LGBTQ authors of banned books speak out on why their stories matter
When George M. Johnson wrote their memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue about growing up Black and queer in America, they knew the calls to ban it would come.
“We live in a country where any story that is not centering some white, cis, heterosexual young boy or young girl…are not books they deem as acceptable and worthy,” Johnson told LGBTQ Nation. “I already knew from the beginning it would be banned in some places.”
But Johnson never expected it would go this far. All Boys Aren’t Blue, along with a myriad of other books that celebrate LGBTQ voices, has become the center of a national conservative movement to ban LGBTQ books – as well as books about race – from school libraries.
Across the country, parents and politicians alike are petitioning school boards and proposing laws to severely limit the type of content kids can access at school. In some states, laws have been proposed that would criminalize librarians and other school staff if they don’t remove certain books from the shelves.
Conservatives have claimed these books are inappropriate or even pornographic and that parents deserve more control over what their children can access. In many cases, their fights have been successful.
In at least eight states, for example, All Boys Aren’t Blue has been removed from schools, no doubt cutting off access to kids in dire need of stories like Johnson’s.
“I wanted [Black queer youth] to have the book that I wish I could have had growing up,” Johnson said. “A book that would help them be able to process things that they were going through.”
L.C. Rosen, author of Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) – the story of a queer high school junior who is stalked and harassed for writing a sex advice column – wrote his book for the same reason.
“Even at the most progressive schools, sex-ed still tends to be focused almost entirely on heterosexual procreation,” Rosen told LGBTQ Nation. “I wanted to make sure there was a sex-ed option for queer teenagers because a lot of us don’t get that early on.”
Rosen’s book has also faced repeated challenges across the country. He feels it is especially ironic, considering the book is about others trying to push the main character back into the closet for failing to meet their standards of a “well-behaved gay boy” as Rosen puts it.
“It feels like life imitating art in that people feel this is a bad example of a queer person and therefore should not be for teenagers,” he said.
But Rosen emphasized that it isn’t him these bans are hurting.
“I care about the teenagers who are actively seeing adults say that books about queer teens who have sex are inappropriate,” he said, “who are actually hearing adults in their communities say that queer teenagers shouldn’t exist and if they do exist they shouldn’t have sex. That is what they’re living with now, and that must be horrifying.”
Maia Kobabe, whose graphic memoir Gender Queer explores Kobabe’s identity as nonbinary and asexual, agrees.
“What it hurts is the community where the bans and challenges take place…Readers in communities who are already the most marginalized or have the least resources and are unable to purchase the book if it is removed from the library or might not feel safe bringing the book into their home…It’s those readers who might need it most whose access is being most limited,” Kobabe told LGBTQ Nation.
Johnson, Rosen, and Kobabe all mentioned that most people challenging their books have not even read them, or else have read one or two lines taken out of context.
But even more, they all disputed the basic notion that it’s problematic to write about sex for a teenage audience, and especially the homophobic notion that queer sex specifically is inherently inappropriate or pornographic.
The reality, Johnson said, is that teenagers are out having these experiences, and they deserve to be educated about them.
“There’s this whole notion that the youth this book is geared towards, which is 14-18, is too young to read it, even though some of the experiences that I had clearly happened prior to the age of 14,” Johnson said. “Saying this topic is too heavy for my 14, 15, or even 13 year old, when they could already be experiencing these things, is really just a denial of what the actual young adult experience is in this country.”
In a statement on the banning of his book, Rosen also pointed out that while his book has plenty of discussions about sex, it also has no actual sex scenes.
The authors also encouraged anyone against the banning of their books – as well as the many other books being challenged – to stand up and speak out about why the books matter to them.
“That can send a lot of encouragement and make sure librarians know there are also people who want the books to stay,” Kobabe said.
And students are indeed fighting back. They are organizing protests, suing their schools, establishing banned book clubs, and speaking out to make sure their perspectives are heard.
Rosen said he’s willing to have conversations with parents who want to discuss the nuances of just how far and how graphic a book for teens should go. He acknowledged that not everyone with reservations is necessarily homophobic, and he is happy to speak with those parents about why he feels his book is a crucial source of sex education. But he also said there is no reasoning with those who merely think queer sex is evil or that any depiction of queer teenagers is a bad thing.
“Essentially, it’ll help kids come out of the closet, and that’s exactly what they don’t want,” he said. “It has been proven that reading fiction increases your empathy…[Parents] don’t like the idea of their kids being more empathetic and understanding to other points of view because then they’ll realize how their parents have been complicit.”
Johnson emphasized that what parents really need to do is listen to their kids.
“If your child is interested in my Black queer sex, that’s a deeper conversation you might need to be having with your child. Denying them my book is not the issue. What you’re really denying them is the open communication and dialogue.”
As Rosen put it, “If reading queer books made you queer, then we would all be straight.”