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Same-Sex Marriage: "Out of the Question" for Children's Literature?

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Within the next few months, the UK government is going to hold a consultation about civil marriage for same-sex couples and, later this year, a new US president will be elected, which may end up changing the laws for same-sex marriage in that country.

At the moment, the US allows gay marriage in some states, but it's a tricky political issue that may affect who voters choose in November. The UK, meanwhile, has the separate and unequal institution of same-sex civil partnerships, which can be considered something of a booby prize because it is not exactly the same as marriage and is perceived as a way of avoiding offending heterosexual people who feel that gay marriage might somehow devalue straight marriage (as if divorce and adultery don't already do that; one could also point out that there are fewer gay couples who dissolve their civil partnerships than there are straight couples who divorce).

More countries around the world now allow gay marriage, so it seems as though same-sex marriage is becoming a more accepted phenomenon. But do young LGBTQ people see it as an option? According to books for children and young adults, the answer is no.

Robin Reardon, who has written several YA novels with gay male protagonists, has her main character, Jason, in A Secret Edge consider gay marriage. He thinks, "I've never given [marriage] much thought before. But now--I guess it's out of the question for me. I mean, you hear about two guys getting married, sort of, but it seems a little far-fetched to me. And suddenly a lot of things most people take for granted seem a little far-fetched for me. Living with someone you love. Having kids."

Jason's sad ponderings might make a reader pity gay people and their limited opportunities for a happy and fulfilling romantic relationship. Jason's uncle, who raised him, is sorely disappointed when he learns that his nephew is gay. He thinks, "No one should have to live like that. He'll be hated, ostracised. He won't be able to marry or have children."

Like Jason's uncle, Liza's father in Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind worries about what being gay will mean for his daughter. Although not as disgusted by her lesbianism as some of her teachers are, Liza's father says that he doesn't want this for her, because it will mean she can never marry or have children.

In most YA novels, the gay characters and their parents assume that marriage is, as Jason put it, "out of the question". One young character bucks the trends by realising that there are ceremonies for gay people. In Maureen Johnston's The Bermudez Triangle, Avery thinks about her girlfriend, "What if Mel wanted to get married and have a commitment ceremony and play Ani DiFranco and k.d. lang songs and have cats as bridesmaids? That would be great for Mel, but it just wasn't something Avery could picture. The thought scared her. A lot."

While it's great to see that there's some recognition that there are opportunities for gay couples to show their commitment to one another, this passage stereotypically mocks what lesbians are like (cat-mad avid Ani DeFranco-listeners) and also suggests that the idea of a ceremony isn't too appealing.

Well, maybe teenagers are frightened of the thought of marriage. Maybe it seems like too big of a step for them. That's fair enough. If they view it as something that only older people do, perhaps picture books for young readers would be more likely to feature gay marriage, because the LGBTQ characters in these works tend to be parents rather than the children themselves.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the answer either. If you look at preeminent queer writer for children Lesléa Newman's oeuvre of picture books (including Mommy, Mama, and Me; Daddy, Papa, and Me; and Heather Has Two Mommies), you won't find any marriages.

Similarly, other LGBTQ picture books, such as Michael Willhoite's Daddy's Roommate - which relies on the euphemism of "roommate" rather than employing "boyfriend", "partner", or, heaven forbid, "husband" - and Hedi Argent's Josh and Jaz Have Three Mums, don't seem to consider the possibility that the two mothers or two fathers could actually be wife-and-wife or husband-and-husband.

One of the few picture books to feature gay marriage is Ken Setterington's Mom and Mum are Getting Married. The story here is about how Mom and Mum just want a small ceremony while their daughter Rosie wants to be the flower girl in a big event. It's a refreshing change to see a picture book normalise gay marriage and show a gay couple making a legal commitment.

In books for children and young adults, the idea of same-sex marriage is either non-existent or is treated as ludicrous and impossible.

However, 2012 might turn out to be the year for gay marriage in the UK, the US and elsewhere. Will picture books and YA novels catch up with the times and start showing LGBTQ young people that marriage is an institution that is in fact open to them?

One could argue that authors reflect society to a certain extent within their writing and if young people are taught to believe that marriage is not an option for gay people, there is actually little incentive for a government's policies to change. Regardless of whether it's up to the authors or the politicians to take the first step, the solution is clear: legalise gay marriage and portray it in books for children and young adults. It needn't be "out of the question" any more.

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