- Views & Opinions
On Oct. 12, 1998, lesbian author Lesléa Newman arrived at the University of Wyoming to find a campus reeling in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy. Earlier that day, 21-year-old student Matthew Shepard had died as the result of an anti-gay beating.
Ironically, Newman had gone to Laramie to present a keynote speech for Gay Awareness Week, and Shepard had planned to attend.
Since that day, Newman has begun all of her presentations with a tribute and a moment of silence for Shepard. And so she began her April 26 presentation at Marquette University, another campus that’s struggling in the aftermath of a homophobic incident – although, fortunately, one that caused no loss of life.
Newman’s speech was part of the annual Starshak lecture series at Marquette, organized by the university’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (formerly the Gay/Straight Alliance).
Newman has penned more than 60 titles, but it’s the landmark children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies” (Alyson Publications, 1989) for which she’s best known. A charmingly innocent tale about a little girl being raised by a lesbian couple, the book has earned Newman the title of “America’s most dangerous living writer” from right-wing extremists. It’s a title she wears proudly.
“Thank you for inviting the most dangerous writer in America to speak at your campus – and a Catholic university, no less,” Newman told her Marquette audience.
Newman’s presentation includes both a reading of “Heather” and a historical account, illustrated by newspaper clippings, of fundamentalist Christians’ efforts to banish the book from public libraries.
Although it’s not part of Newman’s account, a 2009 effort to remove “Heather” from library shelves in West Bend is part of the saga. Fundamentalists failed in that challenge, but not before the ACLU became involved and the controversy made national headlines.
Newman showed listeners that her books “are about families, they are not about sex.” They contain no images or descriptions of sex or nudity. There are no scenes involving physical intimacy. Lascivious readings into the material exist only in the minds of her adult critics, she said.
Yet libraries that carry such books have been hit with protests and bomb threats. The books are regularly damaged and stolen.
Newman said the impetus for writing “Heather” came from the young daughter of a friend. The girl approached Newman on a street corner in her adopted hometown of Northampton, Mass., and asked the author to write a book about her family, which is headed by two women. That request got Newman thinking, she said, about how marginalized she felt as a child growing up in a Jewish family while images and stories about Christian families dominated the media.
Newman said the girl’s request reminded her in a poignant way that children need social validation, and so she wrote “Heather.”
“Every child deserves to be proud of his or her parents,” Newman said.
Newman’s appearance in Milwaukee coincided with the publication of her latest children’s book, “Donovan’s Big Day.” It’s about a boy whose two daddies are getting married.