Perhaps you have encountered the common icebreaker that asks people what time period they would live in if they could choose. Many find this exercise easy, maybe even a little dreamy. But marginalized individuals have a harder time answering, reflecting on the ways they would be treated in regions and cultures across history. In their new young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, Robin Gow offers an answer to this question we’d all be wise to adopt: honor the past, but live in the future.
Gow’s novel follows two young trans men, Oliver and Aaron, who grow up together in a small Pennsylvania town, fall in love, and come out to their friends and families, each on his own timeline. Toward the end of their senior year, Aaron’s family relocates quite suddenly and the relationship between the protagonists becomes contingent upon the written word. Written in verse, A Million Quiet Revolutions queers both the novel and young adult genre by using altered form and subversive subject matter to break expected literary boundaries. This format lends itself to the impressively smooth inclusion of both traditional letters and text message exchanges. In this way, the novel takes on the added dimension of the epistolary.
Oliver is fixated on reading the stories of trans people in history (or, as Gow calls it, Oliver studies those employing trans practices, as modern queer vocabulary was not available during their lifetimes). In fact, Oliver and Aaron’s chosen names are culled from this historical context, as Oliver identifies a pair of trans Revolutionary War soldiers whose existence becomes a lodestar for our protagonists. As Gow states in their afterword, “My philosophy behind the book is that it is not a question of whether trans and queer people have existed throughout history; it is a question of telling their stories, if their stories are being told at all.” This sentiment is poetically expressed by Oliver when he writes to Aaron, “I want you to remember / that we existed and we loved each other so much / that we existed and maybe someday us existing / will give someone else hope.” Just as the soldiers give Oliver and Aaron hope, the boys’ own story might provide solace to others in their fictional world. And in writing their story, Gow hopes to provide some peace to readers.
A Million Quiet Revolutions acknowledges that not every coming out experience is equal. Once Oliver and Aaron tell their families about their sexual identities, Oliver’s family is cloyingly, immediately accepting of his queerness, while Aaron’s family ignores his identity and continues to refer to him as their daughter. While Aaron’s parents’ erasure of his identity is certainly harmful, they are portrayed as simply confused, and not unaccepting. The effects of both families’ approaches are explored in practical and emotional terms: Oliver feels smothered by his parents’ dogged interest, while Aaron feels eclipsed much in the way Oliver has discovered trans history being eclipsed. As Oliver communicates in a letter to Aaron, “we have a lot / we can teach our parents / if they make time to listen.”
There is tension between Oliver and Aaron due to their geographical separation and because of their different coming out experiences. Many of the narratives of those within the LGBTQIA+ community lamentably feature utter devastation, such as murder, domestic violence, suicide, houselessness, manipulation, crime, unaddressed mental health issues, AIDS, substance abuse, the threat of perpetual solitude, and being oppressively closeted (Heavenly Creatures, A Little Life, The L Word, Bound, Angels in America, Gia, the Hours, Brokeback Mountain, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Fried Green Tomatoes, Boys Don’t Cry, The Crying Game, to name a few). Contemporary television and film are working to destigmatize the experiences of those within the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, just as Oliver recognizes and combats tragedy with regard to his own life: “Why do our stories always / have to be ones /of suffering and longing? / I want to end happy with you.”
That Gow focuses on the concepts of discovery and visibility rather than oppression and subterfuge allows the reader space to consider the boys’ individual transitions as well as the pure, exploratory love between them. The novel succeeds in being a depiction of two believable trans individuals who, while their experiences might be considered lucky, are representative of many contemporary coming out stories. Young adults exploring their own identities will be comforted by this down-to-earth depiction of Oliver and Aaron as humans and not overt victims of tragedy.
On top of all this, the novel does gentle, ethical work to educate its audience with in-text mini-lessons on the differences between sex and gender, the fact that not all trans people engage in hormone therapy, a clarifying discussion of intersexuality, the meaning of the rainbow flag, and the importance of visual symbolism throughout history in allowing queer people to identify one another and build safe communities. Much of Oliver’s thinking lends itself to these explorations, where he wonders about marginalization and the alienation implicit in being outside of the binary.
Furthermore, Gow touches on racial diversity (Aaron is Latinx and it influences his relationship to community, self-doubt, and visibility), different trans identities (Oliver refers to himself as “boy lite” in contrast to those trans men who are more overtly masculine in presentation), and the role of various religions in self-acceptance. Gow also includes a comprehensive reading list following the conclusion of the novel, with some texts offering more dire perspectives on the queer experience in history.
A Million Quiet Revolutions is an homage to our queer ancestors, a guidebook for those who might be struggling with the same internal questions, and an offering of hope for a community that is so often invisible or portrayed as inevitably in danger of violence, loneliness, and the inability to walk through the world with confidence. As a piece of young adult fiction, this book will be an inspiration to those who need its beauty in these oppressive times, as well as a non-threatening education for those who are new to the world of trans people, whom Oliver, in imagining the rest of his community, separated both by geography and societal pressures, describes as “stars glittering / across the map.”
ROBIN GOW is a trans and queer poet and middle-grade/young adult author. They are the author of several poetry collections and an essay collection as well as the YA verse novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).
KATHERINE FALLON is the author of DEMOTED PLANET (Headmistress Press, 2021), The Toothmakers’ Daughters (Finishing Line Press, 2018), and The Book On Fractures (forthcoming, Ghost City Press, 2022). DEMOTED PLANET was a finalist for the 2021 Charlotte Mew Chapbook Award and was recently named as the finalist for the 2022 Georgia Author of the Year Chapbook Award. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, Colorado Review, Juked, Meridian, Nimrod, Passages North, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. She teaches composition and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Georgia Southern University and lives with her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses.