When I was a little boy growing up in the Midwest, the closest thing I had to a queer media role model – besides Bert and Ernie – was Ferdinand, the flower-sniffing, cork-tree-shade-sitting, hoop-earring-wearing, Spanish bull who refused to participate in the bullfights. Ferdy wasn’t overtly gay in any way – in fact, many people thought he wasn’t even a bull, but simply a pacifist metaphor, drafted in opposition to Franco’s ascendance – but I distinctly remember sitting on the floor of my room, reading the story, and feeling a connection with his bovine alienation.
My parents were remarkably accepting. They encouraged my love of cooking and hatred of team sports, and allowed me to dress as a girl for Halloween. And so while I’m not sure that I (or my folks) would have identified with a kids’ book that was intentionally meant to delineate my difference, some of the other boys and girls at my elementary school certainly could have used a lesson in tolerating those of us who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles, something a bit stronger than Rosie Greer singing “It’s Alright to Cry” on Free to Be You and Me.
This need was further enunciated when I started teaching preschool in the early ’90s. I found such a paucity of gay characters in children’s literature then – my choice was between the hammer-headed polemicism of Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson Wonderland, 1989) and the outmoded showtune clich’s of Daddy’s Roomate (Alyson Wonderland, 1991) – that when I read stories to the kids at the school I ran in Manhattan’s East Village, I often used to change the genders of one of the protagonists so the book was about two male elephants or two female crows flirting or falling in with one another.
I didn’t do this to be cute, or even to reflect the realities of my staff (about two-thirds of whom were queer), but because I noticed just how boringly hetero-normative so many of the books we read were – ending with opposite gender pairings and weddings as their solutions – and wanted the kids to have an incidental alternative to all of this, one that didn’t make a “problem” or “issue” out of our human range of sexuality, but simply embraced it as a normal part of life. Sometimes, I even skipped the ending altogether.
However, with the recent bigoted efforts to restrict who can participate in matrimonial bliss, if I were still in the classroom today, I might be prone to leave these gender-morphed endings in. Better yet, I might just read some of the recently published picture books that cover this very topic.