Back in November, nearly two dozen people a day were dying from COVID-19 in South Carolina. But public health wasn't at the top of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster's to-do list at that time, when he sicced the state's Department of Education on a queer-themed book, calling it "obscene" and "pornographic."
"I call on the Department of Education or the State Board of Education, as appropriate, to promulgate statewide standards and directives to prevent pornography and other obscene content from entering our State's public schools and libraries," the governor said in a letter to the superintendent of education, specifically targeting Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer: A Memoir. The autobiographical book from the Bay Area nonbinary writer and illustrator had been challenged at one of South Carolina's nearly 500 high schools. It was recommended for those in 10th grade or higher.
Like hundreds of other tomes dealing with sexuality, gender, or race, Kobabe's acclaimed book became entangled in the latest Republican Party cause celebre, a fear-inducing distraction created amid shifting national demographics and following a disastrous administration that ended with a pandemic and an insurrection. From Missouri to Maine, GOP leaders and legislators have used inclusive books and related educational efforts to change the conversation from coup/COVID to "Think of the children!" The scariest part? It's working.
Just a week before McMaster sent out his Anita Bryant-esque letter, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election after hammering the Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, for saying he wouldn't let parents ban books in school simply because they were offended by the content. During debates and ads, Youngkin framed the issue as McAuliffe being open to explicit content in schools, as if books about LGBTQ+ youth are inherently sexual and indecent. The fake controversy dovetailed with the national conversation on "critical race theory" -- a subject taught in some universities and public schools that explores the nation's long history of systemic racism. As with marriage equality and anti-trans bathroom bans, the GOP views critical race theory and queer books as winning wedge issues, with party leaders like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott claiming the teaching of reality triggers sensitive white cis hetero children; reprehensible Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene calls critical race theory "evil" and says any educator teaching it should be fired on the spot.
Even as the U.S. inches very slowly away from its white-centric roots, a still-dominant fear over queer and POC influences remains a potent weapon; the lives of white straight cis children remain paramount. Books like Gender Queer and expansive history lessons like Nikole Hannah-Jones's "The 1619 Project" -- which details slavery's devastating legacy -- are tempting targets for conservatives, since both aim to uplift LGBTQ+ and POC youth and broaden the minds of their peers. These stories -- just as American as the Gettysburg Address and the 19th Amendment -- are being ripped from bookshelves and lesson plans, their Amazon pages filled with hate, threats, and one-star reviews. Trolls now label Kobabe's memoir, which won an American Library Association award, as "filth." "This book should be burned," writes an Amazon user named "Annie," who may or may not be a Russian bot.
Almost no discussion in the media is given to the price paid by queer youth denied access to LGBTQ+ representation in the places it's most needed, like the hallways of a South Carolina high school. GLAAD is sounding the alarm, with the LGBTQ+ nonprofit leading a coalition of writers, booksellers, and advocates in support of queer books and books about race and racism. More than 600 organizations and individuals signed a statement late last year against censorship and in support of the #BooksNotBans social media campaign.
"Every LGBTQ young person needs to see themselves in stories about their lives, to let them know they belong just as they are," GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis says. "Every American needs stories about LGBTQ people, Black people, queer people of color, and all marginalized groups to better understand each other's experiences."
My children, a Black kindergartner and a Latina preschooler, are too young to comprehend the nuances of gender and race. Thankfully, the kindergartner is primed for an open mind not just by his gay parents but his public school teacher, who wears a rainbow pin, deemphasizes gender roles, and sports a T-shirt that reads, "No one is illegal on stolen land." This is Los Angeles, though, not Spartanburg, S.C.
Even amid the best intentions of their teachers, my children still encounter a dearth of representation in media. They see themselves in Encanto, Coco, and The Princess and the Frog, but there's only a smattering of shows and movies with same-sex parents or a queer caregiver. That's why groundbreaking books like Heather Has Two Mommies and King & King are still so vital and still so threatened.
If my kids happen to be bisexual or nonbinary, they will most likely be accommodated in the L.A. school system, where their identities and pronouns will be respected. But think of all the kids like them -- tens of thousands of children, either being raised by an LGBTQ+ parent or coming out themselves as queer -- who can't trust their educators to protect them and see their government leaders presenting them as threats to their friends. Such attacks from cynical politicians like McMaster and Youngkin occur while LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than their peers to seriously consider suicide, to make a plan for suicide, and to attempt to die by suicide. But to blood-sport Republicans, demonizing marginalized children is just the price that must be paid to win elections. Or as Trump supporters like to say, "Fuck your feelings" -- well, if you're not white, straight, or cis.