Kids, book fairs, and queer fears

Yesterday, Erin and I attended a book fair. We do a lot of book fairs, both special interest (i.e., LGBTQ or romance genre specific) and general interest (i.e., The Brooklyn Book Festival). We enjoy them, and we are, as a rule, very good at them.

Our tables can be slightly incongruous. In addition to our romance titles, we often also display other books I have work in — including the Harry Potter trivia book I wrote in 2007 (it’s all ages appropriate, but aimed at older teens and adults), and several non-fiction essay books about various fannish subcultures from queer or female perspectives. All books are always labeled with price and content information. Additionally, no book has a cover any more sexual than the images you see in public marketing seen on bus shelters and billboards in any major city. Think perfume ads.

This never, ever causes a problem. Often, it helps start conversations. And we’ve long delighted in explaining our publishing careers, talking about being big queer nerds, or letting people know that while the lesbian werewolf anthology wasn’t written as YA, it is suitable for teens, and providing recs for queer romance that has been written specifically for teens, since ours simply isn’t.

And it’s just fine.

And yesterday, it just wasn’t.

I want to take a moment here to say this was not in any way the fault of the book fair. They welcomed our booth, knew about our content going into it, were friendly, well-organized (the most well-organized of any event we’ve been to), and came to make sure we were okay when I tweeted about some of what happened.

A tween was at our table with his mother looking at the Harry Potter trivia book. We keep that book at the far end of the table so that readers who are only interested in that book do not have to engage with our other titles.  The tween was not aware of any of the other books on the table, he had the focus of obsession that Erin and I, as fans, are more than familiar with.

And then his mother saw the rest of the table, slapped her hand over his eyes and tried to pull him away from the table. He had no idea what was going on. He was still trying to keep his eyes on the Harry Potter book. So with her hand still across his face, this mother grabbed the child’s head with her other hand,  and wrenched his neck around in a way that discomforted me for its violence. She then put an arm around his shoulders and dragged him away as she shot nasty glances at us.

This wasn’t the only incident of its ilk yesterday, but it’s the one I’m having trouble letting go of, and the one that shocked me. It’s also the one I feel guilty writing about. Because maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I, as a queer person, have no right to be upset. Maybe I should have expected this. And shouldn’t I, always, think of the children? Speaking of which, maybe I should have told her not to assault her son.

I lived in the DC area from 1990 to 1995. For some of that time I worked in a gay book store where we occasionally garnered drama over a labia-focused coloring book that was a strong seller. The people who bought it ranged from people looking for gag gifts, to women interested in the line art of it, to people educating their children on and trying to normalize the female body.

But every once in a while someone would wander in, not realizing it was an LGBTQ bookstore, then get a clue, then look around until they found the thing that most offended them, and then start screaming about how we were recruiting children. It was then that that damn coloring book — which was never aimed specifically at children — was the bane of my existence. Every. Single. Time.

Growing up queer meant that there were some jobs I knew I could never do. Childcare, teaching, camp counselor — for a queer woman born in 1972, I came of age knowing each and every one of those professions were unsafe for me, just as it was unsafe for me to smile back at a child who might stare at me on the subway because of my glasses, or jewelry, or (at the time) pink hair.

Children, and the work of seeing people into and through this life, was barred to me by our cultural bigotry. In the host of reasons I write about death themes and engage in death work, my life as a queer person is central to it. AIDS happened; children didn’t. Like a curse laid upon my flesh, there were only certain types of witch I could ever be.

As my friends – straight and otherwise – have children, I remember that past, and I feel as if I am supposed to absent myself from their lives. To turn mute. And to keep my eyes downcast in the presence of their little ones. Despite the fact that I love kids, I’m good with them, and am not so shabby at teaching them things.

So Erin and I spent most of yesterday apologizing for our books. Our usual conversation openers were instead reassurances and admissions of awkwardness. And over and over again, we had to listen to people at our table and others insist that at a general interest event, all words in all books must be appropriate for all ages. This is not the world I live in. Nor is it the world I want to live in.

Other things also made the book fair uncomfortable. These included a man coming up to our table to tell a limp-wrist joke and the people who would stand twenty feet from our table and stare at it for long periods of time. Were they angry? Or were they simply interested in queer books and didn’t feel safe approaching us? I’ll never know, but it sure did break my heart either way.

I know I’m privileged in my out life by where I live, my skin color, and sometimes even my gender (queer men often face more hostility than queer women re: the child safety issue; and we all know about the appalling trans bathroom panic currently sweeping the nation), but I didn’t expect to have it underscored in a place I think of as culturally similar to New York, where I once lived, and where I worked in an LGBT bookstore 25 years ago.

I should note Erin and I also witnessed rude/inappropriate behavior towards another (differently than us) marginalized writer, which doesn’t feel like my story to tell.

We kept not packing it in because we’re not quitters, and because while we never view our books as activism, I know what it meant to me growing up to see people who looked and felt like me, to know lesbian wasn’t a dirty word, to know girls could have short hair, to know queer could be a word of pride… of saying another person and I were two of a kind.

So in the sea of all that, props in the end to the mother who stood patiently by her as tween child perused our covers, who smiled at me kindly as she asked her kid if he had any questions, and then who took his hand and asked him if we wanted to get popcorn.

You made my day.

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