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Why I Wrote a Gay History Book for Kids

GAY AND LESBIAN HISTORY FOR KIDS

Growing up in Colorado, I frequently heard the story of Katharine Lee Bates being inspired to write the poem “America,” which later became the song “America, the Beautiful,” from the summit of Pikes Peak. It was often relayed with a healthy dose of state pride — only a Colorado mountain could inspire such a magnificent, patriotic song — as if the mountain had written the poem itself.

Seldom discussed was how Bates, an English professor from Massachusetts, ended up on that mountaintop in 1893, and I never heard anything about her professional accomplishments or personal life, including her 28-year “Boston marriage” with fellow professor Katharine Coman. And though some may argue that her sexuality is immaterial to the story, they’re wrong. It is no less important than knowing John Newton’s history in the slave trade before writing “Amazing Grace,” or that Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the shelling of Fort McHenry from the deck of a British warship.

The original “America” poem is partially a travelogue of Bates and Coman’s summer trip to Colorado College to be guest lecturers. On their way west, they visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and marveled at the gleaming “alabaster city.” On the Fourth of July their train rolled across the Great Plains as they watched the wheat fields wave in the breeze. Bates wrote in her diary that she was “a better American for such a Fourth.” And later, when she sat down at the Antlers Hotel to pen the first lines of her poem, it was in a room the couple shared.

Knowing that Bates was lesbian certainly would have made a difference to me, growing up as a queer kid. For many years I was an altar boy at St. Francis of Assisi in nearby Castle Rock. The church sat on a bluff overlooking town and pointed directly at Pikes Peak. Rather than put stained glass behind the altar, the architect installed eight enormous plate glass windows, which offered the congregation a clear, unfiltered view of the mountain. When we served, my brothers and I had the best seat in the house, and when I wasn’t ringing bells or fetching the wine, I would stare out at the Front Range and daydream, and that song often came to mind. I doubt I would have felt as alone in my thoughts had I known that the woman who wrote that famous song was a lot like me.

When I started writing Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, I knew I had to begin atop Pikes Peak with Bates and Coman. The book should be as clear and unfiltered as the view from St. Francis — no need to view it through a lavender pane, or any other color, for that matter. It has been my experience that children don’t want a filter anyway; they prefer honesty.

Fortunately, honesty is at the core of LGBT history. So is courage and creativity and love. Courage, like transgender pioneer Christine Jorgenson stepping off the plane from Copenhagen and into a mob of 300 reporters and photographers. Creativity, as when Mark Allan Segal disrupted Walter Cronkite’s news broadcast and ultimately changed how the anchorman reported LGBT stories. And love, the kind shared by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, together for 55 years yet legally married for just the last 10 weeks.

Our struggle is also a tale of hard work and determination. Like pit bulls who wouldn’t surrender a dishrag, for more than a half century Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny dragged queer issue after queer issue into the light and demanded that American institutions — the government, the psychiatric and medical communities, the military, and more — face the reality that LGBT citizens are entitled to the same rights as everyone else.

In the end, what surprised me most while writing the book was the underlying current of inevitability. Each time the LGBT community was knocked down, it came back even stronger. We’ve won most of the battles we’ve engaged and will eventually win the rest. Looking at our history, I’m sure of that. But that is not to say anyone should become complacent. We can’t get to the summit of Pikes Peak without finding a path and taking every step to the top. But when we get there, I for one will enjoy the view.
 

JEROME POHLEN
JEROME POHLEN is a former elementary school science teacher, an engineer, an editor, and the author of Gay & Lesbian History for Kids and Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids, a 2013 VOYA Nonfiction Honor List Title. He lives in Chicago.  

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