Lesléa Newman writes books for adults and children, including Heather Has Two Mommies, one of the first books for children showing a same-sex couple as parents and A Letter to Harvey Milk which has been adapted for both stage and screen.
“I was unhappy, I didn’t know why. I just figured I would be miserable and alone my whole life,” says Newman of life before coming out. A move to Northampton, Massachusetts when she was 27 led to a chance meeting with a Jewish lesbian writer who invited Newman to share her poems at a house party. It changed her life.
“I went and read my poems and the women in that room responded to my poetry in a way that nobody else ever had,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘these are my people.’ I came out through my poetry.”
Heather Has Two Mommies was both revolutionary and controversial when released in 1989. “The lesbian moms loved the book and were so grateful for it, but mainstream society was not very happy,” says Newman. “It was challenged all over the place. It was part of the New York City Schools curriculum and basically cost the chancellor his job because he supported it. It was burned, it was defecated upon, it was returned to libraries with its pages glued together.” She says we still have a huge journey ahead of us when it comes to the current movement on book banning, despite the progress over the last three decades.
Speaking to Newman, it is clear she values community in her faith and sexuality. “Being a Jew and being a lesbian has a lot in common. As a Jew I always felt like an outsider and as I lesbian I feel like an outsider,” she says. “Both identities are rooted in a strong community and tied up with working for social justice and have strong, powerful female leaders so both identities mesh beautifully.”
She also feels it is important to be “a good literary citizen,” mentoring private students, writing blurbs for other authors, and being active in the literary community. “I want to give back, because so many people have been so generous to me – agents, publishers, teachers, readers… For someone to sit quietly and absorb my words is a privilege and an honor and I’m very, very grateful.”
Newman comes across as confident and self-aware, a very different person to the young woman who thought she would always be unhappy. Her advice to young queer women today is to always stay true to themselves. “Don’t try to please the world. Find the people who love and accept you for who you are and minimize time spent with those who don’t.”
As for what she’d tell her younger self, Newman pauses for a moment before answering. “I’d tell her to hang in there. That, as they say, it gets better and, although she wouldn’t believe me, that her life was going to be utterly amazing, better than she could ever possibly imagine.”