Bookending the LGBTQ Book Club
I have to confess that I had my doubts about pursuing young adult LGBTQ literature for this project. I wavered, considering several less risky options. But in the end, I decided to take that last step off the high jump.
Since making that decision, I’ve encountered some exceptional and some less-than-exceptional writing. I’ve met some amazing characters and some who faded into the wallpaper (not including, of course, any wallflowers). I’ve stepped into some truly unforgettable fictional lives, and shared true secrets with some breathtakingly honest memoirists.
All of that could have happened, however, no matter what theme I’d chosen to pursue.
On top of all that… I’ve learned. I’ve learned how much I didn’t know, and how much I’d learned that was wrong, and I’ve begun filling those holes and rotten places in with reality. I’ve seen my own bias, and having seen it and confronted it with the knowledge I’d gained, I’ve scrubbed much of it away. (Homophobia, it turns out, isn’t just spewing hate speech and physically harming others – it’s all of the little misconceptions we harbor, all of the queasiness we try to hide, all of the awkwardness we feel.)
I’ve experienced a tiny taste of what it must be like, as an LGBTQ teen, to find books that apply to one’s life. I’ve gone to the bookstore and waded through the Disapproving Old Boys’ Club, all standing around flipping through military history books, to get to the out-of-the-way and tiny selection of LGBTQ literature; I’ve felt their stares and heard their little sounds of disgust as I sat down to browse. Another bookstore put their LGBTQ literature next to books on marriage and divorce; the two women browsing those shelves backed away from me and fled when I began digging through the gay/lesbian memoirs. I’ve spent hours browsing our local libraries’ online catalogues, collecting long lists of NO RECORD FOUND notices. We have a local bookstore chain that is (as local rumor has it) owned by the LDS church. It’s one of the best places in the community for teachers to buy books, due to their deep discount program, or to find high-quality used books. This bookstore chain is apparently exercising a silent boycott of YA authors who write about LGBTQ characters or issues – prolific, award-winning authors simply don’t exist on their shelves. Practically every store that did have a LGBTQ section squished it up against the Erotica shelves, as if to reinforce the idea that homosexuality is equivalent to over-the-top sexual expression.
Best of all, I’ve gotten mad.
These are people. These are my students. I have had and always will have LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ family members and friends. Our schools go out of their way to represent and celebrate pretty much every other minority. I’m not saying we need to drop everything and have schoolwide Pride Months, but don’t our LGBTQ students deserve access to books with protagonists whose lives and problems resemble their own?
No teacher that I’ve ever known would stand by and allow students (or, heaven forbid, school staff/faculty) to say “nigger” or to tear down another student based on their ethnicity. I’d like to think that teachers wouldn’t permit aggressively sexist behavior or speech, either. Why then, do teachers turn a blind ear to the word “faggot”? Why do teachers allow kids to say “that’s so gay” – why do teachers say it, too?
This isn’t about politics. It isn’t about religion. It’s about kids. If nothing else, as a teacher I have a professional responsibility to differentiate, to know my students, and to help them. I have a professional responsibility to strive to provide a safe learning environment for all my students. It’s not necessary for a teacher to agree with something or like something in order to provide it to a student in need.
I’m not entirely certain how to fight this fight. The first step is easy: put these books on my classroom library shelves, not quarantined in their own little section but intermingled in with all the other stories for real teens. It’s what comes next that is unclear. I have the words, the statistics, and the anecdotes ready for the moment if when I am confronted by parents or fellow educators. What I don’t know is how to address something I experienced last year: the exaggerated sounds of disgust as a student reads the back cover flap, the moment when I realize that an easily offended, deeply conservative student has unwittingly picked up an LGBTQ book to take home with her, the nasty comments buzzing around the bookshelves. I have just under a month to come up with my battle plan, because I believe in this and am not going to walk away from it. I hope to find some of the tools I need from the Think B4 You Speak campaign and GLSEN’s Safe School Kit.
I’m ready to read something else, but I have really truly enjoyed this past month. If I can keep the momentum rolling during the school year, I’ll look forward to revisiting LGBTQ literature for teens next year – goodness knows I didn’t get through half of the books I collected this time!
If you’re interested, the packet I put together for my presentation on LGBTQ lit for teens is available here.