The Republican-led culture wars have come for books and access to them. Anti-racist books. Sex ed books. And of course, LGBTQ books. It’s the proverbial slippery slope and we are skidding along it at break-neck speed.
The newly elected Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, ran a campaign on getting books the GOP deems offensive out of Virginia schools. Youngkin pledged on election night that his first order of business would be to ban all books and curricula linked to Critical Race Theory (CRT).
An incendiary political ad during the Virginia governor’s race had cited Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” as harmful and traumatizing to white high school students in Virginia. Nevermind that the book is about life under American slavery, so the actual trauma is to Black people, not white people.
The fight against CRT has become central to the GOP political platform. That culture war battle will be central to the 2022 House races. But so too is the anti-LGBTQ fight the GOP has been waging since Donald Trump took over the party and about which I have reported for years.
In October, Matt Krause, a Texas state representative, launched a campaign against LGBTQ books and anti-racist books. Krause compiled a list of 850 books he deemed offensive and demanded to know, as chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, if school district libraries carried them.
Krause sent the inquiry to the Texas Education Agency and some school superintendents. The story was first reported by the Texas Tribune.
I’m the author and editor of more than 20 books, including three Lambda Literary Award winners and several books that made the American Library Association’s list of notable LGBTQ books. I am also editor of an independent publishing house that specializes in young adult books for LGBTQ youth and youth of color. I’ve been a book editor nearly as long as I have been a journalist, working for academic and LGBTQ publishers, including the iconic Naiad Press and Bella Books as well as, locally, University of Pennsylvania Press.
For 17 years I was a book critic for the Baltimore Sun and an editor at Lambda Literary for 25 years. My literary criticism has also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, New York Newsday and the Village Voice. All that is to say that books matter to me. They are central to my life.
I also know how critical books are to young people. I remember all too well what it was like for me as a teenager coming out in the 1970s trying to find books about lesbianism and being gay. I found a cache of lesbian pulp paperbacks on a low bookshelf behind the sofa at the home of a family I babysat for when I was in high school. I read those now-classic novels by Ann Bannon and Sarah Aldridge and passed them around to my friends at my all-girls high school in the year before I was expelled for being a lesbian.
But my local library in the Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in had no queer books. And while my childhood home was filled with hundreds of books as my parents were avid readers and politically minded intellectuals, I couldn’t find a gay book among them.
James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
But then you read.
Yet what happens if there are no books to read that are about you? That’s the circumstance created by banning books. Kids can’t learn about people like them. They can’t discover that they are not alone.
Banning books also creates a minefield for teachers in which curricula keep changing. Teachers — particularly LGBTQ teachers who are already under threat, or teachers of color who remain in the minority — will undoubtedly fear for their jobs if they violate bans. Self-censorship is not a modality that breeds intellectual expansion.
For students, book banning is an even deeper quagmire. Not having access to a range of reading is self-limiting. It narrows a student’s world view. And for students of color and LGBTQ students, that void can present real life harm. If you don’t exist in books, do you exist at all?
The Supreme Court set the standard for banning books in 1982 with Island Trees School District v. Pico. But irrespective of the guidelines set by that 40 year old case, school officials can remove books from school libraries if a school board decides that book is inappropriate for students. If Matt Krause and Glenn Youngkin have their way, for example, anti-racist and LGBTQ books will be gone in Texas and Virginia schools. Gone.
The breakdown of Krause’s books is particularly worrisome. Imagine 850 books suddenly disappeared from the shelves. The Krause list has 500 fiction books and 349 nonfiction. The breakdown of age categories was 95 adult books, 605 young adult books, and 149 children’s and middle grade books
The presumed reasons for the book challenges were, 509 LGBTQ, including 118 specifically trans/non-binary. Another 68 were about race and racism. There were 115 books on sex education and the remaining books were other miscellaneous titles vaguely related to either racism or LGBTQ sexuality.
CNN reports that 8 of last year’s 10 most challenged books had one thing in common: LGBTQ content.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), in 2019, at least 377 challenges were filed to ban 566 books from libraries, schools and universities. It was the fourth year in a row that books containing LGBTQ characters and storylines were targeted by parents, school boards and political and religious groups.
Among the titles is the children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole. This charming book, about two male penguins who have a family together — yes, a picture book about male penguins and their child — was challenged for containing LGBTQ content.
I highlight this book (although other challenges are equally spurious) to underscore the fear factor involved in book banning. Do parents and school boards really think a couple of penguins raising a baby penguin is going to turn their child gay? Or that “George,” by Alex Gino, a children’s novel that made the list because it features a transgender character, is going to convince kids they are trans?
Rather, what these books do is normalize LGBTQ lives and thus give LGBTQ kids comfort in knowing they are not alone and that they are not so different that there is no one else like them. They allow kids to dream of a future in which they appear as themselves.
Books that give kids a sense of belonging, either as children of color or LGBTQ kids, are essential to creating feelings of self-worth. We all need to see ourselves represented.
My own lonely preteen and adolescent years of searching for evocations of other queer people on the pages of books have never left my consciousness. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
But to write, we must first read. And to read, we must have books. The Nazis burned books as they took over. The GOP hasn’t begun to burn them — yet — but banning what we are allowed to know about ourselves and our history is a dangerous first step. And we are, as Krause and Youngkin assert, absolutely on that precipice.