Why we need LGBTQ+ characters in children's books
Published on: 07 April 2021 Author: L. D. Lapinski
From 1988 until the early 2000s in the UK, it was illegal for books to be seen as 'promoting homosexuality' - meaning that many young queer people didn't see LGBTQ+ characters in books until they were adults. The Strangeworlds Travel Agency author L. D. Lapinski explains why these stories are so important for children.
Author L. D. Lapinski and the cover of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency: The Edge of the Ocean
I grew up under Section 28. But I couldn’t have told you what Section 28 was until I was nearly thirty. It sounded a bit like a plot set in motion by an evil regime – the sort of thing you’d imagine the Dark Side ordering in a Star Wars film. And actually, this isn’t a million miles away from the truth.
Section 28 was an amendment to the Local Government Act, put in place by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988. It stated that: a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any [school] of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. In a nutshell, this meant No Gay Books™ in school libraries, no LGBTQ support clubs in schools, and ultimately left teachers and school librarians all but unable to provide support for queer students, or even to condemn homophobic bullying within schools. It was not repealed until 2003.
Like me, a lot of adults in their 30s have grown up not knowing what Section 28 was.
And for many, the first queer book they remember reading, they didn’t pick up until their late teens. That’s a lot of life to go through without ever seeing yourself on the page of a novel.
Where are all the queer books?
I studied Queer Theory and Queer Modernism at university, and whilst this meant that I now had lists of queer books to read, they were all old, classic texts. There was no one like me or my friends in those dusty old pages. I knew there was a gap in the world of my reading, but couldn’t find the books to fill it. Combing the university library, I realised happily that we - the ones in the rainbow wrist cuffs – had always been here, but for some reason we still seemed to be confined to old novels where the protagonists suffered for 400 pages and then promptly died.
Where were the gay books? Better still, where were the books where characters like me and my friends were the ones going to magic school, or stepping through wardrobes?
Not only were we not included, we weren’t even an afterthought – separate dorms for boys and girls? What about magical nonbinary kids? Where do they sleep? Not in the school, apparently. I’ve certainly read more than my fair share of fanfiction, where writers, including myself, have changed what’s on the page or the screen to reimagine the characters to include LGBTQ representation, but in mainstream publishing, it feels like there’s still some catching up to be done.
I turn thirty-four in a few weeks, and I still get a spark of delight run over me when I realise a children’s book I want to read is queer. A few recent favourites have been Robin Stevens’ Death in the Spotlight, and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies. And non-binary characters in children’s books are still very rare, though A. J. Sass’ ice-skating novel Ana on the Edge was published this year and is wonderful.
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Whilst queer stories in children’s literature are becoming more common, I wanted to read, and to write, stories about kids whose identity was not a factor in the plot of their adventure. Not a coming out story, or a story about identity (though we still need more of those, particularly from marginalised voices!), and certainly not a romance. Just kids, like me, getting lost in adventures. And that’s how I went about creating characters for The Strangeworlds Travel Agency trilogy. The fact Jonathan is transgender or the fact Flick gets crushes on girls has nothing to do with their ability (or inability!) to save the day. My books haven’t been written to explore what it is to be queer – they’ve been written to show queer kids exploring other worlds. They are having adventures and learning to use magic, just like their straight and cisgender counterparts have been doing all along.
I am sad that I didn’t get any books with queer characters as a kid. I do think I missed out, and I think Section 28 was an evil thing to put in place, born out of a fear of queer people and the misguided idea that no one would become gay if it wasn’t talked about.
My new book, The Strangeworlds Travel Agency: The Edge of the Ocean, is full of queer characters – adults and children, main characters and supporting ones. The book itself is dedicated to All the girls who fell in love with Elizabeth Swann (my favourite character in Pirates of the Caribbean). And yet, at its heart, it is a magical adventure story about good battling evil, about believing in yourself, and about pirates.
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