Members of the community say, upcoming generations need to know what already exists, which is natural and needs acceptance
Pallavi Pandey, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, finds it difficult to live in a society where members of the community continue to be subjugated. She says it becomes hard when you have to hide your feeling every day, till the day you become independent. For her, the most challenging part is to express her feelings to her parents. She says it’s still easy to share one’s emotions with their friends, but not with their parents.
As tears trickled down her face, she said: “I am sorry that I’m getting emotional, but it’s hard for me to talk about LGBTQ+ community. Me and others, who belong to the community, haven’t had an easy life. There is constant struggle for self-acceptance as well as societal acceptance. How can one ever expect the society to be understanding when our own parents do not understand or accept us? I often cry behind locked doors, waiting for things to change, for the society to get an insight into our lives. The current situation gives me stress and anxiety.”
This comes years after ruling out of section 377, that criminalized homosexuality. Most people in India, still don’t accept members of the community. They haven’t received their rightful place in the society and continue to be subjected to discrimination and bias.
According to a report in The Mint, titled ‘Being LGBT in India: Some home truths’, the scenario is somewhat better in urban areas where people are generally more open and accepting towards diverse voices. They participate actively in pride parades, meet-ups and are active members of social media discussions on topics related to LGBTQIA+ rights and their acceptance in the society. The rural population, however, is at complete loggerheads with the urban population. Acceptance is a far-fetched dream. Families in rural India often indulge in secret honor killings of gay men, lesbian women are subjected to family-sanctioned corrective rapes, which are often perpetrated by their own family members. They are subjected to more physical abuse if they refuse to marry according to their family.
As a result, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are more likely to commit suicide, use illegal drugs, and have high levels of depression.
Some homophobic landlords too refuse to lease their houses to gay and lesbian couples because of their image in the society. They also instruct their children to stay away from them, so they don’t convert into homosexuals.
The trauma faced by members of the community, stays with them through their childhood and as they transition into adults. This stigma stems from a lack of awareness on LGBTQIA+ issues and identities among the public. Children aren’t made aware of the various gender and sexual identities that are now subjects of public discussions.
These children often grow to become adults who remain confused about their own bodies and needs and also fail at accepting their peers who identify differently from the expected norms of the society says Meryl G. Gordon, an author.
“It’s important to talk openly about these issues as most families today have a LGBT member. It’s real, it’s a fact of life, and there’s no point in pretending that LGBT people don’t exist,” she added.
Low reach of LGBTQIA+ children story books
Today, there are children story books that address LGBTQIA+ issues and identities. These books, however, do not receive the platform they deserve. They remain in shelves of children bookstores or in warehouses of publishing houses, awaiting sales. This can be attributed to hesitancy among parents to subject their children to these books and among schools, which prefer not to include these books in their libraries. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community talk about how this has to do with the larger cultural background of the country which is still not open to discussions on LGBTQIA+ issues and identities. Authors who write these books, work diligently towards promoting these to a society which has long antagonized members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Priya Dali, from Pratham Books, a book publishing house in Bengaluru, thinks it’s important for children to be part of discussions on LGBTQIA+ issues and identities. She said: “Children are inherently curious; they don’t come with preconceived notions like adults do. They begin having experiences and expressions of gender at a very early age. So we think it’s necessary to have conversations that will help them build healthy relationships with their bodies, gender roles and expectations. Having characters that they can resonate with can help embrace their individuality and normalise their differences.”
She believes that the cultural blockades of the Indian society, hinder the spread of these books. “A vast majority of Indians avoid introducing children to topics that are seen as difficult or too adult such as death, loss, failure, divorce, abuse, domestic violence or queerness. There is often this tendency to infantilize information or use convoluted and confusing metaphors, done with the intention of protecting their children of course. But this could also be because adults lack the language or have grown up with biases that keep them from addressing such topics and conversations. Studies have shown that while picture books help children learn new concepts, they also encourage adults to converse with children and it helps them see the world through new perspectives too,” she said.
Though, a lot of their most popular titles like Satrangi Ladke aur Ladkiyan, which is a book about gender and the spectrum that exists, often sell out as soon as they come back in stock, there is still a long way to go as most people are still hesitant to buy them. The exact sales figures are not known as the sales team of Pratham Books didn’t respond.
Vidya Mani, Founder-Partner, Funky Rainbow, children’s bookstore in Bengaluru, said: “The need for diverse books is increasing fortunately, so we do have adults and schools asking for them in recent times. After all, there’s no better way to introduce children to the diverse world they live in than through books.”
“However, there is some hesitation in picking books around themes of sexuality, caste, gender, etc., mostly by adults who buy them for children and who wrongly assume these themes as not suitable for children. Children themselves don’t say no,” she added.
The bookstore had a shelf dedicated to LGBTQIA+ children story books. Parents were helping their children look for the right book for their next read. However, the shelf with LGBTQIA+ children story books, had no visitors. Not many wished for their children to read books addressing topics and issues concerning the community.
“We believe that books open up conversations, and should reflect the contemporary world we live in,” said Vidya.
Many bookstores in the city, don’t have LGBTQIA+ children story books, nor do they plan to include these in the future. Waseem Qureshi, from Learning Time bookstore, Bengaluru, said they catered to children in the age group of 0 to 6 years of age. The products mainly focus on awareness, math skills, english language skills, and stories developing moral values.
“We don’t cater to an age group that can be introduced to issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community,” he said.
The store manager at Higginbothams bookstore, was reluctant to talk at first. She later said: “No, we don’t have these books and don’t plan on including them at present. You can come after one month. We’ll get a re-stock then”.
The manager at Bookworm bookstore, while rubbing his head with his fingers, said: “I am not feeling well and won’t be able to talk right now”. On asking if I could talk to one of his employees, he said, “No”. The bookstore didn’t have LGBTQIA+ children story books.
Bookhive bookstore also didn’t have these books.
Parents openly express their hesitancy to let their children read these books.
Geetika Singh, mother of Abhimanyu Singh, shared: “I never read these books in my childhood. So why would I make my children read them? I am sure no parent would be okay with it.“
“This is how the society works, people still haven’t accepted these things. This is something which is new. I agree that there is growing awareness on topics related to the LGBTQIA+ community around the world, but India still has a far way to go,” she added.
Some parents worry about the potential effect these books may have on their child.
Shipla Sharma, on being asked about her views on LQBTQIA+ children story books, pondered upon the question for a few minutes. She then said: “It’s easy to say that we’re okay with our kids being aware of these diverse gender and sexual expressions. But, when it comes upon us, and our family, there is a fear which comes into play, fear of what the society will say. There are people who are open minded but they’re still a very small part of the society.”
She said she’s afraid of the potential impact these books might have on her children. “What if their thinking changes after they read these books? I don’t want to become a topic of discussion among my relatives. For instance, I had a friend whose brother married a guy when he went to study abroad. He later brought him to India to stay with his family. However, the Indian society never accepted them. People talked about them. The couple eventually had to go back abroad,” she added.
Shruti Sharma, a school librarian, feels that a school library isn’t the right place for these books. She said, “Our school doesn’t have these story books. I think parents would object to these books. However, we do have other story books in our library.”
“School is a formal place. Why would we keep books addressing LGBTQIA+ issues in the school library? If somebody wants it, they can buy it online. I believe no child will read these books in school, so there’s no use having them,” she added.
Will provide required support: LGBTQIA+ community
Pallavi Pandey, said: “We need to tell children about these things through stories or cartoons. This will provide the required support to the LGBTQ+ community and the coming generations won’t have to face what we had to face. The future will be a lot more comfortable and it’ll be considered normal to be a part of the community.”
She believes LGBTQIA+ children story books don’t have much sales in India because there isn’t much awareness about these issues. People think of the community in a humorous way. They have backward thinking and consider the community as unnatural or dirty.
Mohak Chauhan, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, said: “We are a part of the society, and upcoming generations need to know what already exists, which is natural and needs acceptance. This will help them in case they become parents to an LGBTQ+ child.”
Christina David, also a member of the community, said that it was important to include queer sensitization, identities and struggles in the curriculum so that children are not brought up with half knowledge and end up seeing only heterogeneous relationships as “normal”.
“Children should be given free will. They should be educated on the different identities, people, feelings and struggles so they don’t grow up biased and can make informed decisions. This will help them understand that just because they feel a certain way or don’t necessarily identify as their assigned sex, they’re not wrong and they’re not demons of sorts,” she said.
Christina explained that this has to do with the cultural atmosphere of the country, as for many decades, the queer community has been thought to be in the wrong, deviants and forms of evil that want to disrupt the peace of the society. Because of the negativity and wrong representation in media and elsewhere, for generations on end, everyone looks at queerness as a disease.
“Parents don’t want their children to contract the disease and deviate from heteronormativity. More so because our country is deeply rooted in ‘log kya kahenge’. And that’s what we need to focus on changing,” she said.
Arica Randhawa, who identifies as a trans feminine, feels that the current scenario of little or no support for the queer community, has to do with lack of awareness on these issues. “If children learn about the various gender expressions and sexuality, in their childhood, they’ll grow up to support people like us. A child never loses what they learn in childhood,” she said.
“It is sad to see that these books do not have much sales.The people of our country are okay with spending money on extravagant things. That is why our country can never progress because the things which should be given importance, aren’t receiving it,” she added.
Authors hope for more inclusion
Greg Howard is the author of ‘The Whispers’, a novel which centers on Riley, an 11-year-old who’s lost his mother and is harboring a crush on an older boy.
Greg asserts that for LGBTQ kids, it’s important that they see themselves represented in books, so they know that they are seen, they matter, and their stories have value. He wants them to find hope in his books. For non-LGBTQ kids, he thinks it’s important to read about LGBTQ kids so they see the experience of someone who is different from them as reading teaches empathy.
He hopes that one day all countries that limit access to books about marginalized children such as LGBTQ children will understand how important representation is at all ages and make those books available to the readers who need them. Kids need to see themselves in books, TV, movies, etc. It can literally save lives, he said.
Robin Stevens is the author of ‘Death in the Spotlight’, a book in which Daisy, a girl, comes out to Hazel after realising she is gay and is looking for acceptance from her best friend.
In an email conversation, Steven wrote: “I think it is so important that the books children read represent the world children really see around them. Queer people are part of real life, so they deserve to be part of fictional life as well. I never read books with queer characters in them as a child – at the time they were banned by Section 28 in the UK – and I know my generation really missed out on something important. That loss still affects us today, and I don’t want that for my own young readers. I have had such incredible feedback from kids about the queer representation in my books, and it’s clear to me how important and meaningful it is for them.”
Steven shared that she has had some angry letters from readers, mostly adults, who believe queer characters are not appropriate in a children’s book. But negative feedback is at most 1% of the response, she wrote.
Importance of Normalization
Anna Hema Sam, a senior clinical psychologist who works with YourDOST, a mental health service in Bengaluru, believes children should be made to read these books from a young age to create a positive environment for the LGBTQIA+ community.
“If we normalize this concept to kids at an early age, their perception towards the LGBTQIA+ community would be positive, they would be open to the idea of knowing more about the people, understanding their struggles and being empathetic towards them,” she said.
Anna further added, “If from childhood, the message that sexual orientations are not important in developing friendships, relationships is communicated, there won’t be any discrimination, heat and violence towards LGBTQIA+ community.”
However, Madhushri Ravi, an Educationist said she has her own doubts about the acceptance of these books to normal schools as yet.
A 2013 research study conducted by the US National Institute of Health, exhibited how storybooks help children understand the roles of men and women in society. According to the study, if certain ideas are reinforced or challenged about what is typically appropriate for the genders, then the children will be better equipped to identify and even reject hurtful notions.
The study also found that even 3-year-old kids are able to absorb stereotypes and gender roles.
Some children story books that talk about LGBTQIA+ issues and identities are ‘My Two Moms and Me’ by Michael Joosten, ‘Daddy, Papa, and Me’ by Leslea Newman, ‘Julián Is a Mermaid’ by Jessica Love, ‘I Am Jazz’ by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, ‘Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag’ by Rob Sanders and ‘To Night Owl From Dogfish’ by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer.
We all face various problems in our day to day life, like having a fight with our close friends, losing stuff we like or missing an assignment deadline. However, everything looks trivial to me when I think of the LGBTQIA+ community’s plight. Members of the community still struggle with self-acceptance as well a societal acceptance. They have done nothing to face the stigma that has become part of their everyday life. Talking to some members of the community for my story, I found more about their sufferings. Some still fear coming out to their parents who believe homosexuality to be a disease. According to me, we can all help the community by spreading awareness on issues related to the community. This awareness has to start from a very young age in the form of LGBTQIA+ children story books. These books can be a good way to introduce children to LGBTQIA+ issues and identities. Hesitancy still persists around the topic. Each of us can help bring change in society by making people aware that these books are available in the market and are worth a read. If each of us was made to read these books at a young age, we today would have been rid of some of our biases.