What to do until Utopia arrives: guidelines to evaluate the treatment of gay themes in children's and YA literature
The below guidelines were written by the Social Responsibilities Round Table's Gay Task Force of the American Library Association in order to help librarians evaluate the treatment of gay themes in children's and YA literature. Note that the Gay Task Force is now known as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table (GLBTRT). While much has changed since this document was first produced in 1976 the below guidelines are still relevant.
Young gay women and men can and should be portrayed as heroes as simply as their nongay counterparts, with no special emphasis on the sexual component of their identities. If, however, "gayness" itself is a major part of the plot, several points must be considered.
What is the result of a child's discovery that an important person in his or her life is gay? The positive acceptance of a parent, teacher, or best friend should be shown happening without destructive repercussions. If the book does contain stereotypic responses, the librarian can point out to the reader that positive acceptance often occurs, too.
The orientation of gay characters need not be "explained" by grotesque family situations or by the pseudo-medical observations of an adult in the library. If one of these "explanations" exists, the librarian can point out that no such effort is ever deemed necessary to account for straight characters.
Does the book serve primarily to reassure insecure nongay kids that one can have a gay experience and still turn out "normal"? If so, this may be a legitimate subject, but it is certainly not relevant to young lesbians and gay men. Librarians should be aware of the need for portrayals of growth and development of gay identity as a valid life choice.
Gay adolescents will, realistically, encounter social pressures, but they should be shown as coping adequately with them. A wide framework of support is, in fact, available to such young people in 1976. If it is not described, librarians can make readers aware of the positive nonfiction books and periodicals now in many libraries. The can also mention that gay communities are now quite visible, with such resources as counseling services, coffee hours, and churches and synagogues available.
In many types of stories, these can be incidental characters--friends, relatives, or neighbors--who are gay. They should be included as a natural part of all kinds of situations, not themselves being the "situation." A few novels of this sort exist today with no explicit identification of the gay character. Librarians should be aware of this kind of book and be able to refer readers to such stories.
Certainly it is impossible to draw a gay person. Yet it is very easy to picture same-sex couples. In books for children there should be illustrations of gay couples as parents, as older sisters and brothers dating kids of the same sex, and as just ordinary people. No books like this are currently available. In this area, as in all areas covered by these guidelines, librarians have a clear obligation to their readers to make publishers aware that such books are desperately needed and will be used when available.
Degrees of explicitness
Librarians know that in contemporary YA fiction, nongay relationships are hardly shrouded in a veil of mystery. Comparably there ought to be more gay relationships in such novels, with more realistic portrayals of affection and falling in love. It is important to show, with an appropriate amount of physical detail, how gay women and men find each other and how they allow the expression of their emotions to develop.
Impact on readers
In terms of orientation, there are three kinds of young readers--the straight, the gay, and the famous "in-between, teetering-on-the-fence." Before selecting any book with a gay theme, librarians should evaluate each book's effect on all three: Does it give an accurate, sympathetic picture of gays for nongays, so that they can learn to appreciate and not fear differences in sexual and affectional preference; does it give young gays a clear view of the decisions facing them and show that these can be made successfully?
The entire culture rather frantically reinforces the choice of a heterosexual lifestyle. Surely if those on-the-fence adolescents exist, they have the right to also see an up-front picture of gay life, not just the old caricatures.
In our homophobic society any work dealing with a gay theme is prone to include clichés and preconceptions of "gay character." It would be excellent to have a reviewer who is proudly self-identified as gay examine relevant books to point out negative stereotypic attitudes when they occur and to make suggestions as to how the librarian can best counteract such stereotypes.
Reprinted with permission from the authors from "What to Do Until Utopia Arrives," Wilson Library Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 7 (March 1976), pp. 532-533.
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