Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.
I wanted, like the poetess Mary Oliver, to keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. I tried, I really tried, but they keep trying to dim my light, trying to wrap the world in ugliness and darkness.
Today, knowing that being public about gender identity, even in the 21st century, is often fraught with pitfalls and controversy, I write with admiration about the Americans who have helped shape our nation while challenging the conventional norms of identity and belonging.
I cannot imagine living in a world devoid of varieties of strange beauty; deprived of Mary Oliver, Willa Cather and May Sarton; without James Baldwin and Walt Whitman; without Tim Cook and Peter Thiel; without Sally Ride, Angela Davis, Etel Adnan, Tammy Baldwin and Tomie DePaola.
More so, I can’t imagine how deprived my – and your – grandchildren would be without Where’s the Wild Things, Harriet the Spy, Goodnight Moon, The Rabbit on the Run and frog and toad; all created by LGBTQIA+ artists fully embraced in the American public square.
I can’t imagine descriptions of love without including Emily Dickinson who wrote, “Susie…come home…and be mine again, and kiss me like you used to…I hope so much for you, and I I want you so much… that the wait… makes me hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast.
There is no such love in the dark, scary, heteronormative world of white supremacy. There are no racing heartbeats of love and inclusion, no hugs for the vulnerable, no shelter for the stranger.
Today, more than a third of Americans, citizens of a nation once admired around the world as a beacon of hope and democracy, are deaf to “I hear America sing, the varied songs I ‘hear… Everyone sings what belongs to them’. and no one else…” and formed themselves into a sect committed to denying the ambitious beauty and diversity of our homeland.
From banning books to challenging legitimate voting rights, today it is a cult that challenges the inclusive values that America aspires to. It targets our democratic institutions, communities and people of color, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, public education, LGBTQIA+ people and others with the aim of controlling, marginalizing them , to delegitimize them and deprive them of their rights.
“People who try to control people and change their habits are the ones who cause all the problems. If you don’t like someone, walk away… But don’t try to get them to like you,” Louise Fitzhugh wrote in Harriet spies on her.
They have already come Beloved, To kill a mockingbird, Maus, Homegoing, and The hate you give.
They will soon go hunting The Rabbit on the Run.
Tomorrow they will come for Maurice Sendak and accuse him of grooming the children. In The Night Kitchen.
Some day soon they will come for Emily Dickinson.
Just as many of Emily Dickinson’s letters were burned after her death to protect (?) her secret passions, I believe anti-groomers, fearing her poetry will inflame the hormones of vulnerable dreamy-eyed would-be romantics, will try one day to refuse its place on the school shelves.
Sensitive, perhaps, as May Sarton and Tomie DePaola were a century later, to possible public disapproval of the intersecting identities she wrote about, Dickinson often dissociated her usual gender pronouns from normative pronouns related to biology – “bearded” pronouns, as she called them – to such an extent I understand that many poems exist in distinctly different gendered versions.
Indeed, Dickinson defied gender conventions so much that in Rearrange the affection of a “woman”! she wrote:
“When they dislocate my brain!” / Amputate my freckled breast! / Make me bearded like a man!
May Sarton, from York, Maine, wrote about the publication at a time when “fear of homosexuality [was] so awesome it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens hears the siren song… write a novel about a homosexual woman who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug addict, or in any way repulsive, portray a homosexual who is neither pitiful nor disgusting, without sentimentality…”
Tomie DePaola, who lived in New London, NH, didn’t identify as gay because, as he said in 2019, “If we knew you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your face. chest, and the schools would no longer buy your books.
A big red ‘G’ on your chest.
FromPaola’s Oliver Button is a sissy about a boy who loved to read, paint and tap dance and who was the first children’s picture book to use the word “gay”, was banned from some US schools for being “unsportsmanlike”.
It reads like grooming: Forbid it.
Why stop with Oliver Button. Shouldn’t DePaola Strega Nona, a story about a witchy grandmother with a magic pot that makes pasta, being banished for encouraging witchcraft and endorsing foreign foods?
It reads like grooming: Forbid it. To forbid Harry Potteralso, while you’re at it.
frog and toad must be stopped.
To forbid. To forbid. To forbid.
I can no longer distance myself from those who think they have the answers because they persist in trying to deny dignity and equality to people who deserve life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
While I can’t keep my distance from those who believe America should be a place where only Dick and Jane frolic, where Donna Reed cooks, where Father knows best; I want to defend their children – and mine.
To claim that children of all ethnicities, colors, races and religions have the opportunity to take risks safely, to learn safely, as Max did, where the “wild things” are.
“Max got into his private boat and said goodbye [to the Wild Things] and sailed over a year and for weeks and for a day and into the night from his own room where he found his supper waiting for him – and it was still hot.