This past weekend at the National Counsel of Teachers of English annual conference, a relatively well-known author dismayed her fellow panelists and an entire audience of shocked listeners by repeatedly asserting that the suicide rate for LGBTQ+ kids (and adults) is much higher than the national average because people who identify as LBGTQ+ are mentally ill. She also said that parents have amoral obligation to protect their children from LGBGTQ texts.
Yes, you read that right: A “moral obligation to protect their children from LGBTQ Texts.” And “LGBTQ people are mentally ill.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
I don’t want to use this space to refute her assertions because a) there is no refuting hate speech and b) author Bill Konigsberg already replied perfectly about his own experience on this very panel and the importance of countering hate with love. I couldn’t do a better job than he did.
But while quietly scrolling through Twitter and fuming, I thought about a blog post that has been floating around in my brain for weeks. I’ve wanted to write about several LGBTQ+ books here, but I haven’t. I feared that someone might misunderstand my words and think that writing about being LGBTQ+ on a blog that focuses on books about mental health may be misconstrued. In other words, I was terrified that my words might somehow unwittingly imply that people who identify as LGBTQ+ are mentally ill. You know, what that panelist said, that has Book Twitter up in arms.
And of course, I absolutely, positively, 100% do not.
But that said, the struggle kids face when confronting their gender and sexuality IS in fact a mental health issue when these kids have disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Which they do. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ+ individuals are three times more likely than others to experience mental illness and/or substance abuse. Clearly, they need support.
As a resident of a liberal town in a liberal state, sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone approaches such issues the same way. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are echo chambers that safely cocoon me in diversity, inclusion, and rage against our current Administration. It’s a nice place to be.
But sometimes I’m reminded that my haven is misleading. And a little too comfortable. A nearby school recently hosted a parent event entitled “Understanding Adolescent Gender and Sexual Identity Development.” What??!?! A school openly discussing these big issues, educating parents on how to support their children, and simply talking openly about gender and sexuality? Woo hoo! It’s a whole new world!
And then, a twist.
And then I heard something that gave me pause. Some parents were less than pleased about this forum. “They are too young to deal with this kind of thing,” from one. From another, “what if they transition so young and then change their minds?” Or: “It’s just ridiculous the way these kids are grabbing onto all these labels.” And my personal favorite: Maybe we are forcing them to choose a label that doesn’t fit just to fit in?”
I had a lot of FEELINGS when I heard these comments. Sadness. Anger. I asked a friend if I could come, even though my kids don’t go to this school. And there was another feeling that bubbled up from some long ago place, something that surprised me: GUILT.
When I graduated from an all-girls high school in 1991, one member of my class gave her senior speech on something powerful that, I’ll admit now, I didn’t quite understand. Time and maturity and exposure to different kinds of people made it clear, eventually and embarrassingly slowly, that this well-liked, highly respected classmate wrote her speech about being trapped in the wrong body. I didn’t even get the metaphor she used! I don’t even think that I was capable of understanding what she was saying at the time — I simply had no frame of reference. Her speech went on to win an award and has been remembered again and again by members of our class– always with admiration.
I get it now. But I’m ashamed that at age 18 I didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t. I don’t know which. In any case, I have regrets. My classmate was hurting. Sure, we weren’t the closest of friends, but our class of 56 was reasonably tight for high school kids. At least I thought so at the time.
But clearly, my experience at that school was quite different than my classmate’s. I learned, just a few years after college, that that classmate underwent a female to male transition and is living, happily, as a man.
Facebook has brought me back into contact with this classmate, and I eagerly look at his updates and pictures. He is in a committed, loving relationship, and he looks much happier in his photos than I ever remember him looking in high school. I think about the books that were available to him when he was growing up: not many. Could he see himself in books? Did he feel terribly alone? Was there anyone who knew and supported him? I hope so. Trans characters just weren’t available then. Thank goodness they are now. There were barely gay characters! Gender wasn’t considered a spectrum, as it is today. He must have been very alone.
But ah, children’s literature. Always ahead of the curve. In 1969 (1969!) John Donovan wrote the gay-themed I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip. In 1982 Nancy Garden published the first YA lesbian story: the often-banned Annie on My Mind.
More and more queer fiction has emerged in recent years, from works by David Levithan, Bill Konigsberg, and John Green, Amy Rose Capetta, Mackenzi Lee, Alex Gino, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jandy Nelson, to name just a few. Some contain themes about gender, some about sexuality. Some touch upon both.
All are stories that need to be told.
Special shout out here to Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Printz award winning, gorgeous Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (fun fact: the audiobook is extra-amazing because it’s voiced by none other than the swoony Lin-Manuel Miranda!). But despite the prevalence of gay and bisexual stories and general queer themes, transgender books have been a bit slower to appear on the children’s literature scene.
In recent years a variety of queer themed texts have exploded in children’s lit– a number that prompted that NCTE panelist to lament that “only 3-4% of kids identify as LGBTQ. So why are so many books being devoted to them?”
There are many texts for young adult and middle grade readers– and lately even picturebooks, that depict both kids facing and accepting their own questions about themselves, gender, and sexuality. And there are many, many blogs and bloggers far more qualified than I am to write about them — they certainly don’t need me, a cis, straight white woman, to speak for them.
But my point: these books aren’t just for LGBTQ+ kids.
You don’t have to be queer to connect with beautiful writing, deep characterization, sublime storytelling, and the aching magic of first love. You don’t even need to know how you identify. Maybe Some are cis-gender, some are trans. Some are gender fluid or not quite sure where they stand. But they are trying to figure it out, and thus giving kids both the permission and the space to do so as well. Even better, there are more and more stories about LGBTQ kids whose gender and sexuality isn’t the center of their lives or their stories– just one trait of many. Something that is one element of who they are — as opposed to THE defining element.
But for now, let’s focus on a few of my favorites:
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephardt
Gephardt is a masterful storyteller, particularly in the way she depicts unlikely friendships. This is one of my favorite books of 2018. It’s the story of a transgender girl, Lily, and her unlikely and 100% believable and satisfying friendship with Norbert, aka Dunkin, a lonely boy who just moved from New Jersey and suffers from bipolar disorder. So we get mental illness AND a transgender character! HUZZAH! Lily and Dunkin is a hopeful, sad, authentic story. Lily’s parents are mostly loving– but confused and often at odds with how to handle their child’s gender identity. Sometimes I wanted to throttle them. Even so, I find their portrayal very honest, and thus effective. You want Lily’s father, in particular, to be more supportive, but his lack of support and understanding is also part of a story that readers need. The characters of Lily and Dunkin both live in my heart. I want to hand this story to any parent who thought the school’s panel on gender and sexuality isn’t vital. It will change their minds.
Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake
I could not love this book more. Really. I’m a little in awe of the author, as everything she writes is powerful, nuanced, and just feels so true. There are many young adult stories depicting girls who like girls, but few for middle grade readers.
Ivy’s story is particularly poignant in that her feelings for her friend June are conveyed through art, in a private notebook that disappears in the messy aftermath of a tornado that destroys her family’s home. The stakes are pretty high. I don’t want to give too much away, because robbing a potential reader of the ending of a beautiful book is to my way of thinking an unforgivable crime. But trust me when I say that it all comes together in a way both unexpected and inevitable, just as it should. The moment I finished this book (I mean, after I wiped the teary snot off of my face) I handed it over to a middle grader I know who has confided to me some questions and confusions of their own about gender and sexuality. I got a note a few days later.
It read, simply, “Thank you.”
I’m certain not everyone who reads this will agree with me that these stories matter. But even if LGBTQ rights isn’t high on your list of issues to support, it’s hard to deny that these stories are life changing and vital for many navigating their way through this complicated, ever-changing world. Probably even someone you know.