LGBTQIA+ Books Are Under Attack as More Bills and Bans Take Them Out of Libraries and Classrooms—Here's How Community Members Are Fighting Back
Anna Smith is a stay-at-home mom of four kids in second to eleventh grade and a school board member who has lived in Leander, Texas since 2015. Over the course of her first year as a school district trustee, she began to see the tension rise over LGBTQIA+ books.
"I think it was around the time when parents found out about An ABC of Equality we kind of realized where we were headed," she reflects to Parents. An ABC of Equality is a board book by Chana Ginelle Ewing for young children introducing concepts like K is for Kindness, M is for Multicultural, and T is for Transgender. Parents in a Leander Independent School District (ISD) meeting called the book "horrific" and "vile." The incident over the children's book foreshadowed a battle to come.
Later, students in Leander requested that their high school book clubs offer more diverse reading lists. When the curriculum department added titles that included LGBTQIA+ characters and storylines about racism, parents began a campaign against the school administration to ban the books. On December 1, 2021, they chose to permanently remove 11 books from high school book clubs or classroom libraries.
"The students in our district are hearing all of this. I have friends here with kids who don't want to go to school right now because they're hearing this," Smith says. "It's exposed some ugly things."
A Trend Is Growing: Bans on LGBTQIA+ Books
Leander is far from the only school district dealing with bans or other attacks on LGBTQIA+ books. While books dealing with sexuality and gender identity are often challenged in public schools, 2021 was unique and there's no reason to expect the trend to slow in 2022. The American Library Association (ALA)'s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 60 percent more challenges in September 2021 than in September 2020 for all categories of books. ALA director Deborah Caldwell-Stone says she's never seen this volume of book challenges in her 20 years at the ALA.
Challenged books often deal with race or sexual content, and increasingly books with LGBTQIA+ themes and characters have been targeted. While race is a target of conservatives' attacks and needs to be talked about, the increase in queer book bans needs to be addressed as a separate way conservatives try to control school curriculum. The intersection of race and queerness adds fuel to bigots' fires.
When Texas State Representative Matt Krause sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency on October 25, 2021 instructing state schools to inform him if they owned any of the 850 books on a list he had compiled, 62 percent of the listed books were LGBTQIA+, according to a Book Riot analysis. Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer: A Memoir and George M. Johnson's All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto in particular have been the subjects of many challenges across several states.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, State Senator Rob Standridge introduced Senate Bill 1142 to the 2022 legislative session to create a new law that "no public school district, public charter school, or public school library shall maintain in its inventory or promote books that make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature." If they do, a parent can request to have the book removed and can seek a minimum of $10,000 per day from the school district if the book is not removed.
Communities Are Caught in Political Crosshairs
At a December 9, 2021 PFLAG event "You Can't Read This: The Book Banning Trend," author Kobabe noted that while the bans on eir book have been upsetting, the publicity has led many people to find eir book that otherwise would not have. "What I'm coming to find is that these book bans don't really hurt the book or the author, what they hurt is the communities."
School board meetings have increasingly become political playgrounds. Smith in Leander laments, "We just gotta get through the primary season. That's all this is—political."
Those who show up to school board meetings are most often adults pushing a political agenda, not the students who would actually read the books. Gloria Gonzalez-Dholakia, a Board of Trustee for Leander ISD in her third year, agrees: "It was less about the books and more about creating a political movement for something else. What was lost in this political movement was the ability of our students to enjoy reading and to see somebody that looks like them or sounds like them in a book. That opportunity was stolen from them."
Schools Need To Provide Equitable Access
Librarians go through years of schooling about how to curate book collections. In schools, teachers and curriculum development staff—who also have experience and training—choose what students read. Allowing one adult—who may or may not be a parent of a student in the school district—to make a complaint about a book because they consider it to be "offensive" is a slippery slope, one that can and has led to book banning.
Lindsey Kimery, President of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians and Coordinator of Library Services for Metro Nashville Public Schools, first heard of requests in Hamilton County, Tennessee to pull books like Far from the Tree by Robin Benway, which features a lesbian character, in October 2021. "They want to pull the book instead of following their district's reconsideration policy." Kimery explains.
Weaponizing local school boards to remove access to books that deal with issues students already discuss in and out of the classroom is a harmful attack on their education, civil liberties, and self-determination. It sends a message, directly and indirectly, that LGBTQIA+ content is perverse, inappropriate, sinful, or pornographic. When these messages reach youth, who realize their neighbors, their friends' parents, and the people who work in their schools think this of them and their friends, it has a lasting and sometimes deadly effect.
The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQIA+ youth, released data in September sharing that they had received nearly 4,000 crisis contacts from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas in 2021, indicating, "many directly stating that they are feeling stressed and considering suicide due to anti-trans laws being debated in their state." The rhetoric of adults' discussion around banning books that represent them have the same effect.
This Is Not Indoctrination
Children are not being indoctrinated or endangered by the LGBTQIA+ content of these books. The Academy of Pediatrics says children usually know their gender identity by age four and Dr. Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University tells Parents her team's research shows that lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents self-identify by 13.4 years of age on average and increasingly children have been identifying as LGB under age 10. Kids look to the media—books included—to see themselves and to find ways to relate to people like them.
Banning books won't eliminate the existence of LGBTQIA+ individuals, but it will make those individuals feel shame or fear for existing.
LGBTQIA+ people are not people who children must be sheltered from. Banning books with queer characters or topics perpetuates incorrect and harmful stereotypes that are homophobic and transphobic and this rhetoric that has no place being tolerated by a public school board who should represent all community members.
Organizing a Resistance Against Book Bans
While adults of varying opinions have all been caught up in having their say over which books should be allowed in schools and libraries, students have been speaking out too.
"We need to be making sure that we protect our education," North Kansas City High School student Holland Duggan, 17, told NPR affiliate KCUR. Duggan, along with fellow student Aurora Nicol, 16, is the co-founder of the Northland Student Association, created to fight back against bans of books like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson from their school, both of which feature queer characters.
Students took up the entire public comment section of a November 22, 2021, North Kansas City District school board meeting. The books were put back on the shelves later that day.
Dozens of students held a protest outside the Flagler County School District's office in Bunnell, Florida while the school board held a meeting on November 16, 2021. Board member Jill Woolbright had gone so far as to file a criminal complaint with the sheriff's office against the book All Boys Aren't Blue, saying whoever allowed the book in schools "should be held responsible." The sheriff found no crime had been committed.
How You Can Help Fight Against LGBTQIA+ Book Bans
School board members like Smith, Massaro, and Gonzalez-Dholakia, students like Duggan and Nicol, and librarians like Kimery are all standing up to these attacks, but they can't do it alone.
If you want to help with the resistance, request LGBTQIA+ books to be placed in your library and check them out if they have them to show your support. Buy banned books to support the authors and show the publishing industry that it's necessary to keep buying books that represent members of queer communities. Show up to school board meetings to voice your support and organize opposition if a book challenge comes up in your district. Express your opinion on social media with the hashtags #FReadom and #BooksNotBans.
Book bans are in a current surge and will rise up every time it suits a political agenda to use children as pawns, especially with midterm elections coming up this year. We all need to call out every single anti-LGBTQIA+ book challenge and take action for the students and community members who may not have the voice to speak for themselves.