Purdue Northwest Sociology faculty member’s research examines representation in LGBTQ children’s books

September 28, 2023
Hubert Izienicki

A PNW Sociology faculty member’s recently published research on representation in LGBTQ-themed children’s books offers a helpful critique on the diversity of characters and familial relationships depicted.

Hubert Izienicki, associate professor of Sociology, conducted a content analysis of 234 English-language LGBTQ picture books printed between 1972 and 2018. Using queer theory as the research’s theoretical foundation, he wanted to perform a more expansive look at these books’ themes to see what consistent or dominant messages were included and who was represented.

Examining these social artifacts produces more important information on how children, parents and guardians, librarians and educators can facilitate “windows or mirrors” that provide representation and identification with literary characters, Iziniecki explained.

Analyzing dominant themes

In Izienicki’s view, the research results showed encouraging signs, but also areas for constructive critique.

He found there was diversity in human characters’ races, but an overall majority were white. Among the many characters featured, the majority identified as gay or lesbian, but only 16% had other identifications, such as transgender or genderqueer. A substantial number of the books containing lesbian and gay characters had stories where the characters were secondary, or backgrounded, and were peripheral to the central themes.

Three particularly consistent themes observed included gender nonconformity, gender identity and family diversity. Another of Izienicki’s particular observations was homonormativity in the literature pieces.

“Society puts forth these models of how we should act in the world,” he says. “It does it for heterosexual people and LGBTQ people. Many of us conform to those models because there are rewards built into following them. It’s a soft power.

“The assumption in homonormativity is that a ‘good gay’ gets married, starts a family, and essentially sort of mimics what heterosexual people do. This is not to criticize having a family or marriage as undesired, but all of this is under the assumption that to have a happy, meaningful life means having this monogamous relationship and rearing children. In reality we know that there are single-parent families, multigenerational families, kids living in families of choice, and those families are not always showcased. Less than 50% of Americans currently live in families that have two parents and two children.”

Connections to the contemporary climate

As Izienicki was conducting the research, he also noticed highly publicized external attacks in some communities on LGBTQ books in libraries or schools. He says book banning isn’t a new phenomenon, and he hopes the research can additionally show that these literary works aren’t harmful to readers.

“I have this sense that people have these imaginations about what these books contain. But my research shows that these books are pretty benign. They’re not pushing any agenda. If anything, they’re about LGBTQ people being just like everyone else and fitting in. They focus on family, domesticity, parenting and family life. It’s about, to a large extent, families and how they function, how they go through their day.

“The important takeaway for students is that our perceptions can be misleading. In reality, when we systematically examine our social world, the conclusions might be quite different about what is actually going on rather than going by our instincts, feelings or little snippets of information.”