In honor of LGBTQ History Month, WNDB interviewed Sarah Prager about her thrice-starred nonfiction book QUEER, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE: 23 PEOPLE WHO CHANGED THE WORLD, which profiles queer figures throughout history and is available for purchase now.
First off, thanks for talking to us about your book!
My pleasure! I’m a big fan of WNDB.
Fun question first: out of all the people you researched, whom would you have at a dinner party?
Um, all of them? I’m not much of a cook so I could probably handle having just three of them over. If I could hear a conversation between Elagabalus and Joan of Arc on gender and leadership I think I’d be set for life. And then I’d need Sylvia Rivera there too so I could meet my hero.
There are some truly iconic figures in your book that most people would be surprised to find out were queer, like Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt. Was it revelatory for you, when you first found out that they were part of the LGBT community?
Absolutely. There’s often an initial skepticism because of internalized queerphobia that makes me first think “No, they couldn’t have been.” Then when I find out they could have been, there’s an anger at the society that kept this information from me. Then comes the excitement – “Yes! I’m so lucky this person is in my family!” And inspiration – “If they can do that, then I can do something amazing, too.”
Did you already have a list of people at the ready when you were approached to do this book? Was it a matter of culling or broadening the list once you started?
I had an unofficial list in my head at the time I was approached. When I went to write it down, it was over 100 people. I did some initial research on all of them but there were some very tough cuts to make to get down to just 23 people.
Was there anyone you discovered in the process of researching for and writing the book?
Elagabalus, a Roman empress. I had never heard of her before researching for the book but she was incredibly fabulous and everyone should know her name. (You won’t find her referred to by female pronouns elsewhere, but since she said “Call me not lord, for I am a lady” and lived as female, I think she would have chosen she/her pronouns had she lived today.) She ruled the Roman Empire from age 14 to 18 and is mostly remembered for being decadent and promiscuous, but I see her legacy as being completely uncompromising in your identity no matter what everyone else thinks.
Which historical figures aren’t in the book — for scarcity of source material, for general space constraints, etc — that you wish you could have included?
So many, but Francisco Manicongo stands out. Francisco was brought as an enslaved person from what is now Angola to Brazil in the 1500s. They were a jimbandaa, an identity that existed for the Umbundu/Mbunda/Ovimbundu peoples of ancient Angola and Congo that included people who would today be assigned male at birth, wore special dresses, and slept with men. Jimbandaa were revered and honored in their time, but when Francisco was taken as a slave, their dress was no longer welcome. Francisco refused to stop wearing their traditional dress and the Portuguese Inquisition prosecuted them for it.
I have barely any other details about Francisco’s life and wasn’t able to create a full chapter out of their story and stay true to it being nonfiction despite months of trying. I still think about them all the time and wish I could have gotten them into the book. Unfortunately, enslaved people and other marginalized folks did not have their stories recorded as often as those with privilege.
What’s your advice for integrating LGBT history into the existing curricula in schools, both on individual and institutional levels?
GLSEN offers a free curriculum for grades 6-12 called Unheard Voices. History UnErased also has resources for grades 2-12. I made a free LGBTQ+/HIV history mobile app called Quist that has some suggested group activities for using it.
Those are some specific resources but in general I think a good tip for hostile environments is to be clear this is often as “sexual” as mentioning that Abraham Lincoln was married to Mary Todd. All I ask is that you also mention Abraham’s love for Joshua Fry Speed.
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Sarah Prager is a writer, speaker, and activist on LGBTQ+ history education and inclusion. She is the founder of Quist, a free mobile app full of queer history information and is also the author of Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World (2017, HarperCollins). The YA book received three starred reviews and New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, and others named it to their Best of 2017. Sarah has presented on queer history to over 100 schools and groups in five countries. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and their daughter. sarahprager.com / facebook.com/sarahmprager