Were Gay?, my award-winning nonfiction book for readers ages 11 and up.
Q Why was it important to you to put out Queer as a five-dollar bill as a free podcast?
No Way, They Were Gay? has been banned in a few states, and is on a bunch of conservative lists of “obscene” books – but there’s nothing obscene in it. What’s obscene is this calculated effort by the desperate people in power to push whole communities back into the closet, to once again marginalize Queer people (and other minorities), to control women’s bodies, to criminalize Trans people’s lives, and to deny democracy itself by manipulating voting rights and districts and elections to hold onto power as our population becomes majority non-white.
And then, in Florida, they put forth this law preventing any discussion of Queer lives or loves from grades K through 12! There’s a chilling effect happening, and it really impacts books like mine – every teacher, every librarian, now has to ask themselves if they’re willing to risk the uproar, the backlash, and maybe even their jobs just by bringing in a book about Queer history, or with a Queer character… and it leaves Queer teens without access to information that could change their lives. And it leaves everyone else without access to empathy for marginalized people and communities that those books could provide.
I was looking at all this, wondering what can I do? And I thought about the brilliant job Michael Crouch did narrating the audiobook of Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. And I thought about podcasts, and how nobody’s banning podcasts (at least, not yet.) And I realized that I could go around the book banners, and make the audiobook a podcast that could directly reach everyone, for free, anywhere! And deliver that empowering message to readers directly. Because, like the tag-line of the book says, “What if you knew a secret from history that could change the world?”
Q Besides writing kids books you also have day jobs with the Independent Book Publishers Association and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, do you have any tips on keeping productive in writing with a full schedule?
The brilliant Newbery-winning author Linda Sue Park gave me this advice, and it’s transformed my productivity. Set aside 12 minutes a day – set the timer on your phone, and tell yourself, I just have to focus for 12 minutes. If you have time to continue, and it’s flowing, you can do more, but do that 12 minutes every day. By staying in the book, your mind works on it in the background, and it doesn’t take a long time to get flowing again.
I’ve been more productive these past few years of doing these 12-minute writing sprints — even with a full-time and part-time job — than I ever was back when I was a stay-at home dad and I had all the time my kiddo was in school, back when I thought I needed a block of three hours to get anything creative done. I have no internal resistance to 12 minutes. I can always find 12 minutes. And, I suggest, so can you.
Q As an author who has had their books banned, what do you think the best response is to this movement to get rid of Queer literature for children?
Get loud in your support of the freedom to read. Parents can certainly have input into what their children read, but nobody should be controlling what other people’s kids read.
The conservative forces have coordinated their attacks on books with Queer and Black characters and history. We need to be allies across all the groups under attack, and we need our allies to be loud as well. Loud can mean many things — protesting at a march, posting on social media, talking at a family event, running for school board, voting… But keep in mind that there is no such thing as a silent ally.
Q I know you are just putting out your podcast but do you have any ideas on your next project?
Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill: The Podcast will include two bonus episodes that are world-premieres:
The first is the audio of the Lincoln chapter from No Way, They Were Gay? I’m super excited to have all the evidence about Lincoln being in love with another man be part of the podcast! That chapter is also available as a free PDF to download from my website, thanks to the awesome folks at my publisher, Zest Books/Lerner Publishing Group.
The second is a sneak peek at the introduction of my next nonfiction book in the Queer History Project series, The Gender Binary is a Big Lie. Spoiler alert: it is. That books comes out (also from Lerner) in April 2024!
Q} if people want more info about you or your projects where should they go?
Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill: The Podcast is available everywhere you get podcasts, and my website is leewind.org — you’ll find all the links, and lots more, there.
Final four questions –we ask everybody
Q) When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
I’ll be on the island of last human hold-outs, leading the fight for the best parts of our humanity to survive. And when I say “leading the fight” I guess I mean I’d be the resident librarian and storyteller on that island – to remind us what we’re fighting for.
Q ) What is your favorite Fandom
When Star Trek at long, long, long last had Queer people in the future (thank you, Star Trek: Discovery), they won my heart. Beam me up!
Q) What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
I’m a big action movie buff, but I have to say that books are magical empathy machines. There’s no one book I would recommend, but I hope that everyone has a chance to read a book and feel truly seen — to identify so strongly with the character and feel like that was you, to know you and your experience were represented. That’s powerful.
And I hope that everyone has a chance to read a book about someone who on the surface may seem so different than them, but in reading it they discover our shared humanity. That is the kind of empathy that can open minds, and hearts, and change our world for the better.
Those are the kinds of books I strive to write, and love to read.
Q) Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
I’m not bad at throwing and catching a frisbee…