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A British newspaper headline from last summer explains a lot—sort of: “Mother writes children’s book about Tilly the transgender teddy bear after being inspired by her father who transitioned into a woman.” The Daily Mail article reported that Jessica Walton of Melbourne, Australia, was raising money to publish a picture book that would help her baby son relate to his new “grandma.” Walton reached her Kickstarter goal and Introducing Teddy made its appearance last year.
There’s not much to the plot: Thomas the Teddy is moping until his friend Errol (a human boy) asks what’s wrong. Thomas hesitates: “If I tell you, you might not be my friend anymore.” But finally he admits that in his heart, he’s always known that he is a girl instead of a boy. Transitioning means wearing a pink bow and changing “her” name (and pronoun).
One might protest that the anatomy of a stuffed bear doesn’t need changing, and anodyne stories like Introducing Teddy don’t begin to address the complex issues surrounding gender transition in a human being. Pushback against picture-book promotions of transgenderism began in the U.K. almost immediately, with groups such as Parent Power and the Campaign for Real Education reminding the public that (1) children don’t think as adults do, and (2) questions about gender at the kindergarten level are more likely to confuse than enlighten. But Britain’s secretary of state for education enthusiastically backs an initiative called Educate and Celebrate, specifically for “transforming schools and organizations into LGBT-friendly places.” Picture books are a gateway to that goal.
In the United States, LGBT educational initiatives are more often local than national, but influential organizations like the American Library Association highlight “diversity and inclusion” in their mission statements. One means to that end is picture books like I Am Jazz (2014), introducing “Jazz” (formerly Jared) Jennings, now a transgender teen and reality TV star. I Am Jazz was a groundbreaker and is now a staple in school libraries.
More to come: The protagonist of About Chris (2015) is a girl who feels like a boy. Tiny, of Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? (2017), could be either. Though “they” are continually asked about their gender on the playground, they aren’t telling. The hero of Red: A Crayon’s Story (2015) is really—and obviously—a blue crayon in a red wrapper, who can’t meet society’s expectations for coloring strawberries and firetrucks. It’s assumed that a 4-year-old will absorb the underlying message of learning to act like your true self (even though most 4-year-olds understand that crayons are androgynous).
Young children tend to be concrete in their thinking about the outside world, but Parent Power fears that “children are becoming instruments of gender-fluid ideology, as the social landscapes around them dissolve into a mirroring fluidity.” The stated purpose of most of these books is to help children accept transgender classmates or relatives. But questioning their own gender identity may come first.
A survey released in December by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research classifies a whopping 27 percent of California youth (ages 12-17) as “gender non-conforming.” The designation includes 182,466 teens who identified as the opposite gender and 613,449 who reported feeling equally masculine and feminine. More research is needed, but “fluidity” may be washing away certainty about the most basic factors of human nature.