Explaining what it means to be gay is so easy that a two year old could do it. Literally. I’ve seen my own kid do it.
My wife and I and our two and a half year old, Millie, were at the park one evening. As kids so beautifully do, my daughter made friends with another little boy who was at the park with his dad and his brother. They ran all over that park. After a while, they had worn themselves out so the two of them sat down on a bench together. My wife and I stood nearby, far enough so that we didn’t appear to be the smothering, hovering types of parents that inside we were dying to be, but close enough that we could still hear what these two were discussing.
I can’t exactly say that the exchange between the two kids qualified as a discussion, but at some point Millie pointed to my wife and I and said, “That’s my family.” And the little boy then pointed to his own father and brother and said, “That’s my family. That’s my brother and my daddy. Where’s your daddy?” While my wife and I were ready to swoop in and make the potential discomfort go away, Millie didn’t skip a beat. She simply replied, “I don’t have a daddy. I have a Mommy and a Mama.” And that was it. The boy sort of nodded his head and then they ran off to dig in the dirt.
And in that moment. I was reminded. We adults. We have messed things up big time. We have taken something that could be explained quite simply, as my toddle has now proven, and we have turned it in to something that resembles a bit of a mess. We have taken something simple and we have made it political. We have made it controversial. We have made it uncomfortable.
And no where is this clearer to me than in the discussion that surrounds using books with LGBT characters in the classroom. Every so often another story makes it into the news that a school has had some controversy surrounding the use or mere presence of a book with LGBT characters in a classroom or in the school library. Usually this is somehow connected to younger children. And usually one of the loudest arguments is that parents do not believe that they should have to explain what it means to be gay to their young children. That this will be too confusing for their child. That this will mean they will have to talk about sex with their first grader. That this will open too many dangerous doors. That this will somehow harm their child and destroy their child’s innocence.
To those who are making this argument, I would like to offer my two year old daughter to help you out. Seriously. Have your child call my child and she will quickly explain what it means to have gay parents. If your child has been exposed to the book And Tango Makes Three or the book In Our Mothers’ House and is simply perplexed by the existence of a family with two moms or two dads, then just have your kid give my kid a call and she will help you out.
I don’t mean to sound snarky (though of course I really do) but I honestly am just enraged by this argument. As I have written before, if you do not want to be bothered to explain that there are different kinds of people in this world and different kinds of families in this world then what would you like me to do about my family? Should I honestly hide myself from you and your child so that your child doesn’t ask you any questions? Should I tell my daughter to lie about who her family is so that she doesn’t accidentally make you uncomfortable?
I have tried to write about this without getting overly emotional, without sounding angry. But I just can’t. I understand that people will read this and think that of course I feel this way. I am biased. I am gay. Of course I want their to be books about people like me in the classroom. I am only seeing one side of this argument. And yes, of course that is true. But I also think there is cause for discussion here.
We now live in a country where gay marriage is legal in every single state. We now live in a time when more and more gay and lesbian couples are having children. We now live in a country where more likely than not, every single child growing up today will one day come into contact with a gay or lesbian or transgender person. And when that time does come, when that moment arrives, I would hope that these children will not be surprised to discover that LGBT people do, in fact, exist.
What an incredible opportunity for each child to first meet LGBT people through the pages of a picture book. Just like many of our children first meet someone with a disability or someone of a different race or someone from a different country within the safety of the pages of a picture book, so too can they now meet people who are LGBT in the same manner. However, they can only happen if we allow our children access to these books. These books that now exist. These books that are now being written. These books that are now being published. We must do our part to put them into the hands of children.
A few months ago, I was engaged in several discussions about the book George, which tells the story of George who was born a boy but has always felt that she is really a girl. More recently, I have been reading stories of a school in Michigan who decided not to allow the newest Captain Underpants to be sold at their in-school book fair because one of the main characters is revealed to be gay. In both of these discussions people arrive at what they believe is a compromise. What they believe is a solution. And it always involves parent permission. Because it seems wrong to ban these books all together, schools are willing to allow these books, or others just like them, to exist but in some sort of special section. And students can only have access to these books if they have a parent’s permission.
It seems like that is no big deal. It seems like that is a solution that will make everyone happy. It seems that this is a solution. But I truly believe, with my whole heart, that this cannot be the solution.
I think about the message that this sends to any child who is gay, any child who is transgender, any child who has gay or lesbian or transgender parents. And that message is not okay. It is not okay to tell children, through the actions that we take, that who they are or who their family is will not be okay for any child to read about. It is not okay to tell children that who they are belongs in a separate section of the library. It is not okay to tell a child that their family cannot be read about in the same way that all other families are read about. It is not okay to send the message that who a child is not only makes them different but it also makes them unsuitable for a picture book.
I imagine my own child coming home one day and telling us that she could not check out a book from her school’s library that was about a family just like ours until we signed a permission slip for her. I imagine her holding out that permission slip and I imagine my own heart breaking.
I imagine a child who has felt different his entire life finally finding a book, like George, that tells the story of exactly who he is and then finding out that he cannot check that book out until his parents sign a form telling the school that it is okay for him to read it. Before he ever gets a chance to find out if his own parents would accept him or not, he is sent the message that some parents wouldn’t want their children knowing that people like him exist in this world.
I imagine an older child who is scared to death of her parents finding out that she might be gay. I imagine her relief in discovering online that there is a book, like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, that is written with a character just like her who has to navigate through the world feeling uncertain of whether or not her family will accept her once they find out who she really is. I imagine that child so excited to get advice and wisdom and solace from this book and then finding out that in order to check this book out from her school’s library she has to have her parents, the very ones she is terrified of, sign a piece of paper before she is allowed to read the book.
I imagine these children finding themselves so close to the very books that could save their lives or save their hearts and then finding out that they cannot read them. That these books are different than all others. That these books require adult permission.
And I imagine all the other children. The children who simply want a chance to learn about others who are different from them. The children who have heard people saying negative things about people who are gay and wanting to simply learn more about what that even means. The children who have heard jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and simply want to better understand what someone like Caitlyn Jenner might be experiencing. All of these children who are simply looking to learn from the pages of a book, to build empathy for others, to discover what it is like to be someone so very different than themselves. All of these children who are searching for these books, but not finding them because they have been pulled and put on a separate shelf, or behind the checkout counter, or on a different bookcase behind the teacher’s desk. These children also deserve these books and deserve a chance to meet these characters and better understand their lives.
I am certainly not saying that every book written with an LGBT character is appropriate for every age of students. I would never book The Miseducation of Cameron Post on the shelves of my 5th grade classroom library. The book is not appropriate for fifth graders but not BECAUSE of the existence of an LGBT character. And I suppose that is what I am asking. Do not count out a book simply because of the presence of an LGBT character. That character alone cannot make a book inappropriate. That character alone is not justification to seek parental approval. That character alone is not reason to put the book in a separate section.
And I am not speaking to the teachers who do not love and accept LGBT people in general. I am not speaking to those who themselves believe that being gay is a sin. I am not speaking to those teachers and librarians and administrators who are still hoping that gay marriage will once again be illegal. I am talking to all the rest of us. Those who support and love LGBT people and students and parents. Those who wish for a world where all LGBT students and teachers feel safe being who they are in our schools. Those who tell me they are happy for me and for my family and for my daughter. Those who tell me I am brave for coming out.
You are the ones who have the chance to really make a change. Because I am only brave if I am doing what I do on my own. If I am standing up all by myself. If I am not surrounded by others who are also reading books with LGBT characters and also suggesting books with LGBT characters and putting those books into the hands of our students. Then yes, I suppose what I am doing is brave. Because doing anything on your own is a scary thing and a brave thing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all decide to make these books available for our students. We can all help our students to read these books and understand these books and these lives. We can all start to make our schools and our world safer for LGBT students and parents and people.
I like to think that despite the continued news stories. Despite the continued controversy. Despite the continued outrage. That one day, we can learn something from my two year old. One day we can see that answering a child’s questions about someone who is gay is not as hard as we have made it seem. And, in fact, it just might be the very thing that we need in order to create a world where books about all sorts of people can exist together on the bookshelves in our schools and in our classrooms.