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Interview: Melanie Gillman on ‘Stage Dreams’

A little while ago, I interviewed Melanie Gillman for my Stellar Panels column on LGBTQIA+ graphic novels. Gillman, who uses the pronoun they, is the creator of As the Crow Flies. In their new graphic novel, Stage Dreams, a transgender Southerner fleeing conscription in the Civil War is kidnapped by an outlaw, Flor. As romantic sparks begin to fly, the two plot to steal some important Confederate documents. The book is due out in September, but it’s already getting some buzz. Here’s my full interview with Gillman, parts of which appeared in the article.

Who did you make this book for—what audience did you have in mind?

I wanted to make a western for young queer and trans folks! LGBTQ YA has made huge strides in the past few years, but a lot of it still veers toward dark and depressing subject matter. While dark-and-depressing isn’t always a bad thing, that shouldn’t be the only representation LGBTQ youth can find on a bookshelf—because what sort of message does that send to young people wondering what their future might look like? Being queer and trans isn’t all about hardship. It can be a source of joy—and fun, escapist, romantic genre fiction is a way to highlight that. So, I decided to tell a classic adventure story, but put a pair of queer women front and center as the heroes.

What made this particular pair of characters, a trans woman and a lesbian, interesting to you?

Mainly, I wanted to shine a light on an underrepresented period of American queer history. We know that queer women, both cis and trans, have always been here—but what did their lives look like in the past? So much of the LGBTQ historical record has been lost (or deliberately destroyed), but historical fiction can be a way to imagine what might fill in those blanks. And in terms of their personalities, my favorite romances are always about unlikely pairings. So, I found a way for a shy, insecure, Georgian draft-dodger to cross paths with a loud, shameless, career stagecoach robber. And if they happen to fall in love while also trying to pull off a dangerous heist? All the better!

Do you tailor the story in any particular way for a YA audience? How do you handle issues of relationships and sexuality when writing for this age group?

The teen readers I’ve met during my time as an author have all been perceptive, bright, and thoughtful. They’re already aware of a lot of issues surrounding relationships, gender, and sexuality—in many cases, they’re even the ones leading the discussions themselves. As a storyteller, I think my job is just to approach these topics with honesty, respect, and compassion—and trust that my readers will be more than able to keep up.

I know you discuss this in the back, but could you explain the history behind this story—the reality of gay and trans people in the mid-19th-century West?

As part of the research for Stage Dreams, I did a lot of digging around in old newspaper archives, looking for stories about LGBTQ people in the old west. The surviving records are limited—partly because many past queer and trans people had to keep their gender and sexuality out of the public eye, and partly because many records of LGBTQ history have been deliberately buried by subsequent generations. Queer history is embarrassing to a lot of modern-day bigots, because they want to believe queerness is only a fleeting, contemporary “fad”—not a normal part of every historical period. In the records I did manage to find of LGBTQ people in the old west, the thing that amazed me most was how normal (and often downright mundane) their lives were! There were LGBTQ laundresses and restaurant owners and farmers and soldiers and outlaws. Most of them had spouses, partners, family, and friends—the people around them often knew about their LGBTQ identity, and for the most part, didn’t care. Today we tend to believe that LGBTQ acceptance is something entirely “new”, but it might be that the past was a lot more accepting than you’d think!

Why do you feel it is important to include gay and trans characters in books for teens—particularly younger teens?

The vacuum left by the systematic erasure of queer and trans history can be a painful one. It’s hard knowing that, while we certainly have queer and trans ancestors, so many of their names and stories have been lost or taken from us. Shining a light on LGBTQ history—even through historical fiction—is a way to remind young readers that they’ve always had a place in this world, always had adventures, and always been loved. We’re not new; we’re an essential part of the fabric of humanity.

What sort of books do you wish you had when you were in this age group?

I grew up in a time period—not all that long ago!—when queer literature was still considered inherently sexual or perverse by nature, and therefore entirely inappropriate for kids. LGBTQ kidlit didn’t exist, and the few queer and trans books that did exist certainly weren’t allowed anywhere near schools and libraries. So, unsurprisingly, I ended up with a very confusing, isolating sort of childhood! My life might have been very different if I’d had access to books I could have seen reflections of myself in. I’m thankful that that sort of childhood experience is becoming less and less common for today’s kids! Every LGBTQ kids’ book that manages to make its way onto a bookstore or library shelf is a life raft—these stories have the power to give comfort and guidance, and to keep people going, even through dark times in their lives. It’s hard to overstate how important that is.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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