Wednesday, 15 July 2015

To A Happier Year: LGBT Stories for Children, Teens and YA, by Tess Berry-Hart

When I was a teenager, in English class, we were discussing EM Forster’s classic novel Maurice, published in 1913, about the journey of a young gay man to find love in repressive Edwardian society.

Then our teacher dropped (to my mind at least) a bombshell. “You realise that the law prevents me from saying anything positive about homosexuality,” she told us, her hands picking anxiously at the bobbles on her grey fluffy cardigan. “I’m not allowed to tell you that it’s OK.”

When I was growing up, I hadn’t even heard of the word LGBT – I doubt it had even been invented. I remember as a child asking my mother; “Mummy, why can’t two ladies get married?” – to be honest, the context escapes me – and being told “because it’s against the law.” Later on, when I became a teenager and started to identify as the “B” in “LGBT” I started to look around for representation in the books I was reading. And very little there was too. OK, I was at school in North Wales and it was right at the end of the bad old Eighties – Margaret Thatcher was on the way out, but Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited “the promotion of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship”) was still in.

Now as it happened, Section 28 never applied directly to schools, only to local authorities, and many teachers such as ours were confused about what they could or couldn’t say. But such was the media blackout in those days, that any information seemed to be confined to the bad-news pages of the newspapers (hey, this was pre-Internet! Dark Ages!) such as (rather plentiful) stories of LGBT people being beaten up and murdered.

However, somewhat to my surprise, a few LGBT-themed teen books suddenly crept into our school library. I came across them by accident – God knows how they got in there, either a forward-thinking teacher had ordered them (the same English teacher perhaps? We’ll never know!) or they’d just slipped in as an oversight. Anyhow, I quickly squirreled them away, and read them from cover to cover. My favourite was The Other Side Of The Fence (1986) by Jean Ure, about a friendship between young runaway Bonnie and posh Richard, a gay teenager who has been thrown out of his house by his homophobic father and their journey to find somewhere to live together. 

The second was Dance On My Grave (1982) by Aidan Chambers, about Hal’s search for “a friend”, where sex was rather euphemistically referred to as “giving him a present from Southend.” (Yup). The title of the third escapes me now (and even asking around on the Internet hasn’t yielded any fruit, hit me up on Twitter though if this sounds familiar) – was about a teen lesbian couple who had to break up because one of them was raped (the causation between being raped and having to break up with your partner was taken as so evident as to not warrant any explanation in the book).

So there were characters like me in books then! Unfortunately, with life mirroring art, the situations encountered by characters were often rather upsetting or depressing. Despite the relative doom and gloom though, these finds were somewhat exhilarating – contraband! forbidden fruit! – and I’ll be honest – the idea of possessing something AGAINST THE LAW was kinda exciting. I searched around in community centres and classified ads at the back of magazines and found a whole new hidden world, of photocopied flyers to club nights and books of hand-drawn cartoons. I also came across Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit which again started with a bleak picture of the journey of a working-class girl but slowly blossomed into hope. Despite my differences, I still came from a middle-class, arty family where tolerance was the norm, and reading about the hardships other people in different situations had to bear was enlightening.

For this article, asking around my peers who grew up the same time as me for other LGBT-themed books of our schooldays bore little fruit. Many didn’t come across anything at all until their early twenties when they discovered Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde. “There was none o’ that round Dorset way!” quipped Matt, a friend from the days of our university GaySoc (well, it was the Nineties.) “There’s no queers up north, y’ know!” replied playwright Leon Fleming. “I didn't read any LGBT fiction growing up at all. I don't think I ever saw any. It’s unlikely there would have been any around in school or the local library to just accidently drop on anyway, and with no internet then (I feel really old now) searching for such things without giving myself away would have been impossible as well.”

Others managed a couple of suggestions from more recent years – actor Jack Holden mentioned Hero by Perry More, a fantasy story about a teenage superhero, and writer Paul Hewitt found a parallel in the inequality and social discrimination referenced throughout the Harry Potter series:  “Whether it be Muggle hating, disrespect of muggle-borns, societal acceptance of half humans or the treatment of non-human magical creatures, hopefully the generations after me that have loved those characters and stories will learn something about equality and community, too.”

These days of course, years after Section 28 was repealed and with the introduction of equal marriage, British society has become far more accepting of LGBT families. A brief search on Google reveals hundreds of strings of “LGBT books for children” and “LGBT Youth Fiction.” Parent friends, both gay and straight, reeled off lists of LGBT-friendly children’s stories – among them King and King, by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, about a prince whose parents want him to marry. They bring him princess after princess, but he eventually falls for the brother of the last princess. 

There’s And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell – the true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who adopt Tango, a baby girl penguin, at Central Park Zoo, suggested by my friend Heather. "It's great for all kids growing up today in a more varied parenting environment because it is just so affirming about love and family and can help start a discussion. I've been meaning to get it for my little one as one of his friends has two mums and no Dad and he'll be asking questions soon I expect." A particular favourite with American friends is Mama, Mommy and ME, by Leslǎ Newman, about a toddler’s day playing hide-and-seek, dressing up and bath time with her two mothers. There’s sites dedicated to how to introduce LGBT-friendly books into the classroom – there’s seen to be a distinction between books where such things are “an issue” – ie being teased for having a same-sex family, or feeling “different” when growing up – and other books where LGBT characters – such as having two mums – are presented merely as part of the story.

For young adults, there’s countless options – amongst which only a few are Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman which features homophobia, Luna by Julie Anne Peters about a girl whose sibling is a closeted trans girl, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children about transgender teens by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and virtually everything by David Levithan (start with Boy Meets Boy if you haven’t already). Don't shoot me if I haven't included your favourite - you can add it in the comments section.

However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s still countless countries and regimes across the world where homosexuality is an offence. Last year I was commissioned to produce a verbatim play interviewing gay Russians after the introduction of the law prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality to children” – words eerily similar to the wording of Section 28 back in the day. A new production of it is coming to the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston on the 15th and 16th of July – if you’re around, come see us!

Hopefully, there will be new generations growing up in a vastly different Britain than the one we grew up in. Yes, there will be pockets of prejudice and certain cultures or religions that are slower to accept difference, but on the whole, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. These days the Internet provides a lot of different ways for young people to see themselves - though chatrooms are already outmoded, they have a plethora of coming out videos, gay YouTubers, gay Instagrammers, how to’s and guides and questions and quizzes all over the Internet, and of course, numerous books.

Forster’s dedication in the frontispiece of Maurice, over a hundred years ago – “To a happier year” – has finally come true. The question I asked as a child to my mother – “Why can’t two ladies get married?” will never have to be asked – or answered – again. 


Soo Rekka Lal said...

I find this story very interesting, i grew up in very repressive society and there was nothing for anyone who would go outside the norm, when i came to university i found many more things that totally blew my mind, among them the armisted maupin tales of the city, which is for older ppl but very good, most american stories, i didn't read any of the ones here, but i will go and read them now!

Shirley Webster said...

Ha ha I always love your posts Tess, they are so funny! "No queers up north!" I grew up in Edinburgh and nobody every talked about that kind of thing, thank you very much! All the examples you list here are very eye-opening, I never saw anything like that in the 80s either. I suspect that actually lots of people never got to see books like these. Having said that, I haven't seen many these days at my local library either, but its great to know they are out there.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Great post. In 2011 nobody would buy my LGBT story because 'gay is too niche; it's not very marketable'. As a teen, even though I wasn't gay, I was very questioning, and loved books like 'Hey Dollface' and 'Annie On My Mind', but they weren't easy to find in Belfast.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I recommend F2M: The Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy, a novel about transitioning from female to male. It's not a woe-is-me-everybody-is-persecuting-me book at all. The girl/boy is a member of an all-girl punk rock band and having to tell not only the family but the band that she is going to be a he. And then research it all on line. And meet some fascinating characters in the transgender community, including a couple of which the husband used to be a woman and the wife used to be a man. It's enjoyable and as much about the music as the trans issue.

David Levithan is great. Have you read Every Day, in which the protagonist is neither male nor female but occupies a different body each day? Amazing!

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Thanks so much for all your comments and suggestions, everyone! Great tip Sue, I haven't read The Boy Within but will check it out. Yes, Every Day is amazing - really shows how bodies "don't matter" when love is involved. And I've heard of Hey Dollface but never read it - though at one point I did read all of Tales of the City too!

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Actually, Sheena, I'm still stunned about the "gay is not marketable" response even in 2011 - publishers are so weasely sometimes!

Emma Barnes said...

I remember Tunes For A Small Harmonica by Barbara Wersba - a brilliant YA comedy about a teenage girl living in New York who was definitely very confused about her identity...I feel there must have been others but I can't think of them.