We’ve done it folks! We successfully promoted our own ‘Gay Agenda’ to reach the youngest and most vulnerable in society: the children. With solid confirmation that our mascots, Bert and Ernie, have been living in delicious sin for years, we can all rejoice in the levels of corruption that our youth will now be exposed to when they turn on their televisions or open their favourite books. At least, that’s what some people think.
For those us in the know, or simply those of us who never cared about questions of sexuality and identity, this is nothing new or revolutionary. Having Bert and Ernie confirmed as a same-sex couple, only cements the rumours that have been around for decades but had never been addressed by the showrunners until now. Being an LGBT person is not new; however, acknowledging it is, and acknowledging that two beloved children’s characters from when your parents were children fall under the rainbow umbrella, is what has caused such an outcry. If anti-LGBT groups have to acknowledge that they had gay role models growing up, that means they also have to acknowledge that it’s not a new fad with children today.
This generation of children, those born after the year 2000, have many role models in both television and media that identify as LGBT. Examples such as Korra in the popular spin-off series Avatar: The Legend of Korra, gave young viewers a point of reference that acknowledged and validated bisexuality, a sexuality that is typically less visible in media. In the popular Japanese manga series Wandering Son, the character Makoto Ariga is a straight trans woman, further helping children to distinguish sexual orientation from gender identity. In the award-winning Cartoon Network series, Steven Universe, the character of Stevonnie, a fusion of Steven and Connie creates, as Rebecca Sugar puts it: “the living relationship between Steven and Connie.” Stevonnie familiarises young audiences with gender neutral pronouns they/them to refer to non-gender conforming or non-binary people.
There is little doubt that having characters represented so openly has an impact on its audience. An American survey, carried out in 2015 by YouGov, reported that 31% of people questioned described themselves as “not 100% heterosexual” on the Kinsey scale, a scale between 1 and 5, where 1 represents as totally heterosexual and 5 denotes…... This survey was soon followed by a similar study carried out in the UK by YouGov’s British counterpart. The results show that 49% of 18-24 year-olds surveyed identified as something other than 100% heterosexual. “The results for 18-24 year-olds are particularly striking, as 43% place themselves in the non-binary area between 1 and 5.”
In young adult literature, there is no shortage of LGBT characters for teenagers and those experiencing puberty to idolise. Take, for instance, Simon vs. The Homosapien Agenda, a book which took the tried and tested “protagonist experiences feelings of love for the first time” and used that formula on a gay male character. But this novel is marketed at older readers currently addressing questions about sexuality and leaning more towards the act of sex over what it means to identify as an LGBT person. Another reason that LGBT characters can be readily found in young adult literature, is often because the protagonist finds themselves at odds with the society or world in which they find themselves. This correlates to the feelings that young people experience when questioning who they are. It is also a historical parallel to the experiences of LGBT people in many parts of the world.
There is a historical trope in literature with LGBT characters known as the “bury your gays” trope. This staple of literature found that any character that pursued a same-sex relationship, must end up unhappy, or in extreme cases, die, so as not to promote the “homosexual lifestyle” among readers. This was a main factor in novels for children being devoid of any LGBT representation.
More recently, in children’s books, LGBT characters are addressed as the parents or friend of the family in the narrative. Novels such as the Captain Underpants series, revealed that their protagonist grows up to marry another man. This prepares children for the questions of identity they’ll face when they begin to experience puberty.
The move towards increasing visibility of LGBT people in children’s literature and media should be welcomed as a way to ease them into the transition from childhood to adulthood, with the ultimate goal of self-actualisation. To say having an openly LGBT character in a child’s life is a form of “oversexualising” the child, is grossly homophobic and potentially damaging to their development.