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Michelle Ann Abate on Children's Sexuality

Children's Sexuality

The question of children’s sexuality has long been a controversial one. Elementary-aged young people are commonly seen a being asexual or, perhaps more accurately, pre-sexual. If boys and girls are seen as possessing any erotic inclination at all, it is commonly presumed to be heterosexual. The cultural prevalence and societal power of this belief is evidenced in examples ranging from the sale of onesies for newborn boys with phrases like “Chick Magnet” on them to the abundance of decorative photographs featuring Kindergarten-aged girls in dresses accepting a bouquet of flowers from little boys in oversized suits during what appears to be a mock date.

My essay in this issue spotlights a new conversation that is taking place around questions of both children’s sexuality and especially their presumed heterosexuality. In 2011, Janice Barrett Graham released her picture book Me Tarzan, You Jane. The text uses the central characters from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s well-known narrative about the King of the Jungle to offer a Christian-based critique of nonheteronormative gender and sexuality identities. Graham’s text is certainly not the first picture book for young readers to offer a negative view of LGBTQ individuals and identity. On the contrary, by 2011, there was already a sizable and steadily growing body of such texts. Whereas previous narratives that offered a negative viewpoint on LGBTQ individuals and identity addressed the presence of homosexuality in adults, teenagers or adolescents, Graham’s book is designed to address the possible existence of such behavior in pre-pubescent youth. More specifically, the book is directed at what has come to be known, within both the conservative Christian and secular scientific communities, as “prehomosexual” children: young people who have not yet reached the age of sexual maturity but who exhibit various behaviors, mannerisms and social traits that are seen as indices of future LGBTQ identity. In boys, these behaviors commonly appear as part of the so-called “sissy” identity. Meanwhile, in girls, they routinely appear in the form of tomboyism.

Of course, the existence of pre-gay children and the identification of proto-queer behaviors are not simply of interest to social and religious conservatives; they have also been the subject of attention within queer theory and LGBTQ studies. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her now classic essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” (1991) and, most recently, Kathyrn Bond Stockton in her book The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in The Twentieth Century (2009), have both discussed this issue.

Me Tarzan, You Jane shares this interest in the intersection of childhood and queerness, but for different ideological reasons that have far different socio-political ends. My essay examines Janice Burnett Graham’s picture book as not simply another narrative for children that offers an anti-homosexual viewpoint, but a new type or alternative variety of such texts. Me Tarzan, You Jane marks a significant shift in the strategies being used by secular and especially faith-based entities to combat the increasing cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community in general and the recent setbacks experienced by the ex-gay movement in particular. While the claim by ex-gay organizations that homosexuality can be overcome through a combination of treatment, prayer and counseling have been socially controversial and scientifically contested from its origins, it has faced increasing opposition in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. From the admission by various prominent leaders that their same-sex desires remain intact to the recantation of a key piece of research that has long been used as proof for the efficacy of this approach, the ex-gay movement has lost much of its credibility. 

In my article, I make the case that such damaging revelations have not caused anti-LGBTQ efforts in the United States to diminish; they have merely prompted them to be reconfigured. As it has become increasingly untenable to claim that same-sex desires in adults can be eradicated, individuals who remain committed to combating homosexuality have turned their attention to a new and ostensibly more efficacious cause: preventing its emergence in the first place through early intervention with young children who exhibit gender nonconformity. 

Me Tarzan, You Jane exists at the forefront of this shift in focus. The text offers a vivid example of how the ex-gay movement is reinventing itself as what might be called the pre-gay movement—or, perhaps more accurately, the ex-pre-gay movement. While adolescents and teenagers have long been the target of anti-LGBTQ efforts via gender affirmation camps and sexual “reparative” therapies, Graham’s text signals the expansion of interventionist strategies even further into the realm of childhood. Me Tarzan, You Jane targets early elementary-aged youngsters who have not yet entered puberty but are perceived as prehomosexual. The book attempts to “cure” their proto-queer tendencies before they lead to an engagement in same-sex erotic activity and especially before they prompt the adoption of an LGBTQ identity. The confidence with which Graham’s narrative claims that behaviors which are predictive of homosexuality can be both easily identified and quickly eliminated re-energizes the longstanding efforts by the ex-gay movement to medicalize homosexuality while they also serve to pathologize nonconformist children and unconventional childhoods. Finally, given the book’s use of characters, scenes and settings from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ politically problematic novel about a white man raised in the jungle by apes, coupled with Graham’s repeated framing of same-sex attraction as “wild” and “uncivilized” behavior, Me Tarzan, You Jane reveals how anti-gay rhetoric is heavily imbricated with other discourses of intolerance, namely racism, white Western imperialism and xenophobia.

About the Author

Michelle Ann Abate is Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults at The Ohio State University. She is the author of three books of literary criticism: Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism(Rutgers University Press, 2010), and Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History (Temple University Press, 2008). Michelle is also the co-editor of three books of critical essays: C. S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia Casebook, with Lance Weldy (Palgrave, 2012); Global Perspectives on Tarzan: From King of the Jungle to International Icon, with Annette Wannamaker (Routledge, 2011), Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, with Kenneth B. Kidd (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

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