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Gay Lives, No Longer Taboo In Children's Books

Perhaps the final sign that gay rights are here to stay, at least in the West, is the growing number of children's books with gay protagonists.

Gay Lives, No Longer Taboo In Children's Books
Patricia Kolesnicov

BUENOS AIRES Social changes may start out as shocking before, sooner or later, they become norms you can even tell your children about. That seems to be happening with gay relations and gay parenting, topics that are increasingly present in children's literature, at least in some Western countries, including Argentina.

There is, for example, the story of Paula, a little girl who loves the number two and has two of everything, including two moms. She is the protagonist of Paula tiene dos mamás, the Spanish version of Heather has Two Mommies, originally written in 1989 by U.S. author Leslea Newman. An earlier pioneer in the field was U.S. author Charlotte Zolotow, who wrote William's Doll in 1972, about a little boy who wants a doll. These were just two of the books in recent decades that questioned established ideas about gender roles, sexual preference and family composition.

It has been a long and arduous progression that has not been indifferent to personal conflicts. Paula cries when she learns she has no dad. The author said she thought of writing the book when a friend who lived with another woman and an adopted daughter told her they could never read their child a book that showed their type of family, and "someone should write one." Newman decided she would.

She sympathized with this family's plight because it reminded her that children's books almost never depicted any of her Jewish heritage either. So she wrote the story about Heather, which was rejected by 50 publishing houses. She asked for money from the gay community, inviting those who wanted to see the book published to donate $10, and she raised $4,000 that way. The next year, Alyson Publications created a series for children of gay and lesbian parents, which included Heather Has Two Mommies. Another book in the series was Daddy's Roommate, by Michael Willhoite.

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So much has happened since then, with gay marriage receiving legal status in several countries. It was legalized in Argentina in 2010. As expected, literature has followed the trends.

"The worldwide boom in this type of literature began in about 2000," says Argentine author Gabriela Larralde, who adds that Latin America was about 10 years behind the trend. In her book Los mundos posibles (Possible Worlds), Larralde examines how non-heterosexual families, protagonists and identities have been permeating children's books. They can take the form of a gay youngster or a little boy who likes dressing up and suffers ridicule for it, or sometimes just a teenager with doubts.

Tackling real life

Larralde says the pioneering book in Argentina was La señora Planchita, written in 1988 by Graciela Cabal. It's a "fairytale of sorts" about a little girl in a "normal" family who is, she says, "a little, ever so slightly ... manly." Uruguayan Roy Berocay then wrote Pateando lunas (Kicking Moons) in 1996, about a girl who plays football.

"Few books show the child as having a distinct sexual inclination," Larralde says. "When there is a homosexual character, it is always an adult. There are exceptions, she notes, like Cuban Luis Cabrera Delgado's 1996 book about a "fine and delicate" boy called Ito who is mocked as "Juanito, Juanita, Ito, mariquita" (gay boy, poofter).

Such books are no longer exceptional. Larralde cites El vestido de mamá (Mommy's Dress) by Dani Umpi, wherein a boy decides to don his mother's dress before going out to play with his friends, who mock him. What the boy wants is to play with the dress now, and later with toy soldiers. In El anillo encantado (The Magic Ring) by María Teresa Andruetto, the emperor Charlemagne falls in love with a string of people who wear the ring, including girls, "the Archbishop" and an aide.

Sometimes it is about dodging prejudices regarding a way of dressing or liking some activity, such as dancing, and other times, about choosing who to love, as in King and King by Dutch writers Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland. The prince falls in love with another prince in that book. In Marta y la sirena by Luis Guerrero, a girl falls in love with a mermaid.

When Larralde began digging, she found that gender roles in children's books were very traditional. Almost all dominant characters were male. "And if someone cried, it was a girl," she says. "The way they dressed was also traditional, even the colors that appeared near them. In LGBT literature, I saw that these stereotypes were undone, and new ones put together."

Some of the children's books with gay themes have a didactic purpose, she admits. "Like saying, "This is beautiful, it's OK"." She notes that non-heterosexual characters in these books are usually male, except when they are about families, in which case 87% were two women. "Perhaps because one is the conceiver, or because women are more associated with caring for children?"

Specializing in gay books

In 2012, a publishing house called Under the Rainbow was created in Argentina, and the 11 titles it has published online are mostly about love between people of the same sex. Its writers and illustrators are all under 25 years old. Larralde notes that a 2010 poll showed there were 7,600 schoolchildren living with two moms or two dads in Argentina.

"That child shares his or her schoolspace with 20 or 30 schoolmates," she says. "Teachers, parents, pupils all live with this reality even if they personally don't have two moms or two dads at home. I say this to get out of the idea that these books are just for those living in that situation."

María Fernanda Maquieira of Santillana publishers says that when it comes to using these books at school, some teachers are definitely less comfortable about the gay theme than others.

Laura Leibiker of Norma, another publishing company, says that "slowly, the texts we receive are contemplating new family forms and characters with different sexual orientations. A few years back I published a book with a transvestite character: I loved the story, the characters moved me." She says she's not expecting "widespread demand" for gay children's books. But, she adds, "I'm sure there is going to be more variety with the characters and plots."

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