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How children’s literature can help in the move to normalise queerness

With the NCERT curriculum coming under fire for trying to normalise queerness, could children’s fiction step in to help young readers?

Queerness in children’s literature can also play a role in forging the kind of individuals the children will grow into.
Queerness in children’s literature can also play a role in forging the kind of individuals the children will grow into. (Photo by Agustin Gunawan on Unsplash)

In the small window of time that her parents are at work and her sister at school, 21-year-old Anya (name changed) speaks readily about her experience growing up queer.

She starts with a disclaimer: “It could’ve been a lot worse,” the fresh graduate shrugs. “Looking at most of the news about LGBT+ students you can tell that there is a short end of the stick and far too many of us draw it.” Growing up in a metro city with a fairly progressive upper-class family, Anya admits that it was easier – and safer – for her to find her gender and sexual identity.

It didn’t, however, come naturally. As late as class nine, Anya held the same queerphobic notions as her parents. Whether it was believing queer people were ‘unnatural’ or that she should keep her distance from the LGBT+ community, Anya distinctly recalls having voiced some of these opinions out loud at school, and never being corrected or reprimanded for this low-level hate speech. Ultimately, it made her own internalised homophobia even harder to overcome, in the long run.

Anya’s beliefs were shaped, as are many others’, by the marked absence of any real conversation surrounding the idea of queerness, both in school and at home. In a society where heteronormativity is the measuring bar for ‘normal’, destigmatising anything contrary to it elicits uproar, especially when it comes to engaging the youth.

Following widespread right-wing outrage at the start of November and several lodged complaints, a gender-sensitisation manual designed to equip teachers with the requisite tools to discuss these topics was taken down on November 5, soon after being published on the NCERT website. As per one complaint, the manual sought to ‘psychologically traumatise school students’, a claim we encounter frequently when it comes to raising queer awareness among children.

When the necessary conversations to deter these misconceptions don’t take place, it leads to perpetuation of the generational prejudices that we inherit from our elders.

Also Read: Is Indian publishing becoming more queer-friendly?

Nandini Choudhury, relationship expert and meditation mentor at a Kolkata-based wellness organisation called Crystal Minds, believes this cycle runs on modelling. “Being especially impressionable in their formative years, children often emulate their parents’ exhibited behaviour. Along with adopting demonstrated vocabulary and mannerisms, they also inherit the biases they hear most often. How they witness elders, whether at home or in school – the two most crucial sites in children’s lives – approaching various topics, defines the formation of their own responses to these concepts.”

This leads to a catch-22, of sorts. Protecting queer youth and normalising queerness means discussions need to involve every child. But to have these discussions, there needs to be support from the system. Since the same students who came from these schools with these exact prejudices grow up to run the system, it becomes tough to break the cycle.

“Nonetheless, this is a task that needs to be undertaken,” emphasises Devika Anand, part of Delhi-based GenderBenders, a Teach For India project that works to help students and parents understand the gender and sexuality spectrum through activity-based curriculums. “Students need to be made aware of the spectrum and how normal it is. The sooner children start to recognise related biases and grow accepting and empathetic, the sooner we can curb gender violence rates.”

So, how do you start to destigmatise queer ideas for children?

Potentially, by using children’s literature.

Countless Indian generations grew up on a diet of Tinkle, Jataka Tales, Champak, etc. Even today, from simplified Ramayana anecdotes to modern-day Panchatantras or Amar Chitra Katha comics, children across the nation devour these stories. Similarly, the purpose of these narratives has remained constant: to endow their young readers with lifelong values.

Also Read: How campus support groups are helping queer students

To that end, a number of these publications are now covering contemporary lessons through the medium of their beloved protagonists quite successfully. Tinkle features characters rejecting traditional gender roles, stories of single-parenting, and tales featuring lead characters with disabilities. All such efforts go a long way in normalising these ideas for the youth.

It is not an illogical leap then to suggest that the same might happen when it comes to LGBT+ allyship if queer children’s literature becomes more mainstream.

Naturally, there are existing and ongoing attempts; Guthli Has Wings (by Kanak Shashi, Tulika Books, 2020) tackles the idea of being transgender for children, Talking of Muskaan (by Himanjali Sankar, Duckbill Books, 2014) reveals the heartbreaking impact homophobic bullying has on queer youth and Slightly Burnt (by Payal Dhar, Bloomsbury India, 2014) takes the light-hearted gay romance approach. In kickstarting the normalisation of these ideas, queer literature is helping by leaps and bounds.

Choudhury’s words remind us of modelling once again. “Often, children soak up negative attitudes much faster than encouraging ones. Being presented with positive social and cultural cues in these books, therefore, inspires them to perceive ideas of gender fluidity and queerness through a less judgemental lens than they might have otherwise.”

Not to mention, when the characters’ contexts and circumstances closely resemble the readers’ own, the underlying message resonates even stronger. The familiarity of recognising someone who talks and behaves just like you or your peers is a strong driver when it comes to eliciting empathy.

In addition to empathy, Anand adds that queerness in children’s literature can also play a role in forging the kind of individuals the children will grow into. As and when they read about it, note its normalcy and learn about the systemic injustices it faces, their own beliefs take shape. The attitudes they develop at this stage will then determine which side of the fence they pick. Thus, by breaking stigmas early and helping the youth progress further than previous generations, major changes can be brought about to the system, ending the aforementioned rut.

When asked if books like this would have helped her own journey, Anya agrees. “For most of my childhood, I spent my time role-playing as my favourite characters or pretending to be a new friend they met on ‘adventures’. I would’ve let go of many preconceived notions sooner if I’d been more familiar with queer identities. It definitely would’ve made for less agonising and guilt when I realised I was bisexual,” she laughs.

Anukriti Prasad (she/her) is a freelance and fiction writer based out of Delhi. She writes primarily about queerness, contemporary young people struggles, and the significance of human empathy.

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