“Wait, you have two moms?”
“What do you mean your dad’s a…she?
“Please bring these permission slips home to your moms and dads.”
Many writers want to present a variety of family configurations when they are crafting middle-grade fiction, but they’re not sure how to do it well.
Life is just different for kids of LGBTQ parents. They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and hetero-normative language on a daily basis.
At the recent New England SCBWI Conference, I presented Re-imagining Families: Writing about Characters with LGBTQ Parents with my wife Bonnie Jackman, a seasoned middle school counselor.
Here are a few points from our presentation, specifically tailored to writing about middle graders:
**Kids of LGBTQ parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who's your real mom? Where's your dad? What do you mean your dad’s a she? Just as middle graders have the strong urge to “blend in,” to not attract undue attention from peers, their family makes them…well, different! There are many dissonant moments our kids deal with as a matter of course in their daily lives. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their resilience? This is rich material for character development.
**We all know that LGBTQ rights and protections shifting rapidly and are often in the news of the day. Life for a family with LGBTQ parents can differ dramatically depending on where they live. Consider the setting of your story carefully. Geographical setting is critical to any story with LGBTQ characters; it can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two. Think about the political/social climate for LGBTQ people in the town/state where you have set your story. There are wide variations in social and political climate for alternative families, and it will have an impact on the landscape of your character and his/her family.
**How “out” is the family? Are the parents activists, or do they tend to be more low-key? Where are their children on this spectrum? This is so important when considering your middle grader’s perspective. A kindergarten-age sibling may delight in having her two moms come into the classroom for a celebration; a fourth grader might ask to be dropped off a block from school, or cringe at the thought of same-sex parents or a transgender parent attending Open House at school. A sixth grade girl may have a crisis when the family’s annual outing to a Gay Pride celebration conflicts with a best friend’s birthday party. As writers, these crises present us with a real opportunity to show character depth and family dynamics.
**School is a place where kids of LGBTQ parents may experience all kinds of dissonance. For middle graders, the centrality of family shifts to the all-important force of peer relationships. This brings challenges: school and community factors like mother-daughter book clubs, father-daughter dances, filling out forms with mother/father blanks on them, questions and misunderstandings from teachers, administrators, the school nurse… this is rich territory to explore in character development. How does your character respond to these “micro-aggressions,” when the world around them seems to constantly make hetero-normative assumptions?
**Statistics have shown that same-sex couples (with or without children) are much more likely to be interracial or inter-ethnic. This presents writers with the opportunity to portray very diverse families and to consider the concept of intersectionality—layers of identity and difference. How will this affect your middle grade character, how they view the world, and how they navigate school and community?
To read and consider more about LGBTQ-parented families, check out these organizations/resources:
COLAGE: An organization for children of LGBTQ parents
Family EqualityCouncil: network and resources for LGBTQ-parented families
Rainbow Rumpus: “the world‘s only online literary magazine for kids and teens with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) parents.”