• Kacen Callender

WIP: The Queer Secret in Kidlit

Disclaimer: I’m not subtweeting you! I’m not talking badly about you, specifically, dear queer kidlit author who is reading this and worries that I am. I’m talking, generally, about a culture that I think we’ve all been a part of and have all interacted with, myself included. I’m not trying to call anyone out. I guess I’m attempting a call in for all of us.

I’ve realized that, generally in kidlit, queerness is a secret that must be outed. I’m sure that if I read back through my previous books, I’ll see elements of this “secret” throughout, too—but I want to draw attention to the framing of this secret, and how we frame queerness and gender identity to younger readers, because there’s something that I’m seeing more and more of, the more aware I am of it.

When we talk about the secret of queerness or being trans or nonbinary, almost always with a goal of coming out (or a sense that coming out is always the eventual end goal and expectation), are we potentially shaming people who are not out? Are we talking about our identities as something that we keep hidden, and that when we decide to no longer hide that part of ourselves, that moment is to be celebrated? Are we framing the “hiding” of our identity as lies and dishonesty to people around us? If coming out is almost always framed as an act of bravery and honesty, what does that suggest to young readers who are not out about their identities now?

I’m thinking of the young readers who are in households where they might be kicked out for being queer; of the young readers who will be bullied relentlessly for being transgender. If they read a book that says, or even subconsciously implies, that they are ashamed of who they are because they haven’t told anyone their “secret”, that they’re “lying” to the ones that they love, will they feel pushed to tell others about their identity? What are the potentially dangerous consequences for that young reader?

I like to tell young readers in school visits that they don’t have to tell anyone a single thing if they’re not ready, if they don’t feel safe, or if they simply don’t want to. I think about trying to reframe the “coming out” process in my own head—that any identity is something that no one needs to know, ever, if a person doesn’t want anyone to know about that identity. Why should coming out be something that’s celebrated at all? Yes, there’s a long, hard-won history that explains why coming out can be something that’s celebrated for many, and I’m not knocking anyone who does want to celebrate their own coming out—but when this is the only narrative, the idea that coming out = celebration, and not coming out = shame and lies, does this constant narrative eventually create harm, especially when we’re writing for a younger audience?

What would a book with a different narrative look like? Where a character is queer, and maybe a few people happen to know, or not a single soul, but that main character feels absolutely zero need or pressure to tell anyone else, or anyone at all? What if that character actually felt a power and a strength in holding onto this part of their identity, knowing that no one needs to know if they don’t want anyone to? Would a young reader see that and actually feel empowered? Would they feel even braver and more courageous for not telling their parents or their friends or classmates, especially those in potentially dangerous situations? Maybe more of a balance between these two narratives could help young readers decide the best course of action for themselves, instead of possibly feeling pushed or pressured into coming out.

The great George M. Johnson once said on a panel I shared with them (and I’m paraphrasing): “I don’t think about it as coming out. I think of it as inviting in.”

I’m thinking about my own future books, and how I might be able to weave in a line about the courage of not feeling the need to tell a single soul about an identity if that character doesn’t want to, even in a society that expects them to; a line where someone decides to invite another person in, not as an act to be celebrated, as if the space of before inviting them in was a negative, but because that person is safe and trusted. Maybe I’ll write a book where a person is queer, or trans, and never tells a single person, because they simply don’t want to, and that’s enough.

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