The Bookseller – Comment – Save the children: how Section 28 is still threatening LBGTQ+ books

If you live in the UK and were born before 1991, as I was, you may have gone your entire school career believing that LGBTQ+ people simply didn’t exist. Section 28 made mentioning queer people in a classroom illegal. Had they grown up then, my daughters would not have been able to talk about their two mums, a confused and questioning queer teenager would not have been able to go to a teacher for advice and homophobic bullying in school would have been almost impossible for faculty to deal with.

This pernicious and damaging law was finally abolished in 2003, but it is impossible not to see echoes of it in news coming from the US, where Florida’s Senate has just passed a bill to ban discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools. Same-sex couples in the state believe the bill makes it impossible for their children to talk about their parents, and campaigners are warning the bill will marginalize LGBTQ+ youth processing their identity.

In the children’s space, I believe we have both a responsibility and a golden opportunity to genuinely influence attitudes. The stories we read when we’re young go on to inform our values ​​for life

It’s not only Florida, and this worrying trend has a particular impact on children’s literature.

In Kansas, books focusing on gender, race and feminism have been removed from school libraries. In Texas, state lawmaker Matt Krause has compiled a list of books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex” with a view to further investigation. The list includes Kaylynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead, a YA reimagining of the fairytale with a queer Black protagonist. Kaylynn told me: “I’m incredibly disheartened at the recent spate of anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment. Whether we are talking about banning books or discriminatory laws, it is clear that cruelty is the point. I am worried for the queer youth who are being endangered by these practices.”

But it couldn’t happen here, right? The Last Firefox, Lee Newberry’s brilliant book featuring a family with two dads is the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month. Harry Woodgate’s Beautiful Grandad’s Camper is on the retailer’s shortlist for Children’s Book of the Year. my own The Pirate Mums will be the CBeebies bedtime story on Red Nose Day read by Sue Perkins.

That may all be true, but we learned this week that bigotry and homophobia when it comes to what some gatekeepers deem as “appropriate” for children is still alive and well in the UK. Noah Can’t Even and forthcoming gay-club author Simon James Green revealed that he had school events canceled due to their queer content being “not in line with Catholic education and … contrary to the ethos of our school and to the teachings of the Church”, a decision driven by the local Southwark Archdiocese which has funding links to the schools. The news was greeted with outrage and an outpouring of support from the industry and well beyond, but the fact that a queer author’s school events can be canceled due to homophobia, in London, in 2022 is shocking. It goes hand in hand, perhaps, with the trolling that I and other authors of books for children which feature LGBTQ+ representation have received, and with the frankly terrifying Home Office figures that reveal homophobic hate crimes have doubled in just four years.

So what can we, as writers and publishers do? Particularly in the children’s space, I believe we have both a responsibility and a golden opportunity to genuinely influence attitudes. The stories we read when we’re young go on to inform our values ​​for life: if we show children that queer people can be the stars of those stories, they will take that knowledge with them as they grow into adults. As book marketer, host of “Down the Rabbit Hole” podcast and queer lit activist Charlie Morris pointed out this week, straight people who continue to carry the attitude, even subconsciously, that queerness shouldn’t be spoken about or is ‘adult’, is a Section 28 hangover: it comes in part from the fact that when estos adults were growing up they didn’t see LGBTQ+ people.

We can change that, by seeking out and continuing to publish LGBTQ+ voices and by ensuring we properly promote books that feature queer representation. We can find and write stories where characters’ sexuality isn’t always something they’re struggling with or an issue – it’s just incidental, as much part of their personality as a liking for ice cream or a talent for sarcasm. I have worked with the Polari Prize, the UK’s only prize for queer literature, to launch a children’s and YA prize for just this reason: to shine a light on kids’ books with LGBTQ+ representation with the aim of achieving better discoverability and getting them more attention and I hope we will receive submissions from across the children’s publishing industry.

In this country, Section 28 may be a thing of the past, but the books we publish have the power to create a more accepting and equal future.

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