Advertisement
Op-ed

Representation matters: LGBTQ+ kids need to see themselves in media, know they aren’t alone | GUEST COMMENTARY

A student group based at Winter Park High in Orange County Florida and a local group opposed to book bans hold a rally in May outside the Orange County School Board office. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

I grew up with Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. I followed Ron and Hermione’s slow, but eventual, romantic relationship through the books. I pondered with Harry over which female classmate he would take to the dance, and I celebrated with him when he eventually found love with Ginny Weasley. Reading the Harry Potter novels and watching the movies, I shared in the characters’ experiences of growing up, yet I found my story diverging from theirs. I am gay, and they are not.

I make this point because of the anti-LGBTQ+ fervor occurring in libraries across the United States and its implication that stories of LGBTQ+ experiences will have a “queering” effect on the minds of children. I find this assumption slightly amusing, seeing that as a child, I never once read a novel or story featuring queer characters. My very identity and experiences as a gay man are in direct contrast with the assumption that queer media and stories brainwash the minds of heterosexual and cisgender youth. For generations, LGBTQ+ individuals have been forced to consume the cultural ideologies and norms of a society built to exclude our experiences purposefully, and it failed to alter me.

Advertisement

However, in recent years, I have become overjoyed to see our libraries setting up displays celebrating pride month. Seeing books featuring queer characters and authors sends a message to queer young people that they matter and that their stories deserve a place.

That makes the current attack on LGBTQ+ inclusive literature all the more disheartening, and it’s not just happening in less liberal states like Texas and Florida. In June, Frederick County Board of Education candidate Heather Fletcher took it upon herself to remove LGBTQ+ affirming books and pins from the Brunswick Public Library. When asked why, she responded that her actions were to preserve the safety and innocence of the kids.

Advertisement

However, if this ill-informed candidate knew the facts, she would know that the kids she really should be protecting are those who are just coming to terms with their gender and sexuality. Fletcher’s actions only create a more dangerous and toxic environment for LGBTQ+ young people, who now see political candidates attacking the identities and experiences of LGBTQ+ kids.

The truth is that LGBTQ+ youth need our help and support, and to be repeatedly reminded that they are not alone. Every 45 seconds, one LGBTQ+ young person attempts suicide, and more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth consider suicide at some point. We clearly need to do more to help LGBTQ+ young people survive and, in turn, thrive. This is among the reasons representation matters in literature. Thinking back to my youth, I wish I could have read stories about LGBTQ+ characters so that I could have at least felt like I wasn’t alone in being the only gay kid in class. I wish I had the opportunity to live in the stories, successes and happiness of queer characters, because, at that point in my life, all I knew was that who I was and what I felt shouldn’t exist.

Through that isolating experience, I have made it part of my life’s mission to create a better world for young LGBTQ+ people. As a child, I was alone, but today’s kids don’t have to be. Currently, I have the honor of serving as board chair for GLSEN Maryland, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group focusing on the needs of school-aged youth. And one of my greatest joys is supporting our Rainbow Library Initiative, which has provided free LGBTQ+ affirming and age-appropriate books to over 120 Maryland schools and continues to grow.

So, warning to the Heather Fletchers of Maryland: GLSEN Maryland will replace every book you take because we believe that representation in literature matters and that no child should ever feel alone in their experiences and identities.

Gregory Brightbill (GregoryBrightbillWrites@gmail.com) is chair of the board of GLSEN Maryland, Owner of BrightBaltimore LGBTQ+ consulting, and works at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.


Advertisement