The front cover of Uncle What-Is-It is Coming to Visit, a 1993 children’s book by Michael-Willhoite, features two white children frightened by the hairy arm and upturned wrist of an unseen adult. The arm is clad in a frilly pink and orange sleeve, and gaudy bracelets hang from the wrist. The plot hinges on the children’s uncertainty about an uncle they have yet to meet; they know he is gay but are unsure of what it means. Before their mother can explain, she is distracted by a kitchen mishap and the siblings turn to other neighborhood children for answers. They encounter a host of descriptions that terrify them: one neighbor describes gay people as “fags [and] queers [who] really want to be women.” He shows the children a newspaper clipping photo of “a large man dressed in a frilly dress [with] a turban piled high with fruit on his head,” an implicitly racialized caricature reminiscent of Latina style icon Carmen Miranda. Another neighbor describes gay people as “dressed up in black leather. Zippers and chains all over...Dark glasses [and] chaps” (Willhoite, 1993). After having nightmares of men with sinister expressions in tropical-themed drag and leather, the children are overjoyed to discover that their uncle seems “normal.” Relative to depictions of other gay people in the book, Uncle Brett is normal because he is nonthreatening—he is white with short, straight, brown hair; he wears a plain, blue, collared shirt and brown dress pants; he carries a brown briefcase; and he enjoys and excels at activities appropriate for his gender, like catch. Although the book seems to have an affirming message about accepting queer people, it sends a clear message about which queer people are to be feared by children and which are nonthreatening. Nonthreatening queers are those who seem most like people mainstream western society considers normal: people who conform to expected gender roles, who have a vested interest parenting, and who are white and middle-upper class. These nonthreatening queers are by far the most represented in queer-themed literature for children. Based on a survey of 68 children’s books with queer characters, this paper argues that the representation of queer identities in children’s literature upholds more than challenges heteronormativity. I will first address ways many of the books perpetuate gender normativity by problematizing young male characters’ gender-transgressing behavior, portraying queer adults with less threatening gender presentations, and upholding gender binarism; next, I will address how the majority of the books promote repro-narrativity by focusing on monogamous couples’ strong desires and concerted efforts to have/raise children; I will then address race and class and the way white and upper-middle class queer characters are overrepresented while non-white and lower-class queer characters are underrepresented or not represented at all.
- Homonormativity in Children's Literature