Transgender activist publishes kids books with positive stories of LGBTQ families

Frustrated at the lack of breadth in LGBTQ-themed children's books, S. Bear Bergman decided to create a publishing house to release books he wanted his son to read: joyful stories where people aren't bullied for being different.

'We need books that are celebratory, inclusive, fun and engaging'

Indie publisher Flamingo Rampant carries children's books, like M is for Mustache by Toronto author Catherine Hernandez, that are racially diverse and celebrate LGBTQ families. (Flamingo Rampant)

When S. Bear Bergman started looking for LGBTQ-themed books to read to his young son, he was a bit disappointed with what he found. "Where's the joy?" he thought. 

"A lot of the books featuring lesbian, gay and queer-headed families are based on a narrative of bullying and harassment," noted the Toronto-based transgender activist.

"We need books that are celebratory, inclusive, fun and engaging enough to be interesting to kids with straight or cisgender parents, too."

So, Bergman decided to do something about it: he and his husband started their own publishing company, Flamingo Rampant, through a Kickstarter campaign.  

The first hurdle was to write and publish the books.

There are are plenty of kids with LGBTQ parents, Bergman noted. "I want those children to recognize themselves in well, happy, celebratory, loved characters, who get to do cool things."

Since 2014, the company has published six books that centre on diverse kids and families. For instance, Is That for a Boy or a Girl? is a book of short poems about gender-independent kids and what they like to do or wear. The message behind the book is that there aren't "boy things" and "girl things." 

Transgender author and activist S. Bear Bergman says he's received emails from readers of all ages who 'feel grateful for books that reflect families like theirs.' (Zoe Gemelli)

Another title, M is for Mustache, is an ABC book about a girl, her chosen family and how they celebrate Pride Day.

A second hurdle facing Bergman was getting these books into school systems and public libraries. Because Flamingo Rampant is a small publishing house, its titles are not carried by the large distributors from which libraries and schools order books. That means individual libraries and schools must order books directly from Flamingo Rampant. 

So, in 2014, Bergman began donating books to every school in the Toronto District School Board. He also relied on personal connections made with librarians and teachers. 

After a few years, the company is slowly seeing some return: Bergman notes orders have increased from 20 to 200.

'Children respond well to good literature, regardless what it's about'  

Gordon Nore, a teacher with the TDSB, feels the curriculum should reflect the diversity of society — and that includes people who identify as LGBTQ. 

Nore is enthusiastic about the emergence of this branch of literature for children, adding that it's helping teachers.

"Good literature helps teachers do what we have always done, which is to teach children about how people live — in their own community and all over the world," Nore said. 

"Children respond well to good literature, regardless of what it's about," he added. 

Librarian Marian Fulton of the Windsor Library, part of Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley Regional Library region, carries Flamingo Rampant books. She has a personal interest in seeing more LGBTQ-themed books in libraries: her son is transgender.

"I have no decision powers on what is purchased and added to our collection, but I have been very persuasive over the years in getting the books I want to see added to our collection," said Fulton, who has also personally donated titles to the library and is delighted by its collection of LGBTQ books for all age levels. 

But how have parents reacted to these gay-positive stories? According to Fulton, there has only been one complaint at her library.

"The complaint came from an immigrant who was used to Russian laws and standards. We politely, but firmly, told her we do not censor books in our libraries and in Canada it is not illegal to be gay. This person stayed away for awhile but then eventually returned to be a regular borrower."

From another perspective, Nore noted that in his experience "sometimes parents are worried that their children are being exposed to stories of discrimination too young, so it's not about being homophobic. The parent is worried about the child being upset. In reality, a kids' book about a child with two dads is not going impart content that is any more adult than a similar book with a dad and a mom."

For his part, Bergman said he has received positive emails from readers of all ages.

"They feel grateful for books that reflect families like theirs, people who look like them," he said.

"It can be fine to have books that just show a person that looks like you, but it's so much more validating and affirming when that kid gets to be loved and, well, gets to have adventures and solve problems and enjoy life."