Exposing Children to the LGBTQIA+ Community
Written By: Sarah Wyatt
Students need to read about situations similar to their own in order to understand their world. However, many students do not have the opportunity to see themselves in the books in their classroom libraries. One group without exception is the LGBTQIA+ community. Students who are questioning their sexuality or who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community would be greatly helped by having literature which depicts characters like themselves in positive ways. Not only will this literature help students in the LGBTQIA+ community, it will help all students to become comfortable with people different from themselves and to gain a greater understanding of others. Therefore, it is the teacher's responsibilities to provide high quality literature about students of all races, genders, religions, and sexualities. Many scholars agree that representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in literature is severely lacking. Jennifer Esposito did a review of four children’s books featuring lesbian parents and found there were four main ways the books showed lesbian relationships in a problematic fashion. These were problematizing not having a daddy, “de-queering” of lesbianism, implicating children in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and lesbianism as a catalyst for heterosexual growth (Esposito, 2009). These four problems are prevalent in most children’s literature with LGBTQIA+ characters. Many of these books take having a family different from the heteronormative mom-dad-kids structure as a problem. Having a homosexual family is shown as a struggle the characters need to overcome, instead of something which simply makes the characters who they are. Another problem which arises in gay children’s literature is the de-queering of homosexual relationships. This is when “they strip lesbian families of their difference and the social costs of those differences” (Esposito, 2005, 69). This is extremely prominent when young children who grew up in queer families learn about families different from their own. These children then need to explain how their families love each other, just like hetersexual families. This is where involving children in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy emerges. This policy was enacted by the Clinton administration in 1993, and made it so military personnel did not disclose their sexuality. However many people found out anyway. When people were outed, they were either discharged or forced to resign. Many stories with children of lesbian or gay parents have to explain to people, including teachers and peers, that they have homosexual parents. This forced children to advocate for things they have not chosen, and they are also made to be confronted with stereotypes and negative connotations of everything they know as family. When queer folks come out, many heterosexuals are depicted as having to come to terms with someone else’s sexuality. When they do this, they are seen as growing in their world view, thanks to the LGBTQIA+ community. It is seen as okay if a straight person takes a while to accept a queer person’s identity, because they learned it was “okay to be gay”. However, this is not an acceptable situation, and these heterosexuals should not be praised. When this occurs, queer folks are often frightened they will lose someone important to them for simply being who they are. When heterosexual people are praised for growing through queer folks’ hardships, it further ostracizes the LGBTQIA+ community. Tropes and stereotypes run rampant throughout children’s literature, and Roberta Seelinger Trites discusses this. In her article, she looks at children’s literature from different eras, which all greatly reflect the times they were written. She looks at how each of these books neglect the realness of being gay, including the pleasure which comes with the pain of any relationship (Trites, 1998). One way many books do this is using common stereotypes, such as a gay male who is attractive, white, and financially secure. He also loves the arts and has gone through a tragedy with one of his former lovers. This is not a trope lost in time, many more recent gay children’s stories involve people who have lost a lover or have suffered a tragedy in their lives. However, even with these problems which rise with many children’s books, quality literature is available for students. One book for young children depicting a gay couple is And Tango Makes Three (2005). Even though it shows a gay couple of a different species, penguins, it depicts a positive relationship which is different yet related to the heterosexual penguins. Two penguins in a zoo fall in love with each other, even though they are both males. However, the major conflict of the book is when they want a baby penguin and cannot create one themselves. A kind zookeeper then finds an abandoned egg and gives it to the couple, allowing them to have a child. They care for the baby, and it grows up happy and healthy (Richardson, 2005). The story develops the hardships of many homosexual couples, and does not shy away from the fact they cannot conceive without help, nor does it problematize Tango not having a mom, as he grows up happy and healthy like the other baby penguins. However, it does create a sense in which gay couples are in no way different than their heterosexual counterparts, especially in the ease in which this couple was able to get a baby, which happens for few homosexual couples. Most of the penguin community already knows Tango’s dads are gay, therefore, this story does not implicate any child in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Many of the other penguins originally find the gay penguins quite strange, but they are forced to accept them and become used to them. This depicts the heterosexual penguins growing because of the gay penguins’ hardships. There are no negative stereotypes presented, which creates a heartwarming story which respectfully and accurately depicts a homosexual couple. Leslea Newman is a children’s book author who has devoted the vast majority of her literature to highlighting gay families. Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) tells the story of a young girl named Heather who has two moms. She loves her moms and they love her, however when she goes to play group for the first time, she learns other people have daddies, and she becomes extremely sad. The teacher then has each child draw a picture of their family, and they are all different, which makes Heather feel better (Newman, 1989). This problematizes not having a daddy, as suggested by Esposito. Heather’s mommies are also presented as being just like a heterosexual couple, despite the fact they undoubtedly have had a more difficult time than most heterosexual couples and have faced prejudice. This story implicates Heather in the destructive Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell system, because her teacher is not aware of her family situation. This is also the case for many other students in the class who do not have a traditional family structure. Students in these traditional family structures are shown as growing exponentially when they learn about the other family structures present in their classroom. One of Heather’s mommies is shown in a stereotypical lesbian career, being she is a carpenter. Even though this book presents problems, it was very revolutionary for its time, and ended up being banned from many libraries and schools. In 1991, Newman wrote Gloria Goes to Gay Pride. Gloria spends the day at Gay Pride with her two moms, and learns many things about the gay community (Newman 1991). While this shows many different types of gay folks, it also isn’t an accurate representation of much of the LGBTQIA+ community, and of Pride in general. The illustrations mostly depict Gloria’s own family, not any of the thousands of other people who attend Pride. There are many different happy families, therefore Gloria’s story does not make not having a parent a problem. The narrative also suggests Pride is a place for allies to meet queer folks, which is an attempt at de-queering Pride itself. At Pride, Gloria’s moms are openly out, so she is not implicated in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell practice. Pride seems like a place where heterosexual people can go to ask questions and learn more about the gay community in this story, whereas Pride was created to give the queer communities around the world respite from this in their everyday lives. Many stereotypes are also present in Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, including the queer community being overly flamboyant and showcasing many of the stereotypes held about different groups. Much like Heather Has Two Mommies, Gloria’s story is very progressive for its era, and depicts a celebration which would most likely be extremely foreign to the majority of readers. A recent example of a children’s book with LGBTQIA+ characters is Worm Loves Worm (2016) by JJ Austrian. This book features two worms who love each other and are getting married. Many of the other creatures are considered about who is the bride and who is the groom. However, because worms do not have sexes, they decide to mix and match the traditional wedding stereotypes (Austrian, 2016). No children are involved, therefore, not having a mom or a dad is not an issue. There is a good sense of how life is different for these worms, therefore this text does not fall into the traditional problem of de-queering. Even though there are no children, the worms themselves are implicated in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, because they are assumed to be a heterosexual couple. They never actually “come out” as a gender nonconforming couple, and are subjected to traditional heterosexual, cisgender norms. The other animals are also seen as growing when they learn to accept worm and worm’s relationship, but they only do this when the worms conform to a traditional wedding. This also indicated the stereotypes of a traditional wedding. Instead of having the wedding they want, worm and worm are forced to have the wedding the other creatures think they should have. Even though Worm Loves Worm has many problems, it can introduce young readers to creatures who identify as genders other than cis female and cis male. While children’s picture books can serve as a positive catalyst for introducing children to the queer community, their limited characterization does not allow for strong relationships to develop, or for characters to get more of an identity than simply being gay. The other major problem found in picture books is the lack of primary characters who are gay. The vast majority of these books include children with gay or lesbian parents, giving the message only older people can know and affirm their sexuality. However, many young people are cognizant of their sexuality, especially as they emerge into upper elementary school. The other major problem which persists within children’s books is the constant “othering” of queer folks. Books often depict any gay behavior as strange or unnatural, instead of showing it is a natural part of many species. Many of these problems are resolved within children’s chapter books. The Misfits, by James Howe (2001) follows a group of middle schoolers who do not fit in for various reasons. Joe is gay, and is often teased much like the rest of his friend group. This group is growing up in a small town, and lean on each other when times get tough by having forums where they get together and discuss topics relevant to their lives. They decide to run for school student council to give the minorities of their school a voice. Although they end up losing, they introduce ideas to the school administration and students decide to take a tougher stance against bullying (Howe, 2001). Joe has a traditional mom and dad, therefore the story never problematizes not having a mom or dad. Joe faces a lot of bullying because he is gay, showing the very real problems many young queer folks endure, and not de-queering Joe’s experiences. However, Joe does not tell many people he is actually gay, so he is implicated in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, as people simply assume he is gay because of how he acts. All of Joe’s friends are seen to grow through Joe’s experiences. They all learn about the queer community, and look to him to answer any questions remotely pertaining to the experiences of the entire queer community. Although Joe is a young, out, gay character, he is not representative of the majority of the LGBTQIA+ community. He falls into one of the common gay tropes: the white, gay male who loves the arts and musical theatre. Furthermore, Joe is not the main focus, and his experience normalizes being bullied as part of the gay experience. However, the book might be helpful for students who are being bullied because of their sexuality, because Joe, and the rest of his friends, learn how to cope and work to make their situations better. Tim Federle wrote Better Nate Than Ever (2013), a story about a young boy growing up in a small town. In this town, everyone teases him for being gay, even though he does not know what his sexuality is. He then sees the chance to go to New York City and audition for a role in a musical, which is his dream. He goes on the adventure all by himself, only to end up in trouble. Luckily, he is rescued by his estranged aunt. His aunt’s roommate is a gay man, who also has aspirations to become famous on broadway. Nate ends up making it back home safely, although he is still not sure he is gay (Federle, 2013). There is no problem with not having a particular gender of parent, because Nate has grown up in a traditional family. However, he does not think he is gay, and therefore his experience is de-queered. He is shown to just be a heterosexual child by his family, and everyone, including Nate, think his problems simply stem from liking musical theater. This also leads into the problem of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Nate is never given the opportunity to experience different sexualities, and does not have any role models who are gay until he goes to New York. When Nate meets his aunt’s roommate, he is shown as growing his world view, meaning the queer characters are there simply to help him, as a heterosexual child. The main problem in Better Nate Than Ever is stereotyping the gay community. Nate loves musical theater, because of this, he is presumed to be gay by his community. The only other gay character in the book is exactly like him. This reinforces often incorrect stereotypes of gay men. This book does not help students who are struggling with their sexuality, because it portrays those in the queer community as different and not normal. One of the most confusing times for young queer folks is when they are first discovering their sexuality. This is discussed in Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake. Ivy is a young girl who goes through a tragedy when her house is destroyed by a tornado. She also has a difficult family dynamic, because her mom had just given birth to new twins, and Ivy feels extremely forgotten. Drawing is what she uses to escape. However, when she loses her notebook full of drawings of herself with girls, she worries she will be outed to everyone as gay. With the help of Robin, the lesbian owner of the inn where the family is staying while they get back on their feet, Ivy realizes she can be exactly who she is meant to be. She comes out to her friends and family, and all of them are extremely good allies (Blake, 2018). Much like the other young adult novels, Ivy has a mom and a dad, therefore there is no problem not having one or the other. Ivy’s story gives a good insight into the hard process of coming out, and how terrifying it can be knowing you are different. As well as this internal struggle, Ivy also has struggles not related to her sexuality, which makes her a very relatable character to queer and straight readers. This also resolves the problem of de-queering, because she has problems both related to her sexuality and coming out and ones related to being a teenager. She is also not implicated in any sort of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell situation, because no one in her family expects her to be interested in any sort of romantic relationship. However, there is a problem of using lesbianism for a catalyst for the growth of heterosexuals with Ivy’s sister. When her best friend comes out, she must “come to terms” with it, showing this as a normal behavior. In contrast, Ivy’s parents show a wonderful response when she comes out to them. They immediately accept her sexuality and tell her they love her. There are also many different characters with various sexualities who have various careers and interests, highlighting the diversity of the queer community and not relying on stereotypes to form characters. It is important to introduce students to characters of all identities in the LGBTQIA+ community. George (2015) by Alex Gino introduces readers to a young child named George. The main conflict happens when George’s class is putting on a production of Charlotte’s Web, and George, who everyone sees as a boy, wants to play Charlotte. When George auditions for Charlotte, his teacher thinks it is an awful joke, and yells at George. However, George does not understand. He feels like a girl, and wants to be a girl. She eventually comes out to her best friend as Melissa, and when she does this, her best friend is confused at first. However, the next day she is excited to have a girl best friend. They come up with a plan together so Melissa will get a chance to play Charlotte, and everyone is very impressed with the performance. In the falling action, Melissa experiences a full day as a girl when she meets her best friend’s uncle and they go to the zoo together. Melissa is extremely happy, and knows she needs to continue on the road to becoming who she is truly meant to be (Gino, 2015). Melissa has a mom and a dad, and therefore there is no problematizing not having a specific parent. There is also no significant de-queering of Melissa’s story. She has problems related to her queerness, and those problems are not hidden, but she also has other normal problems for a young person. Melissa is slightly implicated in the don’t ask don’t tell policy, because she is not given a place to express her true gender identity in her everyday life. However, she is not a catalyst for heterosexual growth. No person other than Melissa is shown to grow through her realizing her gender identity. She also is not wrought with stereotypes. Melissa is depicted as a well-rounded child, who has many interests and identities outside of her gender. George is an accurate depiction of a member of the transgender community for young readers. Overall, even though many children’s books create problems with representation of those in the queer community, it is still essential to expose children to these books. These problems include not having a particular, traditional family structure, de-queering experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community, implicating children in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, using queer folks for a catalyst for heterosexual growth, and leaning into common tropes and stereotypes. However, not all books containing queer characters have these problems, and there is quality, queer, children’s literature which accurately reflects members of the community. Students must read and learn about people different from themselves, including members of the LGBTQIA+ community in order to have a robust world view. Works CitedAustrian, JJ. 2016. Worm Loves Worm. Harper Collins. 32 pp. $17.99. ISBN 978-0062386335. Illustrated by Mike Curato.
Blake, Ashley Herring. 2018. Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World. Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group). 320pp. $16.99. ISBN 978-0316515467.
Esposito, J. (2009). We're Here, We're Queer, But We're Just Like Heterosexuals: A Cultural Studies Analysis of Lesbian Themed Children's Books. Educational Foundations. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
Federle, Tim. 2013. Better Nate Than Ever. Simon and Schuster (Simon and Schuster books for young readers). 288 pp. $12.59. ISBN 978-1442446892.
Gino, Alex. 2015. George. Scholastic Press. 224 pp. $16.99. ISBN 978-0545812573.
Howe, James. 2001. The Misfits. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 288 pp. $10.99. ISBN 978-0689839559.
Newman, Leslea. 1991. Gloria Goes to Gay Pride. Alyson Publications. 35 pp. $7.95. ISBN 978-1555831851. Illustrated by Russell Crocker.
Newman, Leslea. 1989. Heather has two mommies. Alyson Publications. 32 pp. $6.99. ISBN 978-0763690427. Illustrated by Diana Souza.
Richardson, Justin and Peter Parnell. 2005. And Tango Makes Three. 36pp. $13.41. ISBN 978-1481446952. Illustrated by Henry Cole.
Trites, R. S. (1998). Queer Discourse and the Young Adult Novel: Repression and Power in Gay Male Adolescent Literature. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 23(3), 143-151. doi:10.1353/chq.0.1203