Reaching Out to Younger Hearts and Minds

Posted June 21, 2018 11:18 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — The author M.G. Hennessey remembers the moment a few years ago, after reading a book with a disappointed 9-year-old. “He wished there was a book about a kid like him,” she said.

The child was transgender, and although born female was living as a boy.

Hennessey decided she would write the book the child needed. “The Other Boy,” published by HarperCollins for young readers, follows the life of Shane, a fictional transgender boy. Hennessey, who is heterosexual, hoped the book would enlighten children to be accepting of others.

“The more you see representations in the media, the more familiar it becomes,” Hennessey said.

“The Other Boy” is part of a new battleground for rights for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. As the LGBTQ community has gained greater acceptance in America, some advocates now see an opportunity to prevent bigotry from taking root by reaching out to the youngest hearts and minds.

The fight is being waged in state legislatures and schools, but perhaps the most visible efforts are in the media, building on the “Will & Grace” effect, an acknowledgment that the TV sitcom has helped normalize LGBTQ people as part of the nation’s fabric.

Bringing gay-friendly messages to young children has faced opposition, and LGBTQ advocates admit that gains have been tough to achieve in the current political climate.

At a glance, however, some recent LGBTQ content for children has had such a high profile that one might think the rainbow flag had replaced the Stars and Stripes.

Perhaps the greatest recent success started as a joke. When the creative team at John Oliver’s HBO TV show heard about a coming children’s book about Vice President Mike Pence’s real-life pet rabbit, it produced a parody titled, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” published by Chronicle Books in March. In a jab at Pence’s conservatism, the bunny in Oliver’s version is gay, and he falls for another male rabbit and stumbles into a political ruckus.

Though introduced on a satirical adult show, the book was written with young readers in mind. To date, 800,000 copies have been published.

Natalie Ponte of Weston, Connecticut, read the book to her 4-year-old son, Milo, and wrote on Facebook that the experience was transformative.

“We are pretty open and progressive and this kid still had reservations at the beginning about two boy bunnies getting married,” Ponte wrote. “After reading this book twice he was ready to run for office on a gay rights platform.”

Other recent mainstream media efforts have reached huge audiences of children and families.

“Roseanne,” the highest-rated television show of the season, featured a character who is a gender-nonconforming boy. And the “Star Wars” franchise introduced its first LGBTQ character in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” — Lando Calrissian is pansexual, according to writer Jonathan Kasdan.

Predictably, there has been criticism. Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that opposes gay rights, called Oliver’s parody an attack on the vice president that was “vulgar and vile.”

Slate magazine questioned whether the gender-nonconforming character on “Roseanne” was a cynical attempt to deflect from bigoted tendencies of the show’s star, Roseanne Barr. The sitcom was canceled when Barr later posted a racist tweet.

And critics have pointed out that Calrissian’s sexuality is not exhibited on screen, unless you count a flirtatious moment when he refers to Han Solo as “adorable.”

But while Hollywood grabs the spotlight, a more lasting effort to reach children is underway at schools, with California in the forefront. This fall, California will be the first state where textbooks in primary schools will note historical figures who were LGBTQ. Additionally, the California Healthy Youth Act, amended in 2016, requires schools to offer sex education that includes information about sexual orientation and gender identities.

Deciding the details has divided some communities, as was the case in May in Fremont, California, a city of 233,000 residents on San Francisco Bay. Although near Silicon Valley in what many consider a liberal bubble, when the school board considered sex education for children as young as fourth grade, hundreds of agitated residents on both sides of the issue packed public meetings.

Some specifically objected to including the best-selling book “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie H. Harris. The book, first published in 1994 with more than 1 million copies sold, is an illustrated guide to sexuality, updated recently to include gender identity.

“I’ve been called a tool of the gay agenda,” Harris said in an interview. But she said that children had questions, and that her book answered them. “If it’s in the best interest of the child, I’m going to put it in there.”

Teri Topham, a French teacher at a local charter school whose own children attended the Fremont public schools, opposed the proposed curriculum as not age appropriate. Shesaid the teachings conflicted with her Mormon beliefs, and she noted that the city has large Muslim and South Asian communities, some with conservative traditions.

“The public school system has to err on the side of caution,” Topham said in an interview.

The school board rejected the proposed curriculum for the fourth and fifth grades.

The decision troubled Sameer Jha, 16, a Fremont resident who self-describes as “queer, still figuring it out, a gender flux.”

Sameer said there was no mention of LGBTQ people in fourth grade before. “All I knew was that it was a bad thing,” Sameer said. Having since transferred to a “more inclusive” private school in Oakland, Sameer has become a public activist, helped Gay-Straight Alliance organizations and raised funds to buy LGBTQ books for libraries.

“Representation is important,” Sameer said. While these and other efforts persist, life remains challenging for LGBTQ youths, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group that monitors cases of discrimination, bullying and harassment in schools.

“We have been responding to more fires than I have ever seen in K through 12,” said Johanna Eager, an organization director. She said that since the election of President Donald Trump, she had heard of “some of the most horrible hateful situations in schools that I have not experienced in the past almost 30 years.”

Eager said that teacher training was needed, but that she also recognized the power of storytelling.

“If you really hear a compelling story about someone suffering as an LGBTQ person,” she said, “that can change someone’s heart or mind quickly.”

Even after the defeat in Fremont, Sameer saw opportunity. “We’ve made waves,” Sameer said. “It’s being talked about.”