Across the country, as trans-identified and gender non-conforming children and teenagers are supported in living their affirmed gender identities, many are finding their anthem in an illustrated songbook by Phyllis Rothblatt:
Mixed Diversity Reads Children’s Book Reviews’ Interveiw with Phyllis Rothblatt
Omilaju Miranda of Mixed Diversity Reads Children’s Book Review who fell in love with the book upon reading it, had the pleasure of speaking with author, activist, and child and family therapist, Phyllis Rothblatt about her book and the victories and challenges of the movement to respect (not just tolerate) the identities of gender creative and gender non-conforming children and teenagers.
MDRCBR: What Inspired You to Write All I Want To Be is Me?
Rothblatt: I knew a lot of children who didn’t fit inside of typical gender boxes— they expressed their gender identity in more fluid ways, or, perhaps they didn’t identify as either a boy or girl. I knew children who felt like a blend of both genders, and those who felt that their body didn’t match who they really are inside and that they are really the other gender. I didn’t see anything available in children’s literature that affirmed or reflected these gender creative kids or their experiences. I wrote, All I Want To Be Is Me for these kids- they inspired me. Their intense determination to be themselves, even when no one else understood them or supported them- I found that inspiring and so courageous.
I wanted to write something that celebrated these children, who, just by being themselves, teach us all that we can also have the courage to be and express all of who we are, and that we don’t have to limit ourselves to only what is “acceptable” to others. In that way, this book is for all children, and that is my message: “You are the only one who knows who you really are inside, and no one can tell you who you are. So be yourself, be all of who you are because you are magnificent. Being who you are makes the world a better and more beautiful place.”
I hoped to open people’s hearts and minds to understand the experience of children who don’t feel typically gendered- and what it feels like to live in a world from their point of view. But I also wanted the book to transcend issues of gender, to represent all kinds of kids, (in terms of race, ethnicity, physical ability, different kinds of family structures), and to convey that more than anything else, these are just kids, wanting to do the kinds of things that kids like to do, just wanting to be kids and be themselves.
At the time that I wrote the book, there was very little out there in children’s literature about gender diversity. There was “William’s Doll” and “Oliver Button is a Sissy” and “Fernando the Bull”. These were great starts, but did not go to the places that I hoped to go—of real celebration of gender diversity, not just tolerating it.
MDRCBR: Did you want to show the positive side of just being human and a kid?
Rothblatt: The book is really a montage of different children in different situations. The illustrations show children of many races and abilities and talents doing things like climbing a tree, blowing giant bubble gum bubbles, being on a baseball team, being in school and in a talent show, being with friends… just kid things… and being themselves. They are also shown dealing with difficult situations, such as having to deal with how the world defines and divides everything by gender, or being bullied. But the book also shows positive outcomes, such as a child being supported by friends who become allies and won’t allow the bullying to continue. We see that same child on the next page singing in the school talent show, with the friends as the backup band. These children are not hiding and the bullying doesn’t stop them from expressing who they are! I wanted to show the resiliency and the strength that comes out of facing these challenges. I wanted to convey that if you are okay with being yourself, and if you have real support, then no one will be able to knock you down.
I also wanted to show that families can also go through a transformational process of learning, and understanding and acceptance. Not every child has this from family. In the book, there is a child with a grandmother, who at first wants this child to conform to gender norms, perhaps thinking that this is what is best or safest for their grandchild, but then realizes that what matters more is seeing the child clearly for who they are and supporting them unconditionally. Children need their families be the safe harbor they can always come home to.
MDRCBR: Do the children in your life have that freedom to participate in all aspects of a child’s life safely and accepted?
Rothblatt: Where I am, in the San Francisco Bay area absolutely, there’s a place for children to just be children. I see gender non-conforming kids and trans kids doing all these things.
I’ve seen a lot of progress in the last decade or so. A lot of work has been done to have more awareness, and create a safer world and more acceptance for gender creative and transgender children and youth. I see kids being able to be themselves, and be open about their gender status much more than before. In many situations they are able to go to school and participate in regular childhood activities as their affirmed gender. This is the first generation where as young children, there is family support, acceptance and public disclosure, and children are able to socially transition and live as their affirmed gender, and not wait until they are much older to express who they really are. I know of many people, and many parents, all around the country and even in other countries, that are working so hard in a grass roots way, to connect with each other, and to educate their extended families and friends, neighbors and colleagues about gender diversity. One organization in my community is GenderSpectrum, which goes into schools and educates children, teachers and parents about gender diversity and creating environments of respect. GS puts on an annual family conference that I present at each year, and this year there were over a thousand people. We still have a long way to go until each and every child can feel safe to fully be themselves and express their gender identity without fearing rejection or bullying or worse. So, lots of kids are just living as their affirmed gender and are very private about it. Even here in the Bay Area, there are many children who don’t have that support or understanding- with their families or communities. But there are still so many places where things are harder. There are pioneer families all over the country. We still have a lot of work to do.
Rothblatt: This was something that I had been thinking about for awhile, but one morning- miraculously, my own kids slept in late, and I woke up early and all of the words to the book/song just flowed out of me. That was pretty much it—I wrote the song in one morning, inspired by the children I knew. After that, I tweaked it a lot, and then brought the words to an amazing singer/musician that I know, Eve Decker, and asked her if she would help me to put it to music.
She brought in Lisa Zeiler, since they were in a band together (Rebecca Riots). They composed the music and eventually recorded the song. After that, I started doing the illustrations, because I knew that I wanted not only a song, but also a picture book. That was back in 2005? I just started going down to the local copy place and making copies of the book for people, who wanted a book. I’m making it sound so easy and quick- but it all was a lot of work and it took a long time after that initial creative inspiration.
MDRCBR: You were doing hand copies. How did people know to come ask you for copies of the book?
Rothblatt: Mostly the book has been known through word of mouth, and I’ve done some work to make it known— bringing it to conferences, schools, doing author readings and workshops and talks in schools and for community organizations. I explored having the book published, and even sent it to several major publishers. The feedback that I received was that as wonderful as the book is, it isn’t the kind of book that traditional publishers are looking for. I really hoped that the book and the song could be offered together, if possible, and that was not something that would be likely to happen with a regular publisher. I love the song, and Eve sings it so beautifully and Lisa brings perfect energy to it with her guitar playing. I did not want the music to get lost. So, I decided to publish it myself, through CreateSpace, and have it available there and on Amazon.com. The song can be downloaded for free off my website, www.alliwanttobeisme.com.
One thing that has been so incredibly wonderful is that I have been able to hear from people who have purchased the book, how it has been received by their children. I’ve had parents write to me and tell me that their child listens to the song and reads the book every night before bed. I had one mother send me a video of her child, dressed in his favorite long, flowing skirt, in front of a mirror, joyfully dancing, twirling and singing the song to himself. The song has become like an anthem at some of the camps around the country for gender non-conforming kids. It has been incredibly moving for me to know that the book and song are so meaningful to many children and their parents.
I’ve been hoping that children will add their own verse or draw pictures about themselves to the song, and send them to me so that I can add it to my website. I would love to see “All I Want To Be Is Me” in every school, in every library, taught as part of curriculum around diversity and respect for all.
The book actually was selected in the city of Alameda, CA to be part of the 4th grade curriculum on diversity. I went to one of the classrooms and spent a few hours there, with Lisa, reading the book and doing fun activities with the kids around the issues brought up in the book. It was great! It was also filmed and made into a short documentary by Sean Cahill and Jeff Cambra, and shown in 2011 at the Harvey Milk Day Celebration.
There was one school in Oakland, where my book actually sparked a protest by a conservative religious group who began a negative letter writing campaign to the school principal. They put my book in the same grouping as “Heather has Two Mommies.” That is when I knew I had really arrived as an author! I was proud to have my book be beside that book. Actually, I have a hard time understanding how some people view the message of my book as wrong. What I am saying is universal- Be proud of who you are and be yourself. Our diversity is what makes this a beautiful planet. But hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion- that is part of accepting diversity.
MBRCBR: Why did you choose water colors for your illustrations? :
Rothblatt: Watercolors are approachable, friendly and beautiful. I have an artistic background. My BA from UC Berkely is in Art. I use to do oil paintings and sculpture. The watercolors have a fluidity that I love and matches with what I’m talking about— the vibrancy of the color and the softness. [It is] a medium that lends itself to an emotion. Honestly, it was also the medium that was easiest to work in – I painted in between clients and meetings and any open moment. I could take the watercolors with me and it is a medium that children have easy access to.
MBRCBR: You mention the accessibility of watercolors for children. Do you have children use watercolors in therapy with you?
Rothblatt: Watercolors, whatever medium they want to work with that can work in the environment; markers, crayons, watercolors.
MBRCBR: Is there anything else you want people to know?
Rothblatt: The way I am as a mother, therapist, writer, and artist is really expressed in the book and that is I really believe that all of us in our uniqueness, in our diversity make the world so beautiful and what I hope to do in my work is to draw out the beauty of individuals and that’s why the words are about embracing the whole of who we are.
Visit the Author’s website – buy the book or listen to the song