‘Family values’ have been much in the news again as politicians battle over the proposal to repeal the notorious Section 28 legislation which prohibits local authorities from ‘promoting’ either homosexuality or the ‘acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. <!–break–>
It is extraordinary to what extent the mythical family (husband, wife and children) still dominates our thinking despite the actual changes that have taken place in society. In Britain today less than 30% of families with children involve a male breadwinner, a housewife and two children in a first marriage. The living situation of most adults and children is no longer the nuclear family. About one marriage in three in Britain now ends in divorce and 75% of separated fathers lose touch with their children within three years.
The basis of the family is the union of a woman and a man to produce a baby. We are, therefore, all part of a family, even if it has no more than a symbolic presence in the psyche. Who could not then believe that ‘family values’ matter. Every child needs a secure and nurturing family, whatever its composition, within which to grow and develop. And few would disagree that children also need to have access to both male and female role models as they grow up – something that is increasingly difficult given the number of single parent families in our society.
Children’s authors and illustrators have long been aware of changes in the family and the first ‘situation books’ to reflect children’s new realities began to be published in the 1970s. One of the first was Althea’s I Have Two Homes * about a child whose parents are separated. Since then, there have been books featuring single parent families, children with divorced parents, adopted children and stepfamilies. It has seemed important to have books for children that reflect, in a positive way, all these other family realities.
One of these other realities for a minority of our children is life with a homosexual parent or parental couple. In 1983 Danish author, Susanne Bösche’s Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin * was published in Britain. A photo-picture book about a day in the life of a little girl who lived with her father and his gay partner, it included a picture showing Jenny having breakfast in bed with the two men. The furore caused by this title, and in particular this image, lead in part to the implementation of Clause 28.
It was deeply depressing at the time to see resurrected the old chestnut which associates homosexuality in the public mind with paedophilia. In fact, 95% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by heterosexuals but I cannot recall that there ever been a fuss about picture books which show a child in bed with a heterosexual parental couple. Another chestnut resurrected was that a child who grows up with a homosexual parent or parental couple will inevitably be homosexual. (In that case, one wonders how it is that the children of heterosexual parents can sometimes turn out to be gay.)
For those of us involved with children and their books, it was also depressing that the function of the situation book should be so misunderstood. So far from promoting anything, such books are starting points for discussion with children who may find some pleasure and reassurance in seeing a character in a book whose experience is something like theirs.