Dalila Ali Rajah
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Book Bans Undermine the Rights of Young LGBTQ+ People

Teenager reading in a library

At its most powerful, literature creates empathy, a vital spark to help us feel and understand the experiences of others distant from our own. We are able to grasp their joy, pain, or sorrow. Reading a book that mirrors your own life experience can validate that what you are going through or who you are has meaning — without the burdens that society can impose. 

At a recent PEN America discussion, two distinguished authors pointed to the importance of empathy and affirmation in literature. The event in New York City celebrated PEN America’s centenary with a conversation among literary luminaries that included Margaret Atwood, Ayad Akhtar, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

Boylan, a prolific author who is transgender, shared the story about a reader who approached her on a Manhattan street to thank her for writing about transgender people. 

Boylan said banning books like hers won’t erase LGBTQ+ experience, as the censors want: “It just means that more and more of us will feel alone.”

In a powerful reminder of why stories matter, Adichie offered her own recollection dating to the passage of a Nigerian law that criminalized homosexuality.

“An acquaintance supported this law,” Adichie said. “A while later, he read a short story of mine in which one of the characters was gay, but this character’s sexual orientation was not the main thrust of story. After he read the story, he told me – by the time I realized the character was gay, I already liked him.”

“It’s one of the most hopeful things anyone has ever told me about my work,” she said. “It reaffirmed my faith in the power of storytelling; because of a story, this acquaintance saw the humanity of a person whose human rights he had earlier been in support of squashing.” 

It's stories like those that make the school book bans that have spread nationwide so alarming. Restricting literature from young people can impede growth— learning writ large—and stand in the way of acquiring the values that every thriving democracy needs: empathy, chief among them, but also fairness, equality, and justice. 

In our new report released on Monday, Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, PEN America found the pace of book bans in schools accelerating since our last report on the subject in April.

During the 2021-2022 school year (July 2021 to June 2022), PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles. Book titleswith LGBTQ+ characters or stories were most frequently targeted, as censors cite “inappropriate” sexual content in books such as All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, or Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. All three top the list of most frequently banned books in the country. 

These books —especially autobiographical stories — affirm identity and a sense of self, which is vital for all young people, LGBTQ+ youth in particular.

Among the banned books, 674 titles (41 percent) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+ (this includes a specific subset of titles for transgender characters or stories—145 titles, or 9 percent). Stories with protagonists of color or those with secondary characters of color followed with 659 banned titles. 

The trend is especially troubling given the limited number of children’s and young adult books written by or about either LGBTQ+ people or people of color. Targeting them reflects a disproportionate focus on what is often a small fraction of the collection in most public school libraries.

The targeting of LBGTQ+ books is sometimes focused on their sexual content but more often than not, it is clear that it is an effort at erasure. In North Texas, a mom filed a school library challenge to ASH by Malinda Lo. She stated that while she found ASH filled with "kindness and caring," and that it showed all the qualities "we want our children to seek in there [sic] relationships, she could not "condone the influencing of young minds to seek these qualities in a lesbian love situation." ASH needed to be banned because it "normalizes lesbian love." Even the book EVERYWHERE BABIES, a book about families for toddlers, has been targeted because it contains an illustration that might be of an interracial same-sex couple.

No matter their background, sexual orientation, gender identity, or race, all students deserve to feel safe and welcome in their schools and libraries. They are intended to be places that ignite the imagination, spark curiosity and nurture lifelong learning. But it’s just as important that their rights under the U.S. Constitution be defended. Banning books they want to read violates their First Amendment rights and undermines a core human right—free expression and the connected freedoms to read, write and learn. 

Banning books is not new. This dangerous practice has been used through time—notably during the 1950s McCarthy era—to sow fear and division often for political gain. 

What we are seeing today nationwide is unprecedented, Our research shows that 40 percent of the book bans in this school year are connected to political pressure from elected officials.. That is equally true in the passage of educational gag order laws that have silenced the classroom lessons educators can teach, including Black history and LGBTQ+ rights. 

Book bans are not solely the spontaneous prerogative of local parents concerned about their children’s reading materials. Instead, a concerted, well-organized, and well-resourced movement stands behind them. Some of the groups espouse Christian nationalist political views; others are oriented toward school reforms, in some cases with religious teachings. In Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania, individuals lodging complaints about books did not even have children attending public schools at the time they raised their objections.

Books offer lessons to promote an inclusive, tolerant, and pluralistic society. Denying these opportunities closes off possibilities for students’ future lives and strips them of the resources they might need to be their best selves. We need to give young people every tool we have to help them cope and thrive, not take away books that can offer an affirming, empathetic vision for a just society.

Jonathan Friedman, Ph.D., is director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and was the lead author of Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.

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