Banned Books Week: The Conspiracy to Shield Queer Books From Your Eyes

Feature image via thewheelercentre.com

In the fourth grade, my elementary school become one of the numerous schools around the United States that removed the Harry Potter books from the school’s library. It started when my teacher began reading the first book to the class, and one girl complained that her parents didn’t want her to read it, so the teacher had to put it aside. Fair enough… except that her parents didn’t stop there. Instead they rounded up a group of like-minded parents and complained that the books were so abhorrent they needed to be removed from the school library so that no kid could read it. Even though most parents did not share their opinion, they were loud enough that the school caved, and while the book remained in the library for some reason, we were not allowed to check it out. It seemed so strange to me — that somebody else’s parents, people whose values my parents did not share in the slightest (in fact, my parents found their values completely abhorrent), got to make the choice about what I could and could not read.

Of course, it didn’t matter to most of the kids at my school, whose parents bought them the books anyway. They knew better than to think a book about a fictional wizarding school would lead to kiddie covens, and actually appreciated the way they got previously-disinterested kids reading. But for kids in a household with no books, or no extra money to spend on them, the absence of a book from the library or curriculum means that they might never get to experience that book at all. And that’s unfortunate enough when it’s just a matter of kids being denied the exhilarating experience of reading great works of literature. (The American Library Association’s list of the most frequently-challenged books of the past decade includes almost all of the books that I adored as a teenager.) But when it’s a kid who needs answers about his/her sexuality, or to know that they’re not alone, a school library is an essential resource.

Unfortunately, some of the most challenged books of the past few years have been about LGBT issues. Two of the books on the ALA’s top 10 most-challenged list for 2010, And Tango Makes Three (an adorable picture book about gay penguins) and Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology, had “homosexuality” cited as a reason for the parents’ objections. The Advocate has their own list of frequently-challenged gay books for Banned Books Week, including Tango along with two other picture books — King and King and the iconic Heather Has Two Mommies, the first lesbian-themed children’s book — among others. The books of YA  author Francesca Lia Block, who frequently addresses gay and trans* themes, have also been challenged in Florida and Arkansas.

via Gothamist.com

In a way, anyone who is familiar with the history of book-banning would not be surprised that parents are up in arms about books that are pro-gay. A quick glance at any of these lists would show you that even 100% heterosexual sex scenes in books can get them challenged, especially if they’re aimed at teenagers, and even if they’re far from titillating. In fact, pretty much every “controversial” topic — from drugs to divorce, religion to politics — is reflected on the list of books that have been challenged in schools. (For example, lest you think that book-banning only comes from those on the right, books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are frequently challenged due to their use of racist language.) Indeed, one argument against censors is that if all of them had their way, there would be hardly anything left — or at least, hardly anything interesting.

The sad side of it is that for every parent who insists that books about drugs, violence or sex are inappropriate for schools, there are many more kids who need those books because those “hot-button issues” are more than issues to them — they’re daily realities. And for LGBT kids awash in a sea of hate at home, in church, at school and even online, libraries are often the one place where they can discover themselves judgment-free. No one but the librarian behind the desk has to know what you’re checking out — and that’s assuming you decide to check it out, anyway. In the fight against anti-gay harassment in schools, we can’t just focus on the bullies in the halls and the cafeteria — but also the adult bullies who want to deny LGBT kids the information that might save their lives.

via American Library Association

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter why a book is being banned or what benefit (or lack thereof) might come from reading it. I despise the Twilight books, I think they send a terrible message to young girls, and I’m still dismayed to see that people are trying to get them removed from schools. I still think students should have the right to decide for themselves whether those books — or any books — are worth reading. In my opinion, if you can’t handle different points of view, it shows that you aren’t that secure in your own beliefs – if you were, you’d think they could withstand criticism. It also shows a real lack of respect for — or misunderstanding of — freedom of speech and the press. To quote Noam Chomsky:

If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

Chomsky isn’t the only author who has spoken out against censorship. Judy Blume has been an anti-censorship activist ever since her books were first challenged in the 1970s, and she has a great deal of information on her website, including how you can respond to censorship in your community. She also compiled an anthology of works by censored children’s and YA authors, called Places I Never Meant to Be; proceeds from the book help the National Coalition Against Censorship. (If you can’t get the book, at least check out her great introduction to it online.) Also, John Green of the popular YouTube show Vlogbrothers recorded this video when his book, Looking for Alaska, was challenged in a high school in New York State:

But perhaps my favorite quote on the subject is courtesy of my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, another common target of censors. He had this to say about them:

Here is how I propose to end book-banning in this country once and for all: Every candidate for school committee should be hooked up to a lie detector and asked this question: “Have you read a book from start to finish since high school?” or “Did you even read a book from start to finish in high school?” If the truthful answer is “No,” then the candidate should be told politely that he cannot get on the school committee and blow off his big bazoo about how books make children crazy.

If you’re looking for ways to take the fight for freedom to read into your own hands, the National Coalition Against Censorship has a list of things you can do to fight censorship. Of course, the place to start is by reading the banned books yourself. In addition to the aforementioned lists, check out the ALA’s Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (which also details international challenges and bans) as well as the full map of challenges in the U.S. from the Banned Books Week website. You can upload a video of yourself reading your favorite banned book for this week’s Virtual Read-Out, and have it featured on the Banned Books Week YouTube channel.

What have you done to celebrate Banned Books Week? What does it mean to you?

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.

41 Comments

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      I have not. Too much work :(

      I HAVE been reading a bunch of papers on the evolution of a couple of species of bisexual flowering plants. So I feel like I’m at least still pissing the right people off.

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      If that makes you feel old…by fourth grade I’d read the first three. And those books had a terrible influence on me. I actually got off my ass where I was normally reading (I was an odd kid) and played a wizardly game of Quiddith out in the backyard. Imagine! I’m suprised I’m not a satanist.

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      Don’t worry, I thought “wow, fourth grade? I’m old!!” too.

      I’ve read all of the Harry Potter books, but when they became popular I was at the age where I thought I shouldn’t be reading books like that. Then my middle-aged parents read them and loved them, so I did too.

      I can’t say the same for the Twilight books, however. I tried reading one just to see what the fuss was about, but the writing was terrible. (no offense to those who enjoy them, I’m sure there are redeeming qualities. I don’t judge.)

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    I gotta admit, I saw John Green’s face and knew I had to comment. Because, having read Looking for Alaska (which I recommend to everybody), I totally see his point. And the point of the whole article. And stuff. You know?

    The idea of banning books in schools has always been inherently stupid to me. For one, it’ll usually make kids want to read them more. For two, what is with these parents thinking that by banning books and TV shows and movies that it will some how keep their kids away from these things forever? And where did they get the idea that they’re some how doing other kids a favour by taking away their own rights to read these books?

    There were never any queer books in my library, if you don’t count the miniscule chapters in the books on puberty and becoming a teenager, and now I can’t help but wonder if there was LGBT books and someone decided that wasn’t right and got them banned. Which makes me mad that I didn’t have that to read when I was first coming to terms with my attractions.

    Gah. It’s too late at night for coherency. So many feelings though.

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      The “they’ll be exposed to it anyway” argument is why I can’t even get down with well-meaning challenges from left-wingers based on books being racist, sexist, etc. They’re going to be exposed to hate anyway, I’d much rather it happen in a classroom where they will (hopefully) learn that it is wrong and be analyzing and critiquing it.

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        Eh. I don’t want Huck Finn edited, but I want more schools to pick up alternative texts that deal with racism. The book presents a mostly antiquated mode of racism that allows white students to stand back and say, “Yeah, I’m totally against slavery and making black people stand in back of the bus. But I still don’t see why the NAACP won’t give ME a scholarship.”

        It’s a comfort blanked for white people who want to pretend they’re not part of a racist system. There are many well-written books out there that address racism in a way that’s more accessible to modern students (many of them written by women and POC). I want the book available in schools, and listed as recommended reading, but I don’t like the way it’s become the primary go-to ‘racism’ book for schools.

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      yeah. Philip Pullman always says that the best way to get kids to read a book is to say: “This book is not appropriate for your age, and it has all sorts of horrible things in it like sex and death and some really big and complicated ideas, and you’re better off not touching it until you’re all grown up. I’m going to put it on this shelf and leave the room for a while. Don’t open it.”

      And then leave!

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    You have no idea how happy seeing John Green’s face on this blog made me. :D I love all of the amazing YA authors around now who are fighting against book banning. Maureen Johnson is another author who’s incredibly passionate about it.

    My parents are very conservative, but they essentially let me read what I wanted. They supported my love of reading in every way possible. I don’t remember ever being told I wasn’t allowed to read a specific book. Up until I was 12 or so, they read everything I read though. If the book did have some controversial subjects in it, they would sit down and talk to me about it rather than just refusing to let me read it. I’m very, very grateful to them for that.

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    Funny fact: About 10 of the books on the ALA’s list of 100 banned books are on the syllabus of 9th-12th grade English classes in Germany. US-Americans are weird (no offense;).

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    “Unfortunately, some of the most challenged books of the past few years have been about LGBT issues. Two of the books on the ALA’s top 10 most-challenged list for 2010, And Tango Makes Three (an adorable picture book about gay penguins) and Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology, had ‘homosexuality’ cited as a reason for the parents’ objections.”

    Fortunately, really, this is fortunate for those concerned about LGBT issues, the most challenged books have NOT been about LGBT issues. Yeahh!!!!!! As it turns out, that American Library Association FALSELY promoted the LGBT materials HIGHER on its list to give the APPEARANCE that LGBT issues were of concern. Fortunately, they are not. Yeahh!!!!!!

    For example, And Tango Makes Three was only challenged 4 times in 2010, not the dozens the 2010 ALA announcement leads one to believe. And 4 times all year is no big whoop.

    Further, regarding Revolutionary Voices, I recorded the author admitting essentially that the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom artificially pushed her book higher on the list!! No, I am not kidding, the list is a fake, and I have the recording of the author revealing essentially just that from when she spoke at a New Jersey Library Association Conference about her excitement being on the list and calling the ALA to find out why.

    I think the ALA is USING or TOYING WITH the LGBT community to promote the ALA’s own purposes! Why else would its fake results be faked on the LGBT issue, of all others? Why else would the school librarian involved be given an ALA award for her LGBT stance when that was not even the issue involved, except to the extent the ALA and its acolytes promoted it as such?

    See http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/09/banned-books-week-is-gay-promotion.html

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        Rose, thanks for commenting. I write a lot so it is understandably you are so mistaken on all your points. See, for example with respect to the first, “Looking For Alaska is NOT Porn” at http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/02/looking-for-alaska-is-not-porn.html Your other arguments are similarly flawed.

        As to my “agenda,” true it is directed towards the ALA and not LGBT issues. Um, there are so many issues in the world, and I choose to focus on one.

        As for the facts, I cite to reliable sources each time, like where I recently exposed the ALA fakes its top 10 list and my source is a recording I made of a “banned” author admitting essentially that.

        Occasionally, while writing about the ALA, I discuss LGBT issues. In every single case I either support those LGBT issues, as I have done above, or I write about how the ALA harms the LGBT cause. See, for example, “ALA Screws Gay Librarians; Gay Civil Rights Community Should Demand ALA Action; Rank and File Rebellion Against the ALA Leadership Needed” at http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/01/ala-screws-gay-librarians-gay-civil.html

        So please, Rose, consider asking me for clarification before making unkind and inaccurate assumptions.

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          Well, it seemed like you were concern-trolling in your initial post, which is why I was so harsh. That being said, I’m not getting my complaints out of nowhere. As the links in my comment show, I got them straight out of your website! You may say in your blog entry that Looking for Alaska is NOT porn, but what of the entry I linked to where you say that it is? (At least, how else is one to interpret your statement that the book is “pornographic” and that promoting the book to teens is “porn-pushing”?) You can’t believe both of those things! Pick a side!

          Your only idea that the American Library Association is “anti-LGBT” is that they’re not doing anything to defend librarians in Cuba, which shouldn’t be surprising for an organization that limits their focus to the United States. Meanwhile, your goal to restrict access to books you consider “sexually-explicit” – which includes not only sex scenes and sex discussion but even swearing, based on your analysis of LFA! – would result in the removal of most LGBT-themed young adult books (and most young adult books in general, for that matter). That hurts LGBT teens in the U.S. far more than the ALA over-reporting instances of book challenges, if you are correct about that.

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            Rose, read the page fully. I explain, even right on the pushers page itself, that LFA is not porn. Simple go to the page and use a search feature to find “not porn,” without the quotes.

            “Your only idea that the American Library Association is ‘anti-LGBT’ is that they’re not doing anything to defend librarians in Cuba, which shouldn’t be surprising for an organization that limits their focus to the United States.” First, again you did not read what I said and you are misrepresenting what I said. Further, the ALA does not limit its focus to the United States. But I do not blame you for not knowing this as, apparently, the ALA is not your bailiwick.

            “[Y]our goal [is] to remove books you consider ‘sexually-explicit…'” No, Rose. No. Again you make false statements without first asking me to clarify what is my goal. Rose, please ask me anything and I’ll answer.

            “That hurts LGBT teens in the U.S. far more than the ALA over-reporting instances of book challenges, if you are correct about that.” Thank goodness, Rose, you at least have an open mind to “the ALA over-reporting instances of book challenges.”

            Whether I am correct is irrelevant. The key here is what the “banned” author said she was told by the ALA about how and why it promoted her book over others challenged more frequently on the 2010 top 10 list. Also key is that I recorded what she said so people can hear this for themselves. I’m just the messenger.

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            No, I read them; I think you just have some issues with clarity, and that your intended message is not the one I am getting from these articles. When I see someone describe a book as “pornographic,” that means that they think it is like porn; when they later say it isn’t porn, I see that as them contradicting themselves. When someone goes on and on about how children are unsafe in libraries because of the presence of sexually-explicit books, I assume that means they want those books to no longer be there. If that is not what you mean, you need to re-word these things. Anyone would get confused!

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            Okay, that’s fair enough. I’ll admit I write so much even I forget what I wrote. Now let’s move on to the issue at hand.

            The ALA used the LGBT issue to promote its own interests, did so by faking its annual top 10 list to kick LGBT titles higher on the list or on the list in the first place, and there’s a recording of “banned” author #9 essentially revealing just that.

            I think anyone would find faking such a list to be objectionable, and to use the LGBT community in this fashion is even worse. It doesn’t benefit anyone at all to skew the list results to promote an ALA agenda, other that the ALA.

            And to use the LGBT community by unjustifiably creating outrage so that community will amplify the ALA’s political agenda is despicable and shows no respect for the community.

            If I made false claims affecting the LGBT community so that it would amplify my message, certainly that would be wrong. There is no reason in the world why the ALA should be given a pass in this instance. Act or it will be used again and again by the ALA, and indeed I’m starting to suspect 2010 is not the only faked list.

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    i agree! Philip Pullman always says that the best way to get kids to read a book is to say: “This book is not appropriate for your age, and it has all sorts of horrible things in it like sex and death and some really big and complicated ideas, and you’re better off not touching it until you’re all grown up. I’m going to put it on this shelf and leave the room for a while. Don’t open it.”

    And then leave!

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    So I was just taking a gander at the Top 100 list and I have to say I am completely shocked about Fahrenheit 451 being on that list. That book is about a society in which all books (or most, haven’t read it since jr high) are banned and how you should fight the system for the importance of books. Essentially it’s a book about reading books. And it’s controversial?? That just blows my mind.
    Fahrenheit 451 is the book that actually peaked my interest in writing, along with encouragement from my 8th grade teacher (bless that woman, I could probably write a book just about what she taught me) Anyway I’m rambling. And the first poem (series of poems) I ever wrote were based off of that book, for a class project.

    Bah, society really scares the sh*t outta me sometimes.

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