I’m having a feeling of déjà vu. Four years ago, I was waiting to see if Barack Obama would be elected president; waiting to see the outcome of a ballot measure in California that would decide the legality of marriage equality in that state; and baffled that a patron of a Colorado library had asked for the removal or reshelving of the children’s picture book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, claiming it was “inappropriate for children” because it showed two anthropomorphic male guinea pigs getting married.
It’s now 2012, and I am one again waiting to hear whether Obama will win the election; whether voters will allow marriage equality in their states (this time, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington); and baffled that yet another library patron (in Missouri) has recently asked that Uncle Bobby be removed from a local library.
Has nothing changed in four years?
Fact is, a lot has changed. Since the last election, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and the District of Columbia have begun allowing same-sex couples to wed. Polls show an increase in support for marriage equality across the country. Federal hate crimes legislation now covers crimes based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Gay men and lesbians can now serve openly in our military. A federal rule now requires hospitals to give same-sex partners visitation rights. Two federal circuit courts have ruled that the section of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. Same-sex parents are even more visible on our television screens.
Nevertheless, some people still feel that a book showing two male guinea pigs getting married is a threat to children.
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Sarah Brannen, tells the story of young guinea pig Chloe, who worries that her favorite uncle won’t have time to have fun with her after he marries his boyfriend. Uncle Bobby assures her that is not the case, and in fact, she’ll be able to do things with both him and her new uncle. The book focuses on a young child’s concerns about family relationships and change, and is not “about” same-sex marriage per se. It just happens to include one.
As in 2008, the local library director is supporting Uncle Bobby’s right to remain on the shelves. She told Brannen that the library board will soon vote on the patron’s request to remove it, but all of the board members want to keep it, as do most of the more than 75 other patrons who have called or e-mailed about the issue (sarahbrannen.com).
What it boils down to, for me, is freedom of speech. Just because one person objects to the content of a book doesn’t give him or her the right to prevent others from accessing it. I respect the library patron’s decision that the book is not appropriate for his daughter; but I am outraged that he wants to push that judgment on others.
Freedom of speech, however, is a concept that strong opinions and partisanship—especially around election time—may make us forget. I was reminded of this the other day while driving through my neighborhood with my nine-year-old son. Near our house, a homeowner has set up a giant “Mitt Romney” campaign sign, at least 10 feet long by six feet wide. My son, who knows I support President Obama, commented that he wished he could tear it down.
Much as part of me dislikes seeing neighbors cheer for the opposing candidate, my Democratic (big “D”) leanings do not trump my understanding of what really matters in our democracy (small “d”). “You can’t do that,” I told my son. “Everyone is entitled to express his or her opinion. That’s one of the key freedoms we enjoy in this country.”
No matter our political persuasions (and I don’t presume that every LGBT person is a Democrat), explaining emotionally charged political issues to our kids is never easy. Conveying the principle of freedom of speech at the same time is even harder. It is essential to do so, though, if we don’t want our children to grow up believing people should restrict ideas simply because they don’t agree with them. That attitude leads to people trying to ban books like Uncle Bobby from libraries.
What the next four years will bring, we can only guess. Regardless of the outcome of the election, however, we will grow more as people and as a country if we teach our children compassion and respect for different viewpoints. Leave gay guinea pigs in the library and political signs in the yards. That will leave us with our core values as a nation—and that is what will ground us as we press forward into the future.
(I’m pleased to say that since the time I wrote this, the library unanimously voted to keep Uncle Bobby in circulation.)
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