Jonathan Branfman with his children’s book “You Be You!” A way to introduce children to topics of sexual and gender identity. Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Branfman

Jonathan Branfman didn’t just want parents to know it’s never too early to expose their children to topics of gender identity, romantic orientation and diversity. He wanted to create an easy way to do it.

That is Branfman’s intention with his new children’s book, “You Be You!” A doctoral candidate in Ohio State’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexualiy Studies, Branfman has created a simple and accessible way for parents to introduce children to gender and sexual identity in hopes of decreasing stigmas associated with the LGBTQ community.

“It was really a result of teaching women’s, gender and sexuality studies classes at OSU,” Branfman said. “I often found myself thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if everyone got really clear, unstigmatized information about gender and sexual diversity at a young age instead of them having to unlearn all kinds of harmful false ideas when they’re 12 instead of when they’re 20?’”

Branfman, who has worked as an intern with the Human Rights Campaign and volunteered with Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ advocacy group that works with Jewish schools, synagogues and summer camps, drew from his experience in child care and education when developing the project.

“You Be You!”, which Branfman will read at Ohio State’s Urban Arts Space on Thursday, takes a myth-busting approach that meets readers where they are in their assumptions of what “normal” is and breaks it down to help people progress from there.

Brafman said a more subtle form of intolerance toward the LGBTQ community is “the assumption that it is scandalous or X-rated” to talk about LGBTQ people with children. Branfram wants to erase this stigma.

“When I was living in San Francisco doing some nonprofit work, I remember once talking to a team that did various kinds of diversity education and when I mentioned that they should also include talking about gay people, the immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, we don’t want to talk about sex with kids,’” Branfman said.

“It was so striking to me that for them, asking about varied identities seemed to mean that they thought they were going to have to talk about sexually explicit scenarios with kids,” he said. “You can talk about straight romance in very direct terms without being inappropriate or x-rated and I think people need to extend the logic also to LGBTQ people.”

While the book is intended for children ages 7 to 12, Branfman said it has had a huge effect on older generations as well.

“A lot of adults who have read it have told me it was really helpful for them as well because when you’re breaking down ideas so clearly for younger kids it also makes it accessible for adults who are getting introduced to this topic for the first time.”

The book’s illustrator Julie Benbassat said she experienced this firsthand when she received a phone call from a friend.

“[He] called me after he bought the book and cried a little bit because he’s also gay and his mom was understanding [when he came out] but didn’t really understand homosexuality. He read her the book and she said she was finally starting to get it,” said Benbassat, who is a third-year in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design.  

Branfman said he could not have done this book without Benbassat and credited her with bringing the story to life through her art and the diverse representation of ethnicity, disability and age in the characters she designed.

“Diversity is super important,” Benbassat said. “I know people play it off as something annoying in the media, but at school I’ve met a lot of diverse LGBT people which helped me in crafting the characters. I’ve seen people in my life who are actually like this and inspired me to make good, child-friendly characters.”

Branfman said that he wanted people to know that they don’t have to be of a certain way to be included or accepted, something he and Benbassat sought to emphasize on every page.

“Some friends of mine that are people of color that are LGBT, sometimes a challenge that they face with their own family is this idea that they can’t be gay because that’s a ‘white people thing,’ so we really wanted to challenge that narrowness,” Branfman said.

The book is also available in European-Spanish, Latin-American Spanish and Portuguese. Arabic, French and Chinese translations are coming soon.

Branfman came out to his family in 2009 when he was 20 years old. He said was lucky to have a supportive family, but added even in his own experience it was impossible to avoid absorbing implicit negative ideas about the LGBTQ community growing up that he himself had to unlearn.

“It took a lot of time to feel comfortable with the fact that I’m gay and not feel shame about it,” Branfman said. “So my goal for this book is for kids of all different identities to understand and accept themselves and each other from a really early age, so they don’t have to go through the process of unlearning stigma later.”