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Out in the open – Why all students can benefit from better LGBTQ+ representation

Simon James Green explains why books containing portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters deserve a place in every school…

Simon James Green
by Simon James Green
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Never read the comments. That’s what I told myself as I scrolled through a news story in summer 2020, detailing how the BBC had received ‘hundreds’ of complaints following the portrayal of a same-sex kiss in the CBBC show The Next Step.

I’ve given talks and workshops about my LGBTQ+ YA books at many secondary schools over the last few years, and the one thing that I’ve always come away feeling is a sense of positivity – whether that’s due to teachers running lunchtime LGBTQ+ clubs, or libraries full of students who are totally cool about borrowing an ‘LGBT book’, regardless of their own sexuality. Had I been living in a bubble? Who were these ‘hundreds’ of complainants?

Then I read the comments.

Choose to be kind

They came from a predictable mix of people, spanning those who ‘Have no problem with LGBT, but do they have to keep going on about it all the time?’ to individuals who clearly thought they were a 1980s tabloid editor, essentially screaming, ‘GAY STUFF? CBBC? WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!

The thing is, by including LGBTQ+ rep in fiction and the media more generally, we absolutely are ‘thinking of the children’.

One comment I often hear from my adult readers is, ‘I wish books like this had existed when I was at school’. The infamous Section 28 had a devastating impact on the LGBTQ+ kids who lived through it.

With no books in the school library, no talks, no sex ed, and political and media environments both actively hostile to gay people, they had nowhere to turn and no one to talk to. The mental health consequences of that still play out for a lot of gay adults today.

When your LGBTQ+ students read books with characters that are just like them, they feel seen. They feel valued. They get to see what a healthy, loving relationship might look like, and the hope that they can have their own happy ending, just like everyone else.

When students who are struggling with their sexuality read such books, they can draw strength and comfort from characters dealing with the same confused feelings they are and slowly working things out.

Some of these students won’t be able, or feel comfortable, talking to anyone about what they’re going through. With online searches often a minefield of misinformation, LGBTQ+ books can provide a safe haven.

When heterosexual students encounter such books, they’ll get to understand their peers and the world around them so much better, and come to realise that our similarities are far greater than our differences.

Regardless of sexuality, life, love and romance combine to form a rollercoaster for everyone – so why not choose to be kind? When it comes to LGBTQ+ rep in books, TV and film, everyone’s a winner.

Why so scared?

Nevertheless, those responses to CBBC’s same-sex kiss show how some people still need to be convinced of all this, and I’m also aware of the dealings that some school libraries have had with ‘concerned parents’ over LGBT content.

If you’re happy to let young people access age-appropriate books and media where heterosexual kids fall in love and kiss, you can’t object to a same-sex version of the same scenario. Or rather, you can object, but it kind of makes you look homophobic.

What’s there to be scared of? All that’ll happen that those student readers will understand themselves, and others, with more kindness and compassion – and perhaps come away with some fashion tips and a few sassy put-downs…

Any yielding to such content concerns risks sending a harmful message. It would tell LGBT students that, by implication, their lives are also ‘inappropriate’; that the feelings they have are something to be ashamed about, and should only be tolerated if performed behind closed doors.

The ‘comments trolls’ are disappointing, but I’m optimistic about the future because the kids have got this.

At one school that cancelled an author visit with me a while ago, following one parent’s concern about LGBT content, the student body quickly mobilised and organised petitions and protests in support of not just their LGBT peers, but their right to read whatever they like.

When the kids are handling this issue better than the adults, something’s certainly wrong, but something else is definitely right. There’s a generation of young people out there who are determined to be the change the world needs.

Simon James Green is an award-winning author of LGBTQ+ YA fiction; his latest book, Heartbreak Boys, is available now, published by Scholastic.

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