Dr Pádraic Whyte examines depictions of same-sex relationships in children’s fiction from picturebooks to YA texts – in both Irish publishing and further afield – and asks ‘where are we now?’
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It is over 45 years since the first publication of a children’s book that engaged explicitly with issues of same-sex relationships and experience; it is over 30 years since same-sex parents first appeared in a picturebook; JK Rowling indicated in an interview that she always thought of the character Dumbledore as gay; Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell’s recent The Sleeper and the Spindle (2014) represents a kiss between two young women; and Disney’s Frozen, one of the highest grossing children’s films of the past year, features a family unit that includes same-sex parents (Oaken’s family). Such a list would suggest that children’s literature and culture has accepted and acknowledged that same-sex relationships are part of the norm and part of many children’s everyday experiences; but on closer inspection, and particularly within an Irish context, the matter is far from simple.
To fully understand the complexities of the representations of same-sex couples in children’s literature, it is important to position them within the cultural contexts in which they are produced as well as read. People who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) are all a part of society, not apart from society, and are central to many children’s lives, be that as teachers, parents, aunts, uncles, doctors, nurses, the person that passes them on the street and – more significantly – as themselves or their classmates. Therefore it is surprising that the number of books for young people that explicitly represent LGBTQ characters or same-sex couples is limited. When such representations do appear, the majority are present in the two extremes of children’s fiction – picturebooks for the very young that deal with same-sex parent families, and young adult texts that often engage with characters telling people about their sexuality and falling in love for the first time.
Many critics have examined same-sex relationships in classic children’s texts such as Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–9). However, one of the first books for children to engage directly with a same-sex relationship, in our current understanding of the term, was John Donovan’s 1969 novel, I’ll Get There: It Better Be Worth the Trip. Published in the US, this groundbreaking novel follows 13-year-old Davy as he tries to come to terms with the death of his grandmother, his move from Boston to New York City and growing up. At one stage in the story, Davy and his friend Altschuler kiss and ‘make out’, and Donovan beautifully captures the 13-year-old’s confusion around his sexuality. Davy alerts the reader to the strange feelings in his body and how good it felt to be intimate with his best friend, while simultaneously questioning what has happened within the context of the expectations of his father, his mother and society more generally. Later, when Davy’s mother discovers the boys asleep together, she asks if something has happened between them, using the term ‘unnatural’, to which he responds, ‘What do you mean “unnatural”?’ The contemporary reception of the text demonstrates an interesting division amongst critics: some praised it for its apparent celebration of homosexual experience; others praised it for its apparent condemnation of homosexuality; while some reviewers lamented that it did not go far enough in representing the same-sex experience in a positive light. The fact that Davy’s friend Altschuler, his mentor and guide throughout the story, has no problem with what has happened between them would suggest, overall, that the book represents same-sex experience in positive terms. Saying that, it should be noted that the age of the protagonists might still be an issue: the cover of the 40-anniversary edition from Firstflux Publishers features images of two boys much older than 13, which gives the impression that the text is suited to a more mature young adult audience, something which belies the actual content.
Some people might argue that representations of same-sex experiences and so on should not be a part of writing that targets younger child readers and that they should be confined to literature for a more mature young adult readership. Dominant ideologies suggest that such experiences are adult concerns rather than children’s concerns and that children cannot be gay because they are asexual (according to popular belief). However, this is complicated by the notion that, despite their supposed asexuality, children are still viewed as straight. In line with this, they are encouraged to perform their gender identities (identities invariably linked to sexuality) along particular lines and are rewarded or punished accordingly.
I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip was published just before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, events that are often viewed as marking the birth of the modern gay rights movement. Since then several hundred books have been published that deal with same-sex relationships, most of them focusing on the experiences of protagonists in their mid-to-late teens. Early texts of note from the US include Rosa Guy’s Ruby (1976) – one of the first YA books to deal explicitly with female same-sex relations, where issues of race and immigration are also used to comment on ideas of ‘difference’; Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface (1978); and Sandra Scoppetone’s Trying Hard to Hear You (1974) and Happy Endings Are all Alike (1978). Meanwhile, in the UK David Rees was publishing In the Tent (1979) and The Milkman’s on his Way (1982). Many of these texts engage with aspects of homophobia, most usually with the negative response characters receive once it is discovered that they are attracted to members of the same sex. The homophobic response becomes a trope within such fiction and many of these YA texts are seen as ‘problem novels’, books where one central issue drives the narrative.
Within children’s texts, homophobia is represented in many forms, from the explicit to the implicit: from those who actively campaign against equal rights for LGBTQ people, to those who use the word ‘faggot’, to those who feel that their homosexuality may be inherently wrong, to those who consciously never mention to their children that a female family member has a girlfriend. Homophobia is also central to Nancy Garden’s seminal text Annie on Mind (1982), which documents the love story between two teenage girls as they finish high school. Set in New York, the story is told from the perspective of Liza, who falls for Annie, a girl she meets at the Metropolitan Museum. As the relationship progresses, Garden provides a cultural history and a context for the girls’ sexual relationship, encouraging the reader to view same-sex relationships as having always existed. Not only are two of Liza’s teachers in a same-sex relationship, but also their bookshelf features a number of texts that make this history visible to the protagonist and to the reader. When members of the school administration discover that the teachers are in a long-term lesbian relationship, both teachers lose their jobs; the reader is encouraged to see homophobia as the problem, not homosexuality. In many ways, the book feels dated, but the fact that the school has the power to fire teachers whose sexuality is deemed to be in opposition to the ethos of the school still has a particular resonance in contemporary Ireland: our current equality legislation does not extend to protect LGBTQ teachers who may be working in religious-run schools (which make up the majority of schools in the country) and they too can be fired on the basis of their sexuality.
In the same year in Britain, Aidan Chambers published Dance on My Grave (1982) and similarly used established accounts of same-sex relationships to validate the experiences of two teenage boys, Hal and Barry. Hal attempts to find answers in and muses over a Biblical reference that he encounters in class: the story of David crying out at the death of Jonathan, ‘Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Samuel I, 26). We can see from current debates surrounding the referendum on Civil Marriage Equality in Ireland that many people continue to draw upon various types of biblical stories to support their arguments regarding the status of same-sex relationships.
While the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the emergence of LGBTQ YA fiction in the US and the UK, the representation of same-sex relationships in children’s literature in Ireland came much later. In 1992, Margrit Cruickshank, a Scottish author living in Ireland, published Circling the Triangle, a YA novel set in south county Dublin that features a gay man as a minor character. A year later, the same year that Ireland decriminalised homosexuality, Tom Lennon’s When Love Comes to Town was published by The O’Brien Press. Originally appearing in the publisher’s adult list, the novel subsequently moved to the children’s list and is generally regarded as one of Ireland’s first YA texts that engages specifically with gay teen experience. Unfortunately this engagement is founded around a depressive homophobic discourse as the character struggles to accept his sexuality and to deal with his family’s negative response to his disclosure. The protagonist, as well as the narrative voice, colludes in such homophobia and the novel never presents any hope or the possibility of change.
In Ireland’s small children’s publishing market Mark O’Sullivan and Tatiana Strelkoff were some of the few authors that included LGBTQ characters in their YA novels White Lies (1997) and Allison: A Story of First Love (1998) respectively. More recent examples include Geraldine Meade’s Flick (2011) and Katherine Farmar’s fantasy text Wormwood Gate (2013), as well as Anna Carey’s Rebecca Rocks (2013). Meade’s novel is particularly engaging. Set in Dublin and adopting a realist mode, it follows the story of Felicity or ‘Flick’ as she begins to explore and make sense of her own sexuality. Of greatest interest is the representation of the self-assured Joey with whom Flick falls in love. Confident in her sexuality and identity, she is a welcome relief from Flick’s own internalised homophobia.
In many of the texts published in Ireland and elsewhere, homophobia is depicted as inevitable. It appears as natural that the young person or child will experience negative responses when they reveal their sexuality, suggesting that telling people about sexuality will necessarily be accompanied by stress and turmoil. In fairness, such approaches may be an attempt to produce a sense of realism in the text. However, these narratives also suggest that homophobic responses are natural – and to a certain extent understandable and acceptable – rather than constructed. Centring texts around the issue of homophobia and ‘coming out’ (a term used in the novels, not my term) can often lead to constructions of binary oppositions such as same-sex and opposite-sex, and also of normal and deviant. The fact that there is no equivalent ‘coming out’ for straight teenagers in these novels or in society more generally perpetuates the notion that LGBTQ experience and sexuality is somehow outside of the norm, apart from society rather than an integral part of it.
Despite this, representations of same-sex experience seem to be well-established in recent literature for young adults, as can be seen in the works of authors as diverse as Malinda Lo, David Levithan, Maureen Johnson, Petra West, Emily M. Danforth and Patrick Ness. Indeed, some of these authors have tried to challenge traditional notions of homophobia as a given, with varying degrees of success. David Levithan in his 2003 novel Boy Meets Boy presents the reader with a number of characters, many of whom are happy to defy categorisation and labelling. What results is what some critics have referred to as a magical realist and feel-good text, as it takes place in a town where homophobia is absent and where being in a same-sex relationship is a normal part of life and school experience. It is a text of wish-fulfilment that questions accepted norms in the real world. Similarly, in his short story Different for Boys (2010), Patrick Ness encourages the reader to question norms and asks why some homophobic terms such as ‘poof’ are acceptable to include in literature for children whereas representations of same-sex relationships often are not.
Picturebooks for children also engage with aspects of same-sex relationships and homophobia, but in a very different way. Rather than focusing on the child protagonist and sexuality, many of these books explore the child’s relationship with his or her parents who are of the same sex. Jane Sunderland and Mark McGlashan of Lancaster University estimate that there are approximately 70 picturebooks published for children that represent same-sex parent families, the majority of which are published in the USA and deal with two-mother stories. The first picturebook depicting this type of family unit is Susanne Bösche and Andreas Hansen’s Danish book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1981), with an English translation by Louis Mackay published in 1983. This seminal text places the child at the centre of the narrative and explores her relationship with Eric, Martin and her mother, Karen, who lives nearby. The story emphasises the normality of Jenny’s family life, yet at the same time a terrifying encounter with a homophobic neighbour highlights that many do not look favourably upon such family units. Again, homophobia is used as a means of establishing a sense of realism in the text, yet it simultaneously defines this family make-up in opposition to a perceived norm. Nonetheless, this homophobic encounter becomes an opportunity to explain to Jenny, and to the reader, that homophobia arises when people lack knowledge about gay people and experience.
Since the publication of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, many picturebooks – right up to Heidi Argent and Amanda Wood’s Josh and Jaz have three Mums (2007) and Ed Merchant and Rachel Fuller’s Dad David, Baba Chris and Me (2010) – also deal with children’s concerns that their families may somehow be different from the norm. By way of explanation from adult characters, this difference is presented as something to celebrate. In the case of Dad David, Baba Chris and Me, the child character, Ben, learns to overcome homophobic bullying in the playground.
While these texts are important in that they make visible the experiences of same-sex parent families, there is also a tendency to depict the parents as adhering to a heteronormative ideal, as if acceptance of same-sex families in society can only come about if we present families that are close to an imagined ideal of perfection. Pat Thomas’s This Is My Family: A First Look at Same-Sex Parents (2012) opens with an acknowledgement that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and that families with two mums or two dads are just examples of this natural diversity. It then proceeds to state that ‘a man who wants to be in a loving relationship with another man is called gay’ and a ‘woman who wants to be in a loving relationship with another woman is called a lesbian’, neither of which is entirely accurate.
One way to avoid such pitfalls is to explore same-sex parent relationships through anthropomorphism, as is the case with the popular And Tango Makes Three (2007) by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole. The tale follows the true story of two male penguins in New York City Zoo that hatch an egg laid by another penguin couple and then become parents to the new baby chick, Tango. Rather than having to engage with the trials of human experience and same-sex parenting, any encounter with homophobia is absent and the tale emphasises the idea that this family formation is something perfectly natural.
There is a place for didactic picturebooks that engage with the complexities of same-sex parenting and attempt to aid the child protagonist and reader in navigating the complicated nature of societal expectations. However, rather than this relationship acting as the driving force for the narrative there is also a place for picturebooks that serve a different function and simply present same-sex parenting as something incidental within the story. Examples of this approach include Katy Watson and Vanda Carter’s Spacegirl Pukes (2005) and Anna Wilson and Vanda Carter’s Want Toast (2009), with their inclusion of female same-sex relationships.
Despite such developments in children’s literature, a strange double standard still exists in society where there’s a sense that the representation of same-sex relationships in children’s books somehow raises the topic of sexuality, a topic inappropriate for children, something they do not need to know about at this stage in their lives. And yet, the representation of mother-and-father-parent families has never received such criticism. For many children, their first encounter with ideas of same-sex relationships comes in negative terms: homophobic language and bullying in the school yard. We live in a society where homophobia is a part of children’s everyday lives, as is evident from the Department of Education and Science’s introduction of guidelines for schools in how to deal specifically with issues of homophobia. Very often, it is left unchallenged and unexplained by peers, by parents and by teachers, afraid that confronting homophobic bullying might somehow upset the perpetrator, the parents of the perpetrator or go against the ethos of the school and upset the administration. To leave it unchallenged is to condone and perpetuate it. One way of challenging homophobia is to create a project similar to that currently running in the UK, ‘Challenging Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying through Children’s Literature’, a whole-school approach where academics, politicians, teachers, publishers, retailers, authors and illustrators work together to create a body of literature that not only explores the serious implications of homophobia, but celebrates same-sex relationships and the diversity of family structures.
Within an Irish context, YA fiction may be limited in its representation of same-sex relationships but the presence of such relationships in Irish picturebooks is practically non-existent. Gay people in Ireland can apply to foster and to adopt children, and with over 250 families (according to the 2011 census) headed up by same-sex parents, it is evident that such family units are a very real part of many children’s lives in Ireland. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on Civil Marriage Equality (which would extend protections and rights to children and parents of such families) these family structures have existed in Ireland for decades and will continue to do so. Children in Ireland deserve to see their lives, their family members, their peers and their potential futures reflected and explored in the literature that they read.
In I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, Davy’s father mentions the importance of talking about things in order to understand them. Indeed, debate is essential to any democracy and many readers will disagree with the views outlined in this article. However, children’s literature has been talking about same-sex relationships for well over 45 years. In Irish society we are still having the same debates that we have had for decades – from decriminalisation to tolerance to acceptance to inclusion and to equality. At some point there is a need to stop the conversation and to take action. Are we there yet? Almost? Maybe? In the forthcoming referendum, a simple yes or no from you will decide.
1. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan. Re-issued by Flux, 2010.
A classic that defies labeling the experience and allows readers to reach their own conclusions.
2. Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers. Re-issued by Definitions, 2007.
Groundbreaking. Innovative use of form to explore ideas of obsession, truth and authenticity.
3. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. Re-issued by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.
Dated in many ways, but also explores issues still relevant today.
4. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. HarperCollins, 2013.
One of Levithan’s many playful tongue-and-cheek narratives.
5. Flick by Geraldine Meade. Little Island, 2011.
Within an Irish context, this is by far the most interesting.
1. Check out Mark McGlashan’s detailed bibliography, facts and figures at www.lancaster.academia.edu/MarkMcGlashan
2. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bösche, Photography by Andreas Hansen, Translated by Louis Mackay. Gay Men’s Press, 1983.
Not the most subtle text in the world, but it is the first and therefore worth a look.
3. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, Illustrated by Henry Cole. Simon and Schuster, 2007.
Who doesn’t love a good same-sex parent penguin story?
4. Josh and Jaz have three Mums by Heidi Argent, Illustrated by Amanda Wood. British Association for Adoption and Fostering, 2007.
Although overly-didactic and problematic in many ways, it features children comparing their family unit to those of their friends.
5. The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Where a kiss between women just isn’t a big deal.
* Header Image courtesy of Chris Haughton @ http://www.chrishaughton.com/