The Representation of LGBT Families in Children’s Picture Books

Although the Gay Rights Movement was fully underway by the early 1980s, LGBT families were still invisible, especially in education and literature. LGBT parents existed, but everything from TV shows to books only displayed heteronormative family structures, with no media outlet reflecting LGBT family structures. The early 1980s was a pivoting movement for the introduction of children’s picture books focusing on LGBT parents. “Your Family, My Family” by Joan Drescher in 1980 was one of the first US children’s picture books to show a same-sex family when discussing the many types of families a jennychild could have. Although the idea of educating people on different types of families seems positive, with every step forward there was backlash. “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin” by Susanne Bosche was also one of the first, and very controversial, children’s books to exclusively discuss gay fathers. It was originally written in Danish, but was translated into English in 1983. This book used real photographs to tell the story of Jenny, a five year old girl, who lived with her father and his boyfriend. The book is known famously for evoking so many mixed emotions that it unfortunately was followed by a huge backlash in the form of the UK’s Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local government. So in attempting to educate people about LGBT families, the UK took a step back by banning LGBT education altogether.

heather“Heather has two Mommies,” published in 1989 and written by Lesléa Newman, was one of the first children’s picture books to discuss lesbian mothers. This book also lead to political controversy in the US. Newman stated, “I wanted to create a book the would help children with lesbian mothers feel good about themselves and their family.” She felt that all children, including children of LGBT parents, would benefit from more books that focused on educating about diversity. This book told the story of Heather and her experience discussing her family at daycare.  A year later, “Daddy’s Roommate” by Michael WIllhoite was published in 1990. This children’s picture book focused on a boy telling the audience about his father’s relationship with his “roommate” and the interactions that occur between the family members. Both of these books depicted what life was like as a child being raised by LGBT parents, and revealed the similarities between having same-sex parents and heterosexual parents.

I think that these children’s books represent queer culture because they represent, educate about, and give examples of families who have LGBT parents. Queer culture attempts to provide a positive and welcoming acceptance of LGBT people and their lives. An important factor in everyone’s life, including LGBT people, is family. Both queer culture and these children’s books provide a positive outlet to embrace and support LGBT families. The overall message of all of the children’s books was to show that the most important factor in a family was love and being happy. “Heather has two Mommies” ended by stating, “It does not matter how many mommies or daddies your family has. daddys_roommateEach family is special. The most important thing about a family is that all people in it love each other.” “Daddy’s Roommate” ended by stating, “ Being gay is just one more kind of love and love is the best kind of happiness. Daddy and his roommate are very happy together and I am happy too!” Each book ended with revealing the common thread between families, love. Queer culture is about LGBT people’s lives, and these books tell their story, a story which is too often not told to children. The authors of these books were LGBT, the characters in these books are LGBT parents, and the target audience were LGBT families and families of heterosexual parents to educate their children about LGBT families.

I think that these children’s books belong in our history unit because they played a large role in LGBT lives by impacting laws, bringing attention to other aspects of LGBT peoples’ lives, and introducing a new genre of children’s books that encouraged the education, knowledge, and acceptance of LGBT families. Before these books, there were no children’s books at all that discussed even the possibility of LGBT parents. Children’s books reflected the attitudes of  a heteronormative society and LGBT families were invisible. As Michel Foucault states in The History of Sexuality: Volume 1,

“Repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, as affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know.”

I think that Foucault’s quote explains that the lack of representation of LGBT families in children’s books told those LGBT parents and their children that their families were not important or of value. These children’s books broke that barrier; they told LGBT families that they were important, that they matter, that they were worth writing about, they were worth reading about, and they were worth educating other children about. Finally, there was a book that children of LGBT parents could relate to and that they felt told their story. Finally, there was positive discussion and education for children about LGBT families.

These books both revealed progress for LGBT people and queer culture, and also revealed that there was much more work to be done. Unfortunately, in cases like “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin,” these little successes were often faced with bigger backlash. Each and every book that I have discussed has been banned at one point or another, but now, more than 30 years after “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin” was published, there are hundreds of childrens books which focus on various topics of LGBT life  including LGBT families. Although LGBT children’s books can still be viewed as controversial, there has been so much progress, all thanks to these very first children’s books which introduced LGBT parents. LGBT families are now more visible than ever in children’s books.

Leave a Reply