Wednesday, March 5, 2014

LGBT Characters and Their Place In Schools - A Guest Post by Johanna Parkhurst

Johanna's Gay Teen Novel

Johanna Parkhurst

Guess what? My YA book Here’s to You, Zeb Pike is out from Harmony Ink Press. The main characters, Dusty and Emmitt, are pretty excited.

This blog post actually isn’t going to be about Dusty and Emmitt, though. They’re great guys, and I think you’ll like them a lot. But this post is going to be about something Dusty and Emmitt deal with in Here’s to You, Zeb Pike: the belief that no one in the world is like them. And this post is going to be about why, if Dusty and Emmitt had just a better selection of books in their schools, they might not have ended up with that belief.

Don’t tell anyone, but “YA author” is actually my secret identity. I’m also a middle school teacher and curriculum writer.


So I spend a lot of time thinking about what reading materials kids in grades 6-8 should be reading. A LOT. I study the reading material being used in other curriculum maps around the country. I think a lot about the influence the reading material kids see in schools has on their developing psyches, their opinions of the world, and their opinions of themselves.

When I found this book was going to finally be published (and I can’t thank the fine people at Harmony Ink Press enough for that opportunity), I thought a lot about whether or not I should use a pen name. For a variety of reasons. But one of the biggest was this: I knew that if I published a LGBT book under my name, any future school districts I applied to could decide not to hire me because I had published an LGBT book.

I thought a lot about that, but in the end, my husband pretty well summarized why I finally decided I didn’t care: “You wouldn’t want to work for a district that would do that.”

True enough.

I’ve been lucky enough to work for a few schools that have been incredibly supportive of making sure our students have access to all different types of literature. Even LGBT lit. Especially LGBT lit. Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, Breaking Boxes by A.M. Jenkins, The God Box by Alex Sanchez, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. All of these books have either been part of a curriculum or a library in a school I’ve worked for at one time or another.

I very firmly believe that these books and other books like them have to be part of a school’s curriculum and library. There shouldn’t even be a discussion of whether or not they are. Kids’ understanding of what they think about themselves and others is formed just as much by the books that aren’t put in front of them as the books that are. If you never give kids exposure to books featuring LGBT characters, you are inherently sending the message that it is not okay, or normal, to be questioning or lesbian or gay. Whether you meant to send that message or not.

Of course, all this is very easy to say. It’s really easy to say that you, as a teacher, want to provide your students with books that show them insights and ideas from all types of people. It can be a lot harder to do that. Teachers so often have to fight pushback from board members, parents, and administration when they get books with LGBT characters into students’ hands—because there are so many people out there who still do want to send the message that it’s not okay to be questioning, gay, bisexual, or a lesbian. Sometimes well-meaning adults have this idea that kids are too young to be exposed to thinking about things like that; you have to wait until they’re older, they say. The problem with that thinking is that we form ideas and opinions of the world pretty young. So if nobody ever exposes you to LGBT characters before you’re, say, 16, by the time you hit 16, the lack of those characters in your reading life has probably already embedded within you some beliefs that there is something abnormal about people who identify as LGBT.

It doesn’t help that people like to inherently connect sexual identity with sex. I don’t know why people believe that the only way to expose teenagers to LGBT characters in books is to expose them to books with lots of sex in it. It’s just not true. There are so many amazing teen and middle grade novels, and even picture books, that feature LGBT characters without even touching on anything sexual. And if we’re going to listen to the argument that even non-explicit homosexual romance is inappropriate for teenagers, I’d like to point out that almost no school library is making that argument about heterosexual romance. You’ve all heard of Sarah Dessen, right?

Anyhoo, I’ve already lost track of where I am on my soapbox. What was I talking about? That’s right! Why it’s important for LGBT literature to exist in middle school curriculum and schools. Well, for my final argument, I’d like to ask you this: would you ever consider not having a book about a Black, or Jewish, or Asian character in a school because of the characters the book featured? Would you ever say, “Well, I don’t want parents or the board members to be concerned that their students are being exposed to books about Asian characters, so I guess the students in that school shouldn’t read that book.” I certainly hope not. At least not in this day and age.

I’m not trying to downplay the hard conversations and very real-world difficulties teachers open themselves up to when they stock a curriculum or school library with books featuring LGBT characters. I’m just saying that if we don’t have those conversations, if we don’t take those real-world difficulties head on, we do a huge disservice to our students.

Because if you tell students that something shouldn’t exist for them, you tell them that something is somehow wrong or not okay. And that message is not okay.

When I first started writing Here’s to You, Zeb Pike a whole lotta years ago, Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez was about the only YA LGBT lit I could find on the local shelves of my bookstore, and I had to hunt for that. The teens I teach now are so much luckier. They have a myriad of books featuring LGBT characters available to them. When I finally got my act together and finished Zeb Pike, I discovered that not only were there publishing companies willing to publish it—there were actually companies dedicated to publishing nothing but LGBT YA lit. Pretty amazing, if you think about it.
So here’s the general point of this blog post: if you’re a student reading this, and your school isn’t a place where LGBT characters are represented in your library or classrooms, say something. It’s worth it. Because maybe you’ve figured out how to get your hands on literature that represents lots of different types of people, but that doesn’t mean all your other classmates have.

And if you’re one of those teachers or librarians who shies away from letting LGBT YA lit into your classrooms or libraries because you’re worried about having to have conversations about religion and sexuality and difficult things like that with parents and administrators, or you just don’t want to rock the boat, try to remember that some hard conversations are really worth having. Remember all the kids who need you to be willing to have those conversations.

Here’s to You, Zeb Pike features two teenagers who don’t really know how to be who they are, and the main reason for that is because nobody else they know is like them. Books are our windows into the worlds of new people and ideas and concepts. We have to give windows into the world of LGBT characters to all our students—gay or straight. That’s how you promote critical thinking and identity exploration. That’s how you promote tolerance and acceptance.

And there you have it: why LGBT characters should be more prevalent in middle school libraries and classrooms. Written by a middle school educator who isn’t using a pen name. Written for two fictional characters who could use a few more characters like them in their school libraries.

by Johanna Parkhurst
M.A. of English Education
Teachers College, Columbia University
Author, Here's To You, Zeb Pike

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