If your only exposure to Kickstarter comes from Internet headlines, you might think that “crowd-funding platform” is synonymous with “a website that allows people to underwrite major motion pictures, potato salad parties, and panties of dubious utility.” Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that the site is becoming a key part of the LGBTQ cultural ecosystem, with more and more entrepreneurial queers leapfrogging establishment gatekeepers and taking their creative projects directly to potential readers, viewers, and supporters.
Writer S. Bear Bergman is currently on his second Kickstarter campaign—back in 2012, he raised $18,555 to publish two books for gender-independent kids, and now he’s seeking $49,000 to establish a subscription book club that, over the course of a year, will produce six original children’s books and deliver them to supporters’ homes, schools, or libraries.
It’s a compelling pitch. As the Kickstarter video points out, most of the very few picture books that feature LGBTQ characters or families focus on bullying and other negative situations—not exactly the kinds of stories that send kids off to sleep with happy dreams. Instead of “difference narratives,” the titles in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club will show what’s great about queer families. Bergman is also challenging some of the publishing industry’s most annoyingly exclusionary beliefs: that white kids won’t read about kids of color and boys won’t read about girls. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, less than 8 percent of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were by and about people of color. Fully half of the Flamingo Rampant books will feature main characters who are black, indigenous, or of color, and two of the books will be about “gender-independent kids, binary-busters full of confidence.” As Bergman points out, “The last children’s book to feature gay parents who are not white was published in 1990. It’s called Asha’s Mums, and it is lovely, but I sort of think in 25 years maybe we could do another one.”
If mainstream publishers believe that positive books about queer families aren’t financially viable—or that queer families will be the only ones interested in buying them, a notion Bergman strongly disputes—what better way to prove them wrong than by pitching directly to potential readers and purchasers? Still, this whole DIY ethos requires the people involved to, well, do it themselves. Bergman has published four books for adults and two for kids, so I was curious how he felt about devoting so much time to pursuits that authors typically outsource to others: publishing and distributing books. He told me via email:
I'm not just a writer. I'm not alone in my chilly garret with my rind of cheese. I'm also … a parent. … My child is about to start kindergarten. He will start with a bunch of other children, and I have no idea what messages they have gotten in their homes about families like ours. That's terrifying.
What my fear teaches me in this case is that I have identified the right time to start having these conversations. Parents and children have these sweet moments before bed, where we snuggle up and read books together, and we show our children a lot about our values and beliefs as well as about the world around us. What if we can make a series of books that allows a lot of parents to take a few of those lovely moments and use them to give their kids an unambiguously positive message about LGBT people? And, what if doing that makes them less likely to be homophobic or transphobic? What if this is a way in which we are able to reduce the incidence of hate crimes against other LGBT people? ... [W]hile on the one hand I feel slightly nauseated about the amount of work ahead if this Kickstarter succeeds, I also feel exhilarated.
Elsewhere on Kickstarter, Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel are raising funds for Happy Birthday, Marsha!, “a short film about legendary best friends and transgender activists Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson & Sylvia Rivera, in the hours before the Stonewall riots.” As with Bergman’s project, making a direct appeal to potential supporters is a key part of the creators’ grassroots philosophy. Gossett told me via email that she and Wortzel “believe that how we tell the stories of our heroes matters, so we are drawing upon our community to [get] this film written, directed and produced by people living Sylvia & Marsha's legacy.”
Happy Birthday, Marsha! will combine archival material and documentary footage with narrative scenes performed by actors—and it’s by, for, and about queer and trans communities. “Rarely do marginalized people drive stories about themselves on-screen,” Gossett told me. “This project continues to increase visibility by focusing on historical transgender figures, and their integral role in the modern LGBT rights movement. Transphobia, racism and sexism operate through historical erasure of rich legacies of trans activism. … [W]e are working to transform oppression through art.”
The Flamingo Rampant Book Club funding campaign runs through Tuesday, Aug. 12, and the deadline for Happy Birthday Marsha! is Friday, Aug. 15.