Page "I" from Pride Puppy
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Reflections

About a month ago I got this text message from a friend:

I, of course, needed to know the name of the book.

It’s called Pride Puppy, and it’s a new title from local author Robin Stevenson and Vancouver based illustrator Julie McLaughlin. I headed down to the library and put it on hold right away. My turn with the book came up when I was too sick to go in and pick it up, but when I was able to, I was so impressed. It’s an A-Z book about a puppy that goes to pride with it’s family and gets lost. Every page is filled with things to find that match the letter, and my just-starting-to-read 5 and a half year old was not only excited to read the book to me (which, considering that it is a pretty new thing that she will read TO me, was extra exciting to have this be the title that she was diving in to. ) We were both excited to read a bright and exciting story that featured families that looked similar to ours and those we have built community with. People of diverse gender presentations, abilities, ages, ethnicities and aesthetics fill the colourful pages.

When I reached out to Robin, who I know through the local queer community, to tell her how exciting it was to feel seen and reflected in a book that was written for my child’s reading level, she was stoked. She knows that her books have positive influences on those who read them, she has been awarded prizes for her books and having published 30 titles, she knows that she is doing the good work. But, lately, with the backlash coming from the far-right; people organizing to shut down drag story time events, retract reproductive freedoms, and criminalize trans identities, the attention she has garnered has not always been as appreciative. As an author whose books have included both early childhood titles on pride and a history of the fight for abortion rights; she has received her fair share of violent hate mail. Her books have been put on banned lists and targeted by campaigns to take them out of libraries. My family’s experience though, feeling seen, reflected, included, like our story deserves to be told, and at the reading level of my young child…. that’s one of the things that inspires her to write.

I have for a long time felt inspired by this quote from Dominican-American author and poet Junot Diaz

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

Queer and trans folks, especially those who live in multiple intersections of invisibility, know this monstrous feeling acutely. We have grasped at straws and bent over backwards to see ourselves imperfectly reflected in media that strategically villainized us if we were even present. This was codified into Hollywood over the years 1934-1968, and then persisted in legacies, based on the foundation of the Hays Code (Motion Picture Production Code). This censorship guideline dictated the moral imperatives that studios should abide by, including not depicting (but definitely never glorifying) the sexually “perverse.” Learning more about some of the institutional structures that informed cultural perspectives on queerness can help us understand more about how homophobic norms operated as a regulated standard. The clip below is one of the tools available in a free lesson plan created for California educators teaching LGBTQ history.

For our children, growing up without reflections of their parents, their families, it also can be confusing and complicated. Starting in pre-school, the expectation that other kids (and institutions) held about families having “mommy’s and daddy’s” started to affect my kid. She would get really upset when someone would assume that I was her dad, or ask her where her mom was. I’m not the first trans gestational parent to make note of these expectations and the impacts that they have on our kids. Trevor MacDonald’s book “Where’s the Mother?” tells his story of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding as a transgender man in the Canadian prairies. The title comes from the oft hear muttering of strangers witnessing a transman with a small baby; the cultural expectation that all children have mothers, and/or that all gestational parents are female presenting or mom identified is still annoyingly persistent. A number of authors in the book I co-edited with A.J. Lowik also speak to this in The Liminal Chrysalis.

I have been incredibly grateful that I am parenting as an out trans parent at this time in history, and from the social location I occupy. It has meant that my kid, and her peers, get to (sometimes) see individuals and families like us- in media made for them. It can still feel a bit niche, and likely that the teachers wouldn’t necessarily be curating these titles for story time on their own, but the fact that they have been open to bringing in books like Pride Puppy, or Flamingo Rampant titles as a part of conversations about gender and sexuality diversity in their class and community is huge. My kid doesn’t realize how important a moment like Benson on Kipo and the Wonderbeasts coming out is, I was all worked up and she barely blinked. I know that my counterparts in other locales are not having the same experience as I am in a progressive leaning, west coast urban center. I know that their kids aren’t always or as easily able to be as empowered as mine in her declarations, “I don’t have a Mom or a Dad!”. I know that in other places, and in other times, kids who come from families like mine are expected or required to keep secrets for their family’s safety; other queer and trans parents have made the choice to keep those parts of themselves secret from their children to spare them of that- but as a result may also depriving them some of the value that growing up culturally queer can have.

Making these choices; like whether or not to exist in honest wholeness when doing so could mean serious danger, are heavy loads to weigh out for individuals, but even heavier for parents laden by a moral and evolutionary imperative to keep their kids safe. When the places we live can’t offer us the safety to exist out and whole in the open, the cultural mirrors we find in books, TV and movies are all the more powerful. The stories we tell, to ourselves, each other, our children, they form both our world and our world view. Even if it is only in our own homes, being able to provide a library for our kids that shows a broad representation of characters and stories is a well established way to raise aware and justice oriented kids. Evidence seems to show that children’s literature can also be a helpful tool for adults in building compassion and understanding of complex concepts. Parenting is a learning journey, sometimes us parents need the tools as much or more than our kids. In the case of soothing the wounds of growing up in a world we weren’t reflected in, sometimes representation in kids media is having a prophylactic effect on our children’s psyches, while being more of a salve or balm to our own psychic wounds.

I am often asked by parents and teachers to recommend media, and there was a time, maybe 5 or 10 years ago, when I would feel confident making recommendations. Since then though, there has been such a huge influx of new material, from authors like Robin, publishing houses like Orca Books, Flamingo Rampant, Arsenal Pulp, as well as mainstream publishers adding titles to their roster and TV and movies increasing their queer content exponentially, I can feel honest in saying I can’t keep up with it all. It’s a bit strange to feel excited about how much things have moved forward, while also really feeling how far we have yet to go. All the more reason to really celebrate and be inspired by the sweet moments of feeling seen .

What books, shows, and movies do you and your kids love? Does feeling represented come as a challenge? What do you do to help your kids or your students feel seen, reflected, and celebrated?

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