Friday, August 15, 2014

Sometimes civility evades me

I stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of our home to say goodbye to my wife Blanche as she was leaving for work. And to answer her questions about how to drive my smart fortwo -- it's quirky.

As she drove off, I spotted two men with fliers approaching the house, chatting. They parted, and one made his way up our front walk with me quietly in pursuit, hackles raised. He was on the porch reaching for the door-knocker, as I climbed the steps.

"What's up?" I asked, trying not to sound as suspicious as I felt. I was allowing for the possibility that he was from the City, perhaps advising me of work being doing in the neighbourhood. 

He held out one of his fliers for me to see: "I wanted to let you know about a website...." Big as light, the word, "Bible," was on it. It's all I saw. That and a metal case he was holding that looked like it might contain a receipt book.

"You saw the sign about the fliers coming up the walk, eh?" I said, less evenly than before.

"Oh, I wasn't going to leave the flier; I was going to talk to you about it first."

Same difference -- in my mind, anyway. As disingenuous as I felt his argument was, I became rude and territorial.

"Nah, we're all good here," I snarled. He tried again, and I repeated myself.

"You have a nice day," he said, in what sounded like a mixture of brotherly love and sarcasm.

Note that I never found out what his message was and therefore cannot specify my objection to it. He never learned specifically why I was angry and may have walked away assuming that I just hated Christians or religious people or people who came to my door generally.

I have friends who attend church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Some of them are queer; or they love queers who are their friends and family. They believe in a woman's right to choose. They cannot countenance capital punishment. They don't think someone is an anti-Semite for criticizing any act of the State of Israel. They believe in comprehensive and sex-positive sexual health education in schools. They think that #rapeculture is a thing.

Same goes for my more agnostic friends and full-on atheists, like myself.

I will never know how this man or his church or organization felt about any of these things. I didn't want to know. He came to my door, so I assumed he was going to tell me what to fear and whom to love. He was going to proselytize me. And collect some money or contact information if he could.

My reaction to him is oddly removed from what I try to do the rest of the time. As an elementary educator, I help students navigate conflicting belief systems -- whether its contrasting ideas in the classroom or periodic dissonance they experience between expectations of home and school.

I've taken on additional duties in my school -- including the role of Safe and Positive Space representative, which is mandated in all TDSB schools. I'm also a GSA leader. I've spoken to parents -- quite respectfully and effectively -- about potential conflicts between recognition of LGBTTIQQ2SA people at school and personal beliefs or faith practised at home. 

Indeed, it was in a GSA meeting with students that we had a fascinating conversation about faith-based organizations and their members who embrace gender and sexual diversity. We discussed the importance of not assuming a person of faith harboured prejudices against anyone.

None of that was working for me at my doorstep. My battlements were breached. And I was hostile.

After my neighbours get home from work, I may ask them to show me the flier, so I can figure out what I was so steamed about.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Queer Eye for Children's Literature

For the bulk of my career as an elementary educator, I was a teacher-librarian in the public schools. In my training as a teacher and librarian, combined with my previous work as a community college teacher in the nineties, I became very committed to equity and diversity. Simply put, in my belief, a school library ought to reflect the diversity of the school and community... and then some.

Here's an example of what I mean, when I say, and then some. In all my years in elementary education, I have encountered one child whose family celebrated Kwanzaa.  


But just as I would have multiple books about Eid or Christmas or Diwali, I always made a concerted effort to have two or three titles about Kwanzaa on hand in the library. I didn't have them just in case in I ran across a child whose family celebrated the holiday; I also had them because children like to read about the lives of other children. Muslim kids sign out books about Easter. Hindu and Sikh kids read about Christmas. Children are simply that curious.

Slim Pickings

For many years, when I would take on a new school library, I could expect to find three queer-positive  titles:

Asha's Moms (Women's Press, 1990)
Mom and Mum Are Getting Married (Second Story Press, 2004)
Daddy's Roommate (Alyson Books, 1994)

Combined, the three titles cannot reasonably be called an LGBT or queer collection, since the characters described are exclusively gay or lesbian. (The B and T are silent.) As good as these books are -- or were in their time -- none of them, with the exception of Asha's Moms suggests that queer-identified people experience discrimination. In that story, Asha is distressed when a classmate says she can't have two moms. This misunderstanding is quickly addressed. Outside of the fact that the parents described in the books are gay or lesbian, they don't really have any other identity.

Over the years it got easier for me to address this inequity and add marvelous titles, such as Spork (Kids Can Press, 2010) and a personal favourite, The Sissy Duckling (Simon & Schuster, 2005). The Sissy Duckling is a picture-book by Harvey Fierstein and tells the story of Elmer, a duckling who would rather put on shows than play baseball, and who finds himself rejected by his peers and his own father.

There are many more titles coming out as well. My friend and colleague j wallace, a consultant who also works for the Toronto District School Board's Gender-Based Violence Prevention office, has compiled a comprehensive list of picture books that challenge gender stereotypes.

What makes a good queer-affirming book for kids?

I see three areas that need to be addressed in adding queer titles to children's libraries:

1. LGBT means LGBT, not just gay and lesbian characters. Parents and educators cannot enrich children's perspective on gender and sexual identity if the message is: 

Sometimes boys and girls fall in love with each other, and sometimes girls fall in love with girls, and sometimes boys fall in love with boys.

None of the above is necessarily untrue, but it shoehorns queer-identified people into the same idyllic template that has been assigned to families led by heterosexual and cisgender, different-sex partners. Diverse literature about families also shows children raised effectively and lovingly by single parents; by aunts and uncles; and by neighbours and friends who add their love and support.

2. Queer-identified people -- and their allies -- experience conflict and discrimination based upon sexuality or gender. Simply being queer is criminalized in over eighty countries. South of border, more than half of US states have no employment protection for queer-identified people. Right here in Ontario, some people and groups are actively resisting legislative updates to the Education Act which prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. While mistreatment and oppression should not define queer people, these cannot simply be dismissed in simplistic narratives about bullying.

3. Queer folks are three-dimensional people who identify in myriad ways besides being LGBT. They teach school, attend school, work, cut the grass, pay rent, do laundry, attend religious services -- just like everyone else. Any number of children depicted in the wonderful books by Robert Munsch could have two moms or two dads or without altering the core message of his stories. There's no reason Amelia Bedelia couldn't have a gender non-conforming friend. The presence of a queer-identified character in a children's book does not have to be a de facto social or political statement that drives the narrative.

Fortunately, there are authors, entrepreneurs and other activists who are rising to the challenge of queering children's literature. Here are two great examples:

My Chacha is Gay

My Chacha is Gay (Samosa Press, 2014)
My Chacha is Gay by Eiynah

My Chacha is Gay is the children's book by Eiynah, the pen name of a Pakistani-Canadian artist. (Eiynah also writes the blog Nice Mangos, about sexuality from a Pakistani perspective.) Her book tells the story of Ahmed, a little boy who lives with his family, which includes his parents, sister, paternal grandmother and his Chacha -- which means paternal uncle in Urdu. Ahmed enjoys his time with his chacha and his uncle's boyfriend Faheem, who is a pilot. He is also confused and discouraged by the way people treat his uncle.

Ahmed believes that the love shared by his uncles is no different from that of his parents. What I find significant and authentic about the book is that the mistreatment of Chacha and people like him is not resolved in twenty pages. It's still there when the child has finished reading, and so is a sense of resilience that comes from a loving family and allies, as well as hope for a better future.

The book was successfully funded by an Indiegogo campaign and was read in Peel District Schools during during International Day of Pink celebrations last spring, drawing the ire of some conservative religionists. I shared it with my own grade threes last last May with wonderful results. Children were especially interested in the author's pictograms of different family structures and shared their own in letters to her.    

My Chacha is Gay is written simply from the point of view of little Ahmed, and I find it's ideally suited to younger children from pre-K to grade three. Urdu and Hebrew translations of the book are underway, along with others.

Eiynah maintains an active Twitter account.

Oh, and Chacha has his own Twitter account too. 

Flamingo Rampant Book Club!
S. Bear Bergman and j wallace

Getting more queer books out to children and their schools is the mission of j wallace, mentioned above, and partner S. Bear Bergman, an author and story teller. The couple have founded the Flamingo Rampant Book Club! on KickStarter and are very close to approaching their goal $49,000 to distribute six new queer-affirming titles for children aged four to eight for their subscribers. A pledge of $99 and above guarantees a full-year subscription, plus extras.

Note: These are not donations for the start-up. Donors recieve product based on the amount they pledge. Below is a summary of some forthcoming titles from Flamingo Rampant:

M is for Mustache, a Pride ABC book written by  Catherine Hernandez. M is for Mustache features not only items of Pride - like beads, flags, glitter and stick-on mustaches - but also values of pride: liberation, justice, community and magic.
Newspaper Pirates, a mystery adventure about curious Barney who goes on an apartment building adventure to see who's filching his Daddy and Papa's newspaper.
a Onkwehon:we (Indigenous) story of a gender-independent young child finding the power in his long hair by Mohawk and Cayuga artist and shaman Kiley May.
Home Together, a travel story, in which Mama and Amma  - recently married - take their newly-blended family on an alternative honeymoon trip to New Hampshire and Dharamsala, India so everyone can see where each grew up.
Is That For A Boy Or A Girl?, by S. Bear Bergman, an inclusive and feminist book showing twelve awesome kids speaking in first person rhyme about how they and their activities/interests/clothes interrupt the pink/blue dichotomy in some way.

j's and Bear's campaign has caught the attention of several publications, notably Bitch Magazine, The Advocate, and ColorLines.

More information about this exciting project can be found at the Flamingo Rampant website. Here's Bear's video:

S. Bear Bergman on Twitter.
j wallace on Twitter.

In a future blog, I will discuss the pushback that educators might experience in promoting queer-themed books and strategies to address that.

Happy reading!

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Strange Case of Homophonia

CBC: Language school blogger writes about homophones -- then he's fired
Timothy Torkildson during better days at
Nomen Global Language Center, in Provo, Utah.

According to, a homophone is "a word pronounced the same as another but differing in meaning, whether spelled the same way or not, as heir and air."

Or bare and bear. Or waste and waist.

When I first heard the story of Timothy Torkildson's firing from Nomen Global Language Center -- that's a language school -- in Provo, Utah, for advancing "a gay agenda," I thought maybe his boss Clarke Woodger had conflated homophone with homophobe, the word for a person who fears or hates homosexuals and homosexuality

Apparently not -- he just got stuck on the homo part.

Mr Woodger had to look up the word homophone when he read in a blog Mr Torkildson was hired to write for the school, where the latter was also in charge of social media. According to an interview aired on CBC Radio's As It Happens, the employer was concerned that readers might conclude the article had to do with "gay sex."

And so now, we also have a really good example of homophobia too. The article is posted in its entirety below, with a link to the audio interview from the radio program.

From CBC Radio's As It Happens -- July 31, 2014
 Until very recently, Timothy Torkildson blogged for the Nomen Global Language Center -- an ESL school in Provo, Utah. Earlier this month, Mr. Torkildson wrote a blog post explaining why homophones can be a difficult concept for new English speakers to grasp. Then, he was fired.
In his original post entitled "Help with Homophones," Torkildson wrote, "In English, a homophone is a word that has several different meanings and spellings, but always sounds the same. The best way to learn these tricky words is to memorize them little by little: 'Ad' is an advertisement. 'Add' is a mathematical function."

Torkildson says his boss, Clarke Woodger, expressed concern that because of his use of the term homophone, "people might think it talked about some kind of gay agenda."

When asked if Woodger knew the definition of the word, Torkildson says Woodger had to look it up in the dictionary after he read the blog.
His former employer confirmed the incident in the Salt Lake Tribune, "...people at this level of English," Woodger said, "may see the 'homo' side and think it has something to do with gay sex."

Torkildson describes the moment when he found out he was fired, "I was struck dumb. I really didn't say anything at all. My first thought was, 'I've lost my job. I wonder if I can get a good reference from him.'"

Torkildson, who used to work as a circus clown, sums up the experience this way, "Life usually is just a big joke. This is just another piece of the joke. That's how I want to treat it."

He worked at the center for less than three months before he was fired. Torkildson says he's grateful to Woodger for having offered him the job. (CBC)

Continue to CBC for audio.