Singapore's censorship of children's book defies reality of alternative lifestyles

Kelly Yang says to teach acceptance, we should celebrate books about non-traditional families, not censor them as Singapore did

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 2:03am

Sexuality is not a choice; science shows genetics plays a part. Being gay is not something people can turn on or off, like a switch. What we can control, however, is the stigma we attach to non-traditional family arrangements. This is why Singapore's recent attempt to destroy a children's book about penguins is like something out of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, in which all books are outlawed.

Singapore's National Library Board made the decision to destroy three children's books because they were "pro-homosexuality" ( even though public outcry forced it to backtrack on two of those titles). The "offending" trio were: And Tango Makes Three, a sweet tale of two male penguins raising a chick together; The White Swan Express; and Who's In My Family. The country's Media Development Authority also banned for sale an issue of the US comic book Archie: The Married Life, because it, too, featured a same-sex marriage.

The very idea that reading a book about two male penguins is somehow going to "turn a child gay" is irrational, insulting and infuriating. Such books are critically important not just for gay rights, but for normalising alternative family arrangements.

I'll never forget the day when my son was in a park in San Francisco and another boy told him he had two mums. My son's eyes widened. He ran over to me and asked: "Why does this boy have two mums?" I replied: "Why not?" My son thought about my answer. Finally, he shrugged and ran back to play with the boy.

As it turned out, the boy's two mums were not gay. One was his surrogate mother; the other his real mother. They were raising him together, along with his father. Here in Asia, an increasing number of children are being raised by grandparents. In Shanghai, 90 per cent of the children are reportedly being looked after by at least one grandparent.

If we are serious about accepting alternative lifestyles, then children's books have an important role to play. Not so long ago, most English-language children's books featured Caucasian children living in big, two-storey houses because the major publishers were all either in the US or Britain. As a child, I remember falling in love with the stories. I also remember looking in the mirror and wondering why I have black hair and small, brown eyes.

It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I questioned why my children also had to read only books about white kids living in the suburbs. That was when I started writing books - so my children, who are half-Chinese, won't also stand in front of the mirror and wonder why their lives are so weird.

Their lives are not weird. Neither is the life of the boy with two mums, the girl with two dads, or the kids looked after by grandparents. None of this would be weird if we read more books like And Tango Makes Three. Singapore prides itself on being a cultural and intellectual hot spot in Asia. Yet it's missing the one crucial ingredient: freedom of speech. Hong Kong still has that; let's hang on to it.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school writing and debate centre for students aged 5-17. She is also the author of several children's books, including the best-selling Where's Broccoli?