My mother lied to me when I was a child.
Now, I don’t want to be hard on her. After all, I grew up at a time when lying to children was routine. Any topic that embarrassed adults was deemed inappropriate for kids—sex, bodily functions, adult foibles of all kinds, finances, birth, death . . . sex.
My mother, however, was probably better at lying than most. She not only lied with her silence on all those terrible topics. When asked a direct question she lied to my face.
An example: Not a word was spoken in front of us kids about my aunt Carol’s divorce. When it occurred to me one day to ask, “Didn’t there used to be an Uncle Kenny?” my mother said simply, flatly, “No.” And I was left to struggle with my memories of the man who had fathered my little cousin.
The result? Years later when I began writing novels for young people, I had one overarching goal. To be a truth teller. No matter what topic I took on, I wrote it straight. For instance, in 1977 I published a novel for middle graders that dealt with sexual molestation in the name of Jesus. You’d better believe I had a reputation in my field, and I was proud of it.
I was not my mother. I could be counted on never to lie to my readers, either by my silence or by my words.
Life never happens in a straight line, though. About fifteen years into my career, a change came along, a deep one. I left my marriage of 28 years and formed a relationship with a woman. I was entirely open about who I’d discovered myself to be. I was open with my young-adult children, with my elderly mother, with my husband’s congregation as I left the marriage (he was a pastor), with my writing students, with my friends. Some accepted this new knowledge of me, some turned away, but being open was the only way I knew to live, so I hid nothing, except . . .
Have I mentioned that I am a children’s writer?
Have I mentioned that this all happened twenty five years ago?
Have I mentioned that a librarian in California said to me one day, speaking of a well-known picture-book writer, “We know he died of AIDS, but we don’t say it, because his books would stop selling instantly.”
Have I mentioned that publishing and speaking with a bit of teaching on the side is my only source of income?
Have I mentioned that I like to eat?
Just as I was turning this corner in my life, my career was blossoming. My novel, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor Award. I was traveling all over the country, speaking to young people and to adults. I was still writing about hard topics, topics I cared about passionately. I was still a truth teller, except for this one small matter of who I was . . . and . . . well, I had to survive, didn’t I?
Then one day the inevitable happened. I looked at myself and asked, What kind of a truth-teller are you? You live in a world where young people are dying—literally killing themselves—for lack of support and information about their sexuality. They are dying because no one is willing to tell them that they can be who they are and still live a happy, productive life.
You, I reminded myself, are in a unique position to reach them. And you are choosing silence.
What else could I do? I had to come out professionally, but I needed to do it quietly, because I am at my core a quiet person, and I needed to do it in a way that would be useful rather than sensational.
My first thought was to go to other gay and lesbian children’s writers—there are lots of us floating around out here—and say, “Come out with me. Let’s put together a book of our own coming-out stories so gay and lesbian kids will know we’re here.” But before I’d extended the first invitation I realized I couldn’t do that. The decision to come out is always personal, and at that time it would have been more than personal. Coming out could have been career destroying for anyone writing for young people. A person can choose that kind of risk, but no one can ask it of anyone else.
And so I came up with a different approach. First I found a courageous editor who accepted my plan. Then I approached other writers in my field without regard to their sexuality. I chose people whose names would be noticed and whose work would be fine—I wanted librarians to feel obligated to put the book on their shelves—and asked them each to write a short story for me. My only requirement was that the story center on a gay or lesbian character. The collection came to be called Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, and it was published almost 20 years ago to more acclaim than I could have dreamed.
And that would be the end of this story except for one thing. I was working with two editors at the time. One happened to be a gay man, the other a lesbian. When they learned what I was doing, the man supported me—in fact, he contributed a story to my collection—but the woman was very concerned. She didn’t say it, but I knew she was afraid she would never be able to publish me again.
When Am I Blue? was almost completed the editor who had been my supporter asked a question: Are you going to come out in your personal essay attached to the short story you’ve contributed to the collection? I told him I was, that coming out was, for me, part of the point.
His support vanished.
I was thrown off balance. Should I revise my essay? I still had time, but just barely. People were going to guess anyway because my name was on the collection as the editor. Was it better to leave them guessing?
Then my other editor, the one who had never wanted me to do the book, asked the same question. I gave her the same answer and held my breath, waiting for the inevitable response. What I got was silence, a long silence. Then she sighed and said something I’ve never forgotten. “Well,” she said, “maybe for every door that’s closed another will be opened.”
That, I said to myself, sounds exactly right, and I let my essay stand.
In case you haven’t guessed, I am still eating.
I’m proud that Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence has played its small part in the revolution we’ve all witnessed these past 20 years. I’m grateful for the letters I’ve received telling me how those stories changed lives, even saved lives. And I’m delighted to say that last year I contributed an essay to a book called The Letter Q. The book is comprised of essays from 64 different gay and lesbian writers for young people, all of us acknowledging our sexuality and offering advice to our younger, less certain selves.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the impulse is that sends us on our journeys. It matters only that we set off, taking each step with as much conviction and self-honesty as we can muster.
Who knew that my mother’s well-intentioned lies would give me the gift of truth?