feature image photo by Chicago Tribune / Contributor via Getty Images
Deep in the pandemic lockdown of late spring 2020, cooped up in my tiny Boston apartment and incessantly doom scrolling, I started thinking about my gender. I was already openly queer — I’d realized in college and come out to my friends and family several months before when I’d started dating my girlfriend at the time — and I’d gotten to know quite a few trans and nonbinary people over the years, but I’d never considered genderqueerness to have anything to do with me. I mostly acted like how a girl was expected to act, and I certainly looked like one, which all seemed like confirmation enough.
But somewhere in that hazy period between April and June, faced with the unstructured free time to spend more hours on the internet than I had since my early-2010s Tumblr days, it occurred to me that the assumptions I’d made about my gender identity might be wrong.
I was certainly not the only person to have a coming-of-gender moment in the pandemic — a quick Google search will show you dozens of articles about the trans epiphanies so many of us experienced during those months in quarantine. Seeking confirmation and validation, I became a fiend for any media about and by trans and nonbinary artists. I read and watched probably every post Alok Vaid-Menon made (I’d loved their poetry and performance for years, but now I could connect to it even more), had a King Princess renaissance, and, crucially, began to work my way through an ever-growing stack of books.
Of all the books I read during that time, one has stuck with me as particularly clarifying: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. In this graphic memoir, Kobabe puts words to the incongruence of growing up as a girl when you’re not one, affirming to me that even though it’d taken me 23 years to realize, even though I still felt connected to the experience of girlhood, my nonbinary identity was real and true. I owe a lot to that book, and I see it as critical reading for anyone raised as a woman, regardless of their gender.
Gender Queer might be a familiar title, if not for its immense success and receipt of both a Stonewall Honor and Alex Award in 2020, then likely because it was the most banned book in the U.S. last year. Starting with a Virginia mother condemning Kobabe’s novel as “pornography” in a viral video and escalating all the way to Republican lawmakers like South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, who confusingly deemed it “likely illegal,” the ire toward Gender Queer has been fierce, unhinged, and, unfortunately, unsurprising.
Book bans have been happening for decades, spurred by a litany of complaints such as violence, offensive language, and sexual explicitness — but hiding behind those seemingly well-meaning concerns is more often than not a legacy of deep bias and the desire to uphold systemic oppression. Several of Toni Morrison’s books, for example, have been challenged or banned numerous times, often following moments of major progress by Black Americans or events that raise consciousness about the racism people of color face. Official challenges claim that Morrison’s texts and their depictions of Black life are too “inappropriate” and “explicit” for unfettered access, particularly by children, but the timing and hysteria reek of racism.
In our current political climate, with misinformed campaigns against Critical Race Theory and a war on the rights of queer and trans youth, the phobic nature of such book bans has become clearer than ever. Kobabe’s novel, which at points deals thoughtfully and honestly with the confusion of sexuality in young adulthood, isn’t really being targeted because it talks about sex. It’s being targeted because it puts the experiences of a queer and trans person front and center in a society increasingly concerned with eliminating those identities entirely.
I say all this not to simply lament the rise of right-wing influence or imply there’s no hope for diverse books in our future, but to communicate the gravity of this reality and the necessity of fighting back. This week is the 41st annual Banned Books Week, when people from across the book community stand together to support free access to information in the face of moralistic challenges. As an Afro-Asian nonbinary lesbian writer who deals with all of those identities in my work, this week feels personal to my literary practice and the communities I belong to. But it’s important for any reader and believer in social justice, regardless of identity, to recognize these challenges and bans not just as threats to beloved literature, but as symptomatic of the larger tide of fascistic violence against people of oppressed genders, sexualities, and nationalities across the country.
So how do you get engaged in the struggle against book bans? I don’t have all the answers, but I sure do have some thoughts.
Avoid individualizing the problem
You might have heard the wild statistic that more than half of the book challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from just 11 people. That’s right — 11. In some respects, it’s funny. All that fuss caused by fewer people than live on one floor of a New York apartment complex? On the other hand, though, we cannot dismiss the rise in bans on a few fringe fanatics. The racist, transphobic, and homophobic rhetoric of these individuals is not just echoing into the void but leading to material changes in schools and libraries that actively harm kids. This is not a case of your one uncle who’s never met a Black person saying something off-color at Thanksgiving dinner and then returning to his recliner for the rest of the year. These book challengers, few as they may be, are having an outsized impact that cannot be ignored.
Recognize the role of the system
In the process of de-individualizing the book ban epidemic, it’s also critical to recognize how the people who challenge books are feeding into racist and anti-queer social structures. Book challenges and bans would not have the significance they do if we didn’t live in a political environment that so stalwartly upholds division. But capitalism is our current reality and its cousin white supremacy have people in a chokehold. Book bans are just one way the right wing expresses its political agenda, but they are merely the foot soldiers for discriminatory legislation and outright violence down the line. To truly oppose book bans requires understanding and fighting the racist, capitalist system that allows them to thrive.
Get educated on the reality of book bans for authors
Somewhere in the history of book banning, a narrative developed that book bans, especially high-profile cases, are good for authors. Supposedly, the buzz of banning boosts sales and catapults the books onto bestseller lists. The reality is not so charmed. National publicity might inspire progressive readers to purchase banned books in indignation, but it also exposes those books to other critics who seek to get them off their local school and library bookshelves. Especially for early career authors from marginalized communities, who tend to receive lower advances and fight an uphill battle to get recognition, book bans can have long term career effects, especially when the bans are enacted in entire states or counties. Sales may increase for some, like Angie Thomas, whose seminal young adult novel The Hate U Give has been banned or challenged in school districts across the country and simultaneously topped the charts for years, but her experience is the exception, not the rule. When we “celebrate” Banned Books Week (if that’s the right word to use), it’s important to maintain a sober analysis of real consequences these bans have for authors.
Support youth activism
Who better to rally behind than the young people who are most affected by book bans and who are coming together in amazing ways nationwide to fight the threats to their education and identities? Teen readers in Florida, Texas, and other states facing book challenges are speaking out against bans and fighting to get books back on the shelves of their libraries and schools. Many students are forming banned book clubs, where they read and discuss banned and challenged books. Whether or not you live in a place that is actively navigating challenges, you can support these efforts by requesting banned books at your local library, petitioning your school board to keep inclusive literature on shelves, or even just picking up copies of banned books for the young readers in your life.
Get organized — wherever you are
Don’t get it twisted: Red states aren’t the only ones at risk of book bans. Our aforementioned current political moment has seen a rise in challenges to literature and curriculums across the country. I live in Massachusetts, which is often lauded as one of the most progressive states — the first state to legalize gay marriage, home to liberal darlings Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, etcetera. I could go on about the reasons why my state’s progressivism is, in many ways, a sham, but at the very least I have to mention that books are being challenged here, too — right in Liz’s backyard! And that’s true not only in Massachusetts, but in many states across the country who pat themselves on the back for being better than their “backwards” Southern neighbors.
What is to be done when our rights are at risk everywhere? Organize. I have no better advice for people who are angry about the powers that be, worried about the future, and ready for major systemic change than to join an organization and start fighting for your community. Again, book bans are only the tip of the iceberg — any struggle that fights racism, sexism, transphobia, or any other capitalism-based oppression is making headway against the same ideology that takes books away from the kids who need them most. My years as a community organizer have taught me to be hopeful even in the face of everything going on, because I know that a better world is possible if we fight for it.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if Gender Queer and other books like it had existed when I was a kid. Maybe I would have understood my queerness and transness sooner, saving me years of confusion and heartache. (Or maybe, more likely, the same conservative parents at my high school who banned the condom on a cucumber tutorial in sex ed class would have pitched a fit about having books like that in the hands of impressionable youth).
I’ve learned so much of what I know about myself through reading, spending hours of my adolescent years at school and local libraries and eating lunch in my English teachers’ classrooms. And the wealth of knowledge available to us in books is only growing as more people with oppressed identities are able to write and publish their stories. Protecting access to that knowledge, especially for young people, is imperative. However you choose to engage with Banned Books Week, whether it’s sending your school district a strongly worded email or finding a new read among the many titles that have conservatives up in arms, I hope you’ll think about the books that have led you to the person you are today. And I hope you’ll remember that feeling that everyone deserves to experience, when you see yourself on the page for the first time and the possibilities of who you could be unfold at your feet.