A toast to Heather!
This month, Heather turned 21. You know Heather – she is the girl with “two elbows, two earlobes, two kneecaps, and two mommies.” The children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies was the first of its kind to portray a family with two moms instead of a mom and dad. It was first published in December of 1989, and also in 1990, but as author Lesléa Newman says, “Like all children, Heather has a complicated history.” The story goes that in 1989, Lesléa Newman was approached on the streets of Northampton, MA, by a friend who said, “Listen. Somebody needs to write a book I can read to my child about a family like ours: a family with two moms and a daughter.” So Lesléa did.
Northampton is a small and very liberal town in western Massachusetts with a thriving lesbian community. It’s where Lesléa Newman is based, and it is also my hometown. Heather Has Two Mommies came out when I was four and my mom couldn’t wait to share it with me. She wanted to make sure I understood lesbian relationships because we had so many lesbian neighbors and friends. Just before I started third grade, a new family moved into the neighborhood with a daughter my age. Hannah, like Heather, had two mommies. Thanks to Heather, I found nothing strange about that. And that is the gift of Heather: kids aren’t born with notion that a family has to have mom and dad – that’s learned. And then unlearned. We’re not born thinking one is better than the other.
This year, Heather turns 21 (or 20, according to its Alyson Publication date). So what has happened to Heather in the past 21 years? Well, for one thing, I am not the only person whose life was bettered by knowing Heather. Lesléa has received notes from children like six year-old Tasha, saying "Thank you for writing Heather Has Two Mommies. I know that you wrote it JUST FOR ME!" She heard about a little boy who crossed Heather’s name out and wrote in his own on every page, and about another who wanted to know why he couldn’t have two mommies like Heather. But adults were not always so receptive.
Heather attracted a lot of controversy over the years. The most notable hubbubs occurred in 1993, when NYC Chancellor of Education Joseph Fernandez lost his job for supporting its inclusion in a diversity curriculum, and in May 1998 in Wichita Falls, TX, a number of individuals and special interest groups organized to remove Heather Has Two Mommies from the public library. (You can read more about these incidents in This Week in History.) More recently in 2002, high school teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall taught a unit on book censorship and allowed students to pick books from a list of frequently challenged works. When some students chose Heather Has Two Mommies, a group of 500 parents petitioned the school board against the teacher, calling for "decency and excellence" in the classroom. This incident resulted in a 2010 federal appeals court decision that teachers have no First Amendment free-speech protection for decisions they make about curriculum.
But despite the controversy, Heather has become a cultural icon and continues to be visible in pop culture. The book has been mentioned or parodied on TV shows such as Law and Order, The Daily Show, and Will and Grace, and in the movie, Best in Show. It continues to feature prominently on the Banned Book Week’s list of most challenged titles. And in addition to all of that, in the last couple decades, Heather has gained a lot of brothers and sisters. Lesléa Newman has written six more children’s books about gay and lesbian families, and now that the gauntlet has been thrown, she has been joined by other authors and more and more stories about GLBT families are cropping up on bookshelves across the country.
So on this very joyous occasion of Heather’s 21st year, I would like to raise a glass to her, and to Lesléa, and toast to the progress with a quote from the afterward of the 20th Anniversary Edition by Lesléa Newman:
I am proud to present to the next generation the new and improved Heather Has Two Mommies, with illustrations in full color created by the very talented Diana Souza. The book that nobody wanted to publish has become a classic, and its “militant homosexual agenda” remains timeless. The real message of the book is spoken by Heather’s wise teacher Molly who says, “The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.” I look forward to the day when that notion is no longer considered controversial. By anyone.
I’ll drink to that.