As shifting demographics in the United States testify to a rising number of children and families from diverse backgrounds, it is essential for school librarians to create inclusive collections, environments, and curricula that take into account various forms of diversity, including children or caregivers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ). According to U.S. Census data analyses and targeted studies of the LGBTQ population, approximately 2 to 3.7 million children and teens are raised in LGBTQ families, otherwise known as rainbow families, and over 125,000 same-sex couples raise children in most every community in the nation (Gates 2013; Gates 2015). Rainbow families can include children, teens, and/or caregivers who identify as LGBTQ.
In November 2014, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reaffirmed the universal rights of children and caregivers in all families, including rainbow families, and emphasized that they should not be discriminated against. Specifically, the organization notes, “All measures to protect LGBT children and LGBT parents should be enforced in a manner that truly is in the best interests of children, and does not simply silence the victim or drive the discussion underground” (UNICEF 2014, 1). School librarians can uphold UNICEF’s position by facilitating open and honest discussions and providing print and digital collections inclusive of LGBTQ topics. In doing so, librarians help to normalize the experiences of individuals in rainbow families. The subsequent sections explore strategies for creating welcoming spaces as well as suggestions for building diverse collections of LGBTQ materials.
Creating Welcoming Environments
Students in rainbow families have similar informational needs as other students. These include accurate, current information about LGBTQ topics as well as the ability to find this information within the library’s catalog; inclusive language in library programs and discussions; and opportunities to encounter LGBTQ individuals/characters via library displays and collections. School library environments also should be free of homophobic attitudes and practices.
Initially, school librarians may be hesitant to include LGBTQ topics because of their own concerns about developmental appropriateness or for fear of administrative/parental backlash. Often, LGBTQ themes are erroneously thought to be about sex. In reality, a children’s book about a gender nonconforming child or a child with two mothers is no more about sex than any other children’s book depicting children’s emotions and family compositions. The Welcoming Schools website (http://www.welcomingschools.org/) provides an extremely helpful section on how to respond to student’s tough questions about LGBTQ topics and how to introduce them into the curriculum. School librarians might also consider lesson plans or activities for International Family Equality Day or International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. This allows librarians to celebrate all types of family diversity and be inclusive of rainbow families too.
Another way to be inclusive of rainbow families is to introduce Allie the Ally (http://allietheally.tumblr.com/aboutallie) in the library as soon as school begins. Created in 2011 by James Hubert Blake High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance in Silver Spring, Maryland, Allie is the inclusive version of Flat Stanley. She can be printed out and posted in library displays, used during programs, or included in the curriculum in such ways as “Allie the Ally’s List of Recommended Family Friendly Books.” Allie can also be displayed around the school to designate it as a rainbow family inclusive environment.
School librarians might consider partnering with local rainbow family parenting groups, LGBTQ organizations such as PFLAG, or community centers such as the LGBT Center of Raleigh, North Carolina, or the Magic City Acceptance Center for LGBTQ youth in Birmingham, Alabama. Through partnerships with these organizations, librarians can gain a better awareness of the local rainbow family culture as well as an understanding of the community services offered to these families. A successful partnership would also allow the school librarian to bounce ideas off other like-minded, culturally sensitive professionals.
No matter how a school librarian chooses to introduce LGBTQ topics into the curriculum, the most important point to remember is sensitivity. A librarian would not ask a student with a disability or from a particular ethnic group to speak for his/her entire cultural group and the same holds true for students in rainbow families. While a student in a rainbow family is the expert of his own experiences, he cannot speak for all individuals in rainbow families. It is extremely critical that librarians avoid outing or calling unwanted attention to these students. A teen may not want her classmates to know that she has two fathers, identifies as trans, or is bisexual. When having a discussion about family compositions, circumvent the urge to identify students in the school who are in rainbow families and do not call on them to testify about their experiences.
Figure 1: Selected Resources for Welcoming Rainbow Families in Schools
Collection Development Considerations
School librarians developing collections inclusive of rainbow families have a variety of considerations to think through. These include selecting quality books representing diverse characters and findability within the collection. Over time, a growing body of LGBTQ children’s and teen books has been published on a variety of topics and themes such as bullying, living within rainbow families, coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation, and celebrating gender expression. The majority of these books are for young adults but children’s books are becoming more common by way of non-U.S. imports, self-published titles, and small press publishing. Although rainbow families are more likely to be racially and ethnically diverse than other families, with nearly 40 percent of the caregivers and 50 percent of the children identifying as non-white, most books representing LGBTQ characters and families do not capture this diversity (Gates 2013). When comparing LGBTQ children’s books to young adult novels, it becomes clear that older readers have more opportunities to see reflections of diversity in their books than their younger counterparts. More diverse LGBTQ children’s books are needed such as Megan Lambert’s Real Sisters Pretend (2016), which features two racially diverse adopted sisters living with a biracial lesbian couple.
While a school librarian may not feel qualified to select LGBTQ titles, several print and digital curricular resources and bibliographies are available to assist in locating the best materials with LGBTQ content. Created by LGBTQ organizations or curated by passionate librarians, many of these resources divide recommended titles into age groups or by material type (picture book, novel, digital resource, etc.,) and suggest a variety of educational uses. Numerous book awards for LGBTQ youth literature can provide librarians with a solid core collection of print materials to begin their collections.
Figure 2: Recommended Resources for Locating LGBTQ Children’s and YA Materials
The ability to locate LGBTQ books in the school library collection is an equally important consideration that librarians need to address. Often, pre-cataloged materials from vendors will not include relevant LGBTQ subject headings or will use terminology foreign to students. Some astute librarians will edit the MARC records to include subject headings and keywords familiar to students to assist in findability. Other librarians will decide to mark LGBTQ titles with spine labels that identify them as such. The latter is an extremely problematic practice as it calls attention to anyone reading LGBTQ books. As such, students in rainbow families or their allies may not embrace these books for fear of being outed. The best option is to edit MARC records to identify LGBTQ content while maintaining patron privacy.
Another concern when building an LGBTQ collection is creating a balanced collection that represents all perspectives and viewpoints. While some librarians might be tempted to do this by acquiring books with anti-gay or homophobic content, in reality the best way to balance the collection is to include quality books with heterosexual and cisgender characters. Purchasing anti-gay materials is not only detrimental to the self-esteem of student in rainbow families but also a violation of the library’s collection development policy. Most policies require at least two positive professional reviews of a particular title before it can be included in the collection. No homophobic titles currently meet this criterion.
Students in rainbow families are often not welcomed in classroom and school libraries. As noted in the GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) School Climate Survey, students in rainbow families are bullied at a much higher rate and are more likely to commit suicide than heteronormative students, cisgender students, or those in traditional families (Kosciw et al. 2014). If ever there was a time in our nation’s history to embrace rainbow families in the library, it is now. Armed with some of the resources and suggestions above, school librarians can be well on their way to providing this much needed and long overdue overture.
Gates, Gary J. LGBT Parenting in the United States. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. 2013. http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/LGBT-Parenting.pdf.
Gates, Gary J. “Marriage and Family: LGBT Individuals and Same-Sex Couples.” The Future of Children 25, no. 2 (2015): 67-87.
Kosciw, Joseph, Emily Greytak, Neal Palmer, and Madelyn J. Boesen. The 2013 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in our Nation’s Schools. GLSEN. 2014. http://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2013%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20Full%20Report_0.pdf .
Lambert, Megan. Real Sisters Pretend. Illus. by Nicloe Tadgell. Tilbury House, 2016.
United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). “Eliminating Discrimination against Children and Parents Based on Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity.” Position Paper no. 9 (November 2014). http://www.unicef.org/media/files/Position_Paper_Sexual_Identification_and_Gender_Identity_12_Nov_2014%283%29.pdf