Friday 5 July 2019

‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ is still relevant 30 years later

My daughter started asking for her daddy, so I turned to Lesléa Newman’s classic picture book and it changed everything.

Three years ago, when my daughter Marty was born, a queer friend gave me and my spouse a copy of Lesléa Newman’s iconic lesbian children’s book, “Heather Has Two Mommies.” It was meant as a joke about how heteronormative I’d become, getting married and having a child after years of firmly identifying as queer and aspiring to a life that challenges the norm. At the time, I threw the gag gift on a bookshelf to gather dust, only to realize later how valuable its lessons would be for my family.

The book, now in its 30th year of publication, tells the story of a little girl named Heather who lives with her two mommies, Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter. The upper-middle-class couple — who live in a beautiful house complete with two pets, tall grass and an apple tree in the front yard — takes Heather to her first day of school, where she soon realizes she doesn’t have a daddy. With the guidance of a highly evolved teacher, she quickly adjusts to the realization that all families are different, and the only thing that matters about a family is that “the people in it love each other.”

To a modern reader, the book will seem benign and quaint, however it was anything but when it hit bookshelves in 1989. Newman, who’s since written several other children’s books with L.G.B.T.Q. themes, including “Sparkle Boy,” “Mommy, Mama, and Me” and “Daddy, Papa, and Me,” received 50 rejections before a friend who operated a desktop publishing company agreed to publish “Heather” with financial assistance from Newman and funds raised by friends. Standard publishers found it too risky. “There was one publisher who said something like, ‘I know there is a need for this book, but I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,’” Newman told me.

There was good reason for all the apprehension. In the years following the book’s release, there were numerous attempts to ban it — the American Library Association ranked it the 9th most banned book of the 1990s — and it became a lightning rod for conservative activists rallying for traditional family values.

A USA Today op-ed in 1992 called the book part of a “militant agenda” to “present sodomy and lesbianism as normal alternative lifestyles.” Newman remembered a particularly gruesome cartoon in another newspaper that read: “We’re a necrophiliac couple and we demand to be part of the Rainbow Curriculum,” beside an illustration of a book called “Heather Has Two Stiffs.”

Other critics were less macabre, but only accepting on limited terms. The manager of a library in Cleveland said that books like Newman’s deserve a place in public libraries and schools “as long as they tastefully, accurately and appropriately portray the subject matter.”

For some readers today, therein lies the book’s weakness — it’s a wholly sanitized version of same-sex coupledom, palatable to the masses. While the original version does contain an explanation of Heather’s conception — a mini lesson on artificial insemination — its doesn’t push a lot of boundaries. Without the slightest hint of sexual or romantic attraction between the moms (not even a peck of a kiss) the book seems to say, “Fear not, we’re just like you.”

While the academics I spoke with collectively agreed that the book represents a critical milestone in the steady trudge toward greater lesbian awareness and visibility, some shared concerns about the ways in which it maintains the status quo. Dr. Nathan N. Taylor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of education at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, who wrote a paper on L.G.B.T.Q. representations in children’s picture books, said the story traffics in homonormativity, a concept formulated by Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. The book “allows some people to be a part of the American Dream — in this case, upper middle class, cis-gendered, partnered white women,” Dr. Taylor said, to the exclusion of other, more marginalized, races, classes, genders, sexualities, family configurations and ways of being.

While we undoubtedly need to multiply the number and kinds of queer narratives in children’s literature, the value of “Heather” to my daughter and family unit has been immeasurable.

A little before she turned 2, Marty, the only child of queer parents at her day care, began asking after her “father” in various iterations. “Who’s my daddy? Where’s my daddy? I want my daddy.” It was heartbreaking because my partner and I could only counter with, “You have two mommies.” (How else to explain the complicated series of events that resulted in the creation of our family?)

That’s when I remembered we had a copy of “Heather,” the 2015 version, sitting on our bookshelf where I’d left it a few years ago. Every time we got to the page that reads, “And Heather has two mommies,” Marty turned to us and said, “And I have two mommies!” At the end of the book, there’s an illustration of the happy family walking off into the sunset, which recently prompted Marty to verbally superimpose each of our family members onto the characters in the book. “That’s me, that’s Mama Steph, that’s Mama Sabby and that’s Maude [our cat],” she said. Newman shared a similar anecdote, telling me about a boy who crossed out the word “Heather” and penciled in his own name throughout the entire book.

Dr. Gayle E. Pitman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Sacramento City College in California and author of several LGBT-themed books designed for kids, including “This Day in June,” “Sewing the Rainbow” and “The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets,” explained why seeing ourselves rendered in story is not only validating — it’s essential to the creation of a self. “There’s a concept called symbolic annihilation in psychology and sociology, which is the idea that if you don’t see yourself represented or reflected in society or in media (television, movies, books), you essentially don’t exist,” Pitman said. “That’s why it’s so important to have L.G.B.T. representations in children’s books.”

The goal is not necessarily assimilation or normalization, said Dr. Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clark University and pioneering scholar on LGBT families, but an affirmation of one’s value. “Are our families worthy? The absence of representation communicates that you’re not worthy or worthwhile,” she said.

When she covers the book in her classes today, Dr. Goldberg’s students are baffled by the controversy it stirred. “They look at me dumbfounded. They’re just like, ‘This is the most vanilla book. What was the big deal? We don’t get it,’ ” she said.

While that may be true in more academic settings, Newman said, “There are still many people who don’t think children should be raised in a family with two moms and two dads.” Recently, she was asked to speak at a school in New York City about her new book, “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story,” based on her family’s migration to America in the early 1900s. “Once they realized I was the author of ‘Heather Has Two Mommies,’ they disinvited me,” she said.

Dr. Pitman echoed a similar sentiment, offering her picture book, “This Day in June,” which depicts a fun, joyous and celebratory Pride festival as another example. While there were numerous attempts to ban it — in Texas, Illinois and Colorado, to name a few — nothing was as terrifying as watching a conservative pastor in Iowa stream on Facebook Live a rant full of “fire and brimstone,” while burning her book and other L.G.B.T. titles.

Which is why, despite “Heather’s” less-than-radical trappings, it’s a book that’s still important 30 years later. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when the children at our day care commenced working on gifts for Father’s Day. A little girl, unfamiliar with families like ours, kept pressing Marty about her paternal absence. “But you have to have a daddy,” she kept saying. All Marty could muster was, “I don’t want a daddy,” but a teacher said Marty looked like she was about to cry.

To help diversify the concept of family for Marty’s little peers, I thought of buying a dozen copies of “Heather Has Two Mommies” as a gift for them — and for us. My hesitation makes me realize that even now, post-marriage equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, greater trans visibility and awareness, it’s still a controversial — and vital — book.

(Source: NYT)

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