HAPPY FAMILIES is the antidote to the “I’m Christian unless…” disease
The short version of my post today is this: anyone who has been moved, intrigued, or otherwise affected by the “I’m Christian Unless You’re Gay” essay by Dan Pearce (aka Single Dad Laughing) NEEDS to read Tanita S. Davis’s newest book, Happy Families.
The reason that the Single Dad Laughing piece is back on my mind is that Dan recently posted in “A Teen’s Brave Response” about how the essay led to one teenager coming out to his family and community–and calling them to live their faith differently.
For those who haven’t read the “I’m Christian Unless You’re Gay” essay, let me summarize: Dan writes gently, humbly, but also compellingly about the tendency in lots of faith communities to reserve “full” love for a select few. Here’s a bit that’s relevant to what I’m going to say about Tanita’s book:
“Oh, but you’re not gay? You’re clean, and well dressed, and you have a job? You look the way I think you should look? You act the way I think you should act? You believe the things I think you should believe? Then I’m definitely a Christian. To you, today, I’m a Christian. You’ve earned it.”
I bet you’ve heard that message coming from others. Maybe you’ve given that message to others.
Either way, I hope we all can agree that we mustn’t live that message. We just shouldn’t.
So now that you’ve got that (and really, you need to go read the whole essay), let me tell you what this has to do with award-winning YA author Tanita S. Davis’s Happy Families. Here’s the deal: her book is about two teens from a strong Christian family and their experiences coming to terms with the discovery that their dad is a transgender person.
You might think you know where this is going (shouting matches, disgust, excommunication), but you don’t. What you actually see is a family figuring out new dimensions of what love and commitment mean. This is a book that can speak in powerful ways to believers and secular readers, a book that puts the reader in a “what if…” position and educates us without ever getting preachy.
Let’s start with an important fact: Tanita sets things up in Happy Families in such a way that certain faith communities–very conservative ones–actually COULD process the choices made by the characters. (I rarely get to claim much “street-cred” but for once I get to! As someone who was raised inside a very conservative evangelical community, I am in a perfect position to see all the brilliant moves that Tanita makes.)
For one thing, Tanita separates transgender behavior from homosexuality and infidelity. In Happy Families, we see that the dad’s decisions are about an expression of selfhood, not about sexual infidelity to his wife. The idea that a transgendered individual could still be faithful to marriage vows–and that his or her spouse should be as well–is extremely powerful and will give faith communities something to think about seriously in how they react to non-mainstream gender expression in their congregations.
Speaking of… Christianity in Happy Families rang totally true to me and reminded me of how Sara Zarr portrays Christianity in The Story of a Girl (there, it’s the mystery behind a forgiving friend). Christianity offers one context for the story, not the message of the novel…which is how most “inspirational” fiction reads to me, and which is why it’s so repetitive.
Far more powerful than the gospel message pasted into a novel is a fictional encounter with a family that makes a reader ask, what have they got that makes this kind of caring possible? That is what Happy Families accomplishes, and that is no small feat. (Let me make this personal: The reaction of the teen protags’ mom is just… amazing. I aspire to have even a fraction of her faithfulness as a spouse. Other Christians who read this book should, too.)
Another really important aspect of this book–and one that brings an interesting angles for readers from all backgrounds–is that it shows that gender and sexuality aren’t just something that teens experience (“who am I? who do I want to love? who do I want to be?) but are also things they have to come to terms with in others–sometimes even in their parents. That is, as far as I’m aware, an underrepresented perspective in YA.
Finally: as you already know from my rant about glossaries, I am usually staunchly against the presence of reference material at the back of any sort of novel. But I think that in Happy Families the glossary of preferred terms and the resource list in the back serves as a subtle call to action. It’s like it tells us, “how you speak is one thing you can change starting now to be more loving to families like this one in your community.”
That is, I think, a message that Dan Pearce–and all of us who want to stomp out the “I’m Christian unless…” tendencies in ourselves–can get behind.