First-of-its-Kind Kid’s Book Puts LGBT History into Perspective

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Peruse the bookshelves of any public or school library, and you will probably not find books about LGBT history for young readers. That’s about to change. Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities (Chicago Review Press, ages 9+) by children’s book author Jerome Pohlen is due out in October. Its aim is to enlighten young readers about the impact and contributions LGBT people have made to the world throughout the centuries, and explains how more recent issues evolved into where they stand today.

The author’s motivation behind writing an LGBT history book for young readers is clear. “I can’t imagine not teaching LGBT history in today’s world,” says Pohlen, a former elementary school teacher.

“Children don’t live in a bubble—LGBT stories are on the news, LGBT characters appear on many television shows, and children have LGBT family members, neighbors, and friends,” Pohlen points out. “This book will help all kids better understand the world they live in, and isn’t that the goal of education?”

With today’s headlines focusing more and more on LGBT equality issues, it would be easy for young people to assume the fight for equality is a recent phenomenon. Pohlen’s book, which took three years to research and write, begins with a personal story of a more current issue, marriage equality, then it widens the scope for readers by stepping back to give a brief history up to the year 1900. Interestingly enough, the book explains how LGBT people have been around since the beginning of human civilization and then goes on to support the claim by citing examples in Ancient Greece, Greek Mythology, Ancient China, and the Roman Empire, where some Roman men married one another. Each subsequent chapter covers an era in the struggle for LGBT civil rights from the 1920s to today.

A detailed timeline allows the reader to see at a glance the impact LGBT people have made on society, as well as the resistance the community encountered along the way. The timeline begins in 570 BC with the death of the Greek poet Sappho who wrote about love between women and ran a school for women on the island of Lesbos, and it ends with the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality.

The Stonewall Inn. Photo by Travis Wise
The Stonewall Inn. Photo Travis Wise

Between those two dates, the book includes numerous events that shaped the LGBT equality movement, like the 1950s “Lavender Scare,” the Stonewall Inn uprising, the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the formation of ACT UP in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and the fight to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder from psychiatric medical manuals. Stories about widely known LGBT figures, such as Harvey Milk, Larry Kramer, Bayard Rustin, Matthew Shepard, and Barbara Gittings introduce readers to the various struggles LGBT people have faced in the past 65 years. Pohlen delves further back in history to include figures such as Native American two-spirit person We’wah,  Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first gay rights activist, Leonardo da Vinci, Katherine Lee Bates, and Jane Adams.

How can Pohlen include historical figures in an LGBT history book if their sexual orientation was never revealed? Where’s the proof? Pohlen says he does not subscribe to the societal notion that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, and in those instance where there is not definitive proof, he uses a qualifier.

“Katherine Bates (who wrote “America the Beautiful”) was partnered with Katharine Coman for 30 years,” says Pohlen. “When Coman died, Bates wrote her a book of poems describing their relationship as ‘one soul together.’ To act as if they weren’t most likely lesbians, simply because they didn’t shout it from the top of Pikes Peak, makes no sense to me.”

Telling Stories Needing to Be Told

Pohlen’s writing style is conversational and he has a gift for storytelling. The majority of the text gives the reader a sense you are simply having a nice chat about Walt Whitman’s sexuality, or hearing about the first LGBT riots that occurred at Cooper’s Donuts in downtown Los Angeles. In actuality, readers are getting a lesson in LGBT history through personal stories and firsthand accounts of key events in the fight for LGBT rights. More complex issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the government’s blatant disregard for the epidemic, might be slightly complicated for young readers to grasp. Yet, the story needs to be told, and Pohlen does it in great detail, making sure the reader understands the impact AIDS had on the LGBT community.

The same holds true for hate crime stories included in the book. Whether you’re an adult or a young person, it’s difficult to hear the account of Matthew Shepard’s beating and how he was left tied to a fence to die. But it’s harder to wrap your head around why Rev. Fred Phelps, the head of a Baptist Church, would stage a protest outside of the hospital where Shepard had passed away, in celebration of Shepard’s death. Pohlen leads the reader to understand how Shepard’s murder help personalize for many Americans the violent acts against the LGBT community. In turn, Shepard’s death created change, and led to the Hate Crime Prevention Act.

Making It Relatable

When selecting who to include in Gay and Lesbian History for Kids, the author focused on people who played the most essential roles in LGBT rights. When telling their stories, Pohlen tried to find elements that young people might find most interesting. “I included a supportive letter sent by the nation’s first famous transgender woman, Christine Jorgenson, from her parents when she was recovering from sex-reassignment surgery,” explains Pohlen. “A reader might not understand what it is like to be transgender, but most could understand what it would be like to be in a hospital thousands of miles away from home and get a letter from your parents.”

According to Pohlen, once a reader can relate to a subject on a human level, more complex issues become easier to grasp.

The NAMES Project AIDS quilt. Photo by Bruce Monroe
The NAMES Project AIDS quilt. Photo by Bruce Monroe

Another way Pohlen connects the reader to the text is through 21 hands-on activities. For instance, after learning about the AIDS crisis and the NAMES Project foundation, readers make a quilt panel to remember a love one. 

No More Erasing History

Teaching LGBT history in schools, like many LGBT issues, is controversial. Pohlen is a strong believer in teaching history truthfully. “History is history, and it shouldn’t be erased, as it has been in the past, when it includes an LGBT element,” he says.

Alan Turing, a gay man who led the team that cracked the German Enigma code is a good example. “Turing likely shortened World War II through his efforts,” explains Pohlen. “Children learning about the war should know this. Some people may ask whether his sexual orientation matters in telling this story. Of course it does,” says Pohlen. “It mattered to the police who later persecuted Turing for being gay, it mattered to government officials who destroyed his career as a security risk, and it mattered to Turing, who took his own life as a result.” 

Questioned about a possible backlash to his book, Pohlen was optimistic, saying he is expecting the best, and he finds people are more open-minded than we give them credit. If, however, a teacher or librarian has a problem teaching from his book, Pohlen had some advice.

“Ask the person to be specific about their objection. I think it would be quite apparent from their response that they had not read the book, but were making assumptions as to the content. This is not How to Be Gay for Kids. It’s Gay and Lesbian History for Kids. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, and she was a lesbian. Anyone who claims this fact is somehow out of bounds is advocating for ignorance, and that’s a pretty difficult point to start from.”

Pohlen’s hope is to see more LGBT issues and concerns integrated into schools. “Children have a right to understand the world around them, and the LGBT community is a part of this world,” says Pohlen. He goes on to say, “In recent years, educators have made great advances in bringing more stories of women and people of color into the classroom curriculum, and the same should be true of LGBT individuals’ stories.”

Seeking LGBT Role Models

The author, Jerome Pohlen (right) with his husband, Jim Frost. Photo by Jerome Pohlen
The author, Jerome Pohlen (right) with his husband, Jim Frost. Photo by Jerome Pohlen

A book like his would have been helpful to Pohlen growing up. Unlike today, Pohlen grew up in an era where almost no LGBT characters appeared in TV shows, and there were no LGBT role models for him to look to for guidance. Pohlen says he was completely in the dark about how to put a name to his feelings. Funny enough, it was the anti-gay crusade launched by Anita Bryant in Florida that clued Pohlen in. “Bryant’s crusade was all over the news in 1977. I remember thinking, So that’s what I am!” shares Pohlen.

I gravitated towards LGBT actors, usually comedians—Charles Nelson Reilly, Lily Tomlin, Paul Lynde—not because I knew they were gay, but I could relate to their odd sense of humor.”

Pohlen admits it’s strange that an anti-gay crusader helped him feel better about himself. “I thought being demonized by such an unpleasant person was a badge of honor—and screwball comedians helped me laugh at the bullies,” he jokes.

LGBT History In Full View

What’s the take away Pohlen wants readers to have after learning about LGBT history in his book? “Determination and hard work pay off,” says Pohlen, in reference to the LGBT individuals and the organizations who work tirelessly for social change in the LGBT community.

Gay & Lesbian History for Kids is unprecedented. The impactful stories and the extraordinary figures shared in the book will no longer be hidden from young readers. Rather, a discussion about these topics puts LGBT history into perspective for readers, young and old. Pohlen’s book has earned a spot on the bookshelves where, for far too long, LGBT history has been excluded.

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Theresa Volpe
Theresa is the Managing Editor of ProudYouth and a Board member for One Million Kids For Equality. In her role with ProudYouth, Theresa works with a team of volunteer copy editors and youth contributors to develop, improve, and implement ProudYouth editorial guidelines. She also helps youth contributors by offering journalistic advice to help them present their ideas in a coherent and logical way. She is one of two lesbian moms that challenged Illinois' ban on same-sex marriage in court. Theresa brings over 25 years of editorial and publishing experience to her role with ProudYouth.

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