Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

'Advocating and Celebrating the Abomination of Sodomy': The Cultural Reception of Lesbian and Gay Picturebooks

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

'Advocating and Celebrating the Abomination of Sodomy': The Cultural Reception of Lesbian and Gay Picturebooks

Article excerpt

  Tale of 'gay family' angers Tories. LONDON.

  A schoolbook about a five-year-old girl who lives with her father and
  his homosexual lover has raised the ire of the Thatcher Government
  which is seeking to ban it. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin is the
  most provocative of twenty-seven schoolbooks which have become the
  targets of a bitter campaign to purge the classroom of lessons on sex
  outside marriage. In a backlash against the permissive education
  policies of Leftist councils, parents at one London school burned
  copies of Eric and Martin and kept children home for a day in protest.
  Critics contend the councils, which run public schools in London's
  boroughs, are using sex education to promote tolerance of homosexuals
  at the expense of family values.
  (The Courier Mail, 1986).

Reactions to lesbian and gay picture books range from fatuous public statements made by Australian politicians about school readers featuring a girl with two mums, through to current court cases over the use of the picturebook King and King (de Haan & Nijland 2000) in Boston classrooms (Barrett 2006). In the case of Susanne Bosche's Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1983), the book was used in government debate in London to justify the introduction of Section 28, a controversial piece of legislation which forbade the promotion of 'homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'(Local Government Act 1988). On the whole, these reactions have little to do with picture books. Controversies about these texts are really about much bigger social questions, such as childhood 'innocence', constructions of sexuality, paedophilia, conversion and the dissolution of the family. These simmering anxieties erupt into moral panics when the culturally sacred and/or unspeakable categories of childhood and non-normative sexualities come into contact. In this paper I will examine reactions to a range of texts, and track the similarities between the media reaction and the contents of the picturebooks themselves, and the ways that these react to and feed off each other. I will discuss some of the recurring topics of this circular relationship and consider some of the problems caused by circling these topics. For this paper I will define lesbian and gay picturebooks as fiction for children which addresses sexualities other than heterosexuality, primarily picturebooks about children with same sex parents, such as Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (Bosche 1983). Although 'cultural reception' can be expanded to include a wide range of phenomena, for the purposes of this paper I will be relying mainly on newspaper articles addressing panics over these texts, with some forays into cyberspace and archives of parliamentary debate.

Debates about lesbian and gay children's literature revolve around notions of family. A great number of lesbian and gay picturebooks thematise familial relationships, including: Elwin and Paulse's Asha's Mums (1990), Combs' ABC: A Family Alphabet Book (2000), Aldrich's How My Family Came to be: Daddy, Papa and Me (2003) and Garden's Molly's Family (2004). Many of these picturebooks have the composition of their 'alternative family' as their primary focus, and expand the term 'family' to include those with same sex parents. On the other side of the debate there is also an obsessive focus on the family. In parliamentary debate over Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked those people who sought to repeal Section 28 'on what grounds they so deplore normal family life' (Local Government Bill 6 Dec 1999). Recently, Walter B. Jones, writing on King and King, warned that 'The traditional family is being attacked with an unconventional weapon: children's story books' (2005). Both sides of the debate use the same terms and concepts to argue opposing points. This odd situation illustrates the symbiotic relationship of the texts and their cultural reception.

At first glance it is difficult to understand how commentators make the rather desperate leap from picture books which represent adults who desire someone of the same sex to attacks on 'normal' family life. …

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