Monday, March 21, 2011

My Writer's Perspective Column is Published: Why We Should Include GLBTQ Characters and Themes in our Writing and Illustrating

So this article I wrote was published in our Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrator's Los Angeles/Santa Barbara/Venture and Orange County Regions newsletter. It's really from my heart, and I wanted to share it here, too! (If you prefer, you can download the whole issue here.)

Anne Sibley O’Brien, in a recent series of articles in the SCBWI Bulletin, brought our attention to the phenomenon of “white mind” – how many of us default our characters in our writing and illustrating to be white. I’d argue we also have “heterosexist mind,” where we don’t even realize we’re not including Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning characters. Our princesses end up with princes. Our boy characters are attracted to girls, our girl characters are attracted to boys, the adults in our books are by default straight, and we don’t even notice we’re doing it.

I’d like to advocate that we, as children’s content creators, become the engine for a re-education that gets people’s minds to include gay possibilities. That’s no more radical than suggesting that the universes of our books include the diversity of the world in which our children are already growing up.

Just as African-American children and Asian children, disabled children and foreign children, Latino children and Jewish children, fat children and deaf children, and every other group of “other” children do, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning children need that moment of seeing themselves reflected in the books they read.

Without seeing themselves in the stories they grow up with, how can they believe there’s a place for them in our world? Sadly, so many GLBTQ children don’t see a future for themselves. And not believing in a future is one cause of the tragic rash of gay-teen suicides.

Before going any further, I need to debunk a devastating stereotype about what it means to be gay. Being attracted to someone of the same gender is NOT a choice. If you’re straight, was there a moment in your life when you CHOSE to be attracted to people of the opposite gender? We can’t convince ourselves to be attracted to Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie if that’s not what we find attractive. We can’t control or choose how our bodies are wired.

The dearth of positive portrayals of GLBTQ characters in children’s literature doesn’t keep GLBTQ children and teens from existing. But, it does feed a culture where gayness is equated with second-class citizenship. It feeds a lack of self-esteem. It feeds a loss of hope.

You certainly don’t need to be GLBTQ to write a GLBTQ character – any more than you need to be male to write about boy characters. Do your home- work. Get your details right. And in the words of Jane Yolen: “H.O.P.” – get your Heart On the Page. Because, at the end of the day, GLBTQ characters have emotions and hopes and fears just like every other character. And if we can tap into OUR real emotions when we write them, they’ll ring true.

Ellen Wittlinger famously said (and I’m doing my best to make her famous for saying it) that she includes GLBTQ characters in everything she writes, even the books that aren’t about those characters, because they’re part of the world of her readers, and she wants her books to reflect that.

And for illustrators, there’s an equally important opportunity to open minds and hearts. Look at the amazing work of two-time Caldecott-Honoree Marla Frazee, whose illustrations to Susan Meyer’s words in their board book, Everywhere Babies, includes an exhausted two mom family, right next to all the other racially diverse, exhausted parents.

I once asked a children’s illustrator if he had any gay content in his portfolio, and he reacted as if I’d asked if he had any pornography among his drawings. Look at Madge and Bernie Wubbington in Peter Brown’s The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder. They may be heterosexual, but they’re not having sex. They’re sitting on a couch. Similarly, including GLBTQ characters doesn’t necessarily sexualize a book.

So, I urge us all to consider including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning characters and themes in our writing and illustrating for children. Include them in our picture books, our chapter books, our middle grade, and our young adult manuscripts. Include them in our magazine articles, our nonfiction, and in our art.

At the very least, we can contribute to a more respectful sense of safe space in our world – and in our literature – by not having characters disparage GLBTQ people with expressions like “that’s so gay” as toss-off moments of dialog – even if it’s what teens today say.

None of us would use the “N-word” carelessly. Our culture has shifted to where racism is unacceptable. We need to make homophobia unacceptable as well. It’s not about censorship, but about recognizing that using words like “faggot,” “that’s so lame,” “retard,” and boys calling girls “bitch,” contributes to a culture where kids learn to build their own self esteem by putting others down. We need to change that power dynamic.

The goal is not tolerance. Or even acceptance. The goal is for us to be able to
celebrate our differences.

And as creators of content for children, WE can help get us there. We can make kids’ and teens’ lives better for having read and experienced our stories – all kids. Gay and straight.

We can make a difference. And we should.

Thanks for reading!


Barbara Shoup said...

Bravo! I love the work you do.

Barbara Shoup said...

Bravo! I love the work you do!

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

That's a beautiful article, Lee! Thank you for writing and sharing it!

Sally Bibrary said...

Well said (and well-written) as always, Lee. I think you made some really important points, and also did a fair job of calling out some of the misconceptions or excuses authors use of not including LGBT content - particularly the concept of sexualizing a book.

Your blog has always done a great job of speaking to young readers and their parents . . . hopefully the literary community is just as open to your words. Thanks so much!

The Quilted Librarian said...

Excellent article, Lee. I heard a YA author speak at a breakout session once and she said when she was in high school, she didn't see her black face reflected on the covers of books and she certainly didn't see her lesbian face reflected there. I was just introduced to your blog by The Hub. As a school library media specialist, I really appreciate bloggers who speak for the under-represented.
Many thanks,
Dana Fisher

ivanova said...

I love it!

I think that diversity in kid lit is not just beneficial for members of "minority" groups, it's beneficial for *everyone.* It's great when kids can see themselves reflected on the page, and when kids see people who are different from themselves. Kids learn empathy, respect, and are better equipped to interact with others and make their way in the world.

Thanks for the article and your blog.

Unknown said...

Wow! You are brave, Lee--and right. Bravo to you for leading on these important issues.

Deiter said...

I've thought about whether adding characters of varying color and orientation would come off as patronizing rather than "celebrating diversity." You say it's all matter of writing characters with the requisite amount of heart, as it is for any character.

Charles Schultz added a black character to Peanuts and it worked; Hank Ketchum did the same for Dennis the Menace and it was an offensive disaster. (Google it!) Schultz humanized the character; Ketchum objectified it.

I guess that was the answer I was looking for all along. Now I know.

Angie said...

Great column, Lee. :) I hope the people who need to read it actually do, and take it to heart. It's frustrating that so many people still think gay = porn, or gay = sex, which is almost as bad as gay = pedophile. Learning to see gay people as people first and sexual people only as often as anyone else will be a huge step forward for our society.


Marla Frazee said...

Totally agree with Ellen Wittlinger. My hope was that any child reading "Everywhere Babies" would see some version of their own family reflected in the illustrations. Thank you so much for referring to the book, Lee, but most of all thank you for writing that important article. If inclusion and diversity become commonplace in the books we write and illustrate, maybe children will grow up expecting it in the world, too.

Rachel Stark said...

Thanks so much for sharing -- what a heartfelt and well-written article. I particularly appreciate hearing the subject of LGBTQ illustrators raised. I think often we stress writing gay characters, but don't go so far as to think they could be added through illustration, as well. Whether that's because of the wrongful over-sexualization of queer culture by those who misunderstand it or simply because it doesn't occur to those of us privileged enough to be in the majority, it would be great to see it change.

Jen said...

Cynthia's blog led me to you, and I was really happy to read your post. My debut novel, MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER, is coming out in spring 2012 (HMH). I did write it from the heart but I also worried: was I authentically portraying my character's two moms? The story is about pie and courage, and I hope it resonates for middle school kids everywhere.