LGBTQ Kidlit, Schools, and Me

I meant to publish this in April, but then I chickened out because suddenly there was so much to cover from the news that was related to this topic. So here it is, because Pride Month seemed like a good time to post it.

star crossedI’m writing this because I can’t stop thinking about this article and everything it has awakened or reawakened in me. On Thursday [March 23], Nerdy Book Club published this guest post, which I highly recommend reading for context and general importance. In the chance you didn’t bother and still aren’t reconsidering that decision, basically: Barbara Dee, author of Star-Crossed, a cute new middle grade book about an eighth grader developing a crush on a girl and discovering her bisexuality, was invited to talk to middle schoolers but was then asked by a teacher to not talk about the actual subject of the book because of worries it was [insert quotes], despite the fact it’s recommended for the age range and has had endorsements from prominent MG writers.

This affected me more than I initially realized, because never once was I surprised by this. It affected me because this–and Dee’s comment as how, as a former teacher, she understood this one’s reasoning–is exactly what I’ve been afraid of.

(I have since ordered Star-Crossed because I didn’t realize it had been released and plan to read and talk about it soon-ish, which really means this summer, because clearly I am very occupied with school.)

I am bisexual, maybe pansexual–at this point, they both seem to mean “attracted to more than one gender” and I use the former because it’s more understood by the wider public, I think (not that there aren’t a lot of misconceptions), and I’m not entirely sure how many genders I’m attracted to. “Queer” is also a general term that feels right. My sexuality is a fluid continuum–boys to girls, the romantic to the sexual and everywhere in between are options for my attractions and relationships.

I am also lucky. I wasn’t raised in a religious or socially conservative context. In fact, I figure my parents are okay enough with my sexuality that I haven’t bothered to tell them yet, because it just hasn’t come up (I’m single, not looking for a relationship right now, and am definitely not known for chatting about crushes or the attractiveness of celebrities). Heck, the only wedding I’ve actually been to was between two men. I first came out to my ex-boyfriend (after telling him about a dream I had involving a girl, leading to this revelation) almost a year and a half ago, and his response was basically “Oh, I thought I knew that already.” My friends haven’t had any problem with it. I go to a very LGBTQ-friendly school nested in a community where many local shops have pride flags displayed in their windows. I have several close bi and gay friends who have helped me feel more confident. I’m not prominent enough on the Internet that I don’t get nasty comments. I’m white and cis female, the demographic whose bi members are the least likely to commit suicide.

Then things happen that shake me out of that, reminding me that even though I can marry a girl now and get the same legal status and benefits, queer kids are far from safe and secure. The stories from some of my friends about their coming out experiences with family, exes, and/or community and school break my heart. There’s the recent YouTube “mature content”controversy, which then became them demonitizing videos on LGBTQ topics as “not advertiser friendly.” Misunderstandings about trans people are leading to “bathroom bills,” potentially even at the federal level in the future if it goes to the Supreme Court sometime.

And then there’s this.

Because if there’s one thing that does keep me up at night about my sexuality, it’s how it might intersect with my future job as an English teacher.

This post, which I am extremely proud of, may even disappear in the future because of that.

I don’t know who I’m going to fall in love with and I refuse to exclusively date men because of my fears–even though, yes, the odds that I’ll meet potential straight/bi cis male suitors are higher than queer women or anyone else under the trans umbrella, based on demographic data. It shouldn’t matter, of course, but don’t teachers’ personal lives always creep into the classroom? It’s such a normality of teachers referencing their children (especially) or other personal experiences that may bring up a partner. Sometimes students just ask questions, because they’re kids and they’re curious–I remember an awkward time in eighth grade where a student asked our teacher, clearly just trying to be friendly, if she had any kids. The clearest indication that a teacher was probably not straight was if they never talked about their personal lives and didn’t display pictures of partners or children. Many states don’t have explicit sexual orientation and gender identity non-discrimination policies.

I don’t think that it’s relevant to announce my sexual orientation in the  classroom without context as much as I haven’t found a relative context to mention it in front of my parents. But I’m going to be myself, and these things can come up in classes with curious students, and especially in an English classroom, where we’re confronted with identity and gender and history with every text.

And it goes beyond that as an English teacher. The ALA list of banned and challenged books has a pattern from the last few years: many involve gay or trans characters, with that listed as part of the reasoning behind the challenge. In 2015, elementary school teacher Omar Currie (who also happens to be openly gay) and the assistant principal of a North Carolina school resigned basically from parent complaints over reading the picture book King and King (about what you think it is) to the class after he witnessed the bullying of a boy rooted in homophobia. One of the things they told him was that it would have been okay in a more liberal area, but this particular community needed time to be ready. The thing is, though, there are still LGBTQ students there. And I hope that being a Midwestern teacher instead of fleeing to a more liberal area can allow me to foster understanding of other perspectives through literature. And yet, sometimes there’s a price to pay.

I refuse to not recommend good books that have LGBTQ characters to students who would enjoy or even need them. I refuse to not reprimand students who bully or use epithets targeting perceived gender or sexuality differences, just like I won’t allow any other forms of bullying and harassment. (The statistics of LGBT-related bullying and their long-term damaging effects are appalling, and these students are often at a higher risk of suicide.) I refuse to silence myself from any casual mentions of a girlfriend or ex-partner that wouldn’t be unusual for a straight teacher to say. I want to explore various aspects of analyzing literature, various theories, and encourage students to relate to stories personally–and for some works, that includes queer theory, LGBT history, and relating to the sexual or romantic ambiguity/orientation/relationships or gender identity of characters. I refuse to speak about abstract ideas often found in literature like love, relationships, and gender as cis-, allo-, and heteronormative.

And I refuse to stop exploring LGBTQ characters in my own middle grade and YA writing. I will not be dishonest when answering questions in interviews or Q&As or on Twitter or wherever else people ask authors about inspiration and characters and “meaning” of a work. I refuse to hide in either of my careers.

We talk a lot about the importance of representation in the media, especially with fictional characters–but real-life representation is also important. Role models, both the high-profile and the personal. And teachers have been some of my biggest role models, influencing my own desire to teach. I was fortunate enough in high school to be able to talk to one of my teachers who also had experience with anxiety and OCD during a time I was struggling with those same things. It’s one of the most amazing things to realize that people you admire, people who are successful, still share or shared your struggles. It’s human, it’s reality. And it has the potential to save lives.

That’s why we need books like Star-Crossed. That’s why authors like Barbara Dee should be able to speak about their books at schools where students are reading them and are in the target age range just as they would if the book was about anything else. And that’s why I continue to write as my characters and my stories come to me, and why I will not shut myself in the closet as a teacher. When risk of suicide and other psychological trauma is so high, I have the duty to protect my younger LGBT siblings.

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