Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, February 2019 Issue.

The Children of Harvey Milk: How LGBTQ Politicians Changed the World by Andrew Reynolds c.2019, Oxford University Press $34.95 / higher inCanada 354 pages

Your eyes are on 2020.

One election is past, and thoughts are on the next one: votes equal change, and you’re ready for it. You’ll be the next in a long line of changers, as you’ll see in the new book The Children of Harvey Milk by Andrew Reynolds.

In the latter part of June 1978, Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro Street,” called former Army nurse and Castro Street fixture Gilbert Baker and asked him to make something special for the upcoming Gay Freedom parade. At that time, the rainbow flag was “a rebel flag,” but Baker subsumed it into a symbol of pride.

By the end of that year, Milk was dead and rainbow flags were still “rare and exotic,” as were openly gay politicians. Just a handful of “LGB” people were in office around the world at that time; it would be years before the first openly trans individual would be elected.

Here, Reynolds tells their stories, and others, world-wide.

He begins with a battle in New Zealand’s Parliament that was narrowly-won, followed four years later by marriage equality victory in nearby Australia . He writes of two gay politicians who squared off in Great Britain , noting that laws against buggery were still on the books when they did battle. He tells of a Dutch politician who, by mere months, preceded Harvey Milk as the world’s first openly gay man to serve in office. And he shares a story of politics in Ireland , “the first country in the world to pass gay marriage by popular referendum.”

Closer to home, Reynolds writes about Barney Frank, his “first political battle” for civil rights in Mississippi, and the “undercelebrated” woman who inspired him. Reynolds recalls the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and what it was like to be active in politics then. He writes of trans politicians Sarah McBride and Danica Roem, and the fierce but highly ironic story of Pauli Murray, whose great-aunt’s land donation helped build a university that ultimately denied bathroom access to trans individuals.

If you see The Children of Harvey Milk on a shelf somewhere, you may be confused by the title. No, author Andrew Reynolds isn’t referring to small humans; his title instead refers to babes in political office, world-wide, who happen to be gay.

For some readers, that could present problems: fully half of Reynolds’ book is about politics overseas, and some of it won’t make sense unless you’ve got basic knowledge of how other governments work. Without it, you may not fully appreciate the significance of what you’ll read — and if that makes you feel a tinge of regretful isolationism, know that, happily, Reynolds is a good teacher.  Here, readers will easily learn, and what they learn is absolutely inspiring.

For political animals, this book is an easy choice. For the slightly clueless, it’s a know-your-history book that doesn’t dwell strictly domestically. For a casual reader, it may be challenging but, in the end, The Children of Harvey Milk could be the most informative book you’ll lay eyes on.

Growing Up Queer by Mary Robertson c.2019, NYU Press $26.00 / higher in Canada 224 pages

Growing up is hard.

Most sentient adults would agree and decline a chance to ‘teen again; between changing bodies, Mean Girls, bullies, and facing adulthood, it’s enough to have endured it once. But for kids who are “different” on top of all that, there’s hope, as Mary Robertson says in Growing Up Queer.

In the early years of the Obama administration, after the repeal of DADT and after three states made same-sex marriage legal, Robertson began volunteering at her local LGBT Resource Center, specifically, in the basement teen hang-out called Spectrum. She was working on research and she hoped, over time, to interview Spectrum’s teen clientele but she was nervous: as a cisgender straight woman, what would the kids tell her?

Plenty, as it turned out.

While there were gay, lesbian, and transgender teens at Spectrum, the majority of the youth Robertson studied called themselves “queer,” a wider sexuality- and gender-encompassing identity specifically separate from “gay” or “lesbian.” As one young man indicated, identifying as queer was easier than repeatedly resetting his self-identity as he learned more about himself and the people he might be attracted to.

Many of her interviewees told Robertson that they knew early in their lives that they were not heteronormal. Many teens told stories of recognizing their own interest in same-sex actors and performers when they were young, and of precocious self-acknowledgment of same-sex leanings. One claimed innocence that compelled him to ask for clarification on slurs, thus learning negativity about his feelings long before he knew his feelings “had a name.”

Robertson says that suicide rates for LGBTQ students are inflated, but she also notes that today’s queer teens have access to an abundance of support: her subjects often noted family attitudes that have shifted with the times, and there seems to be more acceptance from peers. Gay-Straight Alliances weren’t widely known in high schools until the 1990s but today, most larger schools have a GSA and nearly every state in the U.S. has at least one LGBT center. For her queer subjects, this is good news, says Robertson.

On the future, she says, “This is what gives it so much promise.”

As eye-opening and reassuring as it is, this book may be a challenge.

Growing Up Queer can sometimes read like a thesis paper made of cardboard, perhaps due to its original intent for research. When the narrative dips like that, it feels a lot like when your newly-PhD’d brother expounds on his favorite subject: it grows complicated, often unnecessary, and sometimes redundant.

Thankfully, author Mary Robertson gets out of the way enough to make a reader want to forgive such transgressions and just enjoy the teens she meets. There’s life in them, deep introspection and philosophical thought, as well as acceptance covered slightly with the scabs of perseverance. Their voices are real and need no explaining.

Indeed, they do offer hope.

That makes this book accessible, but academics may get more from it than will casual readers. Tackle Growing Up Queer if you wish, but understanding may come hard.


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