One of my favorite lines in Sarah Moon’s The Letter Q, which features letters written by queer writers to their younger selves, is one by Eileen Myles: “‘Cause right now you are in the dancing years of your life and if you like dancing at all—and I know you do—you should be doing it for yourself, feverishly and exhaustively.”
Moon’s collection, published this past spring by Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic, aims to ensure that our queer students’ dancing years are just that, ones used for laughing, living, and loving instead of being bullied and harassed. Bringing together an impressive cadre of writers, from contemporary graphic to classic novelists, from writers of color to transgender authors, Moon sidesteps away from creating a literary pastiche of the It Gets Better Project and instead curates a collection that affirms the complexity and beauty of queer youth life and love.
As an educator who values bringing texts to the classroom that show our students the plurality of race, class, and gender, I was afraid these letters might be a bit white-washed, male, and cis-gender. However, the opposite is true. Gay white literary luminaries such as Michael Cunningham, David Levithan, Terrence McNally, and Paul Rudnick contributed, but Moon does not highlight any of her authors in particular; instead, each letter stands alone as an epistolary shot to the heart.
Authors such as LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Jewelle Gomez, Jasika Nicole, Rakesh Satyal, Tony Valenzuela, Linda Villarosa, Jacqueline Woodson, and others share their stories of growing up queer and brown. Other writers acknowledge the fluidity of gender in childhood and the impact it made on their adult identities.Still others confess the emerging sexual desires of their teen years. These particular letters are sweet valentines to the precious adolescent fantasies that later scaffolded flourishing relationships.
A Spanish teacher at the progressive St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, Moon has seen the insides of prison classrooms at Riker’s as well as those in private schools in Connecticut. A survivor of bullying in middle and high school, Moon has published a book that we can add not just to our school libraries and curricula but also to our growing list of favorite texts that remind us of both the fragility and sadness, humor and creativity of our own younger, queer selves. Sometimes a book like Moon’s is exactly what we need to make sure we take care of our young people to make it better now.
The following interview via email gives us a glimpse of Moon as editor, teacher, and preserver of not a few dancing years.
In addition to the host of authors you invited to write letters, you also wrote a letter to your younger self. You mention the bullies that haunted your life in middle and high school. What were some of the experiences you went through as a student and how did it inform the creation of this book?
I was a weird kid from the beginning, so I went through a lot of teasing. It always bothered me and it was always hard, but it took on a different kind of malice in junior high school. After my parents divorced, my mom started a relationship with a woman, my stepmother, and there was a lot of bullying that came with that – and some lost friendships because certain friends weren’t allowed to come over anymore.
Some of the bullying came just because something about me seemed different, seemed queer. One kid would wait for me every morning and try to push me into the boys’ bathroom because he thought that was where I belonged. One kid spit on me. I got called a kike.
This continued pretty regularly through high school. I came out on my first day. The rest of high school was more or less like middle school, more taunts and threats and name-calling, and bucking up against a system much larger than myself as I tried to do things like start a Gay Straight Alliance.
There was backlash, and it was a scary time in my life. The things that saved me were the queer adults who loved me, who checked in on me, who wrote me letters, who asked me how I was and told me that I had to talk about it; that it felt hard because it was hard, not because I was crazy, and that there were ways to get through it that weren’t as permanent as some of the solutions I had considered.
The desire to create the book came from, certainly, these high school and middle school experiences, but also from my experiences as a teacher. I have seen students struggling with these issues – often not with the same kind of bullying that was around me, but struggling internally, grappling with big questions or getting lost in their own sadness.
In those moments, I always wish that they could just get a letter like the ones I got from the queer adults in my life as a kid. I wanted to give them something that would make them feel seen, as I had felt on those occasions.
Some of the letters that resonated with me the most were the ones that revealed how the authors’ childhoods and teen years were as much about navigating race and ethnicity as queer identity. I actually cried at the end of the graphic letter by Jasika Nicole when her younger self looks in the mirror and explores the implications of her hair as a both a woman of color and as a closeted youth.
I love that letter, too. Jasika was one of the first writers to say ‘yes’ to this project, and I think the work she did is stunning and so helpful, for lack of a better word, because it articulates so clearly the difficulties of navigating multiple identities.
I think that queerness, race, ethnicity, and in some cases, religion, are all things by which we identify, things that help us to say who were are, where we come from, where we belong – which is so much of what being a teenager is about, figuring out who we are, and figuring out how to say it, figuring out how all of the pieces fit together. I think it can be particularly confusing or scary if you feel like some of your pieces simply can’t fit together, that if you have one piece then you can’t have the other, like Jasika writes – I can’t be biracial and queer and live here. But, in fact, those are all pieces of her identity, and as she comes to discover, they can all live in the same body at the same time and not explode, despite the strong feeling to the contrary.
Linda Villarosa’s letter, I think, also eloquently explains the complicated feelings that come from navigating multiple identities, that if she’s gay that might be fine for her, but she’ll be letting down the entire African-American community. What I particularly love in her piece is how her younger self realizes that, of course, the community she’s really worried about disappointing is that of her family, who do see her as part of them, even though she’s gay.
A good number of the letters outwardly address desire and sexuality in thoughtful and honest ways. Too often, sexual desire in teens is seen as taboo regardless of sexual identity, so it was refreshing to see how these writers treated it as empowering rather than as dangerous. In what ways do you hope the book provides a springboard for queer teens to embrace their desires while also taking care of themselves?
I think that, just as you say, these things are too often shied away from or dismissed. Desire is normal, and as I recall, an enormous piece of the teenage landscape. The silence that surrounds [it] is nothing less than dangerous. I think the first step to kids being able to take care of themselves, their bodies, their wants, is to acknowledge that they have bodies, that they have desires, and that’s normal, and, in fact, nice.
Once we have language for these things, then the relationship to them becomes less mysterious and shrouded in shame and then we can actually take care of ourselves. I hope that kids reading these letters will see that all of these people have desires, no one is saying that they are shameful or to be ignored. Part of being in this tribe is learning how to accept those desires and to take responsibility for them. I like Amy Bloom’s support of one-night stands, but also her insistence that she has to take responsibility for them and learn how to be careful (even if it’s kind of gross to read about because she’s my mother).
There are a number of letters that share the ways in which the authors’ younger selves were gender non-conforming, either by not expressing traditional gender roles or by recognizing the fluidity of gender. Why might it be important for today’s teens to see an older generation express how they navigated issues of gender?
I would hope that it would help them to see that they aren’t the first girls to loathe puberty or the first boys to play with girls. I would hope that they see that, now, these are qualities that the authors hold as part of their specialness, part of what makes them who they are. That there’s room for all of it, I think is a great gift in this world. That there is room for the gay boy jocks, and the sensitive tomboys, and the boys in dresses, all of it. And that, in fact, these are the parts of ourselves that we have grown to celebrate. I think it is especially powerful in that it highlights how kids innately know what we all have to spend years trying to articulate, study, and undo: that gender is fluid and varied and never the same from one person to the next. And that is a tremendous blessing.
Are there any letters by transgender authors?
Yes, there are two transgender writers in the book.
Teachers play a critical role in providing safe and inclusive schools that all young people deserve. The letters about teachers who created safe spaces in their classrooms were especially moving, especially for those of us who work tirelessly to make those spaces a reality. How do you envision this book playing a role in the lives of not only queer youth but also teachers and administrators?
Honestly, I think it depends on the teachers and administrators we’re talking about. There will be some who will do nothing with it, either because they’re scared or because their schools won’t let them, or because it’s not their particular cup of tea. But I do think that if they read it, they will learn something about the lives of their students that they might not otherwise know.
I think it’s easy to paint queer kids with one big rainbow brush, “Oh, they’re bullied,” but David Levithan’s letter tells us that it’s not quite that simple, or “Oh, they’re strong, they can handle it,” but Diane DiMassa’s letter makes it clear that sometimes “handling” something is relative, or, “Oh, they’ll be fine,” which, I think in most cases, they will be.
But they’ll be a lot of other things, too. I think it might be useful to get a sense of what queer kids are facing – I think it can be especially helpful when dealing with family situations or with kids who are navigating multiple identities.
I can say that for me as a teacher, sharing this book with my students has been one of the most rewarding and moving experiences I’ve ever had.