My work is among 850 inclusive titles a Texas lawmaker wants out of school libraries. And what a surprise, 62% are LGBTQ+
It’s becoming worryingly frequent for me to get emails from librarians telling me that one of my books has been “challenged”. Recently, two of my titles – This Book Is Gay and Understanding Gender – appeared on a very long list of books that the Texas lawmaker Matt Krause would like to see removed from schools. I’m in good company: Margaret Atwood, the young adult bestseller Adam Silvera, and the V for Vendetta author Alan Moore also feature, alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jeffrey Eugenides and – for whatever reason – a book by James Patterson.
Book “banning” is nothing new. Few sights are more enduring, or chilling, than the photographs of Nazi youth raiding Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology in 1933 and burning the books they found there. Book burning remains synonymous with censorship, dictatorship and autocracy. As a writer, I think it’s up to publishers to decide if they want their name associated with prejudice – even with authors and books I disagree with fundamentally on ideological grounds. But this isn’t indicative of some evenly split “culture war”. Krause only wants liberal, or inclusive, books banned.
When This Book Is Gay, a nonfiction handbook for LGBTQ+ teens, was first “challenged” – in Alaska in 2016 – everyone was very excited. “You’ve made it now!” people exclaimed, as the furore made headlines all over the US. “It’ll be great publicity.”
Even at the time, I was disheartened for the queer youth of Wasilla – Sarah Palin’s stomping ground. What sort of message would removing the title from libraries send out to those kids? That they’re shameful? That they’re sinful? They ought to be hidden from sight? I feared it would force them to the back of the closet.
I want to be very clear. My books – none of them – have “turned” young people into lesbians, gay men, bi people or trans folk. If books had that power, I would stand before you a very hungry caterpillar. I didn’t read a book with an out queer character until I read Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls when I was 17. Needless to say, I was already well on my way towards understanding my sexual and gender identity.
I wrote This Book Is Gay because, from my time working as a personal social and health education teacher, I knew there was a gap in the market. After the repeal of section 28, which forbade teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ lives, professionals were allowed to acknowledge us, but hadn’t been given any advice whatsoever on how to do it. Many teachers were terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, so there wasn’t an immediate improvement to the education of LGBTQ+ kids.
It bothered me that sex education lessons assumed every child was straight and every child was cis. Some simply aren’t. As such, we were leaving queer kids dangerously unprepared for adult life. So I set out to be the “cool aunt” coming with all the advice I wish I’d had as a teenager. True, I didn’t want it to read like a fusty medical textbook. I wanted it to be approachable, funny and relatable.
But it’s my straight talking (pun intentional) that has seen the book repeatedly “challenged” – in Wyoming, Florida and Texas (and those are just the ones I’ve been told about) – or outright banned. There have been a couple of UK incidents with parents upset at school libraries, but nearly all of the heat has come from the US. The “conservative activist” Stephanie Armbruster told a committee hearing of Lafayette public library board that it was “so disturbing that I cannot bring myself to talk about some of the specifics in the book that I do have a lot of concerns about”.
I don’t mind spelling them out. This Book Is Gay explains how to safely have anal sex; how to access PrEP to avoid HIV transmission; how to find a clitoris; the difference between cis and trans bodies; and I clarify words and phrases that teenagers will have almost certainly read online like “Grindr”, “rimming” or “golden shower”. I figured it was best I told readers rather than them doing a Google image search, right? But that’s only a tiny section of the book. Most of it is about figuring out your identity, coming out and creating fulfilling relationships.
On Krause’s 850-strong list of titles he wants banned from Texas libraries, 62% concern LGBTQ+ issues. It’s interesting to me because the political right, in both the UK and US, are obsessed with saying they’ve been “cancelled” or “silenced”. You can dine out very well on your I’ve Been Cancelled media tour. In fact, scrutinising Krause’s list, you won’t find any “cancellable” rightwing topics at all. There’s nothing about gun control, anti-abortion sentiment or so-called gender-critical diatribes. No, the books he wants hidden from young people are about sex education, race, LGBTQ+ lives and – perhaps most troubling of all – those that teach young people about their human rights. Those most decrying cancel culture are being silenced the least.
This week I signed a petition from the National Coalition Against Censorship, alongside my valiant US publisher, Sourcebooks, who’ve stood by me since 2015. The petition is calling for an end to these vexatious campaigns to truly silence liberal voices. But my final thank you has to go to the brave librarians and educators who are on the frontline of this toxic “culture war”. It is they who are bearing the brunt of hateful extremists who would cancel queer kids, not queer books, if they could.
Source: The Guardian
Photograph: Alex Lake/The Guardian