Just when you thought it was safe to share your favorite childhood classics with your kids, the New York Times goes and ruins it with an article called “The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Books,” by Jesse Green. From Frog and Toad to Goodnight Moon, we are told that our beloved stories are awash in “a secret language of queer compassion.” I’m always bemused when people claim that beloved fictional characters are gay. A few months ago it was “Sesame Street’s” Ernie and Bert, whose closet door was abruptly slammed shut by their creator, Frank Oz, after he got annoyed by the nattering Nancies who would not stop speculating about the hand puppets’ sexuality.
It seems Mr. Mark Saltzman was asked if Bert & Ernie are gay. It's fine that he feels they are. They're not, of course. But why that question? Does it really matter? Why the need to define people as only gay? There's much more to a human being than just straightness or gayness.
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) September 18, 2018
And yet, the speculators keep it up. It always seems rude to do this to beloved characters, especially when each character means something different to each reader. Harriet the Spy (who I’ve now been informed is a lesbian or something) was one of my favorites. It’s not just queer kids who are left out and in need of compassion, as this author suggests, but any kid who is deemed “different,” as I was for being a gregarious know-it-all who liked school and would randomly break out into song. It was a rough beginning. The narrative that only queer kids need compassion is tiring. All children need someone to make them feel special. #AllKidsMatter.
The other bothersome thing about this particular story is that Green claims that all of the authors of the books in question were gay while admitting that some were “in the closet.” If that’s the case, what business does Green have outing them like this? We live in a time when everyone and their emotional support animal has some queer identity, complete with preferred pronouns, plastered all over their social media. We couldn’t avoid it if we tried. But there are people who prefer not to shout their sexual preferences to the world and just want to live quiet lives. Outing people who haven’t outed themselves is rude. Green writes,
[T]hey won Caldecott and Newbery Medals for books that, without ever directly speaking their truth, sent it out in a secret language that was somehow accessible to those who needed to receive it. And not just to them. These works comforted the proto-gay but also tenderized the proto-straight in a way no other literature could.
Maybe the words just comforted everybody because they were stories that transcended the banality of the everyday and elevated our imaginations. Maybe there are no hidden messages. Sometimes a frog is just a freaking frog.
Remember when the Christian right said “the gays are coming for your children!” and no one believed them? Green suggests there was a plot to target the children.
Elsewhere, especially in Sendak’s work, childless authors were showing children — and thus their mothers and fathers — what proper parenting should look like. In “Where the Wild Things Are,” a mother who sends a roughhousing son to bed without supper becomes, in his dream, a monster to be subjugated. In “In the Night Kitchen,” parents barely exist; the child in a state of nature is self-created and, eventually, self-modulated. The message: Leave me alone with my imagination and I’ll be fine.
It must have delighted Sendak to know that, despite the occasional censorship kerfuffle, an America terrified of gay influence on children was devouring his oeuvre as fast as he could whip it up. (His books have sold more than 30 million copies.) While the Save Our Children crusader Anita Bryant and the Focus on the Family attack dog James Dobson were hunting down homosexual propaganda in schools and statehouses, Sendak and the others were hiding it in the one place no one bothered to look: on their children’s night stands…This was not a theme to be addressed openly in stories meant for adults; even if it were possible, it would be useless, already too late. [Emphasis added]
First, it’s creepy to say that gay themes can only be addressed with children — as if adults must be bypassed (because clearly, we would reject the targeting of children with sexual content).
Second, it’s Green’s opinion of what Sendak intended. Nowhere in the article is Sendak quoted. How is going to bed without supper or wanting to be left alone with one’s imagination a “queer theme”? If it is, I can assure Green that no one who reads James Dobson is at all concerned about that type of subversive theme that can only be detected with a Super Secret Gay Decoder Ring. We’re more concerned with the graphic play-by-play given to middle schoolers about the pleasures of anal play. Literally no one cares about children using their imaginations (unless they’re imagining gay sex that their “health” teacher taught them).
Claiming that these books are some kind of coded gay messaging is stupid for a few reasons:
- If it’s true, then it’s more fun to keep it a secret for those “in the know.”
- If it’s not true, it’s an insult to the authors who may have had a totally different intention or, like Frank Oz, feel that human beings are much more than their sexuality.
- It doesn’t allow for the reader to ascribe his own meaning to the tales.
- Reading someone’s attempt to break down classic tales into queer theory is like the sound of screeching nails on a chalkboard (or AOC’s voice). Example:
Called “The Secret Language,” it concerns Victoria, a lonely 8-year-old in her first year at boarding school. There she befriends a butch girl named Martha — not quite Harriet-level butch (she wears no tool belt), but tough, antiauthoritarian and, in Mary Chalmers’s illustrations, the possessor of a fine set of bowl-cut bangs. It is Martha who has invented the titular language, in which “ick-en-spick” means silly and “ankendosh” disgusting. Amazingly, the word to use “when something is just lovely” is (I’m not making this up) “leebossa,” which is dying to be an anagram of “lesbian.”
But it’s hard to miss at least one message Nordstrom is sending, in code of course, when the kindly housemother tells Victoria and Martha that “the world will always need those who do not try to be just like everyone else.”
I don’t mean to get technical, but “leebossa” is not an anagram of “lesbian.” It’s missing two letters and has an extra one, so it’s not even close. And further, being different from everybody else in 2019 would mean being a straight MAGA-hat-wearing Christian in public. It certainly wouldn’t be conforming to the queer culture that is oh-so-popular and full of its own power and virtue. Just by typing those words I run the risk of the gay mafia coming after me to destroy my life like they did to Nick Sandmann. Name one LGBTQWTF member in America afraid to “be themselves” or wear their sexual preference on a rainbow t-shirt. Conversely, I bet you could find at least a million people who own MAGA hats but are afraid to wear them outside. Who is really silenced and harassed in America today? (Hint: It’s not the queer kids.)
The other thing about this that rankles is the targeting of little girls who aren’t “girly” and labeling them “butch.” Lots of girls want to climb trees and fix things instead of doing their nails. It doesn’t define their future and it’s abusive to keep insisting that little girls must be into little girl things or they are lesbians. Baloney!
Green claims that all the authors of these books are gay. Maybe that’s true, but does that mean that gay authors can’t write children’s stories that don’t have subversive gay messaging? I think most gay people are just like the rest of us and enjoy a wholesome tale of friendship and love that transcends the everyday and teaches us about humanity. It’s not always about sexuality and insisting that it is cheapens the sublime that is childhood.