During a Tuesday Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about book bans, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) read sexually explicit passages from two LGBTQ+ memoirs in order to justify censorship as a necessary way to protect children from pornography and sexual grooming.
However, other experts during the hearing pointed out book bans are also being used to ban non-sexual LGBTQ+ children’s books and other books about the anti-Semitic Nazi Holocaust, Native American genocide, and Black and Latino civil rights experiences.
The hearing, entitled “Book Bans: Examining How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature,”featured testimony from five witnesses: two who claimed that the upset around book bans is over-exaggerated, and three who consider book bans an attack on democratic free-thinking.
During the hearing, Sen. Kennedy read a passage from George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, a 2020 memoir about growing up Black and queer. The book has been repeatedly targeted by book-banning advocates for its sexually explicit passages.
“He put some lube on and got him on his knees and I began to slide into him from behind,” Kennedy read. “I pulled out of him and kissed him while he masturbated. He asked me to turn over while he slipped a condom on himself. This was my ass. And I was struggling to imagine someone inside, he got on top and slowly inserted himself into me. It was the worst pain I think I have ever felt in my life. Eventually, I felt a mix of pleasure with the pain.”
Kennedy also read a passage from Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir, a 2019 graphic novel about the author’s experience accepting their non-binary and asexual identities.
“I got a new strap-on harness today. I can’t wait to put it on you. It will fit my favorite dildo perfectly,” Kennedy said while quoting one of the book’s sexual passages. “You are going to look so hot. I can’t wait to have your c**k in my life. I’m going to give you the blowjob of your life, then I want you inside of me.”
One of the hearing’s witnesses was Max Eden, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The AEI is a conservative think-tank that promotes climate change denialism, voter ID laws, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq while opposing social welfare programs, net neutrality, and minimum wage increases.
Eden argued that books aren’t being “banned” in school libraries — as anti-censorship organizations like PEN America claim — but are rather being temporarily taken off of the shelves, reviewed, and sometimes made available again to students with parental permission. Eden claimed that 75% of the 2,532 books listed as banned in a 2022 PEN America report were still available in the schools they were allegedly removed from.
“Ten-year-olds performing sodomy. Underage incest. Strap on dildo blowjobs. Is this okay for kids?” Eden asked during his testimony. “Judging by the fuss made by the media, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and some Democratic politicians, it seems there is a politically significant contingent that believes that this is all actually very good for kids.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) supported Eden and Kennedy’s assertions that such books should be banned from schools.
“So if you’re providing content to a child that if spoken to a child by you or by the school if that would constitute in some jurisdictions, in some circumstances, a crime or tort, you’ve got a problem,” Lee said, according to The Hill. “These school districts are acting in response to legitimate parental concerns. They should be removing these. Shame on them if they don’t and shame on those who want to groom children sexually.”
Anti-censorship witnesses push back during hearing
However, Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) called the Republicans’ focus on overly sexual passages “a distraction from the real challenge,” adding, “No one is advocating for sexually explicit content to be available in an elementary school library or in [the] children’s section of the library.”
“I understand and respect that parents may choose to limit what their children read, especially at younger ages. My wife and I did. Others do, too,” Durbin said. “But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home. Every student deserves access to books that reflect their experiences and help them better understand who they are.”
During her testimony, Emily Knox, president of the National Coalition Against Censorship, noted that the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 2,571 unique titles targeted for in-school censorship in 2022 — a 38% increase from the number of titles targeted in 2021.
“Almost all of the books can be categorized as ‘diverse’ or books by and about ‘LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities,’” Knox said. “These attacks on our freedom to read, our libraries, and our schools are unconstitutional and unpopular. Seventy-one percent of Americans oppose book bans in public libraries, and 67% oppose book bans in school libraries,” she added, citing a March 2022 ALA survey.
The National Education Association (NEA) noted that recent book bans have targeted such titles as Art Speigelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus and numerous titles about the struggle for civil rights by people of color, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, and Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal.
The NEA also noted that the Cobb County School Board recently fired Georgia teacher Katie Rinderle because her fifth-grade students asked her to read a book from her shelf called My Shadow is Purple. In the book, which contains no sexual content whatsoever, various children embrace their genuine interests rather than always choosing activities stereotypically reserved for just boys or girls.
During their Senate testimony, Cameron J. Samuels — a queer high school student from Katy, Texas who co-founded Students Engaged in Advancing Texas — said, “The Katy school district now allows for merely two board members – out of seven – to reject the decision of a book review committee and officially remove books from every shelf in the district…. The actions of one person alone, challenging a book in a school library, should not burden and restrict the education of 90,000 students in my district without due process.”
“Students deserve to be active decision-makers in our daily experiences as we attend class, they added. “Censorship is undemocratic when it suppresses the marginalized and silences the vulnerable.”