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 â€" 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.

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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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