Kids books are so gay

I realized: they’re all that way?

(Maurice Sendak, sketch from Where the Wild Things Are)

Thinking back on the books I read as a kid, I realize they were bringing into my life sexual ideas that were openly hostile to our religious culture. Christianity permitted strange, magical children because they were unthreatening. They were for “kids.”

They weren’t ‘gay’ or anything like that.

From Hans Christian Anderson to Maurice Sendak, we wouldn’t have been able to analyze the origins of the colorful, amorphous, magical beings doing strange things. It was just . . . fun.

“And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”

In retrospect, the story of children’s literature would seem to be sexually different people forming stories from their own inner struggles. And smuggling ideas about new possibilities and difference into heavily guarded prisons—like my life.

Sherlock Holmes was fine, approved literature, though we realize now the famous detective, single and always with his special male friend, “bears a striking resemblance to Oscar Wilde,” notes Graham Robb.

Arthur Conan Doyle formulated his famous detective soon after meeting the great gay playwright.

But we Christians could even read Oscar Wilde, who did many children’s tales. The homosexual aesthete, even as he was in prison, had been imported into the brains of practically everyone on the planet.

Looking back at most of the hubs of children’s literature, they often start to look a bit suspicious. Horatio Alger was kicked out of his job at the First Unitarian Church of Brewster, Massachusetts after seeming less interested in God than “unnatural familiarity with boys.”

It made possible his influential career in children’s literature. He invented the spunky, street-wise ‘American boy’ — that all boys later, wanted to be.

History is complex, life is either unbearable or unbearably strange, I’ve found, and children’s literature was always that way. The ordinary world is never enough. You must live in magic.

Every child who has a strange, magical adventure seems to be occupying a space carved out by a writer with curious psychosexual inclinations, even if never later disclosed. In retrospect, it feels like a community of weirdos who go toegther to teach the hostile world how to be human, and whose biographies seem, in retrospect, a series of disconnected signs.

“When you are hiding something, you get the feeling that every other secret is connected to your secret,” writes John Bellairs in A House With a Clock in Its Walls.

He was never openly gay, but looking him up, I’m like . . . hmm.

“I suppose I’m gay,” sighed Edward Gorey. “But I don’t identify with it much.” The children’s writer, so often, lives in the world of secrets.

We read Arnold Lobel, of the Frog and Toad series. If you brought home J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, even, no one would know.

To learn about them is often to face biographical material that is strange, and with darkness in there. An unsettling use of real children is a ghost that haunts children’s literature, from Alice in Wonderland on.

“It was an extraordinary relationship between them — an unhealthy relationship. I don’t mean homosexual, I mean in a mental sense.” Reading about J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, would we expect any different?

Jesse Green writes recently in the New York Times:

In any case, the more you look, the more pronounced the pattern gets. Louise Fitzhugh, whose immensely popular “Harriet the Spy” books of the 1960s and 1970s kicked Nancy Drew’s Junior League butt, was openly (if not publicly) lesbian. Remy Charlip’s “Fortunately” (1964), John Steptoe’s “Stevie” (1969) and Sandra Scoppettone’s “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead” (1969), written with Fitzhugh, all bear the stamp, however obscure, of their authors’ sexuality.

Of Jack London we learn that “he remained a woman’s man and never seems to have slept voluntarily with men.” I see.

Louisa May Alcott seems not to have been sexual in life. I read her as lesbianish, proto-lesbian. Basically lesbian? Like Lucy Maud Montgomery, of Anne of Green Gables, the lesbiany girl-boy, the girl in search of “bosom companions.” Basically lesbian, even if Montgomery was averse to overt sexual advances from women. Yet, she got them.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown was a lesbian love letter. Rather perfectly, she didn’t like kids.

The same literary strategies and modes were hardly confined to children’s literature, and indeed migrate from Shakespeare, Melville, on and on. Perhaps readers of all imaginative literature were trying to live, for a few moments, in a gay brain.

The theater curtain started to lift in 1948, with Leslie Fielder’s famous 1948 essay, “Come Back to the Raft ag’in, Huck Honey!,” which shocked the literary world by saying Huckleberry Finn, a tender tale of his white boy and his black boyfriend, was a “homoerotic fable.”

It’s so clear? It’s gay clear.

Larry Kramer riffs on the subject of Mark Twain’s sexuality: “Most histories are written by straight people who wouldn’t know, see the signs that a gay person does when they look at a person’s life,” he says. “I mean, how could you write the life of Mark Twain without realising that he was hugely, hugely gay? The way he lived, who his friends were, and how his relationships began. And what he wrote about! I don’t know how you could avoid the assumption that he’s gay.”

But that they didn’t see made the books possible. A categorization into the unacceptable, the feared, the taboo, was never made. That is where children’s literature operated: in the implicit and denied, and if disclosed, then laughed off, as if the ‘accusation’ is itself perverse.

“Do you still believe that st-st-stuff about Huck Finn?” asked Ernest Hemingway when meeting Fiedler in 1960. Of course Hemingway believed it as well. Everyone knew, but saying it had been a shock.

Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye, as well, is gay-clearly gay. Or perhaps you might say that he occupyes a nebulous, doom-eager psychic space that may never be resolved. And that is gay too.

Neither boy has any erotic future, or future at all, and that is gay.

The post-Huck hero or heroine of children’s literature seems intrinsically ‘queer’, odd, confused about the terms of ordinary life, averse to ordinary sexuality, without parents, forced out of the normal world by some inner mystery, able to live only in the magical unknown.

If Professor Dumbledore, as J.K. Rowling now says, is gay, then we might say he is passing onto Harry Potter a queer sensibility — jokey in duress, intent on summoning a magic that will save the world. Even as there is, flickering at the edges, an unspoken sadness.

Image: norika21/Flickr

Our family practiced the “Christian lifestyle” — hating people and reading books like Anne of Green Gables, or watching the movies on T.V.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

It was all sexless, fantasy-friendly, Evangelically approved.

Jonathan Crombie, the actor playing Gilbert, Anne’s devoted boyfriend and husband, never quite loved . . . was gay. His sister said so at his funeral.

Eulogizing Crombie, in 2015, co-star Megan Follows recalled when they met: “I remember thinking he was so sweet and non-threatening in the best way. Because we were all nervous, and he put you at ease. He had a wonderful sense of humor, so we laughed a lot.”

I read that as anti-gay? She clearly knew.

I reflect on Coleen Dewhurst, who played Anne’s severe foster mother Marilla. She was in real life an uproarious diva who loved gay men. Tom Viola recalls their times out on Fire Island: “And before you can say chardonnay, Colleen and about six gay men are having a rather loud early-morning pool party, sipping wine, laughing and splashing about in the pool in various stages of drunkenness and undress.”

He adds: “People just fell in love with her all over the island. She came out a number of times over the next couple of summers and ended up hosting a number of the very first AIDS benefits that were done out there.”

I look up the dates of the Anne movies: 1985, 1987.

Of course it would be this way: Dewhurst went from playing the part of the spinster who confirmed all our Christian views about propriety, to hosting AIDS fundraisers on Fire Island.

Life is that way? Strange, magical.

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spirituality + sexuality + stories

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