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‘If we can see it, we can be it’: Why representation matters to children

Author Chaz Harris on growing up without positive gay role models in a homophobic world – and how he’s created Promised Land, a fairytale so that our children don’t go through the same.

I was at the last Out in the Park with my golden tutu-d and pink gumbooted little boy. We had marched in the parade as part of his ballet class. When I saw the stall for the book Promised Land I took him over. His reaction made me donate to the Kickstarter for the project that day. When I bought the book he made me read it to him three times in a row. Promised Land had a 1500 first edition print run – three times the size of the first edition print run of the first Harry Potter book. It’s now going to be printed as a paperback as well and online editions have been translated into Te Reo and Spanish. Chaz Harris and Adam Reynolds – authors of the book – have given an incredible gift to all children. As Chaz has outlined below: representation matters. It can save lives. We all have a role to play as parents in supporting our babies and literature that supports them. Thank you Chaz and Adam for your mahi. It’s appreciated more than you could know. – Spinoff Parents editor, Emily Writes

“If she can see it, she can be it” says the motto of The Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media and recent films like Moana, Hidden Figures and Moonlight have all allowed people to see themselves represented in a way not previously shown on screen. To many, it wasn’t just a reflection of who they are, but of who they could be.

In the world of children’s literature, the We Need Diverse Books movement was established a few years ago with the aim of encouraging publishers and writers to be more inclusive in the books they create and the stories they tell. However, there is much more work to be done for stories to truly represent the diverse world we live in.

I knew I was different from a young age, but I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of different as I grew up with no reference points. In my first few years of High School, kids started calling me gay before I knew what that meant. I was always raving about The Spice Girls and Peter Andre and buried feelings of attraction, denying them out loud to others and myself. I thought: if being gay was an insult, it must be a terrible thing to be and I don’t want to be that!

I spent most of my teen years hoping those feelings were just a phase. It wasn’t. I was 17 when I admitted it to myself, I guess I’m gay then – with the enthusiasm of a Barbra Streisand fan at a Metallica concert. That’s unfair, I’m sure some people love both.

My ‘coming out’ was uneventful and very matter-of-fact. While my dad was getting ready for work I walked into his room and said: “So… I think I might be kinda gay.” He just replied, “We love you whatever you are.” Right then, glad that’s sorted, what’s for supper? I was very lucky to have parents who didn’t make an issue of it, but I think they knew long before I did.

I’d been through Hell at school and I told them all the other kids were calling me gay. For a short time in my late teen years I even thought being called gay so much had made me this way. It seems silly in hindsight, but being a teenager always felt that way; a chaotic and irrational rollercoaster of emotions you’re just glad to leave behind you – at least I was! (Side-note: I really like actual rollercoasters.)

Last year, I co-wrote a new children’s book called Promised Land with my friend Adam Reynolds and we ran a Kickstarter to fund it. It was a fairytale love story like any other, only this one had two male characters who grew up and fell in love.

Adam Reynolds and Chaz Harris

I knew we’d receive a conservative backlash from those with the obsessive belief that being LGBTQ is a choice. In case you are one of them, allow me to debunk that myth right now. If you could offer me a blue pill that would turn me straight, I would take it. Not conversion therapy that does not work, but an actual switch-hitter of a pill. But I often think why? Why would I want that pill? Why would I want to change something about myself that I cannot? Why would I not be ‘feeling the pride’?

Shame.

There are two great books – The Velvet Rage by Dr. Alan Downs and Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd (former editor of Attitude) – that I highly recommend and that put all of this in context for me over the last couple of years.

For those of us who are LGBTQ, we face shame every day, but all of us experience it from childhood as our parents tell us what is/isn’t acceptable. A boy picks up a Barbie and gets scolded for playing with it: shame. A girl wants to play soccer but is told to take ballet or dance classes instead: shame.

These tiny moments in our formative years as young people all add up. Just as gender roles and the self-image of men and women are influenced by these experiences, so too are that of LGBTQ young people.

Personally, I believe a lot of this comes from toxic masculinity: the archaic social attitudes of what men have been expected to be – violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive etc. They embody themselves in society as domestic violence, depression, alcoholism, suicide, sexual assault and rape culture. I think one of the most violent things a parent can do to their son is saying ‘be a man’. Like, what does that even mean? What is a man beyond the more basic biological indicators? Where is the checklist for that? Some of us are even men who are assigned female at birth based on their genitals, so anatomy isn’t even a good measure!

In New Zealand, it feels like this attitude has embodied itself in the “harden up mate” rhetoric thrown at men who show emotion or perceived weakness. Men need to allow themselves to be vulnerable, but we need to grow up knowing it’s okay to show emotion and share emotion with our peers, and that we can do it without shame.

When I was a kid, I saw no representation of gay men in the media and received no education on sexuality. At some point in my late teens we did have one obligatory sex education class, but my memory of it is foggy and involved bananas and much giggling from everyone.

I vividly remember the first time I learned what being gay was though. One day, I was so scared to go to school I had made myself physically ill and stayed home sick on the couch watching daytime television. I watched an episode of Oprah and saw her interviewing a group of gay men.

In the years that followed, I saw many episodes of that show featuring gay guests, though they were often presented in a tragic context or struggle narrative. It was still a powerful thing though, to realise that if I was gay, I wasn’t the only one and I was not alone. Not long after that in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out as the first openly gay TV character on network television in America. However, I still didn’t have any gay men I felt I could relate to.

In 1998, George Michael was forced to come out, but that was after the news media had done their very best to shame him in the process. As such, my opinions about what being gay meant by this point had become associated with tragedy, discrimination and shame. With that in mind, it’s unsurprising to see many gay men force themselves into marriages with women and having kids before they’re willing to face the truth. After all, most of us just want to find acceptance in these meat suits we’re wearing as we hurtle through the galaxy on a giant space rock, right?

I was watching When We Rise last week, the fantastic new LGBTQ rights miniseries by Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black. In it, there was a news clip of a man talking about the myth of ‘the happy homosexual’. He believed that being a gay man and being happy were not circumstances that could co-exist. I certainly grew up absorbing that message from the media and the world around me.

In my younger years, I watched dozens of animated films based on fairytales. I was Ariel: just wanting to have legs and live on land like everyone else instead of having fins and being stuck in the sea. I was Belle: the ‘funny boy’ obsessed with movies and books instead of football. I was Aladdin: getting called ‘street rat’ thinking if only they’d look closer, they’d find out there’s so much more to me.

I related to these characters, but I realise now I was projecting my own identity onto them and the struggle to find their place in the world. A question soon grew in my mind: if I’m gay and that’s meant to be okay, then why are none of these characters like me?

When Adam first mentioned the idea of a gay fairytale in mid-2015, it was a story about a Prince and a farm boy who meet and fall in love. Having waited my whole life to see representation like this and in disbelief it still didn’t exist, I locked onto it like my life depended on it. Even though it didn’t, I knew for others, that might be the case.

Jack and Leo – the farm boy and the Prince

In thinking about why it would be important, I immediately remembered a story from The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2008 about a young boy called Larry King who asked a male classmate to be his Valentine. The next day, his classmate came in and shot him. Talking about the murder, Ellen said: “when the message out there is so horrible; that to be gay, you can be killed for it? We need to change the message.” To me, a children’s book about gay characters who meet and fall in love (with their love never being questioned) felt like the answer to how we could possibly try to achieve that.

Although murder and violence kill many LGBTQ people, sometimes the biggest threat comes from us ourselves. According to The Trevor Project, the rate of suicide in LGB youth is four times greater than that of straight youth. It is devastatingly, even higher for Transgender youth. In a national study, 40% of transgender U.S. adults reported having made a suicide attempt with 92% of those individuals saying it was before the age of 25. In America, gay youth are four times more likely to be homeless but the statistics on LGBT homelessness in New Zealand have been unclear. Without hope and positive messaging, it’s easier for despair to win.

Through seeing gay characters living ‘Happily Ever After’ in stories, we can grow up believing gay people can too. If we see more representation of queer people as heroes, they’ll grow up with a more positive self-image. If we get to see women in stories with the strength and courage to save themselves, well, we’ll just be catching up with what many women do already!

If we can see it, we can be it.

Many friends who are parents talk about wanting to raise tolerant children, but raising accepting children is what will change the world and I believe acceptance starts with representation. If every human life has equal value then it’s time for the stories our children grow up reading to be more inclusive of the diverse world around them. Perhaps then, the world can become a more inclusive place too.

A small minority of people have criticised our book using the same rhetoric: won’t someone think of the children!? My reply is always the same: we are.

Chaz Harris is an award-winning filmmaker and writer from Wellington. You can meet him and the team behind Promised Land at Out in the Park today, Saturday 18 March.

 Promised Land is available as an ebook, audiobook and the Paperback edition is available for pre-order here.

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