“A teacher at my son’s school is trying to add more gay-friendly books in the library. Other teachers and parents are upset and saying that the books would be “inappropriate” or even “propaganda.” How can I explain their reactions to my son? And what can I do to help the situation?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Lindsay Amer
Censorship happens everywhere: in schools, in the media, and in our homes. When it comes to young people and queer topics, it’s almost impossible to avoid. Concerned parents and teachers have had books banned from school libraries and plays cancelled at elementary schools, while their fellow parents and colleagues don’t always know how to deal with these controversies. The definition of “inappropriate content” is incredibly different from one person to another when it comes to kids and what they can watch, read, and listen to. One parent might let their kid watch Chuckie and another might fast-forward through a chaste kiss on ABC Family.
Conversations around censorship tend to happen solely amongst adults without acknowledging the young person who is witnessing the debate. When kids get involved it turns into a big old complicated mess that can do some real, lasting damage. If you’re dealing with a bout of censorship in your community, particularly one that involves LGBTQ+ content and whether or not kids should have access to it, here are three really important things you should do.
First, have an open, honest conversation. Kids pick up on everything! Even if the controversy is happening behind closed doors, your kid is probably going to know that something is up. The worst thing you can do is ignore the situation.
When I was in undergrad, I directed a play called The Transition of Doodle Pequeño by Gabriel Jason Dean that features a young boy who likes to wear dresses. We toured that production to local elementary and middle schools in Evanston, IL. One school principal was not too keen on the LGBTQ+ themes. In the middle of the play, she marched into the auditorium, in full view of the audience, and took me aside. She asked if this was a play “promoting cross-dressing,” and “sexualizing kids,” all behind one of the set pieces, barely concealing the discussion from the audience. I eventually made sure that she wouldn’t stop the performance mid-show, but a lot of the damage had already been done. Students could undoubtedly see that their principal was talking to us about the play they were watching, and it probably didn’t look like a friendly conversation. While I hope that the positive message of the play overrode any negative perceptions of the incident, I cannot be sure that students didn’t pick up on what was going on.
When something like this happens, kids take in the facts and can make damaging conclusions, particularly if the controversy becomes a larger public issue. They take all the negativity surrounding the situation and immediately begin to associate it with the content being censored. You need to stop that association from happening, and the only way to do this is to sit down and have an honest conversation. As much as I wish we lived in a world where we didn’t need to explain that some people think being LGBTQ+ is wrong, alas we do not. And while we still live in this world, we need to acknowledge what is wrong with it in order to enact change when it comes to the next generation. Explain what censorship is to your kid and talk about how some people think that LGBTQ+ content is not appropriate for kids to see/read/etc. And when they ask why (because kids always ask why), just tell them that adults disagree on a lot of things, and this is a big one. Say as much or as little as you want about it, but just opening up a discussion and broaching the topic with your kid will help them process what is happening around them without getting caught up in it.
Second, make a stink about it! As much of a ruckus as censorship can make, most of it is completely invisible. You need to speak up and make people pay attention, adults and kids alike. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richarson and Peter Parnell is a children’s book about gay penguins in the Central Park Zoo that topped the ALA’s 10 Most Challenged Books List between 2006 and 2010. The book remains in public and school libraries because of determined advocacy (and that little thing called The First Amendment). Emily Freeman wrote a play called And Then Came Tango, based on the same true story, and tours of her play have been cancelled in Texas and California. Freeman took to the internet to spread the word about the first cancellation, and an outspoken dad in Fresno took to the Huffington Post to write about the second, including a letter he wrote to his school district asking them to respect all families, including his own.
In these cases, you must lead by example. As uncomfortable as it might be to speak up, it is so so necessary, especially if your child identifies as LGBTQ+. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will? Even if your kid isn’t LGBTQ+, the world can always use more allies. And being a good ally sometimes means you need to put yourself outside of your comfort zone.
And third, find alternatives! If your kid isn’t being exposed to queer content at school because of censorship, go out of your way to expose them to that material at home. And Tango Makes Three is an awesome book that celebrates diverse modern families and there are a ton of other children’s books out there that have LGBTQ+ characters: The Bravest Knight Who Ever Lived, A is for Activist, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, to name a few. While live, theatrical productions like And Then Came Tango and The Transition of Doodle Pequeño are few and far between, you can easily get your hands on the scripts and read them aloud with your family. Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe is an AWESOME show, chock full of non-binary aliens, and featuring a prominent same-sex relationship, all on network television! YouTube is another treasure trove with lots of progressive content. Check out Olly Pike’s channel Olly’n’Pop, where he makes crafts and talks about LGBTQ+ issues for kids with his balloon friend. It takes a bit of digging sometimes, but it’s well worth it. Happy hunting!
Lindsay Amer recently graduated from Queen Mary University of London with her MA in Theatre and Performance Studies while gallivanting around Europe for a year and making queer theater for kiddos. Before that she did her undergrad at Northwestern University. Now she’s based in her hometown—NYC—while she navigates adulthood, takes on the patriarchy, and attempts to play the ukelele. Follow her on Twitter @thelamerest
Want to become a volunteer writer? Tell us here!