History has often ignored men who loved men, women who loved women, and people who lived outside gender boundaries. In No Way, They Were Gay?: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves, author Lee Wind examines primary source letters, poems, and more to rethink the lives and loves of historical figures.
Today Lee joins us to give readers insight into the inspiration and purpose of this fascinating YA nonfiction!
Why this book?
In 2011 I heard a talk about the letters that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed, letters that convinced the speaker that Abraham and Joshua were in love. I’d been out for a long time, and had never heard of this. And I thought, no way.
Everything up until then that I had learned about history taught me that history is the story of rich, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, hetero men from Europe. And maybe a few from America, like Abraham Lincoln. He couldn’t possibly have been gay!
But I couldn’t shake the idea, so I went to the library and got copies of the letters. I didn’t come out as a gay man until my twenties, and I spent a lot of time and energy in high school and college and grad school dating girls, judging it the right thing to do, but not feeling it. It was what my homophobic family, and my homophobic culture wanted, but I just didn’t feel what I was supposed to. And I kept hoping the feelings would come. They didn’t, and I finally got honest with myself (at 21) and with the rest of the world (at 23) and with my family (at 25.)
Back in the 1840s, Abraham and Joshua had lived together for four years, they shared a bed that whole time, and then Joshua moves back to Kentucky and marries this woman named Fanny. Eight months later, Abraham writes him and asks, “Are you now in feeling, as well as judgment, glad that you are married as you are? From anybody but me this would be an impudent question, not to be tolerated, but I know you will tolerate it from me.” And then he ends the letter asking for an answer quickly, as he’s impatient to know.
We don’t have Joshua’s answer, but it was only four weeks later that Abraham married Mary Todd.
I had goosebumps. Abraham was describing exactly how I had felt, back when I was in the closet. In judgment, but not in feeling. And I thought, maybe they were in love…
I started to do more and more research, and I became convinced: Yes, Abraham was in love with Joshua. And I couldn’t shake the thought of how knowing this, even hearing the possibility of the 16th president of the United States having been in love with another guy, would have changed my whole life.
That if I had heard about this when I was 11, or 15, or heck, any time before I was 25, maybe I would have found the courage to be my authentic self earlier. Maybe I could have accepted my own difference, knowing I wasn’t alone in the world, alone in history.
No Way, They Were Gay? is all about tearing down that false heterosexual and cis-gendered façade of history. Because the story of Abraham and Joshua being in love is just one crack in that false façade that starts to let some rainbow light shine through. And there are so many more stories that can tear that wall down and fill our world with light and hope. Stories of men who loved men, and women who loved women, and people who lived outside gender boundaries—all of whom made real history, too.
These stories can empower us, and I’m excited to share them in this book.
Did you always like history?
A: Ha! No, I actually hated history. The way it was taught in school, it was all about memorizing names and dates, and there was never anyone like me in those history books.
What’s so ironic is that now I’m obsessed with history—LGBTQIA2+ history, that is—and I collect the stories like other people collect salt and pepper shakers, or snow globes.
There are so many surprising people in history who are part of our Queer heritage. Mahatma Gandhi and the soul mate of his life, Hermann Kallenbach. William Shakespeare and the 126 love sonnets he wrote to another guy. Sappho and her love poems about loving women that changed our whole culture. Eleanor Roosevelt who loved Lorena Hickok and wore her ring. The Pharaoh Hatshepsut who changed their public image from that of a woman to that of a man over 22 years of ruling Egypt. We’wha, the Zuni who charmed 1880s Washington D.C. as a “princess” – but no one knew of their third-gender status.
I’ve collected the most surprising stories—and the primary sources that back them up—in this book. And I think it can change everything.
How can knowing the past change anything about the present, or the future?
If young LGBTQIA2+ people today know that pride didn’t begin at Stonewall in 1969, but that Queer people have existed for as far back as history goes, in every culture all over our world, then they’ll know that they are not alone.
They’ll know that they have a place at the table today.
And knowing they have a place at the table today, they’ll be able to envision a limitless future.
How is this appropriate for kids? Aren’t they too young to know about sex?
That’s the thing: we’re not talking about sex. We’re talking about love, and identity. There’s no age too young to know about men loving other men, or women loving other women, or people who love other people no matter their gender, or people living outside gender boundaries. Love is the glue that holds every family together. And identity is not so binary as the folks in charge would have us believe.
What about all the historians who don’t agree with you?
They’ve had hundreds of years and tens of thousands of books to make their case – that every man in history loved a woman, and that every woman in history loved a man, and that every person fit neatly into one of two gender boxes.
The problem is: that’s completely untrue. And they know it. Our Queer history has been burned, torn up, hidden, disrespected, coded, and only very rarely shared.
No Way, They Were Gay? sets aside all that, and lets the voices of these people from history speak for themselves. With reproductions of primary sources and chatty “pop up” commentaries, it’s an eye-opening ride through the history they’ve been keeping from us. And every reader gets to decide for themselves what they believe.
I don’t need to convince anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong about who loved who, or who lived how. There’s this great saying by Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, where she explains that lighthouses don’t run all over an island looking for boats to save. They just stand there and shine. This book is another light in my lighthouse. With all this big, beautiful, rainbow light of history shining out. People are welcome to come to the light, or stay away—I can’t control that. But the light’s shining bright. That’s what I focus on.
What’s your hope for No Way, They Were Gay?
My hope is really for readers. I hope that this book helps them be more critical and questioning consumers of history as it’s packaged for us. That they start to dig into primary source materials themselves. That they find the true stories of under-represented people that resonate for them, too.
Because history is also the stories of women, and poor people, and people of color, and disabled people, and people from all over the world, and just as importantly, men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries.
Because we all deserve to know that we’re not the first person like us to walk on this planet.
Because we can all be better allies to each other.
And I guess it would be amazing if No Way, They Were Gay? was used in schools, so maybe we could start teaching a more inclusive history. That would be a powerful step forward that could really change individual students’ lives, as well as the culture in schools.
And if there were GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) clubs out there that would want to read it like a book club – that would be so cool, because the book’s all about empowering LGBTQIA2+ kids and teens and their allies. And I can’t wait for them to read it.
Is there more?
There’s so much more. No Way, They Were Gay? is the first book in the QUEER HISTORY PROJECT series. Next up a title showing readers that gender is an idea held by a group of people, and that so many other cultures saw – and still see – gender differently than we teach it in the West. Knowing that is empowering, for all of us.
And I’ll continue collecting stories about LGBTQIA2+ people and cultures and legends, and I’ll be sharing them on my blog (I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read? at www.leewind.org) and on social media with the hashtag #QueerHistoryisEverywhere.
I’ll keep lighting lights in the lighthouse. And I hope it will light your way, too.
Praise for No Way, They Were Gay?
“[S]olidly written, well-documented and organized . . . a modest, well-intentioned contribution to gay history.”—Booklist
“Entertaining, illuminating, and an accessible antidote to dominant histories.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Such an important book, both enlightening and entertaining. Highly recommended for readers age 10-110!”—Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medalist
“I think as a teen I might’ve chosen to major in History if I’d read Lee Wind’s fun, fast-paced, and thought-provoking book. I love how it lays out the evidence about some of our past’s greatest heroes, invites us to draw our own conclusions, and inspires us, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity to be true to who we are.”—Alex Sanchez, author of Rainbow Boys and You Brought Me the Ocean
“This fascinating look at the hidden lives of some of history’s most important figures deserves a place in every library, not to mention the hands of readers, many of whom will see much needed reflections of themselves.”—Ellen Hopkins, New York Times bestselling author of Crank
“Lee’s work reminds readers, especially LGBTQ readers, that we all come from somewhere and that even though the history books may seek to silence or throw a shadow over our truths, our truths are ours to share with the world with pride.”—Matthew C. Winner, host of The Children’s Book Podcast
Give your students something to think about with this thought-provoking (and free) discussion guide!
Share recordings and more from TeachingBooks.net with your classroom!
Read an interview with Lee Wind and Betsy Bird from A Fuse #8 Production.