Kidlit can support LGBTQ+ identities on National Coming Out Day and every day…
Harvey Milk, a man whose name is now synonymous with gay rights activism, spoke these words in 1978 – just weeks before he died by assassination:
“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. And once they realize that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”
In a similar spirit of activism and positivity, National Coming Out Day was founded in 1988 by psychologist Robert Eichberg and political leader Jean O’Leary. Every October 11, the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, National Coming Out Day is celebrated to encourage and support those people with LGBTQ+ identities to come out as themselves. Though, as organizations such as GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network) point out, coming out can be challenging, there is no one prescription for how to come out, no two coming out stories are the same, and having support in one’s coming out process (living in a heteronormative and cisnormative world) is super important.
Support in coming out, support of being LGBTQ+, and support of living in a rainbow family, comes in many forms including loving and caring family, friends, and community. A less obvious form of support, though by no means less noteworthy, is books – particularly books for kids, tweens, and teens. Children’s literature is a wonderful way by which they see the world. Indeed, in 1988 Emily Style wrote an article for the National SEED Project on the subject “Curriculum as Window and Mirror” in which she described the many ways of seeing the world.
In what today has become a teaching standard, Style emphasized the importance of curricula (including books) reflecting the lives of children (mirrors) as well as introducing them to the lives of others that are not like themselves (windows). Others such as Rudine Sims Bishop have expanded on these ideas, highlighting that multicultural education must include “sliding doors” whereby stories for children enable them to walk into other worlds, building a sensibility that the world is a very diverse place. Furthermore, the concept of “single stories” recognizes that stories must be told from different points of view because who is telling the story and who is being left out matters.
Seeing oneself in books is critical to the development of self, identity, and esteem. A queer kid, tween or teen who picks up a book with a storyline or characters that reflect who they are and what their family looks like, presented in positive ways, will feel empowered, and not marginalized. LGBTQ+ themed books offer that safe feeling that one belongs, is not alone, that support is available, and that everyone ought to be celebrated. Indeed, books covering queer themes may just be the first time a child reader is exposed to a nonjudgmental, supportive voice of acceptance and love. And for other students, reading these stories can be the beginning of learning about others who are not like them, feeling empathy as they enter the world of individuals whose life experiences are different from their own. These stories can be a natural way of showing respect for all and reducing any fears that might exist because of stereotypes or prejudices.
Joyfully, in recent years there has been a big increase in the number of LGBTQ+ kidlit titles. Board books, picture books, middle grade and YA books – have all released more and more stories about pride, love makes a family, rainbow families, queer romance, LGBTQ+ identities, and queer history from the perspective of biographies (like Harvey Milk) and important moments in time like Stonewall. Sharing these books in the classroom, at home, in libraries help build community – for all children - where respecting and celebrating everyone is the prevailing sentiment. And while censorship of various kinds exists when it comes to LGBTQ+ books (i.e., not allowing them in schools, not shelving them in library stacks, holding them under lock and key) – these events can become opportunities to continue to stress the importance of creating a world of diversity and inclusion.
Kidlit with queer themes emboldens. Significant LGBTQ+ people in history such as Harvey Milk stood up for courage and showed what being bold is all about. His life ended prematurely because of hate. His legacy, though, continues to encourage the LGBTQ+ community to be visible, to live life open, out, and proud while at the same time showing everyone that it is love that triumphs in the end. Books can convey these messages beautifully – as mirrors, windows, and sliding doors, with multiple points of view and voices. May this be celebrated every October 11, and every day – by everyone.
Michael Genhart, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in San Francisco and Mill Valley, California. He is also the author of several picture books including: Ouch! Moments: When Words Are Used in Hurtful Ways, So Many Smarts!, I See You, Peanut Butter & Jellyous, Mac & Geeeez!, Cake & I Scream!, Rainbow: A First Book of Pride and Love Is Love. Visit him on his website www.michaelgenhart.com, Facebook (@picturebookauthor), and Instagram (@michaelgenhart).