My daughter’s photo accompanied a BlogHer post this week, that same image of our old living room bookshelves that the New Yorker online featured awhile back. As I read the BlogHer post and looked at the photo, I suppose it was really the first time I thought about our bookshelves as “gay.” I mean, these shelves were in the living room of a heterosexual married couple with two children. Suburban, middle-class normal, not-gay. Kind of.*
The author of the post used the photo of our living room to illustrate her discussion of why she doesn’t encourage (or allow? it’s a bit unclear) her child to read “gay” books because she doesn’t want her to be “exposed to alternative lifestyles,” especially books that might depict intimate interactions between same-sex couples.
I grew up in a home with “traditional” values where I was often told not to read certain books because they had ‘inappropriate’ sexual content. True confession: whenever I was told not to read something, I went right out and got my hands on a copy of that book and read it to try to figure out why it was forbidden. Perhaps this was because I found the world that I was growing up in to be awfully confusing. My family belonged to the LDS church and we lived in the Bible Belt–there were so many arbitrary rules and restrictions in my home and in my Christian friends’ homes that it was hard to make sense of it all. Books allowed me to either escape my own world, or to help me understand it better. The school librarian was a close friend and she would let me read books on my lunch hour instead of going out to the playground with the other kids. Sure, I read a lot of stuff that I didn’t understand–much of it about sex, which was a complete mystery to me having had to piece together a bit of schoolbus crudeness with some rudimentary biology lessons and nothing of that connecting well at all to the romantic scenes that played out on the pages of the novels that I read. For example, I remember reading a scene in one of those ‘forbidden’ books where a girl and a boy started kissing at a party, and it mentioned him putting his tongue in her mouth. I wondered about that a lot–I’d never seen anyone kiss like that and it sounded pretty gross. But the girl in the book liked it. Liked it so much that she then let him put his hands inside of her clothes. Again, confusing. I wondered why she let him do that. Why it felt good to her. And more than anything, why that was so scandalous that I shouldn’t be reading about it. I probably thought a lot more about that scene (and others like it) than I would have otherwise–simply because I knew I wasn’t supposed be reading it.
So because the whole censorship thing didn’t work all that well on me, I decided that when my own kids started reading, I simply wouldn’t censor them. Ever. I went to the library with them and we talked a lot about the books they chose. And on the shelves in our living room were books with explicit sexual content right next to books written by Mormon General Authorities (ok, truth: I did that on purpose sometimes–BoydK could really benefit from some time next to Nabokov, IMO). There was always a mix of all kinds of stuff–nothing forbidden. Occasionally I’d find my kids reading something that I thought warranted a conversation that went something like:
“I saw you were reading Such and Such. What did you think about that? Were there any parts that you found confusing or that you’d like to talk about?”
Interestingly, the only books that I remember causing me some alarm as my daughter read them, was the Twilight series. I didn’t forbid it, but instead I did read along with her and then had a conversation about why it’s not okay for a dating partner to stalk you in your bedroom or to treat you violently during a sexual encounter.
Was it “gay” of me to let my teenagers read anything that they wanted off of our rainbow-colored family bookshelves? I don’t think so. Are my teenagers “gay” now because they read books with gay characters? Well, they’re no more or less gay than they were before, I’d say. Just like they’re no more or less heterosexual than they were before they read books with heterosexual characters. But I’m also not invested in any particular outcome for my kids’ sexual expression. They can be gay or not-gay or gay-ish or whatever suits their desires. I suspect that they might approach their future relationships a bit like they have their reading material–pulling various items off the shelf and reading for awhile to see if it’s compelling enough to continue. Maybe realizing that one is not right and putting it back and reaching for another. Sometimes choosing a favorite genre and sometimes something in a new vein.
But the bookshelf analogy breaks down pretty quickly when you compare texts to people–humans can’t be as easily ‘read’ or ‘shelved’ as books can. And maybe that’s the most important lesson that I want my kids to learn from those rainbow shelves: there’s a big colorful world out there and as they move out on their own they’ll come across all kinds of ‘content’ that challenges and provokes their point of view. It’ll soon be their job to filter through all of that and choose the path that makes the most sense for their inclinations and passions. And just like I can’t control the use of Creative-Commons-licensed photos of my daughter like the one above, I also can’t control my kids’ future choices. Instead, I simply have to trust that they’ll be wise about the decisions that lie ahead as they select their relationships.
*Maybe we were gay–we did like rainbows and a bit of cross-dressing and were strongly engaged in the fight against Prop 8. :)