Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Importance of LGBTQ Books in Our Schools

Lately on the web there has been much discussion about the difference between Literature-Capital-L and popular literature and which kind should be studied in the classroom and why. Quite honestly, the best answer here is the easiest: both. Students, from middle school through university, should be studying a wide array of literature, including "The Classics," poetry, manifestos, short stories, plays, modern novels, and even young adult (YAL) and middle grade (MG) books. If all students are presented with are the Classics, then that's all they'll know. The same is true if they are only taught modern novels that are written for their specific age group. What we need is balance, and that doesn't apply only to the kind of books read and taught, but also to the content within the books.

The last few decades have been full of revolutions in the way literature has been taught, prompting authors and educators to integrate new voices and focus on minorities such as women, African American, Latino, Eastern and Oriental cultures, etc. Now is the time for the revolution in which LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, & Queer/Curious) literature is brought into the classroom as well. It may not be an easy change, but it is a necessary one.

Why should students study LGBTQ books, authors, and topics in the classroom? For the same reason they are asked to study any other books, authors, and topics: because the books have something to offer, because they represent a part of culture, and because they are needed to teach tolerance. Every day in schools students are teased, bullied, and in some cases even beaten, for not fitting into the "norm." The truth of the matter is, however, that having a student in class that identifies as LGBT is becoming the norm and statistically there is a very good chance that at least one of your students or classmates does identify that way. The norm is changing and so should class reading choices. Educators should create a sense of normalcy by presenting LGBTQ books to students so that the ones who do identify LGBTQ can explore their own identity through literature just as a heterosexual student would with any of the Classics or modern novels with a heterosexual main character, but these LGBTQ books will also provide a "window" (as Katherine Mason calls it) for heterosexual students to see into lives of LGBTQ members. Teaching these books can help all students relate to the characters in these books, not based upon a shared sexual preference, but upon the fact that they feel the same emotions, act the same way, and make the same mistakes as the reader. A good way to do this is to include a book that isn't necessarily deemed LGBTQ, but has homosexual characters or themes presented in them in a normal and respectful way, such as Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Leviathan. By presenting works of literature wherein homosexuality is normal, educators help to make it normal in the classroom as well, which may hopefully lead to less bullying against homosexual students.

Part of creating this sense of normalcy is to teach and make available LGBTQ books, but not just to throw them into the curriculum as the Token Gay Book, just like the problem faced with The Token Girl Book. So often it is the case in Literature classes that the curriculum is comprised predominantly of male authors and that authors like Emily Dickinson or Mary Wollstonecraft are tossed in as an afterthought, often in an awkward place, just so they can include a female writer. The same could so easily happen with LGBTQ books, that educators add them in out of a necessity to have at least one book of its kind, but never really integrate it into the curriculum. The way to fix this is not to think of the text as a Gay Book, but as a book that happens to have gay characters. Teach it the same way you would any other text: by talking about the plot, the characters, the writing style, the cultural significance--surely if professors take the time to read the books as books, they can find a way to teach them as such.

This is not to say, of course, that choosing to include books with LGBTQ characters or themes won't be met with opposition. Some parents may object and ask that you remove the book from the curriculum in order to teach something "more appropriate." The best thing to do here is to let that particular child study another book instead, but do not remove the book completely because one parent has decided to take a stance against it. A parent has every right to censor what their child reads and frankly, it is commendable, because it means they are taking an active role in their child's education. However, there is a difference between not wanting your own child to read a book and trying to take away the opportunity to read said book from the entire class or even the school. If you want someone to respect your choice not to read it or have your child read it, then you must also respect the choice of those who do want to read it and arguably should for the reasons listed above. In her article in the ALAN Review, Katherine Mason quotes a teacher in saying that representing books such as these is part of being a "democratic and culturally responsive classroom," an ideal educators should live up to, despite the beliefs of some parents.

Most of the time the controversy surrounding LGBTQ books has to do with what might be considered "The Usual" in book banning/challenging, i.e. sex, language, and violence. Generally The Usual complaints come out of a person not reading said books. In classrooms, high school and college levels especially, language and violence become less of an issue, if they're presented in literature. The main issue raised against LGBTQ books are that they are supposedly all about sex, and they'd have to be, because the main character is wondering about their sexuality or alienated by it, right? Not exactly. These books are no more all about sex than heterosexual books are. Some will have them, some won't, but generally this is not the focus of the book and many books of this nature do not feature sex at all or treat it like any other YAL book would. In the coming week many bloggers will be discussing this idea that a single sex scene or reference dominates a book in the eyes of a potential book challenger, as a part of Banned Books Week. Just as it is the case with books such as Speak, Catcher in the Rye, and The Color Purple (all challenged in 2009/10), the book in question is more than just sex and still sustains literary merit.

Sometimes educators and librarians, students especially, need to take a stand against injustice, both with the challenging of LGBTQ books and with the way they are excluded from curriculai. The way students are treated by their peers, and sometimes faculty members, for their sexual preference, is an injustice. Writing off an entire genre of literature as not worthwhile because of the themes it presents, is an injustice. In all of these cases, educators and readers can fight back and take a stand, just by integrating books with LGBTQ themes and characters into school curriculai and placing these books on the shelves of school libraries where students can access them, if they want to.

For more on this subject, read "Creating a Space for YAL with LGBT Content in Our Personal Reading" by Katherine Mason, from The ALAN Review, Vol 35, number 3, which you can find here.

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