Book censorship has been around as long as there have been books. It's no surprise that the trend of banning LGBTQ-themed books is increasing as more books about LGBTQ issues are published, used in classrooms, and found on the shelves of our public libraries. This guide is intended to prepare you to talk about and respond to challenges aimed at materials by, for, or about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning youth.
- In West Bend, Wisconsin, community members accused the Library Advisory Board of “promoting the overt indoctrination of the gay agenda” after it resisted pressure to remove challenged titles.
- In Leesburg, Florida, two parents filed a petition to remove The Bermudez Triangle from the local public library because of its homosexual content.
- In Litchfield, New Hampshire, after parental objections, the school board removeed four stories from an elective upperclassmen English course, including David Sedaris’ “I Like Guys.”
The 2009 challenges to books in West Bend, Leesburg, and Litchfield for their “homosexual themes” are not isolated incidents. In school libraries, public libraries, and curriculums across the country, books that address LGBTQ issues consistently face challenges, bans, and “explicit” labeling (see NCAC's "Homophobic Attacks on Schools and Libraries"). For instance, the children’s book I Am Jazz, a true story of a transgender youth and her family, is at the top of the ALA’s most-challenged books list.
The continuing challenges to LGBTQ-themed books in schools and public libraries reflect a conflict over the nature and definition of marriage, family, and gender roles.In the U.S. and in other countries, in general, heterosexuality has historically been assumed to be the "norm," a standard incorporated in laws defining marriage. Gay and transgender individuals come up against institutionalized "heteronormative" bias in their education, as well as many other aspects of their daily lives.
For example, abstinence-only education either ignores or denounces homosexuality, and the examples above indicate the resistance to including material in libraries and curricula that present same sex relationships as healthy or "normal." Nearly nine out of ten LGBTQ students regularly confront teasing, bullying, and sometimes violence, and a majority of students who are “out” have reportedly felt unsafe in school. Although LGBTQ Americans have recently won legal victories including the right to marry, the ability to serve openly in the miliary, and and the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, many still face hostility and discrimination from communities that are hostile to their identitites. There are also hundreds of books written for LGBTQ youth (for an ever-growing list with reviews, see "I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?" by Lee Wind).
What is an “LGBTQ-themed” book?
Calling a book “gay-themed” or even “LGBTQ-themed” doesn't tell you much about it. In fact, it creates an artificial category, albeit a seemingly necessary one for a discussion about homophobic censorship attempts. Many of the banned books we here lump together under the label “LGBTQ-themed” are really just books about everyday life. While they may have gay characters or address homophobia, those themes are often not central to the plot. Nonetheless, any book that alludes to homosexuality is subject to attack for that reason. As Chris Crutcher, a frequently challenged author, explained in an interview with the Kids' Right to Read Project;
“My gay characters are usually in the story to get a reaction out of the main character; get him to look at his own bigotry. Roughly ten percent of the population is gay and I think that’s probably true of my characters. Yet I put a gay character in a book and I’m accused of ‘recruiting.’ The censors automatically decide I’m gay and that I write from the ‘gay agenda.’”
The April 2009 “Amazonfail” debacle underscores the danger of carving out a separate genre for LGBTQ content. To the outrage of many internet users, the website amazon.com suddenly blocked search access to a wide range of LGBTQ materials, including titles like Queer Theory: An Introduction, Full Frontal Feminism, and a biography of Ellen DeGeneres. (Other books remained available in searches, including certain LGBTQ books and some homophobic titles.) What tied all these books together? According to the company, a “cataloging error” mistakenly associated many LGBTQ books with sexually explicit material.
Readers should also keep in mind how problematic labels are especially when we here refer to “LGBTQ youth.” Individuals who do not identify as straight are most affected by the attacks made on books that present their perspective; but all “LGBTQ kids” have essentially the same needs, rights, and aspirations as anyone else. In the end, we all have the same rights under the First Amendment to read about and explore the issues that interest us or are meaningful to us – regardless of whether we are straight or gay.
The Rationales Behind Censorship of LGBTQ-themed Books
Many of the recent challenges to LGBTQ-themed books are based on religious values, most notably those of conservative Christian parents and organizations such as Focus on the Family, American Values, and the Concerned Women for America, to name three of the most active organizations promoting "traditional family values." Some of the loudest voices for censorship have decried a perceived “homosexual agenda” that is maliciously “anti-family” and “anti-Christian.”In some cases, challengers argue that the LGBTQ-themed books themselves promote a “religious viewpoint.” To our knowledge, no one has ever tried to ban a story presenting a heteronormative relationship on the grounds that it advocates a certain religion or agenda.
Another type of challenge to LGBTQ-themed childrens’ books conflates homosexuality and sex. As Justin Richardson, one of the authors of And Tango Makes Three, a true story about a pair of male penguins that raised an egg in the Central Park Zoo. observes;
“Many [people] feel it's inappropriate to talk about homosexuality because they think they're talking about sex…A 4-year-old doesn't have the same associations between homosexuality and sex. They take things very literally. You can just tell them sometimes a man falls in love with another man and they start a family. That's all you need to say.”
Would-be censors often complain that particular words or phrases are “inappropriate.” Some believe that the statement in Tango “They slept there together” is inappropriate despite the fact that to a child it has no special meaning. Adults who sexualize narratives intended for children are projecting their own preoccupations onto the content. When book bans result, youth lose access to books that teach not about sex, but about acceptance.
According to a 2000 study, the average age at which young people “come out” as gay, lesbian, or bisexual ranges from 15 to 17 years old. Awareness of attraction to members of the same sex may begin in children as young as eight.
Censorship of LGBTQ-themed books is especially harmful and unfair to these youth. When challengers claim that a book is “inappropriate” for children because it depicts homosexuality, they deny some kids’ own gay identity. LGBTQ young people who can’t read these books lose rare representations of their own realities.
—Bermudez Triangle author Maureen Johnson, in an interview with the Kids' Right to Read Project
The censorship of LGBTQ-themed texts affects everyone. Young people who are questioning their sexuality, kids with gay or lesbian parents, adults who visit public libraries, and anyone who has met or is likely to meet an LGBTQ person also have the right to read stories that don’t come from a “straight” standpoint.
But it is easy for people who identify as straight to forget that they have many privileges over those who do not. One of the most sweeping of these " straight privileges" is this notion: “I can remain oblivious of the language and culture of LGBTQ folk without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.” When censors succeed in banning LGBTQ-themed books, students can graduate from high school without ever having seen a play with a gay character, or read a book by a lesbian author.
What is increasingly becoming clear to educators and parents is that an education without LGBTQ perspectives is like an education without women’s perspectives and multicultural considerations. That is to say, it’s not much of an education at all.