By Laura Nixon
Several years ago, my mom worked as an elementary school librarian in the small community where my sister and I were raised in rural, northeastern Indiana. One day, she got a phone call from a parent who was upset that her daughter had brought home the children’s book And Tango Makes Three. This book is based on the true story of a couple of male penguins who came together as a couple to raise a baby penguin in the Central Park Zoo. It is a story about family, but this parent thought it was a story about an objectionable “lifestyle.”
My mom explained to the parent that the collection of books in the school library reflected the stories of different kinds of families and that the book would remain on the shelves. Following their conversation, the parent wrote a letter to the editor of our town newspaper expressing her opinion. And following publication of that letter, a number of churches in the community encouraged their parishioners to call upon the school district’s Superintendent to remove And Tango Makes Three from the school’s bookshelves. My mom also received emails from members of the community asking to see the book because “my pastor said the devil is in this book.”
Based on the actions of these church members, the Superintendent removed the book from the collection available to students. When my mother met with him to express her disagreement with his decision, she also added: “Our oldest daughter, Laura, is gay. And decisions like this are the reason that she could never return to live in this community.”
I believe my mother spoke up for this book—and spoke up for me—because of what critical race theorist Mari Matsuda once pointed out about love and family: “The urgency of our need for a precious one's safety is an elixir we might carry as we organize the world to end inequality.” My mother understood that it was important for children to understand that loving families may look different than their own. This will help end inequality. And she understood that it was important for LGBT youth—whether their presence in our school district was acknowledged or not—to see a positive future for themselves as a member of a family. This will help ensure their safety.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights has always advocated for the safety and equality of all families. In fact, protecting families in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community was the work upon which the organization was founded in 1977. Since that time, through our Family Protection Project, we have advocated on behalf of LGBT people and their families by securing their rights to adoption, second-parent adoption, family and relationship recognition, and access to affordable reproductive technologies. Our work on behalf of LGBT families also happens in our Immigration Project, where we represent undocumented LGBT people in deportation proceedings so they can remain with their same-sex partners and children in the United States. We think of LGBT families in our growing reproductive justice work, due to the disproportionate rates of unintended pregnancy among LGBT youth, which may lead them to begin families earlier in life. And although some people may not think of abortion access and contraceptive equity as LGBT issues, we understand that these are important family planning tools for LGBT youth as well as needed safeguards for health for all LGBT people.
In many parts of the country, we are seeing swift and welcome change in how people think about LGBT families. The Supreme Court’s decisions in June about California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act may make a big contribution to this change. However, we have also seen that the pace of change is uneven, and we are committed to standing with LGBT families in underserved areas, including rural communities across the country.
My mom lost the fight to keep that book in the elementary school in our rural community. However, by taking an unpopular stand on behalf of her family—and the family I may have someday—she won over the hearts of her family, friends, and even some of her colleagues who now know our family’s story. In fact, in a touching tribute to her courage, they continue to give her penguin-themed gifts for Christmas every year.
This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.