LGBT History Month in Children’s Literature

Gabriel Duckels completed the MPhil in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at Cambridge in Summer 2018, handing in a thesis exploring the resonance of HIV/AIDS in contemporary LGBT adolescent fiction. He has been the Library Assistant at Homerton College Library since January 2017 and a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Education (DIALLS Project) since August 2018.

February 2019 marks the fourteenth consecutive year that the UK has celebrated LGBT History Month. The project began following the 2004 repeal of Section 28, a piece of homophobic government legislation written into law during the height of the AIDS crisis that forbade the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in British schools. This is why LGBT History Month should be connected to the purpose of LGBT — and more recently QIA — representation in children’s literature, to reflect realities for young people and create apertures for community-building and self-recognition. Here are some important dates in LGBT History in tandem with important publication milestones in LGBT children’s literature. These dates are mostly particular to a British legal and social context, while the majority of texts referenced here are North American. This points to the overall ‘Americanness’ of LGBT children’s literature, just as the teenager could be considered an invention of American culture. The scope of this overview is limited, rapid, and idiosyncratic; many texts and events will have been missed. I include suggested critical sources for further reading where these seem obvious.

922726_10201411704197312_1244485547_n
Image credit: angelmatos.net

1967-1969: 1967-1969 constitutes two watershed years for what became known as the gay rights movement. In 1967 ‘homosexuality’ was legalised in England and Wales. In the US, 1969 saw the Stonewall Riot, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where LGBT people of colour led a demonstration against police violence and intimidation towards the LGBT community. John Donovan’s I’ll Get There – It Better be Worth The Trip is published (1969), marking the foundation of LGBT YA fiction as a legitimate subgenre. Read Derritt Mason’s recent essay on this book, “A Phallic Dog, a Stuffed Coyote, and the Boy Who Won’t Come Out” for a deconstruction of queer sexual desire in this work. Spoiler: the family’s pet sausage dog is persuasively interpreted as a stand-in for the protagonist’s nascent teenage arousal.

1972-1979: A handful of LGBT YA titles appeared in the 1970s, such as The Man without a Face (Holland, 1972) and Hey, Dollface (Hautzig). For more critical reading, see Anne Stebbins’ recent exploration of the role of gay shame in Holland’s work: “What a Shame! Gay Shame in Isabelle Holland’s The Man Without a Face”. While this era precedes the moral panic of HIV/AIDS, the foundations of the genre are already —  indeed biblically — enmeshed in themes of transgression, sin, and death. For more information about the conventions of unhappiness and death in the representation of queer identity, read Unhappy Queers (Ahmed, 2000) and No Future (Edelman, 2004).

Image credit: wikipedia.org

1982: One of the most critically acclaimed early examples of British LGBT YA fiction is published one year after the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Aidan Chambers’ Dance on My Grave is not about HIV/AIDS, but the themes of death and isolation lend it relevance to the first decades of what was known as the ‘gay plague’. In the same year, Nancy Garden’s romantic, uplifting YA lesbian love story Annie on My Mind is published, defying the convention of equating queer desire with unhappy endings.

1986-1990: HIV/AIDS was not directly represented for an adolescent audience until M.E. Kerr’s work Night Kites was published in 1986, which pairs the sexual awakening of a straight teenager with the coming out narrative of an older gay brother who returns home to die of AIDS-related causes. Two years later in the UK, Section 28 comes into law, forbidding British schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ and thus forestalling the still-nascent mainstream representation of LGBT themes in British children’s literature. Children’s literature was key to the introduction of Section 28: the moral panic surrounding Section 28 was led by the use of a gay-themed picturebook, Jenny lives with Eric and Martin (Bösche, 1983) in a school in London. Another very moving representation of the AIDS-related deaths of gay men for young readers is Morris Gleitzman’s touching Two Weeks with the Queen (1990). Other important early British representations of LGBT identity in this period include Jean Ure’s The Other Side of the Fence (1986) and David Rees’ The Colour of His Hair (1989). (In memoriam: David Rees — already a prolific children’s writer by the time he began addressing gay themes —  died of AIDS-related causes in the 1990s). An important, controversial picturebook from this same time period is the American Heather Has Two Mommies (1989), which offers an affirmation of LGBT parenting that, unsurprisingly, resulted in being banned.

1995-2003: Perhaps because of Section 28, the development of LGBT children’s literature remained a primarily North American endeavour at the end of the twentieth century. Jacqueline Woodson, one of the most important LGBT children’s writers and winner of the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, publishes several important works in this period: From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (1995) and The House You Pass on the Way (1997). Concurrently, the first effective medication to arrest the onset of AIDS is approved for use in 1996, marking a generational shift in which HIV is no longer synonymous with death. A few years after this, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is published (1999), while David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (2003) is famous for its strikingly utopian representation of a wholeheartedly gay-friendly small town. This contrast to the overwhelmingly negative tone of most LGBT YA fiction marks the text as a bellwether for the future-facing, less traumatic representations of gay and lesbian (rather than BTQIA) adolescence that gain traction in the twenty-first century. For more information about the relevance of Boy Meets Boy read Thomas Crisp’s essay “From Romance to Magical Realism: Limits and Possibilities in Gay Adolescent Fiction” (2009).

2004-2005: Sixteen years after being written into law, Section 28 is revoked by the Labour government (albeit seven years after they entered power). In the same year, civil partnerships between members of the same sex become legal across most of the UK and the Gender Recognition Act is written into law. This follows the decision in 2002 to equalise access to adoption for same-sex couples. Perhaps uncoincidentally, the famous ‘gay penguin family’ picturebook was published around the same time: And Tango Makes Three (Parnell & Richardson, 2005). This text depicts a real-life pair of ‘gay penguins’ named Roy and Silo who raise an egg together. The picturebook problematically positions gay identity as so biologically normal that even a pair of horny penguins can shack up together, adhering to the overarching “born this way” social narrative that led the contemporary LGBT rights movement.

2007: In a post-Section 28 British publishing landscape, Jacqueline Wilson adds ‘coming out’ to her problem-novel oeuvre with the publication of Kiss (2007). Wilson already references gay relationships in a previous work — Marigold is homophobic towards the gay couple that live upstairs in The Illustrated Mum (2003) — but this is the first time that the writer addresses, and thus makes tenable, gay childhood. That is: gay childhood, as opposed to the gender variance in other Wilson works, such as effete but ultimately heterosexual-coded Arthur in Bad Girls (1996) — for more on gender variance and heteronormativity in children’s literature see Tison Pugh (2011) and Kerry Mallan (2009) among others.

2008-2011: LGBT children’s literature began as gay and lesbian children’s literature, developing to include bisexual and trans themes as the corpus expanded. This is reflected in Marcus Ewert’s picturebook 10,000 Dresses (2008) which plays with the form’s complementary/contradictory relationship between word and image to represent a discrepancy between a child’s assigned and real gender. Two years later, trans people are formally protected by the Equality Act 2010, while one year later the Department of Health reduces the lifetime ban on gay men giving blood, put into place during the first decade of the AIDS crisis.

2014-2019: Same-sex marriage becomes legal in most of the UK, written into law by the same political party that created Section 28 three decades previously. LGBT YA fiction snowballs throughout the second decade of the twenty-first century, particularly in the US, including texts such as Juliet Takes a Breath (Rivera, 2016) and They Both Die at the End (Silvera, 2017). Trans-inclusive titles include George (Gino, 2015) and If I Was Your Girl (Russo, 2016), as well as the emergence of texts representing intersex characters such as None of the Above (Grigorio, 2015). The recent Julian is a Mermaid (2018) is a cleverly told, tenderly affective example of a contemporary picturebook that utilises the synergistic relationship between word and image to introduce themes of gender variance and queer identities to early readers.

Equality is a rolling demand: the call must always be renewed, the victories protected. Looking at the history of LGBT children’s literature is a powerful way to remember how contentious these representations continue to be. For a thorough look at this history, see Cart & Jenkins (2018) and Kidd & Abate (2011). The rise of far-right politics in the US and UK can seem at odds with the ascendance of LGBT children’s literature as a legitimate genre. If things are getting better, then why are they getting worse? For example, in Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), Jasbir Puar suggests that the normalisation of white queer people in contemporary culture shows how white queer lives can be weaponized against their black, brown, and Muslim counterparts. What role might contemporary LGBT YA fiction play in this process? As Donald Trump legislates against trans people and the British government denies asylum to LGBT migrants as part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, it’s vital to appreciate this genre as a bona fide, future-facing body of literature in its own right.

Some of the books listed above can be seen as part of the LGBT History Month 2019 display on the ground floor of Homerton College Library.

For more information about LGBT History Month visit: https://lgbthistorymonth.org.uk/

For more information about Stonewall UK visit: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/key-dates-lesbian-gay-bi-and-trans-equality

For LGBTQ+ Library Resources at Cambridge visit: https://libguides.cam.ac.uk/lgbtq

Last but not least, the University has a trial subscription to the LGBT Magazine Archive, a seminal online collection of LGBT-related magazines from the 1950s to the present day: https://ejournalscambridge.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/lgbt-magazine-archive/. If you think the University should extend this trial into a permanent subscription, complete the feedback form by March the 2nd: https://www.libraries.cam.ac.uk/e-resource-trials-feedback-form

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s