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Heather and Her Critics

newman_heather has two mommiesAs an out lesbian author of six picture books, five of which depict families with gay or lesbian members, I have been called one of the most dangerous writers living in America today. In fact, in 1994, my book Heather Has Two Mommies was the second most challenged book in the nation, following closely on the coattails of Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate, another book about a family that includes a gay parent. When I wrote Heather in 1988, I had no idea my work would cause such a fuss. Though I have been repeatedly accused of having a political agenda, my goal was simply to tell a story.

The idea for Heather came about one day when I was walking down Main Street in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town that bears the slogan “small town charm, big city excitement.” Northampton is also known for its liberalism, tolerance of difference, and large lesbian population. On this particular day, I ran into a woman who along with her female partner had recently welcomed a child into their home. “We have no books to read our daughter that show our type of family,” the woman said. “Somebody should write one.” Is it important for children to see their own image reflected back to themselves within the culture at large? Speaking from personal experience, my answer is a resounding YES.

As a child, I grew up in a Jewish family, in a Jewish neighborhood. I was surrounded with families that looked like my family, families that dressed in similar clothes, families that ate similar foods, families that spoke in similar phrases. Yet I asked my parents over and over, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree? Why can’t I hunt for Easter eggs?” Since I had never read a book or seen a TV show or movie about a young Jewish girl with frizzy brown hair eating matzo ball soup with her Bubbe on a Friday night, I was convinced there was something the matter with my family. My family didn’t look like any of the families I saw in my picture books or on my television set. My family was different. My family was wrong.

Of course, as a child, I was not aware of the power of the media. I was not aware of this yearning to see a family like my own reflected in the culture at large. Nor could I articulate this need. As a grown woman who happens to be a Jewish lesbian, I am painfully aware of the lack of positive images, or even any images of myself in the media. I believe that had I had those images and role models at an early age, they would have greatly enhanced my self-esteem.

And so I took on the challenge of writing Heather Has Two Mommies, hoping to create a book that would help children with lesbian mothers feel good about themselves and their families. Heather was written in 1988. The premise of the book is that Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two hands, two feet, two pets, and two moms. Her family goes on picnics together and celebrates holidays together. When Heather goes to day care for the first time, she realizes that her family is not the same as everyone else’s family. Her teacher has all the children draw pictures of their families, explaining that “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”

I sent Heather to over fifty publishers. Children’s book presses told me to try lesbian publishers. Lesbian publishers told me to try children’s book presses. When a whole year had gone by with no luck, a friend and I decided to publish the book ourselves. We sent out a fundraising letter, promising a copy of the book in exchange for a donation of ten dollars or more. Four thousand dollars later, my theory was proven: there was an enthusiastic audience eager for a book that displayed a child and her two lesbian mothers in a positive way.

In December of 1989, the first copies of Heather Has Two Mommies rolled off the presses. There wasn’t a huge reaction to the book. I got a few letters from lesbian mothers telling me how grateful they were, and one letter from a six-year-old named Tasha who wrote, “Thank you for writing Heather Has Two Mommies. I know that you wrote it JUST FOR ME!” I heard about a little boy who received three copies of the book for his birthday and slept with all of them under his pillow every night. I also spoke with a heterosexual woman whose child was enthralled with the book. “He asks to hear it every night,” she told me, “and he wants to know why he only has one mom.” A sophisticated child who lives with her lesbian mom and her mom’s partner asked, “Why does Heather have two mommies, and I have one mommy and one parent?” Another child with two moms was completely nonchalant about the whole thing. When his mothers read him the book and asked him what he thought, he simply said, “Can we get a dog and a cat, like Heather?” I have not yet heard of a child having an adverse reaction to the book.

Adults, however, are another story. In 1990, Alyson Publications, a gay and lesbian publishing house, started Alyson Wonderland, a line of books for children with gay and lesbian parents. Alyson bought the rights to Heather and also published Daddy’s Roommate. The books got a little more publicity at that time, but all remained quiet until 1992, when three major conflicts arose surrounding Heather and Daddy.

The first conflict occurred in Portland, Oregon, where Lon Mabon had launched an anti-gay campaign, trying to amend the state constitution to allow discrimination against lesbians and gay men. During meetings of his organization, the Oregon Citizen Alliance (OCA), copies of Heather and Daddy were passed around as evidence of “the militant homosexual agenda” Mabon felt was sweeping the nation. In 1992, the citizens of Oregon defeated the OCA measure, though anti-gay legislation was voted into effect that same year in Colorado. (In 1996, Colorado’s anti-gay amendment was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.)

The second arena of controversy surrounding Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, and another title of mine, Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, took place in school and public libraries around the country when the books began disappearing from library shelves from coast to coast. When Alyson Publications learned of this, the company offered to send free replacement copies to the first five hundred libraries who called. Almost as soon as word went out, five hundred calls came in. Librarians, for the most part, rallied around the books and defended freedom of expression as a vital principle upon which this country is based. Some libraries moved the books to the adult section, and some libraries put the books in a special request section. One of the most extreme battles took place in Fayettesville, North Carolina. When a campaign to remove Heather and Daddy was unsuccessful, the people who tried to get the books banned ran ads in local papers urging citizens to vote against an 11.4 million dollar library bond issue that, if passed, would be used to construct five new branch libraries in the area. According to the December 1992 issue of American Libraries, these ads stated that the library had taken the lead in “pursuit of legitimizing homosexuality” and asked, “can prostitution, bestiality or incest be far behind?” Happily, the bond issue passed, though the margin was slim (more than 64,000 ballots were cast, and the measure passed by 304 votes).

I continue to be amazed by all this fuss. It seems to me that a disproportionate number of parents live in fear of their child reading just one book with a gay character in it, for such exposure will, in these parents’ minds, cause their child to grow up to be lesbian or gay. It is usually useless to point out that the vast majority of lesbians and gay men were brought up by heterosexual parents and spent countless hours of their childhood reading books with heterosexual characters. Fear is irrational. It is also about control. I have no problem with parents deciding their child cannot read Heather Has Two Mommies. I do have a problem with these same parents deciding that nobody can have access to it — or to any other book, for that matter.

The third area of controversy took place in New York City around a first-grade curriculum guide called “Children of the Rainbow.” This 443-page bibliography, commonly known as the Rainbow Curriculum, was designed to teach first graders respect for all racial and ethnic groups. In these 443 pages, three paragraphs mention books with gay characters and themes. These books were not mandated or required to be taught or read in the classroom. They, along with hundreds of other books, were merely suggestions.

School Chancellor Joseph Fernandez was a staunch supporter of the Rainbow Curriculum. In a Daily News interview dated September 6, 1992, he said, “If we’re ever going to get this country together, we have to deal with these issues of hate. Kids learn biases from us, from adults. We have to teach them [tolerance] through education.” Unfortunately, many people did not agree with Chancellor Fernandez, including Mary Cummins, president of School District 24 in Queens. In an interview dated April 23, 1992, with New York Newsday, she said the Rainbow Curriculum “says teachers must tell [students] that all families are not heterosexual. We can’t do that in the first grade.” In a 60 Minutes report, Ms. Cummins stated that she “will not expand her curriculum to include materials that promote sodomy” and further stated that “though they don’t like the word, homosexuals are sodomists.”

I look at Heather and her two mommies enjoying a family picnic and wonder how Mary Cummins got from point A to point B. Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate are not about sex. They’re about families. Clearly it’s the adults, not the children, who can’t take the sex out of homosexuality.

After a long and bitter battle, the Rainbow Curriculum was amended, and Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate were removed from its pages. For those who do not want children exposed to this type of family, I ask this: what leads you to believe that every child sitting in your child’s classroom or library comes from a home with a mother and father? Why do you think that there are no children in your child’s classroom or library with lesbian or gay parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors and friends? What messages are you giving to all children, when you pretend there is only one type of family, and render the rest invisible?

From the March/April 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Family Reading.

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman is the author of over seventy books, including Remembering Ethan; A Letter to Harvey Milk; October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; I Carry My Mother; The Boy Who Cried Fabulous; Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed; and Heather Has Two Mommies.

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