Content alert: LGBT teen suicide, white nationalist politics, homophobia in politics
The drama began with Drama, Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel about a middle school play. My daughter had enjoyed her Smile and Sisters, and I was probably more excited than an adult should be about her re-vamping of The Babysitters Club series. We’d given Telgemeier’s books to cousins and friends as gifts, cheap and kind of cheesy books about the concerns of girls—making friends, living with braces, getting along with siblings on long road trips. Plus the illustrations send the message that graphic novels and the writing of them aren’t just for boys.
Telgemeier’s books are popular among the kids at school, too, which is why the public school’s lack of Drama was noticeable. My daughter figured it had just been checked out, but after several weeks of checking for it on the shelf, she asked the school librarian when it would be back. Turns out, the library didn’t have it. Why? She asked, already knowing the answer. The librarian explained that it “wasn’t appropriate.” My daughter noted that all of Telgemeier’s other books where in the collection. “Not appropriate” was the response. She understood: the book includes a minor character who is gay. Turns out, in fact, that Drama has been on the American Library Association’s Top Ten challenged book list in recent years. The reason listed is that the book is “sexually explicit”—which is total nonsense. The fact that there is a gay character is the real reason it’s deemed “not appropriate.”
Above, the cover of Drama
My daughter came home from school that day frustrated about the library’s decision not to include Drama in their collection (though not personally put out as we own the book ourselves) but, more than that, worried about the message it was sending to kids at her school: that gay kids were themselves “inappropriate.”
So began a long, good struggle.
The next day at school, her deskmate, a boy, was working when another fourth grader dropped a note on his desk. “It’s my phone number,” he explained, inviting the other boy to call him so they could hang out after school. My daughter’s deskmate crumpled it up and tossed it away. “I don’t call boys because I’m not a fag.”
Incensed, my daughter let loose.
“What did you say?” I asked her as she retold the story that evening, concerned.
“First,” she said, counting off on her fingers, “that that was rude to the other kid, who was just trying to be friends. Second, that he was going to miss out on some good friendships if he thought that boys can’t call each other on the phone. Third, that he shouldn’t say mean things about gay people. Fourth, that it’s none of his business who other people love because it doesn’t hurt him.”
All of that seemed reasonable, though I wondered if there might have not been harsher language in the original version. I raised an eyebrow.
“I may have told him to shut his stupid mouth,” she confessed. “But, really, he should shut his stupid mouth.”
I couldn’t disagree.
“What happened next?”
She broke into miserable tears. The boy said she must be gay if she cared so much. She said that was not the issue, and he took her refocusing as affirmation that she’s gay. A mean girl on the playground repeated it. All the fourth graders were saying it now. The mean girl threatened to write it in a “gossip column” she was circulating in the class. The playground monitor had sent her, not them, to the principal’s office.
My husband had already received the phone call from the teacher, so this wasn’t a total surprise. And he told the teacher the same thing we told our daughter: that it was always right to stand up for people who are being put down, that we were proud of her, and that we would always support her when she did what was right. We would work with her to do it respectfully, kindly, gently, giving people room to turn around while saving face. But we expected her to intervene if she saw people being treated unkindly. Always.
These events—the library censorship, the offer of friendship rejected with a homophobic remark, and the playground gossip and threats—are not disconnected. When we refuse to recognize the dignity of fictional gay characters by refusing them a place on the bookshelf, we make it easier to deride people who are gay or to make calling someone “gay” a derisive comment itself. When we say, in effect, “These people do not exist even in the world of fiction,” we make it easier to make sure they don’t exist—to socially eradicate them through bullying and shaming—in the real world. Of course, it’s not that my daughter’s deskmate was emboldened to say “fag” by the librarian’s decision not to include Drama in the collection. But the decision to keep the library “gay character-free” is one way we disallow children the opportunity to meet people who are different via literature, where they are invited to empathetically enter into the character’s world. And, eventually, they realize: No one is allowed to be gay in our community.
And, to be clear, that is exactly the reason why Drama is not in the library. The state of Utah, where we live, has a law, now being challenged, that prohibits public schools from “promoting of homosexuality.”* Boys Beware! I roll my eyes. But this is not an ancient law from the mind of John Briggs. This “no promo homo” law was implemented in 2005. I’m hopeful that it will die in the next few months thanks to the bravery of some queer kids in the Beehive State, but that doesn’t mean Drama will be on the shelf. School districts and individual librarians have wide discretion in what they choose to acquire. It could be that the district continues to decide that Drama isn’t “appropriate” or that the librarian doesn’t choose to select it for inclusion. I get it that changing the law doesn’t change the culture.
“Anything else?” I asked, wiping her tears. She was quiet, reviewing her day.
“Anything else?” I prompted again.
“What are you getting at, Mom?” she said frankly.
“If you are gay, or if you think you are gay, I want you to know that you can always tell me or your dad or both of us, and that we will do everything we can to keep you safe, and if you have any friends or classmates who are gay or who think they might be gay, we will always do everything we can to keep them safe too.”
“Oh, I know that,” she said, giving me a quick hug. “That’s why I’m telling you all this.”
“Do you think you are gay or might be?” I asked explicitly.
“No,” she replied quickly. Then she thought about it for a minute. “Actually, Mom, I’m just in fourth grade. I don’t think that’s a question I have to answer.”
She was right, and I appreciated her gentle but clear reminder that this was none of my business and, really, at this point, not a concern for her.
Of course, some kids have a sense of their own sexuality in elementary school—and they certainly have older friends and family members who are gay, so they need to have models, even in fiction, of gay people. Actually, all of them do, whether they know that they know gay people. So her father and I headed to a meeting with the principal and teacher.
Our daughter had already complained to the principal that the library didn’t have Drama, and he suggested writing a letter to the librarian asking for it to be included. I pointed to the state law, asking if a letter writing effort would be a waste of time given that roadblock. He suggested doing it anyway, to help our daughter learn the process. I felt a flash of familiar frustration at the violence of “process” but agreed. Maybe by the time they worked through the process, the law would be gone. Also, I am not above guerilla shelving.
They were empathetic to the situation all around. Gender identity was easier, the principal said, than sexuality, because kids did have an understanding of gender—it was something they were all working on in some way, whether they had words like gender or not. Sexuality was actually tougher, he said, because the school includes kids five through twelve, with very different supports at home for learning about sexuality, including their own. With puberty starting earlier and the inclusion of six grade in the school, there were definitely kids thinking about their sexual identities. The principal admitted that the answers weren’t always clear about how to best support kids in this way, especially given that the world of childhood is changing so fast. I agreed.
The teacher and principal responded swiftly to our story about her deskmate. “Against district wide policy and against the most important value of our school: respect.” I appreciated that but also expressed concern that the boy not be punished. Language like that—and, more importantly, the disrespect and cruelty that give rise to it—don’t come from nowhere, and there was no reason to involve his parents if we could avoid it. But the teacher would reinforce classroom expectations about respect, kindness, and friendship. The school social worker would come in and work with the class on the issue, too.
Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation—and it’s increasing among kids and teens. There is some thinking that the high altitude, which has significantly less oxygen than sea level air, has an effect. Maybe. But the anti-LGBT climate and the heteronormativity of the Mormon church and its theology also has a big effect. Queer youth are especially vulnerable to suicide, and Mormons have an additionally high suicide rate, regardless of age or sexuality. In an LDS-dominant culture, even those youth who are not Mormon are affected by the unique (and, obviously, heterosexual) purity culture of Mormons.
A book like Drama could save a kid’s life in this place. And so the state legislature’s pre-emptive strike against it is especially cruel. They would prevent a gay kid from perhaps the only positive depiction of a gay person they might see rather than risk… what? Being exposed to the “advocacy of homosexuality”?
But it’s not just for the sake of children particularly at-risk and in need of positive, even if fictional, examples of happy (rather than tragic, miserable) gay people. It’s an issue of what kind of culture we want. Do we want to be a place where gay people cannot exist? Where heterosexuality is seen as so fragile and same-sex sexual orientation so powerful that the mere existence of a minor character who is gay could effectively “promote” a sexual orientation among kids?
Suicide is one result. Here is another:
In the days leading up to the 2016 general election, conservative independent Evan McMullin was picking up steam in the state. The Republican politicians in the state had broadly spoken out against Trump and his misogyny and racism, and some polls were indicating the possibility of a three-way tie in the state. A pro-Trump white supremacist and former Trump delegate starting making robocalls to dissuade McMullin voters. They said that McMullin “had two mommies” and was a “closet homosexual.” It’s unclear whether the calls were able to invoke a politics of disgust about McMillan as a candidate, but there was certainly disgust about the tactic. And, clearly, the pro-Trump forces thought the calls would be effective, that listeners would automatically reject a gay person.
Which is exactly what the Utah law promotes.
*The law also prohibits the advocacy of sex outside of marriage and the use of contraception.