How children’s literature can help normalize homosexuality
In the small window of time when her parents are at work and her sister at school, 21-year-old Anya (name changed) readily talks about her experience growing up gay.
She begins with a warning: “It could have been much worse,” shrugs the young graduate shrugging her shoulders. “By watching most of the news on LGBT + students, you can tell that there is a short end of the stick and far too many of us are drawing it. Growing up in a metropolitan city with a fairly progressive upper-class family, Anya admits that it was easier – and safer – for her to find her gender and sexual identity.
This did not happen naturally, however. Until ninth grade, Anya had the same queerphobic notions as her parents. Whether it was believing queer people were ‘unnatural’ or that she should keep her distance from the LGBT + community, Anya vividly remembers expressing some of these views aloud in school and never been corrected or reprimanded for this low-level hate speech. Ultimately, this made his own internalized homophobia even more difficult to overcome, in the long run.
Anya’s beliefs were shaped, like many others, by the marked absence of any real conversation around the idea of homosexuality, both at school and at home. In a society where heteronormativity is the bar of measurement for “normal”, destigmatizing everything that is contrary to it arouses an outcry, especially when it comes to engaging young people.
Following widespread right-wing outrage in early November and several complaints filed, a gender awareness manual designed to equip teachers with the tools to discuss these topics was withdrawn on November 5, shortly after its publication on the NCERT website. According to one complaint, the textbook sought to “psychologically traumatize students,” a claim we frequently encounter when it comes to educating children about homosexuals.
When the conversations necessary to dissuade these misconceptions do not take place, it leads to the perpetuation of the generational biases that we inherit from our elders.
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Nandini Choudhury, relationship expert and meditation mentor at a Kolkata-based wellness organization called Crystal Minds, believes this cycle works on modeling. “Being particularly impressionable during their formative years, children often imitate their parents’ displayed behavior. In addition to adopting a demonstrable vocabulary and manners, they also inherit the prejudices they hear most often. The way they view seniors, whether at home or at school – the two most crucial sites in children’s lives – tackling various topics, defines the formation of their own responses to these concepts.
This leads to a catch-22, sort of. Protecting young homosexuals and normalizing homosexuality means that discussions must involve every child. But to have these discussions, you need the support of the system. As the same students who came from these schools with these exact biases grow up to run the system, it becomes difficult to break the cycle.
“Nonetheless, it is a task that needs to be undertaken,” emphasizes Devika Anand, member of Delhi-based GenderBenders, a Teach For India project that helps students and parents understand the spectrum of gender and sexuality through activity-based study programs. “Students need to be made aware of the spectrum and its normality. The sooner children begin to recognize associated biases and become tolerant and empathetic, the sooner we can reduce rates of gender-based violence. “
So how do you start to de-stigmatize queer ideas for kids?
Potentially, using children’s literature.
Countless generations of Indians have grown up on a diet of Ringing, Tales of Jataka, Champak, etc. Even today, simplified Ramayana anecdotes about today’s Panchatantras or Amar Chitra Katha comics, children across the country devour these stories. Likewise, the purpose of these stories has remained constant: to endow their young readers with lifelong values.
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To that end, a number of these publications are now successfully covering contemporary lessons through their beloved protagonists. Tinkle features characters rejecting traditional gender roles, single parenthood stories, and fairy tales featuring main characters with disabilities. All of these efforts go a long way in normalizing these ideas for young people.
It is therefore not illogical to suggest that the same could happen with regard to the LGBT + alliance if queer children’s literature becomes more mainstream.
Of course, there are existing and ongoing attempts; Guthli has wings (from Kanak Shashi, Tulika Books, 2020) discusses the idea of being transgender for children, Speaking of Muskaan (by Himanjali Sankar, Duckbill Books, 2014) reveals the heartbreaking impact of homophobic bullying on gay youth and Slightly burnt (by Payal Dhar, Bloomsbury India, 2014) takes the lighthearted gay romance approach. By starting the normalization of these ideas, queer literature is helping in leaps and bounds.
Choudhury’s words remind us once again of modeling. “Often, children pick up negative attitudes much faster than encouraging ones. Being presented with positive social and cultural cues in these books therefore prompts them to perceive ideas of gender fluidity and homosexuality through a less critical lens than they might have otherwise. “
Not to mention that when the contexts and circumstances of the characters closely resemble those of the readers, the underlying message resonates even louder. The familiarity of recognizing someone who talks and behaves like you or your peers is a powerful engine when it comes to building empathy.
In addition to empathy, Anand adds that homosexuality in children’s literature can also play a role in shaping the type of individuals children will become. As they read it, see its normality, and learn about the systemic injustices it faces, their own beliefs take shape. The attitudes they develop at this point will then determine which side of the fence they choose. So, by breaking the stigma early and helping young people progress further than previous generations, major changes can be made to the system, ending the aforementioned rut.
When asked if books like this would have helped her own journey, Anya agrees. “For most of my childhood, I spent my time playing my favorite characters or pretending to be a new friend I met on ‘adventures.’ I would have given up many preconceptions earlier if I had been more familiar with queer identities. It certainly would have made less agony and guilt when I realized I was bisexual, “she laughs.
Anukriti Prasad (she / she) is a Delhi-based freelance writer and fiction writer. She writes primarily on homosexuality, contemporary youth struggles and the meaning of human empathy.