A Million Quiet Revolutions by Robin Gow comes out on March 22, 2022.
For as long as they can remember, Aaron and Oliver have only ever had each other. In a small town with few queer teenagers, let alone young trans men, they’ve shared milestones like coming out as trans, buying the right binders—and falling for each other.
But just as their relationship has started to blossom, Aaron moves away. Feeling adrift, separated from the one person who understands them, they seek solace in digging deep into the annals of America’s past. When they discover the story of two Revolutionary War soldiers who they believe to have been trans men in love, they’re inspired to pay tribute to these soldiers by adopting their names—Aaron and Oliver. As they learn, they delve further into unwritten queer stories, and they discover the transformative power of reclaiming one’s place in history.
By Robin Gow
All week I have been asking my friends, “When was the first time you remember learning about a queer or trans person in history?” Together, we traced our memories back and not one of us could think of learning about a single trans person (historical or present-day) until we were in college. For most of us, when we were in high school or earlier, whatever we learned about a historical figure who might have been lesbian, gay, or bisexual cam in fleeting moments mentioned at the end of a biography or, more often, posited as a joke or oddity.
Luckily, people who are learning about LGBTQ+ history are getting younger and younger, but I still think we have a long way to go until the narratives about queerness really start to shift. I want to learn and know about queer and trans people in every historical moment. For so much of our lives we’ve been told there are stretches of time where we didn’t exist. But when we begin to look deeper, we find we have always been here. I believe this knowledge about our histories is crucial for us as queer people living in the present so we feel connected to the past and to ourselves. And it is crucial because it helps all of us see how queer existence has and always will be woven into humanity. We often think of queerness as “extra,” and cisgender straightness as the norm, but when we begin to learn about these hidden truths in times past, we begin to see how inherent gender creativity and queer attraction has always been to every society.
In high school I didn’t really know I could be a queer and trans person. I didn’t know that life was possible, and I think that lack of knowledge is partially because the histories of LGBTQ+ people were kept from me. I think back to all the moments I learned about queer people without having any idea that they were queer. One example is the pop artist Keith Haring, who was from my hometown of Kutztown, Pennsylvania. I remember learning he was an activist. I remember his art being celebrated. But only in college did I learn about his queerness. To anyone familiar with Haring’s work, this might seem absurd, considering how well-known Keith was for vibrant depictions of cartoon penises and gender-vague characters joyfully dancing and coupling. I often wonder how empowering it might have been to learn about a local queer artist of such magnitude, and to actually discuss and delve into the vibrant queerness of his work.
Then, I think to my history and literature classes—full of LGBTQ+ people. A favorite poet of mine from a young age was Langston Hughes. I loved the power of his line breaks, how each word unspooled into the next. His vivid and imaginative images. But no one discussed his queerness, and I was given an incomplete account of his influence and the Harlem Renaissance. If you look, we find examples of people challenging gender norms in all periods of time. Most often, these instances are explained away by a cisgender perspective. The protagonists in my verse novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, become enthralled by the history of people assigned female at birth who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Revolutionary War, binding their chests and in some cases trying to grow beards to blend in. This was taught to me as “women who were brave fighting in the Revolution.” While some of these people probably identified as women, as a trans person, I find it hard to believe that at least some of them didn’t see this as an opportunity to live as the gender they more closely aligned with. I can only imagine how much of history will begin to open as more and more queer and trans historians pull about the past to find moments like this.
Usually, when I talk about the fact I didn’t come out until I was in my early twenties, I’ll say something like, “I grew up in a small town so I just didn’t know much,” almost as if I’m apologizing for time I spent not knowing much about queer history. I want to try to stop putting that guilt and blame on myself for not knowing, and to start moving into the questions I still have about queer pasts. I also want to remind myself and others that it isn’t our fault our histories have been hidden from us–and that we can do work to uncover them.
It can be hard to know where to start. For most of us, we’ve been fed false narratives all our lives—not only through lack of LGBTQ+ representation, but through the ways other marginalized groups—like people of color and disabled people’s—stories have been excluded. Dismantling the false histories we’ve been given doesn’t just take research, but creativity and imagination.
With my verse novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, I wanted to write a story I would have wanted to gift myself as a young person grappling with my gender who was without the language or resources to explain my experience. Over and over as a teen, I thought to myself, “I wish I was a queer man because that’s how I feel.” Had I learned about other queer and trans people before me, that statement wouldn’t have felt like so much of a fantasy. I would have not only known that I was a queer man, but also that queer and trans men have existed across history. I wanted to let my characters experience the joy of discovering the possibility of themselves alongside the vexed and complicated nature of history.
I feel we all need a little bit of Oliver’s voracious curiosity about the past. He looks around and sees that his classes and the books he’s reading don’t reflect his identities. I wanted him to find the story of trans men in the Revolution online, because I think social media is now allowing marginalized people to develop platforms gatekeepers haven’t let us have before. Every day I feel like I learn something new about LGBTQ+ history, and it’s not from books—it’s from brilliant creators sharing the queer stories they’re finding.
I want to leave the essay with the same message I hope I leave in A Million Quiet Revolutions. I firmly believe the possibility that a queer or trans person existed is enough to begin exploring any time period or history. Artifacts and evidence have been curated by cis straight people for centuries, how can we then always demand this kind of evidence for the existence of queer people? How many times do we assume people in history are straight or cis-gender? I believe people like you and me have always existed and will continue into the future.
Robin Gow is a trans and queer poet, editor, and educator from rural Pennsylvania. They are the director and founder of Transcendent Connections, an organization that provides trans education resources to support trans youth. Gow also founded the New York City trans and queer reading series Gender Reveal Party. They live in Pennsylvania with their pugs, Gertrude and Eddie.