for his second Magnus Chase book, due to the inclusion of the character Alex Fierro who is gender fluid. This was the speech he gave, and it really distills why I love this author and his works so much, and why I will always recommend his works to anyone and everyone.
“Thank you for inviting me here today. As I told the Stonewall Award Committee, this is an honor both humbling and unexpected.
So, what is an old cis straight white male doing up here? Where did I get the nerve to write Alex Fierro, a transgender, gender fluid child of Loki in The Hammer of Thor, and why should I get cookies for that?
These are all fair and valid questions, which I have been asking myself a lot.
I think, to support young LGBTQ readers, the most important thing publishing can do is to publish and promote more stories by LGBTQ authors, authentic experiences by authentic voices. We have to keep pushing for this. The Stonewall committee’s work is a critical part of that effort. I can only accept the Stonewall Award in the sense that I accept a call to action – firstly, to do more myself to read and promote books by LGBTQ authors.
But also, it’s a call to do better in my own writing. As one of my genderqueer readers told me recently, “Hey, thanks for Alex. You didn’t do a terrible job!” I thought: Yes! Not doing a terrible job was my goal!
As important as it is to offer authentic voices and empower authors and role models from within LGBTQ community, it’s is also important that LGBTQ kids see themselves reflected and valued in the larger world of mass media, including my books. I know this because my non-heteronormative readers tell me so. They actively lobby to see characters like themselves in my books. They like the universe I’ve created. They want to be part of it. They deserve that opportunity. It’s important that I, as a mainstream author, say, “I see you. You matter. Your life experience may not be like mine, but it is no less valid and no less real. I will do whatever I can to understand and accurately include you in my stories, in my world. I will not erase you.”
People all over the political spectrum often ask me, “Why can’t you just stay silent on these issues? Just don’t include LGBTQ material and everybody will be happy.” This assumes that silence is the natural neutral position. But silence is not neutral. It’s an active choice. Silence is great when you are listening. Silence is not so great when you are using it to ignore or exclude.
But that’s all macro, ‘big picture’ stuff. Yes, I think the principles are important. Yes, in the abstract, I feel an obligation to write the world as I see it: beautiful because of its variations. Where I can’t draw on personal experience, I listen, I read a lot – in particular I want to credit Beyond Magenta and Gender Outlaws for helping me understand more about the perspective of my character Alex Fierro – and I trust that much of the human experience is universal. You can’t go too far wrong if you use empathy as your lens. But the reason I wrote Alex Fierro, or Nico di Angelo, or any of my characters, is much more personal.
I was a teacher for many years, in public and private school, California and Texas. During those years, I taught all kinds of kids. I want them all to know that I see them. They matter. I write characters to honor my students, and to make up for what I wished I could have done for them in the classroom.
I think about my former student Adrian (a pseudonym), back in the 90s in San Francisco. Adrian used the pronouns he and him, so I will call him that, but I suspect Adrian might have had more freedom and more options as to how he self-identified in school were he growing up today. His peers, his teachers, his family all understood that Adrian was female, despite his birth designation. Since kindergarten, he had self-selected to be among the girls – socially, athletically, academically. He was one of our girls. And although he got support and acceptance at the school, I don’t know that I helped him as much as I could, or that I tried to understand his needs and his journey. At that time in my life, I didn’t have the experience, the vocabulary, or frankly the emotional capacity to have that conversation. When we broke into social skills groups, for instance, boys apart from girls, he came into my group with the boys, I think because he felt it was required, but I feel like I missed the opportunity to sit with him and ask him what he wanted. And to assure him it was okay, whichever choice he made. I learned more from Adrian than I taught him. Twenty years later, Alex Fierro is for Adrian.
I think about Jane (pseudonym), another one of my students who was a straight cis-female with two fantastic moms. Again, for LGBTQ families, San Francisco was a pretty good place to live in the 90s, but as we know, prejudice has no geographical border. You cannot build a wall high enough to keep it out. I know Jane got flack about her family. I did what I could to support her, but I don’t think I did enough. I remember the day Jane’s drama class was happening in my classroom. The teacher was new – our first African American male teacher, which we were all really excited about – and this was only his third week. I was sitting at my desk, grading papers, while the teacher did a free association exercise. One of his examples was ‘fruit – gay.’ I think he did it because he thought it would be funny to middle schoolers. After the class, I asked to see the teacher one on one. I asked him to be aware of what he was saying and how that might be hurtful. I know. Me, a white guy, lecturing this Black teacher about hurtful words. He got defensive and quit, because he said he could not promise to not use that language again. At the time, I felt like I needed to do something, to stand up especially for Jane and her family. But did I make things better handling it as I did? I think I missed an opportunity to open a dialogue about how different people experience hurtful labels. Emmie and Josephine and their daughter Georgina, the family I introduce in The Dark Prophecy, are for Jane.
I think about Amy, and Mark, and Nicholas … All former students who have come out as gay since I taught them in middle school. All have gone on to have successful careers and happy families. When I taught them, I knew they were different. Their struggles were greater, their perspectives more divergent than some of my other students. I tried to provide a safe space for them, to model respect, but in retrospect I don’t think I supported them as well as I could have, or reached out as much as they might have needed. I was too busy preparing lessons on Shakespeare or adjectives, and not focusing enough on my students’ emotional health. Adjectives were a lot easier for me to reconcile than feelings. Would they have felt comfortable coming out earlier than college or high school if they had found more support in middle school? Would they have wanted to? I don’t know. But I don’t think they felt it was a safe option, which leaves me thinking that I did not do enough for them at that critical middle school time. I do not want any kid to feel alone, invisible, misunderstood. Nico di Angelo is for Amy, and Mark and Nicholas.
I am trying to do more. Percy Jackson started as a way to empower kids, in particular my son, who had learning differences. As my platform grew, I felt obliged to use it to empower all kids who are struggling through middle school for whatever reason. I don’t always do enough. I don’t always get it right. Good intentions are wonderful things, but at the end of a manuscript, the text has to stand on its own. What I meant ceases to matter. Kids just see what I wrote. But I have to keep trying. My kids are counting on me.
So thank you, above all, to my former students who taught me. Alex Fierro is for you.
To you, I pledge myself to do better – to apologize when I screw up, to learn from my mistakes, to be there for LGBTQ youth and make sure they know that in my books, they are included. They matter. I am going to stop talking now, but I promise you I won’t stop listening.”
Because the response to 13 Reasons Why has been so controversial, I’d just like to point out some things.
As explained in 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, the suicide scene was shown BECAUSE they wanted it to be painful for the audience to watch, as well as the rape scenes. Not because they wanted to be gruesome or inconsiderate, but because it is REALITY for so many people in the world and a lot of people like to pretend these things don’t exist or shield themselves from the reality of it; they ignore it because they’ve never gone through it, so they don’t care so much. So then when they see these scenes, they will be made uncomfortable and see what people are really truly experiencing and that it is not something that should at all be sugarcoated or ignored. IT IS REAL.
Secondly, for those saying it’s disgusting for them to show these scenes, THERE ARE WARNINGS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE EPISODES THAT SHOW RAPE AND/OR SUICIDE TO NOT WATCH IF IT WILL AFFECT THE VIEWER IN ANY WAY. These warnings are given specifically so that if you are not comfortable watching or believe it would cause a trigger, you should not even watch. So the fact that people are bashing the show for showing these scenes in relation to them being a trigger, the warnings are already made very clear in the beginning. They did take this step to make sure it wouldn’t just pop up and be any sort of triggers. The producers knew very well to be wary of that. The show also worked with a lot of psychiatrists, psychologists, and leading experts in teen-suicide prevention. Though this still may not be enough for you to think they did everything right, they again did have the warnings. They are very aware that it could cause triggers and put some people in danger, but THAT IS WHAT THE WARNINGS ARE FOR. DO NOT WATCH IF IT COULD DANGER YOU. VIEWER’S DISCRETION IS ALWAYS ADVISED.
THE SHOW WAS NOT CREATED FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES. IT IS TO SPREAD AWARENESS FOR ALL THE ISSUES (suicide, rape, bullying) AND POINT OUT HOW LITTLE THE SIGNS CAN BE AND HOW MUCH MORE CAREFUL AND HELPFUL EVERYONE IN THE WORLD NEEDS TO BE TO THE PEOPLE AROUND US. As also talked about in Beyond the Reasons, they want to promote teaching boys the proper ways to approach a girl and gain permission to become intimate with her, always getting the YES to teach boys respect for women. This is very important because as most people know, it has always been extremely hard for rape victims to get help because of the “what were you wearing” “were you flirting” “did you lead him on” “did you directly say no” arguments that are so wrongfully executed—instead, 13 Reasons Why knows that this is an issue, as somewhat shown in the scene with Mr. Porter as he questions Hannah. So in the after show, they speak about how parents need to be teaching their children more about consent and less about just protecting yourself, covering up, etc. They are aware that the real issue is with proper consent, and that is a very important message to get across.
Coming from someone who has battled depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts, I must also point out that EVERY SINGLE PERSON, EXPERIENCES, THOUGHTS, REACTIONS, ETC ARE DIFFERENT. What one person suffering depression thinks may be different than another. Hannah Baker’s story is very unique in many ways yet also extremely relatable in many ways to many, many people and girls around the world. JUST BECAUSE YOUR STORY MAY BE DIFFERENT DOES NOT MEAN HERS IS INCORRECT OR LESS/MORE THAN ANOTHER’S. There are a lot of people who can relate to feeling as though you are NOTHING and of no worth to the people around you, just a burden that only disappoints everyone and makes their lives worse. This is a very real state of being and depression and feeling of complete worthlessness that people can reach in their lives, especially some young teenage girls, like Hannah Baker, and even myself, that will lead to suicidal thoughts, attempts, or completely following through with, like Hannah. They believe the world and their loved ones would be better off without them. Again, as someone who has attempted suicide as a teenager and worked for years to fight depression and overcome it, I can say that while the suicide scene did make me uncomfortable and was extremely painful to watch, I was not offended. I knew of the warning at the beginning of the episode, read it, and continued to watch because EVERYONE HANDLES THESE THINGS DIFFERENTLY. I UNDERSTOOD the purpose of including the scene and making it so graphic and realistic. IT’S REALITY, THIS IS HAPPENING TO PEOPLE EVERYDAY AND IT SHOULD NOT BE SUGARCOATED OR SHIELDED FROM THE WORLD; it needs to be made more AWARE OF by those who like to turn a blind eye to it, but it is exposed WITH WARNING. So again, if some feel as though a scene like this would be a trigger, IT IS ADVISED YOU DO NOT WATCH. Everyone is affected differently and they did not just insert it with no consideration for the affect it could have on those battling the same wars as Hannah.
To say Clay was an easy solution and could have saved Hannah by loving her—no, he could not have saved her by just loving her, that is not what this story is even saying. Hannah does explain at the end of her last tape as she exits the school that some people cared, but she felt it was only mediocre, not enough for her to want to stay and feel NEEDED and truly LOVED. So no, they are not saying Clay could have kept her alive by simply loving her, or that love can save someone, it is much more complex than that. What they are saying is that people can care, but not showing how much they truly care can affect someone in the ways it affected Hannah. It was not just one boy’s love that could have saved her, but the love and care of many people, for them to show that they truly cared about her being alive and DID NOT see her as worthless, an object, just another person on earth. She needed to feel as though they NEEDED her to stay, that they genuinely cared about her as a person and that her life was truly worth something, because she did not feel it was. When Clay says he could have kept her alive if he wasn’t so afraid to tell her he loved her, he simply means he could have given her a sense of hope, a sense of belonging on the earth, that someone truly, whole-heartedly valued her life and her as a human being, not an object.
The actress who plays Jessica also explained that she reached out to a family member who is an actual rape survivor, and she stated that she was pleased that the show was “not shying away from the ugliness” of these scenes because viewers will see what these people really go through–again, another topic that is usually sugarcoated and instead needs to be addressed.
13 Reasons Why is a unique way of telling the story of a teenage girl who committed suicide, and the reasoning for bringing it to screen was MOSTLY to promote awareness and shine light on things that are not talked about enough that the youth suffers every single day, things adults see as “normal teenager struggles,” “small stuff,” “it only feels like the end of the world and really isn’t,” etc. This show is being spread more than even expected, and that is a very good thing for those who are in need of help and have parents or peers that once ignored their problems and will now tend to them.
**an issue cannot be tended to/made aware of/more properly prevented if it is just sugarcoated rather than slapped in people’s faces (those who don’t realize how severe it is) like this show does. it can really change things and leave an impact.
**if you are at risk for triggers and do not feel you are currently healthy enough to watch this show, please take care of yourself and do not watch. or, skip episodes 9, 12, and 13 and read up on them instead. these are the episodes that can be triggers for those at risk, if you weren’t yet aware.
**also feel free to stop by my inbox and talk to me if you need someone to talk to, or just would like to speak more on the subject.