Op-ed: Banning Books, Risking Lives

Public schools in Fauquier County, Va., will consider removing a gay-themed young adult novel, but do officials understand what is at stake if they pull the book?

BY Tully Satre

April 14 2014 5:00 AM ET

“Word travels fast, our parents warn us,” reads a line from David Levithan’s novel, Two Boys Kissing. And indeed it does. It did not take long for the news from rural Virginia to reach me: on April 4, the Fauquier Times broke the story about a Fauquier County parent demanding the removal of Two Boys Kissing from the public high school's library.

As I sit at my desk, worlds away in Santiago, Chile, it feels like it was yesterday when I was the 16-year-old leader of the local non-profit group Equality Fauquier/Culpeper (EFC). During my two-year tenure as the director of EFC, it was my personal mission to ensure that other gay teens like myself did not feel ostracized in his or her own community like I did. The kind of person who would want to remove Levithan’s novel made me feel just that: ostracized and unwelcome in my own hometown. Those feelings of hostility were the reason I founded the organization.

While living in Virginia and working as a teen activist, many other teens came out of the woodwork, reaching out to me however they could: finding me after school with my friends outside the pink-roofed ice cream drive-up, in the public library, or on MySpace (when that was still a thing). I discovered, much to my dismay, that stories like the one recently reported by the Fauquier Times were commonplace and often went unreported or ignored.

After I turned 18, I left Virginia for Chicago to pursue a college degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I topped that off with my postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Most recently, I’ve planted myself in Santiago, Chile, where I have been learning Spanish and exploring the Latin American art scene. If anything by now, I hope I am an example of a gay man living a full life.

I have been on the move for quite some time, and one of the most common questions people ask me is: where are you from? It’s hard for me to forget those small towns in Virginia where I grew up. I may have left Virginia, but Virginia never left me. Being a teen activist was a good story and the media ate it up, leaving my name hot on the search engines. Long after I skipped town, messages from teens continued to pour in — the story always the same — first in waves, then slowly further and further apart. The occasional reporter would contact me asking for a comment on something; I would usually decline, feeling like I was too disconnected from Virginia to really say anything, relaying them to a former EFC colleague. Over time, messages from teens in my inbox became scarce and I finally thought the animosity I faced as an out teen in Fauquier/Culpeper was falling into the minority.

Now in Fauquier, we have a classic case of life imitating art, imitating life: is it coincidence that the central events in this novel take place on the front lawn of a public high school? It's not so different from what is happening now in Fauquier County, speaking more to the issue at hand than the book. Conversations between the characters in Two Boys Kissing may very well sound verbatim from what we are hearing coming out of Fauquier County.

“There is no reason that we should ever be ashamed of our bodies or ashamed of our love,” reads a line from Levithan’s novel. “We are told to cover ourselves up, hide ourselves away, so that other people can have control over us, can make us follow their rules. It is a bastardization of the concept of morality, this rule of shame.”

That sounds familiar.

This issue about a parent trying to ban a book affects the defenseless community of LGBT teenagers in Fauquier that I was once a part of. It makes perfect sense to me because it was what got me fired up in the first place: the strong picking on the weak…David versus Goliath. I remember being 16 in Virginia, and feeling helpless. Being a teenager is hard enough, regardless of who you are, but wielding politics against a vulnerable community is simply (and always) wrong. Richmond was debating what rights I’d be entitled to before I was old enough to vote. Teachers and students in my Catholic high school used the Bible as a weapon against me. I believe the Bible should be a shield, not a sword.

I was lucky to grow up in a family that supported and loved me. My home was a refuge from the hatred I faced outside. My parents taught me about love. Feeling so different in Virginia helped open up my mind to other people I have met in my life abroad.

Not every teenager has the same loving family I have. A book like Two Boys Kissing might be a lifesaver. I don’t want to read about any more kids taking their own life because they felt like they had no other way out. Banning a book like Two Boys Kissing is only perpetuating the problem, not solving it. There are much bigger issues affecting young people today than banning books. How about keeping them safe at school instead of disguising hatred and fear under the guise of morality?

When I look back, I realize how much I have grown from the awkward teen in Virginia to the still-kind-of-awkward adult collecting stamps in my passport. In all my travels, I have learned a valuable lesson in not taking for granted what I can learn from people whose lives, language, and culture are entirely different from my own. It sounds like the same lesson needs to be repeated in Fauquier County.

While the fight for LGBT equality gains ground at stunning speeds, what's happening in Fauquier is still happening in small towns across the U.S.

As we celebrate our hard-fought victories, this is a reminder that we still have much work to do to teach our neighbors the still-important lesson: don't judge a book by its cover.

TULLY SATRE is a U.S. artist living and working in Santiago, Chile. You can see his work at TullySatre.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter @tullymeehan and Instagram @tullysatre

Tags: Commentary, Youth

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