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Heather has two mommies and they’re both caucasian and moneyed: unsaids in international ‘queer’ children’s literature

by Dervla Shannahan
28 Sep 2010 • Comments (2) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Article

The twentieth anniversary edition of Heather Has Two Mommies includes an afterword by the author Leslea Newman; in it she reflects upon the changes that have occurred since she first self-published the book in 1989, optimistically exclaiming ‘How the world has changed!’ She mentions the controversies surrounding her book, and looks forward to the day when it is no longer considered so by anyone and presents a rosy picture of a progression of US civil rights; ‘we’ve come a long, long way’.[1]

Indeed, during the last twenty years an ever-increasing pool of children’s books have appeared which feature diverse family structures, possibly as many as 45.[2] Now Heather and Molly have two mommies and so does Spacegirl; Elly has two uncles and the (implied) reason that daddy and mommy got a divorce was daddy’s roommate. The institutional changes that we are led to believe are almost complete in Northern Europe and America have been captured in fragments of rainbow-adorned snippets, in the diversity of family constellations presented in children’s literature. The colours are so bright, the fonts so bold and the rhymes so captivating, it is tempting to believe that that old myth of homophobia is just a fairytale, at least in certain global closets.

Rofes suggests that the biggest change in contemporary representations of lesbian and gay identity has occurred within the domain of family values and childhood; this has always been, he maintains, particularly linked in American homophobic rhetorics.[3] Puar argues ‘various entries by queers into the biopolitical optimization of life mark a shift … from being figures of death (I.e., the AIDS epidemic) to becoming tied to ideas of life and productivity (i.e., gay marriage and families).’[4] Children’s literature which features lesbian and gay characters is itself a product of such shifts; simultaneously, the projected consumers are the imagined results of such transitions. The texts can, as such, be read as part of the textual actualisation of contemporary political lesbian and gay subjects; the characters cannot be seen as separate from their off-page muses and social scripts.[5] Further, they cannot be entirely detangled from contemporary

normativizing gay and lesbian human rights frames, which produce (in tandem with gay tourism) gay-friendly and not-gay-friendly nations; the return to kinship and family norms implicit in the new lesbian ”global family,” complete with transnational adoptee babies; and market accommodation which has fostered multibillion-dollar industries in gay tourism, weddings, investment opportunities and retirement.[6]

If such shifts are entwined with new normativizing frameworks, or even homonormativities, the significance of children’s literature produced therein is worthy of exploration. Although the sample texts that I discuss here feature LGBTQI characters, queer sexual orientation does not automatically translate into critical politics. Throughout this discussion I thus distinguish between queer characters and texts which are queering in the sense of working at the edge of ‘exposure within language-an exposure that disrupts the repressive surface of language – of both sexuality and race.’[7] This distinction is necessary as certain lesbian and gay bodies have found increased participation in heteronormativ/ising institutions and identities whilst others have not.[8] Far from neatly disrupting, troubling or queering sociosexual norms, this participation accords with the ‘highly privatized, monogamous, and white(ned) docile subjectivity that has been decriminalized and ostensibly invited into the doors of U.S. national belonging through recent shifts in the gendered and sexual order,’[9] enjoined with a politics that ‘does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them … [through] a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.’[10] In this sense the lesbian and gay characters within children’s literature may also potentially reaffirm and reproduce existing forms of normativities (regarding race, class and gender, for example) that are miles away from queering. Against this backdrop, three main questions arise; first, does a particular version of the lesbian and gay family emerge? Second, are some lines of difference otherized therein? And third, can these rep/presented families be seen as replicating a heteronormative family structure with one that is homonormative?

Methodology and positionalities

For this research I examined thirty three children’s books, all illustrated. They are all aimed at children between two and eight years, and feature human characters.[11] The books all use the English language (one, Antonio’s Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio is bilingual Spanish and English) and are published by British, American or Northern European publishers. I chose the sample for the centrality of gay or lesbian characters represented in families within their narratives. Initially I paid attention to the most visible markers of identity within the illustrations (depictions of leisure activities, lifestyles, class, and race, for example), with the aim of finding broad trends within the texts. I then conducted a close reading of sixteen of the texts,[12] examining more subtle aspects of representation; I looked for patterns of narrative similarity, characters participation in dialogues, key moments within narrative development and referential frames evoked by the story arcs.

I approach the books discussed below not as a scholar of children’s literature (or arguably, even of literature) but as a queer theorist who is interested in the ways that the emergence of lesbian and gay subjects in certain sites can be seen as producing myriad other ontologies of humanness, as ‘the myth of gay assimilation is crucially enabled by a redefinition of the West as sexually progressive[13] in contrast to delineated others. Such ontologies are visibly recorded, recreated and constituted through products of contemporary queer culture and I thus approach the sample of children’s literature as texts which are, in themselves, reflective fragments of contemporary articulations of queer identities. As such, my gaze is necessarily limited before it even begins. My intention, however, in treating the individual examples of children’s literature as a whole may facilitate a different way of reading them, a way which is less bound by narrative function and the poetics of rhyme (which are nonetheless vital parts of childhood reading) and more concerned with the unsaids or gaps in the articulations of lesbian and gay identity of the texts. I follow Foucault’s conceptualisation of all discourse as containing ‘a distribution of gaps, voids, absences, limits, divisions.’[14] That which lingers unsaid within any given statement always could have been yet the ’statements that are permitted within the [visible] discursive formation are precisely those that conform to the discursive regularities of the formation itself.[15] If children’s books provide repeated representations of lesbian and gay identities, as I shall argue, their very inclusion adds to, and of course re-affirms, dominant paradigms of what these identities are and are not. The unsaids,

which flank discourse on all sides, are just that … the void is a testimony to the power of discourse to constitute a domain of knowledge through excluding other possible statements, that is, through appropriating differences through the exclusion of pure difference.’[16]

Repeated omissions of certain queer bodies renders these bodies as (at the very least, representationally) impossible queers, as Kumashiro’s reflection on his childhood experience evinces; ‘I did not want to be queer, but also in part, I did not even consider being queer a possibility, perhaps because I saw no queers who were Asian American’.[17]

It is possible to imagine, then, a plethora of queers who did not make it into the pages of contemporary lesbian and gay representation, who are, for multiple reasons, not featured in the emergence of the queer subject as encapsulated within this sample of children’s literature. Just as feminist literary critics have thumbed the pages of history in vain, asking, where are all the women writers?, we might ask similar questions of pre-1970’s children’s literature, and now, we might turn to asking where are all the other queer bodies, the ones who are somehow writ off-page in these contemporary texts? We might ask where did they go, or more precisely, what distant land were they banished to whilst the journeyings of lesbian and gay political identities were busy being captured herein?

Ideal queers and per/versions of the queer family

Researchers have suggested that ‘one of the most noticeable patterns in the young adult novelistic portrayal of gay/lesbian people is the predominance of males, both as teens and as adults,’[18] a pattern also found amongst literature for younger children.[19] More recently, Chapman’s annotated bibliography of twenty six children’s books with gay or lesbian characters included a brief section of her observations and concludes that ‘literature which speaks to the experiences of children from various cultures and economic situations is an important lack in this literature.[20] My sample was slightly larger than Chapman’s and in the last thirteen years more books have been produced, yet in terms of race and class representations, change has been minimal.

The most noticeable aspect of the representations of lesbian and gay characters within this sample is that they are consistently presented as coupled; not one of the texts portrays a central single lesbian or gay character, or single parent household.[21] In this sense we can see a compulsion towards replication which emerges within diverse areas around the queer subject; for example, Stychin speaks of how immigration laws in certain sites have granted recognition of same-sex couples as an extension of an ‘idealized model of heterosexual romance, centred upon monogamy, cohabitation, and extreme interdependency.’[22] Within the texts it is clear that representations of gender intersect with homonormativity in significant ways;[23] most obviously, the same-sex couples tend to inhabit a butch-fem binary. Simultaneously there seems to be a sort of overcompensation of heterosexual identity throughout many of the texts, elevated through rituals such as a wedding anniversary in My Two Uncles and the (second) coupling of the Page and Princess from Greenland in King and King. Daddy’s Roommate contains an intriguing narrative twist; the forlorn child-narrator and shocked-looking mother watch through the family home’s window as daddy leaves to live with his new male roommate and enjoy domestic bliss. Whilst the narrative unfolds to document the weekend activities they share it is left to the mother to explain the situation and sexuality to the child; improbably, she does so through hyper-idealised representations, whilst smiling reassuringly, cooking and sporting a ‘World’s Best Mom’ apron.

Not dissimilarly, My Two Uncles is told from the perspective of a young girl called Elly, who has two gay uncles. The point of disrupture occurs not in the sexuality of the uncles – which Elly accepts unquestioningly – but in her grandfather’s judgements of his son; significantly it is not the son that he refuses to accept but Phil, his son’s partner of five years. Here we are offered an idealised presentation of an extended (heterosexual) family unit (two parents and their daughter living with grandparents) replete with an ‘American dream’ lifestyle. The central event of the text is the grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, and the uncles’ exclusion from it. My Two Uncles abounds with traditional, heteropatriarchal representations of gender and familial roles. Elly’s unspeaking mother is never shown without some domestic accessory in her hands, and indeed seems to be constantly bringing or preparing food. Along with the grandmother both women are relegated to the domestic sphere and the action of the story occurs outside of it, spurred mainly by Elly’s father. The grandmother only speaks twice, significantly on the final page, where she shows a more accepting attitude than the grandfather. Concurrently the grandfather personifies patriarchal rule; he decides who attends the family party, and it is his self-described ’stubborn’ refusal to accept Phil as part of that family that causes the textual rupture.

Interestingly, the child-narrator, Elly, is initially shown as androgynous. Her representation is only consolidated as gendered at the moment of celebration of the heterosexual wedding anniversary; here her appearance takes on gendered markers (dress, flowers in hair) which signal a definitive shift from previous pages. As the gay characters have been banished from this celebration, it is tempting to read this shift as a child’s coming to gender/ed representation through the forced invisibility of queer bodies.

Secondly the culture presented is very much a white, middle-class one in terms of leisure, lifestyle and consumer habits. In all the books I examined the child characters had at least one home – in the case of separated biological parents, such as in Daddy’s Roommate, the child splits his time between two properties, which appear to be upper-middle class ones in every way. This is most visible in the example of My Two Uncles; the uncles’ Manhattan apartment has a room just for art, their visible disposable income is spent on theatre trips, and the grandparents employ workers; these faceless men provide the anonymous labour behind the party and their anonymity masks the economic relations buried within the narrative.

An emphasis on private, domestic leisure-time was also noticeable; Chapman says of Daddy’s roommate

of the five illustrations which show the two men physically and emotionally together, only one occurs outdoors … almost exclusive private expression of love may reinforce, for some, the fact that their intimate lives cannot be exhibited in the public eye.[24]

Across sixteen texts this tendency emerged more widely. 56% of all the illustrations were set indoors in contrast to the 37% that took place in outdoor settings (note that 7% of illustrations were N/A to this kind of analysis). Overall, the books that I examined seem to subdue same-sex families under an inherently monolithic representation of lesbian and gay culture, where the characters ‘live in houses and engage in activities that may not be the experiences of children from lower/middle class families.’[25] I would go further than Chapman in suggesting that the families represented in my sample were overwhelmingly, undeniably, monied. Many of the characters have cars and the adults, when presented in work mode or clothes, are often suited professionals. Perhaps this monied representation continues the depiction of queer subjects found across contemporary medias. For example, Burns and Davies analyse lesbian sexuality and politics in popular lesbian series The L Word as

first and foremost constructed through their investments in certain neoliberal consumer and lifestyle practices that limit the possibility of what lesbian subjectivities and/or politics can or cannot do … subject matter is always mediated within a storyline and setting that idealize and normalize elite and exclusive consumptive practices.[26]

Further, if we look at the books inside the books as visual signifiers, we are offered a view into dominant medias of contemporary queer culture. In Spacegirl Pukes a version of middle-class, wealthy, queer ‘high’ culture emerges; the family cat is called Trotsky, the mothers are reading Diva and The New Scientist; in Daddy’s Roommate we see the characters reading Time magazine, visiting Janus Theatre, and engaging in spontaneous opera sessions around a piano.

Markers of high culture in Spacegirl Pukes. Art used with permission from Onlywomen Press and Vanda Carter

The dominance of whiteness with queer culture and media is particularly evident within the texts that I explored; out of the sixteen texts there was an overwhelmingly whitewashed representation of queer subjects. Of the adults illustrated 89% were white and only 11% were black (including a 0.32% of Asian or other non-white characters). Of the children represented in these same texts 16% were not white (including 1.3% comprised of one Chinese child); the remaining 84% were Caucasian. Although it must be noted that the texts illustrated by Vanda Carter are refreshingly mixed in terms of racial representations, taken as a whole the texts remain overwhelmingly white, (perhaps reflecting the tendencies of dominant queer culture to read queer as white and render non-white as rigidly heterosexual). In Mom and Mum are getting married, for example, we are offered a view of a homonormative lesbian marriage; the book is populated with all white characters, save one anonymous black guest in the penultimate scene. Further the cultural frameworks which scaffold the texts are invariably Euro-American. Whilst If I had a Hundred Mummies moves towards a more balanced representation of race amongst the multiple mothers (and doesn’t presume shared sexual-identity between them) in its vivid illustrations the linguistic mélange reveals this representation remains firmly situated within a Eurocentric linguistic community.

Eurocentric languages in If I had a Hundred Mummies. Art used with permission from Onlywomen Press and Vanda Carter.

From a biopolitical vantage point Puar suggests that queerness can function as a ‘regulatory queer ideal that demarcates the ideal queer.’[27] Within the children’s texts I examined this seems a particularly resonant assertion. The idealisations of narrative, of characters, of family and of life itself is perhaps a crucial aspect of traditional children’s literature[28] yet as repeatedly inscribed idealisations, it is hard not to see them as regulated and even, as regulatory. Whilst the sexual identities of the characters are self-consciously non-normative, their representations may be seen as what Puar calls an ‘orientation of regulatory transgression’ which in turn serves to demarcate who is, and who is not, suitable for queer subjecthood with overtly racialized undertones.[29] If ‘queer operates as an alibi for complicity with all sorts of other identity norms,’[30] we find multiple narratives at play within, behind and propagated through such seemingly innocuous representations of lesbian and gay characters. There are scripts about nation states – who belongs where, and who doesn’t – about class – who makes it into the pages and what do they do once they arrive – and more, about the lifestyles and skin colours of queer subjects, and the identities of those who escape the fairytale of (re/productive) lesbian and gay subjecthood.

Queer tourism, jungles and adoption

In the sequel to King and King the newly-wed Kings take a royal honeymoon. I would like to discuss this representation briefly considering the lines of invisibility mentioned above. [31] They embark (on what looks like a private plane) to a place described tellingly as ‘the jungle’. The presentation of their adventures is reminiscent of eighteenth century European anthropological missions, though their ‘mission’ is only unravelled after they return to their palace. Two main points are obvious; first, the narrative is very much weighted towards their relationship, their desires to reproduce and their observations that all the animals have children, but they do/can/will not. Second, their honeymoon destination is depicted as nothing more than a backdrop for this desire; not only is the jungle unnamed, but they appear to be the only humans in it; although this monofocus may arguably give young readers an easy storyline, the implications are far from innocuous.

Desire for reproduction in King and King and Family. Art used with permission from King & King & Family copyright © 2004 by Linda de Haan & Stern Nijland. Published by Tricycle Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York . All rights reserved.

Against the growing industry of queer tourism (and its centrality for constructions of classed queer subjects) this representation echoes the wilful blindness of much of

white queer activism and scholarship … [which] tend[s] to step over issues of race and class while naturalizing queerness as white and middle-class. Thus they facilitate middle-class white queers’ own participation in neocolonialist tourism and consumption and fail to question the implications of the eroticization of the exotic other in the queer community.’[32]

When the Kings return home they are surprised by what has journeyed back with them; it is a little girl; smiling, unnamed and perhaps predictably, brown skinned. She jumps out of the suitcase shouting ’surprise!’ They promptly adopt her and crown her Princess Daisy.

The 'surprise' adoption in King and King and Family. Art used with permission from King & King & Family copyright © 2004 by Linda de Haan & Stern Nijland. Published by Tricycle Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York . All rights reserved.

This adoption narrative is troubling not only because the move (from jungle to palace, from anonymous smuggled goods to legally recognised Princess) eludes the existence of the girl’s previous identity,[33] nationality, family and realities, but because of the element of surprise involved. Yngvesson suggests that crucial to international adoption is the sense that children are ‘not sold, but … given to other states in exchange for a donation of money.’[34] The two Kings appear as surprised as readers may be at the girl’s appearance, and economic aspects to the exchange are not mentioned overtly.[35]

Instead of the theme of chosen adoptees, King and King presents the girl as choosing, a presentation which effectively ignores the economic aspects of transnational adoption and blurs over the racial, political and geographical elements to this impossible choice. Yet the increasing popularity of transnational, international adoptions by homosexual, Euro-American couples includes ‘a transaction that creates an orderly (and hierarchical) relation of states to one another through the movement of valued resources (children) in adoption.’[36] Perhaps we can see Princess Daisy’s racial and cultural identity as sacrificed for the sake of the happy ending here, and for the fulfilment of the Kings’ desire to reproduce themselves and ‘(re)consolidate and (re)occupy conventional structures of family and kinship’;[37] yet in glossing over the multiple political inequalities within the narrative, we are reminded of a common trend within contemporary constructions of queer subjecthood, where white ontologies of queerness are promoted against otherized bodies and landscapes.[38]

If the compulsion to self-reproduce appears as an almost constant throughout the text (the Kings feel incomplete when looking around the unnamed jungle at other animal couples and their offspring) this trajectory is echoed in And Tango makes Three.[39]  When looking out of his window at a broody male penguin couple it occurs to the zookeeper Mr Gramsci to assist their desire for offspring. Crucially this scene is presented as he sits at his desk replete with photos of what looks like his own same-sex family; although based on a true story, this representation displays the human desire to anthropomorphize and stabilize itself through projections onto other species. We are not told of the adopted baby Tango’s birth mother; we are not given pause to mourn her absence as the whole narrative rushes forth to state ‘it takes two to make a Tango.’

In both texts ‘the given child constitutes the adoptive family as ”family,” almost as though no adoption had taken place at all.’[40] Perhaps this representation as absence (of biological mother) reflects what Rofes observes amongst gay male writers who ‘increasingly embrace a traditional morality that naturalizes, biologizes, or geneticizes both homosexuality and childhood … and reflects a longterm assimilationist trajectory.’[41]

Straightening out inheritances

It has long been argued that the institution of compulsory heterosexuality is intimately entwined with the (re)production of patriarchal control.[42] A foundation of this social order is the gender(ed) roles replayed within the heteropatriarchal family; a social unit where the ideal(ised) fusion of binaries (manifest in bodies maintained as opposite sexed) merge to re/produce and replicate themselves in children. Ahmed speaks of heterosexuality as an inheritance, as a gift which

produces the one who has received the gift as indebted and demands its endless return. Heterosexuality is imagined as the future of the child insofar as heterosexuality is idealized as a social gift and even as the gift of life itself.[43]

King and King contains one active female character; the Queen, mother of King Lee. Here we see the intergenerational exchange particularly clearly as heteronormativity forms the ‘horizon of social reproduction, which we could also describe as the intergenerational work of family history’ taking a ’social form’ in a mothers’ urge for the son to marry a woman.[44] The issue of inheritance is particularly visible in this text, as the Queen literally demands to be able to pass on her duties as ruler to her son, prompting her insistence that he married. She ‘had ruled for many long years and she was tired of it. She made up her mind that the Prince would marry and become King before the end of the summer.’ Amongst the reasons given for this necessity, the Queen speaks in collage fragments, including ‘it is of utmost importance to care for marrying … [it] create[s] happiness … [have a] dream wedding … [as] I do it for you.’ The dutiful meek Prince agrees but adds the caveat ‘I must say, though, I’ve never cared much for Princesses.’ The Queen appears not to hear, arranges for Princesses from across the globe to come so that, in classical fairytale style, the Prince can choose a wife. He doesn’t, until Prince Lee arrives; ‘it was love at first sight’ between them, they promptly got married in church and became known as King and King. Crucially, the Queen’s desire to pass on her role and rule is generally satiated. Her views on the Prince’s choice are not manifest (although the wording of the observation ’she even shed a tear or two’ at the wedding is cause for wonder at the ‘even’) and the text concludes with ‘the Queen finally got some time for herself. And everyone lives happily ever after.’

It is worth noting that the Queen’s desire to reproduce the royal line through heterosexuality is fulfilled, almost, through another relationship featured in the King and King narrative, between the Prince’s Page and a ‘funny little Princess from Greenland.’ She enters the story as a prospective bride for the Prince, is not chosen, but rapidly couples with the King’s Page. The Princess and the Page instantly replace the Prince/King/Kings alongside the Queen; they sit with the Kings on the final happily-ever-after spread and appear again on the title page of the sequel, next to the Queen with the Page resting a reassuring hand on the Queen’s shoulder as her son leaves for his honeymoon. What are we to make of this heterosexual union when read against the Queen’s desire for reproduction? As the second relationship within the text, it is tempting to read the union of the Page and the Princess as a partial, delegated fulfilment of the Queen’s desire for heteronormative reproduction. Indeed, their omnipresence alongside the Queen following the Kings’ marriage hints that their union does in fact contain the potential resolution of the textual disruption caused by the queering desires of the Kings. From the Queen’s perspective the (surrogate) heterosexual family unit is not challenged, it is simply enlarged. (Perhaps the narrative takes a queerer twist with its second happy-ending, where the Kings smuggle a little girl back from the jungle; the Queen appears far from ecstatic yet the Page and Princess are reassuringly present for that event too).

The ‘funny little Princess from Greenland,’ may tell the tale differently. Once upon a time she (presumably) had a name, travelled to a distant Kingdom at a strange Queen’s request and was rejected as a suitable mate for the Prince. When the Page does ‘chose’ her (quite a significant social step down, one would image, from Queen to Page’s wife), her feelings about this rejection/conciliatory chosenness and her desire are unwrit; yet her absorption into the royal family is (semi)complete. As for her autonomy, she leaves her family, her name and her families’ name; she is a chattel in a virilocal exchange, fulfils the intergenerational desire for reproduction, and bites her tongue in the name of a happy ending.[45]

Heterosexual union straightens out the queerness of the King and King narrative. Art used with permission from King & King & Family copyright © 2004 by Linda de Haan & Stern Nijland. Published by Tricycle Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York . All rights reserved

Troubling the queer family

In conclusion, it seems that in the sample of children’s literature that I explored, a very definitive version of the queer family emerges; it is coupled, monied, depoliticised, middle-class, identified through consumption capabilities and above all, is represented as overwhelmingly white. Furthermore this ideal/ized version of family is firmly located within dominant terrains of contemporary queer culture; it engages in middle-class leisure and lifestyle pursuits, glosses over multiple lines of difference and abounds with heteronormative trappings whilst furthering an explicit form of homonormativity. Pallotta-Chiarolli recounts her daughter’s childhood, stating that

to be ”queerly raised” is to be in motion … shifting and sliding, negotiating and maneuvering, between and within ”lifeworlds”… these sociocultural constructs and sites are based on categories such as gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. To be ”queerly raised” is to interrogate the taken – for – grantedness of such fixed categories and the way society divides people into ”normal” and abnormal,” ”natural” and unnatural.”[46]

It seems that the sample of children’s books I examined are aeons away from being queerly raising; yet perhaps this is merely reflective of the contemporary queer ambience where ‘popular discussions of queerness are … not so very queer at all. Assimilation is in; queerness is out.’[47] How do off-page queer families fit into this, and just as urgently, who is rewrit as not fitting in within these turns? Returning to Leslea Newman’s remark ‘we’ve come a long, long way,’ it is perhaps necessary to add, ‘from the original goal/s of queer politics.’ Ironically, as Stacey and Davenport as note, ‘[t]hose who first broke down the tightly secured door of the closet, spilling its content all over the floor never imagined they might be clearing the way for a new culture of domesticity.[48]

This is not a question of the desirability of assimilation or even domestic normalizations, especially within literature intentionally produced for young readers. Instead it is an issue of the very positionalities of contemporary queer subjects in societies which remain stubbornly heteronormative and which, in turn, may reinscribe existing social hierarchies of race, class and gender onto queer bodies.


I am grateful to Ben Pitcher and the reviewers of darkmatter for their insightful comments, and am indebted to Roz Hall, Henry Rogers and Qurra-Tul-Anne Naqvi for their ongoing support of my tangents. This research wouldn’t have been possible without the critical input of Piran Jupiter; this one’s for you. Images 1 and 2 are used with permission from Onlywomen Press and Vanda Carter. Images 3, 4 and 5 are used with permission from King & King & Family copyright © 2004 by Linda de Haan & Stern Nijland. Published by Tricycle Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.


1. Leslea Newman and Diana Souza, Heather Has Two Mommies, rev. ed. (New York: Alyson Books, 2009) 31. [↑]

2. Sandra Chapman’s invaluable annotated bibliography lists 26 books; there are clearly multiple threads preventing these books from reaching public libraries and booksellers in Britain, when only two are available. Sandra Chapman, ‘Annotated Bibliography of Children’s Books With Gay and Lesbian Characters Resources for Early Childhood Educators and Parents,’ GLSEN, (1997) [↑]

3. Eric Rofes, ‘Innocence, Perversion, and Heather’s Two Mommies,’ Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity. 3.1 (1998): 5. The move from queer as death to queer as re/productive has been creatively recast by the recent ‘antisocial turn’ in queer theory. Most notably, Edelman questions the symbolic place of the child within all political rhetorics whilst imagining the ‘rejection of futurity as the meaning of queer critique and links queer theory to the death drive in order to propose a relentless form of negativity in place of the forward looking, reproductive and heteronormative politics of hope that animates all too many political projects.’ Judith Halberstam, ‘The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies,’ Graduate Journal of Social Science, 5.2 (2008): 141. See also Lee Edelman, No future: queer theory and the death drive, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). [↑]

4. Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) xiii-xiv. [↑]

5. Exploring children’s books from different literary periods, Thacker insists upon the benefits of reading and analysing children’s literature within its historic contexts, showcasing a methodology that enriches our understanding of the texts in question and further, the socio-political environments of the literature movements that they grew out of. She criticises the assumption amongst literary critics that children’s literature is a completely distinct genre which ‘can be separated from mainstream concerns’, and suggests such a separating attitude ‘undermines the importance of these texts and their place within literary history.’ Deborah Thacker, ‘Introduction,’ in Introducing children’s literature: from Romanticism to Postmodernism, eds. Deborah Thacker and Jean Webb, (London: Routledge, 2002) 2. [↑]

6.  Puar, xiv. [↑]

7. Judith Butler in Queering the color line: race and the invention of homosexuality in American culture, Siobhan Somerville, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) 145; see also Gavin Brown, Kath Browne, and Jason Lim., ‘Introduction, or Why Have a Book on geographies of Sexualities?’ in Geographies of Sexualities: Theory, Practices and Politics, eds. Gavin Brown et. al., (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2009). [↑]

8. Dana Collins, ‘We’re there and queer” Homonormative Mobility and Lived Experience amon Gay Expatriates in Manila,’ in The Kaleidoscope of Gender: Prisms, Patterns, and Possibilities, eds. Joan Spade and Catherine Valentine, (California: Pine Forge Press, 2010) 126. [↑]

9. Anna Agathangelou, Daniel Bassichis and Tamara Spira, ‘Intimate Investments: Homonormativity, Global Lockdown, and the Seductions of Empire,’ Radical History Review, 100, (2008) 124. [↑]

10. Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon 2004), 50. [↑]

11. Many children’s picture books focus on anthropomorphic animal characters, and intentionally queer samples are no different; although I refer briefly to And Tango Makes Three, I do not include these books within my sample as they make it difficult to say anything meaningful about class, ethnicity or representations of identity. Within a more exhaustive study these texts would be very relevant. [↑]

12. The sixteen books I examined closely are: Leslea Newman and Diana Souza, Heather Has Two Mommies, rev. ed. (New York: Alyson Books, 2009); Vanda Carter, If I had a Hundred Mummies, (London: Onlywomen Press, 2007); Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, King & King, (California: Tricycle Press, 2002); Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland, King & King & family, (California: Tricycle Press, 2004);  Nancy Garden and Sharon Wooding, Molly’s family, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004); Ann Heron and Meredith Maran, How would you feel if your dad was gay? (California: Alyson Wonderland, 1994); Leslea Newman, Belinda’s bouquet, (California: Alyson Wonderland, 1991); Leslea Newman, Gloria goes to Gay Pride, (California: Alyson Wonderland, 1991); Jane Severance and Tea Schook, When Megan went away, (Durham: Lollipop Power, 1979); Ken Setterington and Alice Priestly, Mom and Mum are getting married! (Toronto: Second Story Press, 2004); Johnny Valentine, The Duke who outlawed jelly beans, (California: Alyson Wonderland, 1993); Johnny Valentine, The Daddy Machine, (Los Angeles: Alyson Wonderland, 2004); Judith Vigna, My Two Uncles, (Illinois: Albert Whitman and Company, 1995); Kathy Watson and Vanda Carter, Spacegirl Pukes, (London: Onlywomen Press, 2006);  Michael Willhoite, Daddy’s roommate, (California: Alyson Wonderland, 1991); Michael Willhoite, Uncle What-is-it is coming to visit!! (California: Alyson Wonderland, 1993). It is worth noting that the books themselves were challenging to get hold of. Public library searches in large UK cities proved less than fruitful; although Heather had two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate are apparently held by these libraries, the others are, I was told repeatedly, not even on the system. (Birmingham library has almost a whole floor housing children’s literature, yet only two of the books feature non-heterosexual families). Further, British bookseller Waterstones has an encouraging range displayed via its online shop, yet in (the largest bookshop in Europe) Waterstones at Picadilly, not one graced its shelves. I thus resorted to online bookseller Amazon; this resorting is telling of numerous untold journeys of parents and careers who have made similar searches and turned, or not turned, to consumption as a remedy. My difficulty in accessing these books is partially explained by the fact that they are predominantly published by small, US publishers, yet their near-absence from large British libraries raises questions about the significance of their existence (as a genre) at all. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer of Darkmatter for pointing this out. Considering how the texts reaffirm emerging homormativities it is interesting that these books are not more widely available in the UK; perhaps the absence of these books in public libraries further proves the place of class and economics within homornomative paradigms. [↑]

13. Jin Haritaworn, ‘Loyal Repetitions of the Nation: Gay Assimilation and the ‘War on Terror,” darkmatter, 3 (2008): [↑]

14. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, (Routledge: Oxon, 2002) 134. [↑]

15. Michael Clifford, Political genealogy after Foucault: Savage Identities, (New York: Routledge, 2001) 30. [↑]

16. Ibid. [↑]

17. Kevin Kumashiro ‘Reading Queer Asian American Masculinities and Sexualities in Elementary School,’ in Queering elementary education: advancing the dialogue about sexualities and schooling, eds. William Letts and James Sears, (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 68. [↑]

18. Christine Jenkins, ‘Young adult novels with gay/lesbian characters and themes 1969-92: A historical reading of content, gender and narrative distance,’ Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, Fall. (1993): 46. [↑]

19. Laurel Clyde, ‘School libraries and social responsibility: support for special groups and issues – the case of homosexuality,’ (paper presented at World Library and Information Congress, Berlin, Germany, August 1-9, 2003), 5. See also Marjorie Lobban and Laurel Clyde, Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom: Homosexuality in Books for Young People, (Victoria: DW Thorpe,1996) 19; Elizabeth Rowell, ‘Missing! Picture Book Reflecting Gay and Lesbian Families,’ Beyond the Journal, (2007) Rowell.pdf. [↑]

20. Chapman, 14. [↑]

21. Although When Megan went away deals with the separation of a lesbian family, it takes the coupled lesbian characters as its premise. [↑]

22. Carl Stychin, ‘A Stranger to its Laws’: Sovereign Bodies, Global Sexualities, and Transnational Citizens,’ in Journal of Law and Society, 27.4 (2000): 615-618. [↑]

23. Representations of gendered identity and behaviour and the fetishisation of certain queer bodies within the texts requires a fuller exploration than is possible here. [↑]

24. Chapman, 12. [↑]

25. Chapman, 1. [↑]

26. Kelly Burns and Christine Davies, ‘Producing Cosmopolitan Sexual Citizens on The L Word,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies, 13.2 (2009): 176. [↑]

27. Puar, 22. [↑]

28. Although arguably fidelity to fairytale happy – endings render the texts themselves far from postmodern. Webb speaks of the archetypical postmodern fairy tale as containing a ’sense of narrative unpredictability… comic twists, linguistic play, and the awareness of language and form typical of postmodernism.’ Jean Webb, ‘A postmodern reflection of the genre of fairy tale: ”The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,”’ in Thacker and Webb, 160. This raises an intriguing paradox; we see the decidedly postmodern subject self-representing queer identity through more traditional narrative structures and functionings, perhaps in a gesture toward stability? [↑]

29. Puar, 24. [↑]

30. Ibid. [↑]

31. Although royalty is of course a peculiarly unrepresentative trope of most of the world, this narrative does span multiple themes related to the emergence of the ideal/ized queer subject, such as wealth, consumption, queer tourism, queer/able nations and transnational adoption. [↑]

32. Dereka Rushbrook, ‘Cities, Queer Space, and the Cosmopolitan Tourist,’ GLQ, 8.1-2 (2002): 199. See also Ian Barnard, Queer Race: Cultural Interventions into the Racial Politics of Queer Theory, (New York: Peter Hang Publishers, 2004). [↑]

33. Seemingly such omissions are common to children’s books that deal with adoption; typically the birth mother is not portrayed at all. See Susan Ayres, ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: How Children’s Literature Reflects Motherhood, Identity, and International Adoption,’ Tex. Wesleyan L. Review, 10 (2004): 333. [↑]

34. Barbara Yngvesson, ‘Placing the Gift Child in Transnational Adoption,’ Law & Society Review, 36 (2002): 237. [↑]

35. Significantly the collage backdrop to the adoption scene is composed of an English – language newspaper article about multinationals relocating to China. Perhaps here readers are unwittingly offered proof of how ‘gay white patriarchies [may] coexist with, and in some cases displace, heteronormative patriarchies, shoring up pre-existing racialized and politically and economically conservative processes of profit-accumulation’. Heidi Nast, ‘Queer Patriarchies, Queer Racisms, International,’ Antipode, 34.5 (2002): 878. [↑]

36. Yngvesson, 237. [↑]

37. David Eng, ‘Transnational Adoption and Queer Diasporas,’ in Love’s return: psychoanalytic essays on childhood, teaching, and learning, eds. Gail Boldt and Paula Salvio (New York: Routledge), 114. [↑]

38. If European anthropologists and travel writings from the New World ‘established the female body … as a recurrent emblem of native savagery and monstrosity, to be wondered at as one of the many astounding ‘resources’ of the world beyond Europe,’ the King and King narrative forecasts a particularly disturbing trajectory; for we are shown not only a people-less jungle but one that produces smiling, and willing, children as commodities for queer travellers, and the ‘jungle’ itself is rewritten as a disembodied womb. See Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, ‘Postscript: Bodies, Genders, Empires: Reimagining World Histories,’ in Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, eds. Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 405. [↑]

39. Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole, And Tango makes three, (London: Simon and Schuster Books, 2005). [↑]

40. Yngvesson, 235. [↑]

41. Rofes, 20. [↑]

42. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Barale and David Halperin, (New York: Routledge, 1993), 228. [↑]

43. Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) 86. [↑]

44. Ahmed, 83-84. [↑]

45. Whilst the Princess’s actions could also be read as containing class-transgressive elements, the lack of agency offered to her within the narrative renders such a reading difficult. As their union is driven solely by the Page’s desire for her, perhaps it is the Page, after all, who is truly queering the social hierarchies of the royal family. [↑]

46. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli ”’My Moving Days”: A Child’s negotiation of Multiple Lifeworlds in Relation to Gender, Ethnicity, and Sexuality,’ in Queering elementary education: advancing the dialogue about sexualities and schooling, eds. William Letts and James Sears, (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 71. [↑]

47. Margaret Breen and Warren Blumenfeld, et al, ”’There Is a Person Here”: An Interview with Judith Butler,’ International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 6.1-2 (2001): 7. [↑]

48. Judith Stacey and Elizabeth Davenport, ‘Queer Families Quack Back., in Handbook of lesbian and gay studies, eds. Diane Richardson and Steven Seidman, (London: SAGE, 2002) 365. [↑]

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Dervla Shannahan has an MA in Islamic studies and an MA in queer studies from Birmingham City University. Her research interests include Islam, feminist theologies, queer studies and the politics of representation/s. She is currently unemployed but does have a gorgeous piano.
All posts by: Dervla Shannahan | Email

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2 Responses »

  1. Just wanted to say that this is a great piece, Dervla :) I really enjoyed the nuanced nature of your analysis and hope that parents/authors/communities take heed of your findings. I have been tinkering around the edges of critiquing similar books (as a white gay parent myself) and really do hope that it results in books that actually do a better job of representing queer families, as well as of course exploring the whiteness of mainstream queer parenting. Some of my stuff has appeared previously in darkmatter (touching on similar issues of adoption, queerness, and whiteness), and another paper specifically on race, sexuality and these books has appeared in journal of GLBT family studies ( I look forward to reading more of your work in the future :)

  2. This is a great article. As a lesbian parent I think there should be more books out there that deal with these issue’s. I have a copy of “King and King” and I will certainly go back and re-read it after reading this article.

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