Saturday, June 16, 2007

It's always been the same, same old story

Yesterday I saw Alexander, who demonstrated his ability to stay on his feet longer than I can, if you hold his hand. Fortunately I can still walk further and faster, since young Alex thinks you need to put one foot literally in front of the other, and thus doesn't move very fast. His favourite activity seems to be standing up unsupported, smiling then waving his arms around, at which point he falls back down again. He also loves playing Hide and Seek, especially in our overgrown garden where it is possible for me to conceal most of myself in the grass.

I gave him two books. His favourite was That’s not my Robot, an epic tale of mistaken identity. The book has tactile bits for Alex to touch, so for example on one page it reads "That's not my robot! His ears are too prickly." and it has a picture of a robot with ears made out of velcro. Alex loved this book and wanted to read it all over again three times. The other book he wasn't so keen on because it had more words and less texture.

This was King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, which is a fairytale. The queen wants her son, the prince, to get married. All manner of princesses from all over the place come to visit him, but he isn't all that keen on any of them. Then one of them brings along her brother, they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, a beau of James II had talked to Rosie about it, but then R had mentioned it to Mum & Dad and they did not approve. It might give the baby funny ideas. It might give him the impression that it is normal for a prince to fall in love with and marry another prince. The child might then be baffled as to why Richard the Lionheart was married to Princess Berengaria instead of her brother Sancho, why Edward II didn’t marry Piers Gaveston or why James I didn’t marry any of the various Dukes and Earls he took as lovers. Of course, the fear actually articulated was that Alexander might grow up with the impression that being gay is normal, which would be a disaster. If a child grows up without any idea who the freaks are, how should he know who to fear, who to point and laugh at and whose alienation he can take comfort in?

If only I'd thought about such things before! Yet having bought it, I decided to give it to him anyway, along with a lecture about how, whatever he might read, being gay isn't normal, being a prince isn't normal, and being both is likely to make you unpopular - unless you can get a decent crusade to your name. Alexander listened with a stern expression on his face, before suddenly laughing, lurching forward and inexplicably biting my nose. I only hope he understood.

I resisted telling him about the only real gay prince I know of, the heroic Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla in Gujarat, who took the remarkable step of coming out and declaring himself to be a gay activist in a country where homosexuality remains illegal. His family disowned him as a result, although last I read they were making up, despite tremendous pressure on the Royal Family and the prince was hoping to adopt a child. But not only this, he also helped found and works for the Lakshya Trust, a charity dedicated to tackling the somewhat taboo issue of the spread of HIV/AIDS among men having sex with other men in India, most of whom are married to women. Manvendra could have had a pretty cushy life had he kept quiet; his choices will have a tremendous impact on the social future of his country and undoubtedly save lives. A noble prince indeed.

Rosie will keep the offending text in the car and smuggle it away without our parents noticing. A rather cowardly strategy, but it is Father's Day tomorrow and the Christening next weekend; to get to which, we are relying on my folks for a lift. There's a time for courage and nobility and a time for engineering a covert operation in order to avoid family conflict over a children's book.

Thus at the tender age of nine months, in the year 2007, Alexander receives his first dangerous book. I had envisaged my role in his initiation into the world of dangerous books when he was thirteen or fourteen and I'd slip a copy of The Catcher in the Rye between the folds of his Christmas sweater. This is earlier than expected.


Mary said...

As far as I can remember, when I was preschool, my books tended to deal less with love and more with talking animals who inexplicably were failing to eat one another.

I recall the furore over whether Tinky Winky, the teletubby, was gay on the basis of handbag-carrying. And a meek spokesperson for the BBC saying "he's supposed to be relating to one and two year olds... sexuality doesn't really come into it."

Anonymous said...

To be fair, I also had/have objections to the idea of this book when I heard about it. Not because I'm anti-gay or anything, but... Oh, I don't know how to express it.

Long ramble that may or may not make sense -

I want my son to grow up knowing that being gay is a perfectly acceptable thing to be, but also that it's not the "norm".

I don't want him to feel that it's something he has to feel bad about if he does decide that he prefers men, but I do want him to know that he's "expected" to be attracted to women and procreate etc.

My worry is that if it's played down so much from a very early age, then it becomes a choice he can make rather than one that nature makes for him - e.g. in the pre-teen years, boys think girls smell, so if Alex is being told that it's fine to grow up and get married to another boy, that might be something that he decides, aged 7, to do, based on the fact that liking girls is not something 7 year olds do, which might stick with him through into his teens when he's starting to form ideas about sex, not through being actually gay, but through some weird quirk of his education.

Does that make any sense?

The Goldfish said...

Mary, it's a fair point, although I thought I'd save the book I bought with th etalking animals - Aesop's Fables - for when he's a little older. ;-)

Daddy, Happy Father's Day! It does make sense and you and Mummy are in charge of course; if I had known you had any reservation I wouldn't have given it to him.

But to answer your point, Alex is going to be bombarded by messages which tell him that he's expected to be attracted to women and so on - even if you and Mummy attempted to somehow program him otherwise. All the other fairytales will be telling him this, the vast majority of the people he sees in couples, in any context, will reinforce this.

Yet believe me, nothing and nobody is going to have any influence on who Alex falls in love with. And we are talking about love here, with all its magnificent force, not mere sex.

Even if such a book and the corrupting influence of his auntie were the only input he received on the subject and he did decide to marry a boy at 7, his nature would be overriding all that a few years later. A steamroller to all previously held beliefs on such matters, as I recall.

The whole problem with sexuality is that all the programming in the world fails spectacularly. People find themselves to be queer in circumstances when they have never conceived that such a thing was possible, in circumstances where any expression of their feelings is likely to cost them everything, including their lives.

In any case, this really wasn't about preparing Alex for the small possibility that he might be gay himself - that would be extremely premature - this was merely about the fact that the world takes all sorts; about the freaks. He'll also receive the message that homosexuality is an abomination; will bring about the fall of civilisation is the particular message my younger self received from the family we share. Which would have been an unhelpful message whoever I had turned out to be. This fairytale merely struck me as a helpful message to slip into the mix.

Penny L. Richards said...

You said it beautifully, Goldfish.

The whole problem with sexuality is that all the programming in the world fails spectacularly.

It does. But that's not really a problem, is it? Except that it must be very frustrating for the folks who want to program their kids instead of raise them.

We'd love that book. And we did love the "that's not my..." books--so simple, but I never knew a kid who didn't dig them.

Oh, and for more gay princes, check out the blog "Gay for Today," he does bios of gay men in history every day--and sometimes they're even princes, and kings...

Anonymous said...


After the age of picture books (which are easy to choose when all you're looking for is cute), I only gave my niece three books, and only one was deemed dangerous by my freak of a sister-in-law, who belongs to some kind of sect of alleged Christian but made sure to read stories of the Holocaust to my niece at bedtime -- not nice stories of children being heroic or anything, which would still not be good at bedtime, but out of a big history book for grownups -- so she could "learn about her Jewish heritage," too.

The books I gave my niece were the eminently suitable Caddie Woodlawn, the wonderful Charlotte's Web (which my grandfather had given me at the same age), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to which I had been introduced in second grade (age 7-8) by my young hippie teacher, which introduction had then given me the pleasure of being able to read it to my parents and siblings a chapter at a time after dinner.

So guess which one my sister-in-law threw away.


Did you guess? Did you?

Yes, it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But do you know why?

I'll bet you don't know why. Even I didn't know why.

"Oh, that's a devil book," my sister-in-law told my mother, completely seriously.


Anonymous said...

Oh, and Daddy? A few decades ago, when I was five and she was fifteen, my sister promised to marry me when we grew up.

I'm still waiting.

Meanwhile, I'm shacked up with this guy here going on 12 years next month.

Just sayin'...

S. said...


I know these books, and they themselves don't show it as the norm for princes to marry other princes. They show the love story of the princes as serendipitous, when the prince's mother's true goal was to get him to marry a princess.

And I think you'll find the real advantage of having this book will be when Alex asks about his friend with two daddies (and sooner or later he's bound to have one); then you'll be able to prove that you're not anti-gay or anything by grabbing this one from the shelf. It will be a tool to explain to him that " being gay is a perfectly acceptable thing to be," and you can trust just about everything else he'll come across in life to show him it's not the norm.

Mary said...

Sara,that's awful! To deprive a child of Roald Dahl! He was pretty much the best children's writer of the 20th century. Although, if you re-read his books as an adult, you do spot some absolutely deliciously dark humour that might have been missed (or perhaps just under-appreciated) the first time.

Maggie said...

Devil's books... I ran the school bookshop at my daughters' primary school for around 5 years (no-one else would take it on!). When I finally got part time work someone did agree to take it over. Later I heard that the folks involved were not happy with some of the books that I'd kept in stock, they had MAGIC and WITCHES in, very dangerous stuff and of the devil. The title of these awful books? Meg and Mog:

There's no accounting for folks is there? ;-)

Best wishes from Liverpool

fluttertongue said...

When I was a kid, I hated children's books. Well - not all - just the incredibly patronising ones from the likes of Jacqueline Wilson. Young adult books were even worse. I didn't want to read about other children. I wanted to read about life! And what it had in store! How wonderful to read about a man who breaks the norm and goes for another man rather than the stock happy ever after.

Anonymous said...

All good arguments - I didn't express my reservations before, because I've only heard about the book and seen the cover - and you know that they say about judgments based on that :-)

We'll see! I'm sure it's a mountain/molehill situation, exacerbated by grandparents :-)

Katie said...

'His favourite activity seems to be standing up unsupported, smiling then waving his arms around, at which point he falls back down again.'

This was me, at a gig, last night.

the fruitfemme said...

maybe part of the problem is the use of the word 'normal' at all. Heterosexuality is not normal. It's just common. Normal implies a more natural, prefered state of being. There is no normal.

Isn't the whole use of the word 'normal' one of the things that gets used against people with disabilities? It's not normal to walk instead of using a chair. It is common. Because nothing about using a chair (or sign language or insulin etc.) is abnormal.

I'm not saying difference in sexuality is the same as disability. But the idea that there is this socially approved 'normal' gets used against all of us when it is, itself, a myth.

Love the idea of tracking the first dangerous book. I'll have to look through my daughter's bookshelf and introduce something dangerous.

Thanks for the great post

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Goldfish. I'm a lesbian mum and reading your post realy cheered me up. My children are all grown up now, but wihs there had been books around like this when they were little.
It is amazing how much things have changed in the past 20 years. When my son was little his school did a project about families (they had display of photos of their families). My son (he's 26 now) was actually not allowed to have his picture of his two mums and sister up!